Proper Digital Audio Playback

The PonoPlayer got it right, whether they survive as a business or not.

There is a right way and a quick way to build a digital audio playback circuit.

The following information comes from Charlie Hansen, the designer of the Pono audio chain, and the excellent review by Tyll Hertsens. I’m putting it into it’s own post so other audio device builders get inspired.

  • EVERYTHING from DAC to jacks is DC coupled. No coupling caps anywhere.
  • Everything is TRULY balanced from the DAC chip all the way to the output jacks. There is no virtual ground needed, as we have true +/- rails from the switching power supply. The raw rails go to SUPER low noise regulators, of which there are a TON.
  • The audio circuitry has their own dedicated +/- regulators.
  • All of the digital circuitry runs off of positive voltage only
  • Three or four separate dedicated regulators there — one for the audio master clocks, another for the digital side of the DAC chip and a third for the rest of the digital circuitry.

“NOBODY builds portable players that are fully-discrete, fully-balanced, and zero-feedback. This all makes a huge difference.”

— Charlie Hanson of Ayre Audio

That’s what happens after the DAC, in the analog stage.



Regarding the file quality and DAC behavior before the analog stage, we have more details from Charlie:

 

  • Brickwall filtering creates massive time smear.
  • The human ear/brain is already known to be exquisitely sensitive to time smear.
  • DBT and AB/X are really only sensitive to differences in frequency response. Using these tools for anything to do with music is like pounding a nail with a screwdriver. Ain’t gonna work.

Specifically, one of the massive benefits of a higher sampling rate is not extended bandwidth.

Instead, it allows for gentler filters to be used.


In the case of the Ayre QA-9 A/D converter, the anti-aliasing filters have zero ringing or time smear for double and quad sample rates. (Only one cycle of ringing for single rates — something has to give somewhere…)

When Ayre designed the PonoPlayer’s audio circuitry, we held back nothing.

We gave it everything that could fit within the constraints of the budget, physical space, and battery life.

Every single secret we discovered went into the PonoPlayer. The digital filter is taken directly from our own products.

Anti-Audio Tech Sites, Pt. II

ak380

I’m an A&K and I take sound quality very seriously.


To followup on my rant against american tech sites like Ars Technica and how they completely ignore hi-res audio, I found some proof.

Check out Crutchfield, an american stereo catalog retailer. Crutchfield is known for their help in installing and explaining tech. They have a whole section of their catalog for portable hi-res music players.  They have a nice selection of the current products available to US consumers: Sony, Pono, Pioneer, Onkyo, A&K.


pioneerxdp100r

Pioneer making it’s pitch with a good hi-res DAP that looks like nothing else.


Head over to arstechnica.com, a site that reviews the newest tech gadgets, and search the site. You will not find a single mention of any of these devices (except for takedowns of the Pono). No reviews, no press releases, no mention in other articles. It’s as if they don’t exist.

It’s not that they don’t cover audio or mp3 players: search for headphones and get 2000 results. search for mp3- 970 results. iTunes? 8410 results.

Pono? 5 results, including 3 for the same review slamming it as ‘snake oil’. All the other DAP’s combined? 0 results.

Why do self-professed gadget lovers ignore this class of gadget. Is it plain ignorance of good sound or is something more nefarious at work?


sonynwa26

Sony has multiple walkmans, including Hi-Res models starting around $300


It’s not just Crutchfield, either, an audio specialist. Check out Amazon.com and you’ll see hundreds of MP3-only players under $100, and at least 40 different models of hi-res players starting at around $100.


pono_both

The PonoPlayer is the only one noticed by Ars Technica, and they shit on it by saying it sounds the same as an iPhone with a radio shack switcher, and by the way no one needs lossless music either. Snake oil! Audiophiles!

Lossy Is Hurting Us

 

Cedar_Point_beach_view_from_Sky_Ride_2013_resize

Summer fun in full resolution: Cedar Point, Ohio looking out over Lake Erie.

