Dinosaurs With Good Ears
Many artists from the 60’s & 70’s, most record producers, and the music collector types saw the CD format as a downgrade in audio specs. Many qualities about the CD were indeed an improvement over vinyl (capacity, durability, portability, dust/heat/vibration management and the ever important cost to produce, to name many) but the CD was a mixed bag as far as audio quality.
Buried under the avalanche of marketing “the new digital era” were folks claiming that CD’s didn’t sound as real as their records. They used terms like cold, sterile, shallow, thin, and lifeless to describe CD versions of music they knew well on vinyl or tape. Because a CD cost 10% what a vinyl record did to produce, the labels didn’t care. There was much money to be made selling CD’s.
Classical music fans heard deficiencies in the CD format more often than fans of popular music, as a full orchestra/opera is a complex acoustic signal with huge changes in dynamics, thus it demands very accurate reproduction of a wide range of natural sounds without using electronic compressors or EQ’s. For many, acoustic music also conveys more emotional content than the average pop song, demanding further attention to detail and quality.
The people who questioned the sound of CD’s were often times labeled dinosaurs, or worse yet, hipsters, holding onto ancient technologies for no reason other than to rock the boat with irony. Arguments about musical accuracy and sound quality were reduced further as the internet took off in the mid 90’s.
It needs to be noted that by the mid-90’s improvements were made to the digital signal chain, as DAC’s and amps improved on the playback side while the DAC’s better half, the ADC (Analog to Digital Convertor) improved on the recording side. Software equalizers and filters were improved and brought more life to the digital signal, but the resolution used – 16bit/44k, chosen in 1978 – seemed stuck in time. Therefore it is true that a well-mastered CD from 1995+ played on modern CD players probably sounds better than a rig from the 1980’s, but many still found it less accurate than analog formats.
I feel it is also important to take a moment to note the difference between content and format. With content, the quality is critical and impossible to quantize. If a song is well-written, well recorded, mixed, and mastered, it is going to sound “good” to you no matter the format it is played as. We simply love good music strongly enough that it will hit us emotionally through an AM radio or a cheap/broken playback system. So this review focuses on format only since there’s no way I could generalize all of the recorded music in the world. Your bag might not be my bag, so I won’t delve into content until the details at the end.
The format = the distribution pipeline that all recorded music must go through to get to your ears. This is largely what Pono Inc. aims to improve.