 

Windows Phone_20130621_02520130621194354

If you stream music or buy lossy files, here’s your version of summer fun. Close enough, right?

 

If you own a ponoplayer or another fancy modern 24bit digital audio player, you can experience this. Full resolution for all the music you love will return you to the quality you deserve.

 


Note 1 – I bet your browser showed the compressed image first. That’s why data compression exists – to get the file to you faster. Once they are both loaded, was the wait worth it?

Note 2 – Image is not audio. Audio has more detail, more nuance, and packs far more emotional cues than visuals.

#SaveTheAudio

 

 

Guide To Hi-Res Audio

The momentum continues, as more publications pick up on this new push towards quality in consumer audio.  MP3 won’t die without a fight, but it’s 15 year grip on the music industry appears to be loosening.


1015prov.hands

 


 

Check out the Consumer Technology Association’s Guide To Hi-Res Audio for a nice wide overview of the hi-res music market as it stands now.

 

Youtube’s Audio Specs

Finally got my answer about Youtube’s audio specification — there isn’t one, really.

The only have a video policy.  Audio stream quality is a part of the video spec.

So here’s the details:

  1. Audio streams as 128k or 320k MP3 only
  2. 320k is only played during videos streaming in HD of 720p or higher
  3. The video must start in HD to get the 320k audio, and most players will not reload the higher audio stream if the user switches video quality during playback.

The end result is that most of youtube is streaming 128k mp3 audio, aka garbage.

The high quality portion of youtube can get 320k MP3 to you but it’s not automatic. They have to force the player into high-quality, which is against the youtube platform defaults.

Low-vs-High-Quality-Image

The FLAC folks on Youtube? They force the 320k MP3 and perhaps they are encoding the video with a high resolution flac as the audio source? Or they are just misrepresenting themselves?

The two I contacted about their sources never answered me, so I don’t know. From what I’ve read youtube cannot stream FLAC or even lossless audio.

262px-Flac_logo_vector.svg_

And yes, 320k MP3 sounds pretty good, it’s almost CD quality. But there’s still digital loss, artifacts, and a fatigue from listening.

CD’s usually push about 800k bitrate at you, so the perceptual coding at 320k sounds pretty close to the original.

But once you up that lossless original to between 2000-6000k (24bit audio) you really hear it pop and become realistic as compared to 320k.

8af9

Relatively accurate representation of some of what is LOST: things masked by louder sounds, aka the feel of the space as the note plays.

Here’s to hoping youtube allows lossless streaming soon, or at least defaults to 320k mp3.

 

It’s Bandwidth, Stupid

Everything digital boils down to bandwidth

  • how much you have
  • how much can you use
  • how fast the data can move through it

Bandwidth comes in several forms. The network connection is the obvious one because we already use the term bandwidth to describe this. This determines how fast one computer can communicate with another computer through a network.

Storage space is another form of bandwidth, if anything needs to be stored. Even streaming files through the network will require some local storage and files saved to your device require space. There’s the raw space, and also the read/write time of the storage volume – both are a form of bandwidth.

There’s plenty more places to measure bandwidth inside of, and plugged into, the computer such as the motherboard busses between the various chips, the ports in and out of the computer, and the video output. All of these have a known bandwidth and engineers must take this into account when designing circuits.

If it's digital, it's a "computer". This shows the motherboard and the components of the early CD player.

If it’s digital, it’s a “computer”. This shows the motherboard and the components of the early CD player.


 

The entire digital audio format debate boils down to bandwidth.  How much sound bandwidth can your body pick up?

37 years ago when Phillips & Sony were working on the audio CD they knew that bandwidth would be a major issue. Digital audio generated very large file sizes and required lots of bandwidth to reproduce accurately. 50mb was literally HUGE in 1978, and that’s only 1 5-minute song on CD. This is a time when $500 hard drives were 10mb! The draw to the optical disc was the huge storage space it provided on cheap plastic discs.

Which brings us to the bandwidth of the disc and file format selected. The new CD design could hold roughly 600mb of data. What resolution to store the audio as became the driving force in finishing the standard, with engineers deciding a nice compromise was a 44k sample rate stored in 16bit files, allowing for about 60 minutes of runtime per disc, or just enough to hold the president of Sony’s favorite symphony (a rumored requirement of the new format).

This is the thing: bandwidth = cost.  More money gets you more of it, especially in components. Want a motherboard with higher bandwidth? Costs more. Want a chip with higher bandwidth? Costs more. A port and cable that can move more data? Costs more.

So the engineers and designers of the CD knew there were better quality resolutions than 16/44, but the overall cost of making a player to play higher resolutions, and total bandwidth of the storage for them, just wasn’t there in 1980’s tech.  Early digital production systems did use 20bit audio with sample rates from 40 to 88k, but they were expensive and specialized, not for the consumer.

 


 

 

By the 1990’s the price of higher-bandwidth components had come down enough to attempt a format upgrade, but like many things in the 90’s, the internet changed everything.  Instead of consumers moving to a new optical disc holding higher-quality files and played through better players (SACD), the trend was to smaller, mobile files that could be moved around the internet and played on smaller and smaller devices.

The visual engineers who developed the JPEG compression format stepped in and put together an audio specification for shrinking CD-quality files down to something 90’s era computers could handle. This became known as MP3, and at first it seemed magical. How could that 50mb song from a CD become 5mb and play back almost perfectly from my hard drive? Impressive.  Overall sound quality was deemed “good enough” because of the huge boost in convenience mp3 provided.

As we lived with MP3 and listened closer, many consumers were less than impressed. But time marched on, napster was built to trade illegal MP3, iPod shipped, then smartphones and tablets, and MP3 became the new consumer format in the early 00’s.

This, of course, is not the first time we consumers have taken a quality downgrade in the name of convenience.

 


 

Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 1.20.24 PM

The deets on bandwidth used. Netflix HD shows how much more video (TV+film) is valued compared to music. Netflix will be 4k soon, perhaps the 7th upgrade to consumer digital video as compared to no upgrades to digital audio.

 

Now is now. Almost all limits of bandwidth from the last 30 years are gone, as is evident with Netflix streaming everywhere, people running very fast computers packed with memory and fast storage on broadband network connections. There are now millions of servers talking to hundreds of millions of devices, each little device packing more bandwidth than a $50,000 computer from 1980.

The bottom line – We no longer need to reduce the art to fit the distribution. If an artist makes a record at 24/192 you should be able to buy it, store it, and play it at 24/192.  If you want a lesser version for a lesser device/use you can easily make it yourself.  If the artist makes the record at 16/44 that’s fine too, buy that one.

The point is that reducing from the audio master was only done in the name of bandwidth restrictions that are now gone.

 

We can store 100's of full-quality albums on this tiny card.

We can store 100’s of full-quality albums on this tiny card.

 

 

 

Life With PonoPlayer

pono_both


I’ve been playing this thing daily for 5 months now. Here’s more thoughts on living with it (and some new pictures):

  • The form/shape is still nearly perfect. The only thing it doesn’t like is working out with tight clothing. If you workout with loose clothes (or don’t work out at all) you can usually find a pocket or ledge for it. It’s far better than a slab phone shape at most things: sitting up, sitting down, displaying, passing around, holding in your hand, using from inside pocket, not ruining your headphone jacks, coexisting with keys. The soft-touch plastic also feels better as it wears, and the buttons are easy to understand and operate in any environment. Nearly perfect design for an audio player.
  • Sound quality is still amazing and every day several things in my collection surprise me. I have about 400 CD’s ripped to it now and it’s astonishing how much of a sonic downgrade we accepted in the name of convenience when MP3 was introduced.
  • I have a hard time even listening to an MP3 now, I want a decent version immediately, and if I’m online I see if a 24bit version is available. I’ve re-bought 2 albums so far, knowing that I gave Apple $10 for the MP3 version a few years ago but it was a mistake. I find myself turning down MP3’s on the pono because it can’t work magic. One of my favorite moments lately is when I replace MP3’s with FLAC’s and delete the MP3’s forever. It’s like waking up from a musical nightmare.
  • Most people don’t notice it when I have headphones on, there’s so many devices out right now. As far as the folks that are curious, it’s about 50/50 whether they seem to understand it immediately. I’ve had a few people go “oh wow that’s a Pono!?!”. One guy said he didn’t want to hear it because he doesn’t want to have to buy one! I kinda get that, but he’ll own one eventually.
  • It’s magical when you bring it out amongst friends who are phone-listeners. Find any song they know and play it on speakers and they nod and smile, then immediately focus in and ask you to turn it up. They get big eyes, and start to bop, move, grin. They usually look at me like we are making a discovery together. Often times we both lock into and zone out for most of the song, something almost never done when playing MP3’s. I now have friends who want to share a song apologize to the group for playing music from their phone 😉
  • Most people understand “it sounds better” but they don’t all care to understand the details. The curious ones usually know about either lossy compression or deficient playback hardware, but usually don’t see both in their current rig until they’ve experienced the pono smile.
  • I like how owning a DAP has freed my phone from doing something it was not really cut out to do. I have not had a song interrupted by an alert, a phone call, or another app in 5 months. I play my music while waiting on hold. I have not forgot to play the next song or gotten a headache from too much music. I don’t have to keep turning it down from loudness wars and digital ear fatigue. I’ve cleared 10gb and counting from my phone by deleting those horrible mp3s
  • It’s not all good: The main round button is suspect. Mine is currently working correctly but it’s not the smoothest, and I am not confident it will operate properly for decades. This button does play, stop, next, last, sleep and wake so it gets a lot of use.

ponoplayer6


The OS needs a few minor UI features, and I think they can add them without ruining the focus of the device. My suggestions to Pono Inc:

  1. A “Go To Album” link when shuffling songs, since shuffle on the Pono almost always triggers me to want to hear more from that record.
  2. Sleep/Lock could use more refinement. Being aware of charge-state would be great – I want separate prefs for battery or wall power.
  3. The song/artist banner across the top covers album artwork in landscape mode. It should autohide after a few seconds and reappear upon button touch. You know your own stuff and should see 100% artwork when the music plays.
  4. After adding a lot of music it has to rescan the music library and can take over a minute to do so. I have been adding batches of 15-20 CD’s and the artwork also glitches on first scroll through album covers, by shifting artwork amongst the items. It clears up after the first pass though. [*Update* Haven’t seen this issue since the last firmware upgrade]

 

I definitely recommend getting a PonoPlayer – it’s the best thing to ever happen to my ears and my CD collection, and the handful of 24bit albums I’ve bought so far all sound better than their 16bit counterparts.

There’s just more there, and you can hear it quite literally sound like more. Not louder, more. With a high quality playback device you can better enjoy high resolutions, and it’s very portable.

Hopefully soon I’ll pick up a $100 Fiio and do some Pepsi challenges against the Pono, and so my wife isn’t killing her ears and mood anymore with MP3s.

If you took part in the MP3 revolution like most of us you might still be there (streaming or local), so you have to hear lossless files on a PonoPlayer. You won’t want to go back.


500x1000px-ll-a4921581_pono38

The Ultimate (Final) Digital Music Collection

I’ve got my DAP that plays everything wonderfully. It’s got expandable storage and prices are low enough that I think it’s time to abandon the iTunes catalog I’ve spent 15 years curating to the smallest size possible and build a full-quality digital music library to last me the rest of my life.

This will be moved from my various hard drives to MicroSD flash storage using 64gb and 128gb cards. I am going to start at ~ 1.3tb and grow from there, achieved with 10 128gb cards.

images-1

The tech is all simple and affordable. I’m looking at $40 for a multi-slot card reader and storage book for the cards. The reader plus my laptop will give me 3 slots for easy file management.

The cards themselves are priced about $60 for 128gb right now, so I’ll eventually spend about $600 on media. For $650 and lots of feeding discs into the ripper I will have all of my digital music in a single booklet, forever available at the highest quality I own.

Here’s the challenge, I call it my #1 modern problem — how to index/organize the cards?  I have been thinking on this for weeks now, and have asked several people’s opinions, and here’s a chart laying out how I see my various options:

How to organize 10 terabytes of music?

How to organize terabytes of music?

 

As you see, I’ve already excluded 2 methods A & B, leaving 6 more suggested ways to file all this music away. Each has pros and cons and none are scoring ahead of the others based on listenability, findability, and variety.

I will post more on this as I work out this problem. What are you thoughts on the best way to organize over a 1TB of music?

Also, see previous post on this topic of new storage space and great Rip 2.0

Project Overview: 

Combine 1000+ CD collection with a 20gb-sized MP3 collection, ripping the CD’s as 16/44 FLAC, (replacing any lower resolutions), purchasing some new 24bit albums, and storing it with a single index across 10+ MicroSD cards. Managed either manually or with JRiver/Ponomusicworld client.

The PonoPlayer contains 64gb of fixed memory plus the MicroSD card slot. I plan on using the internal storage as my “favorites” library and then I can load an additional separate card for separate occasions. If I’m stuck without a card I will still have over 100 of my favorite albums on the internal storage.

 

Triangle Love

IMG_2858

More random reasons to love the PonoPlayer, the more I live with it:

  1. It has no EQ. Thank you. The mix is perfect, or at least final. You can buy different headphones/speakers, or run an external EQ if you insist, but the PonoPlayer stays pure and presents the files without any EQ or degradation. From artist to you, perfect.
  2. It will shuffle all songs or playlists, but won’t shuffle albums or songs within the album. So it doesn’t break continuity of an album, has lossless playback, and let’s you concentrate on something other than the screen as the album plays. I sometimes miss the iPod shuffle features but you can make it work if you like specific types of shuffles. Playlists can take care of most custom concepts, but PP likes to play traditional album/CD style by default.
  3. They’ve just about worked out all the minor kinks with the 2 firmware updates. Rotation is still frustrating because a triangle divides a square perfectly, leaving you right in spin zone all the time, so I lock it to landscape.
  4. The mac version of desktop client has also been updated 3+ times since 12/2014 and is becoming quite pleasant. It (“Ponomusicworld” is a rebranded version of JRiver Media Center) really kicks iTunes ass when it comes to library management and tag editing. It’s growing on me.
  5. A few more good reviews are out there, and the attacks against me in online forums have dwindled as people at least acknowledge basic signal chain -aka it sounds good. No matter politics or beliefs in audio science, it very simply sounds nice and it’s hard for people to hate on that.
  6. This thing doesn’t have a great battery. That sucks, but it is standard and easily replaceable so I’m sure someone will recommend an upgrade as these first generation batteries age. Thus even the bad battery is a net positive because you’ll be able to pop any number of 3rd party batteries into PP and get better performance than what I’m seeing for many years to come. Note that I have the kickstarter NY001 version, so they may have already moved to a better battery.

 

The New Kid On The High Resolution Block – MQA

Well this is getting interesting. British company Meridian has come up with something that goes beyond just a format or delivery mechanism, and also involves lossy compression, yet it still looks like a potential future audio technology we need to pay attention to.

Continue reading

Word of the Day: Provenance

Provenance - Noun : originsourceplace of originbirthplace, fountrootspedigreederivationroot

You hear it on antiques shows and now you hear about it in digital music, and it’s actually pretty cool because it’s about credits and the people behind the music.

One of the many complaints about mp3 was “where are the credits?”.  Sorry, go to the website. But the website can update all the time, what if I just want the proper credits for my own music lover nerdiness?

There’s a more serious side to it also, one of attribution and authenticity. Algorithms can now determine what song is playing and credit the composer and lyricist, but they cannot determine origin of the file (which version from which mastering session).

As MP3 fades in popularity and we look to the next digital format, efforts are being taken to improve this issue of provenance in music. Sites like ProStudioMasters.com list details of which version you are buying but standardization is needed here.


My provenance proposal, off the top of my head:

Top level (spine):  Artist / Song / Cover art

Sub level (liner): Lyrics / Liner notes / Additional artwork

Physical level (provenance): Year / Composer / BPM / ISRC / Label / Label Number / Original Mix date / Original Mix format / Remaster Date / Remaster format


[This data could be used by next-gen streaming too, giving lots of interesting information and images to be displayed while the song streams.]

Pure Sound Quality

Quality:

  1. GoodMusic as MP3  =  sounds pretty good – get your jam on!
  2. GoodMusic as 16bit FLAC  or   CD  =  sounds better – damn listen to that bass! – time to dance – pure and clean and timeless
  3. GoodMusic as 24bit FLAC  or  Vinyl  =   oh wow am I in the studio? Is the artist in my room with me? Am I crying? This is outstanding and I don’t want to go back.

vs. Convenience:

  1. GoodMusic as MP3  =  easiest and everywhere
  2. GoodMusic as CD  =  barely surviving in cars and clubs
  3. GoodMusic as Vinyl  =  you are a manual no mix/playlist throwback and can’t take that mobile at all, totally dusty and crusty
  4. GoodMusic as FLAC   =  as easy as MP3 if you load onto your player, because it’s not going to stream reliably anytime soon

 

If you are willing to swim back up that river just a little bit – to owning and carrying your own music on a little player – you can enter a whole new world of sound quality and not lose much convenience at all.

 

gotta do what you gotta do

gotta do what you gotta do

Pono In Cars, Coming Soon

Pono and Harman announced they reached a deal to bring the Pono audio goodness into cars, and this could be the mainstream breakthrough Pono needs. The more people that hear it the better because it’s the best marketing possible. Hear it, like it, maybe love it and cry a few tears, then buy it. The “low-def years” come to an end.

No details about how they are going to work this out, but Neil has hinted that they are going to share their signal chain engineering with Harman to allow it to be built into their various products, with Pono certifying it for quality. Harman is the corporate owner of the audio brands Infinity, AKG, JBL, Harman Kardon, Becker, Lexicon, Crown, dbx, Soundcraft, Studer, Revel, DigiTech, Mark Levinson, and a few more. That’s a whole lot of market coverage.

It appears that most of the engineering talent in the Pono is the stuff designed by Ayre Acoustics, and the PonoPlayer identifies the Ayre brand, so I would think this is the technology that they will license to Harman.

As long as it sounds sweet and easily takes a MicroSD card so we can share libraries with our other players, I’m all for it. I’ll test drive and consider purchasing any car that has Pono built in.

DSC_9341

 

Hi-Def Storage Space Explained

I did the math for you since there’s some confusion out there about how much space hi-def music takes. Here’s what you can store on 64gb cards:

Remember storage compromised? Mostly gone as 128gb cards are coming soon for <$100. That's over 1000 studio masters on your fingertip.

Remember storage compromises? Mostly gone as 128gb cards are coming soon for <$100. That’s over 1000 full quality studio masters on something the size of a pinky nail. Amazing.

 

MicroSD is small and efficient.

 

Bring On The Competition

Can’t wait for that Pono?

Can’t handle the power of the triangle?

Here’s the Fiio X1 finally available in the US at around $100, and that ain’t too much to pay for some serious hi-res music playback. Pono’s are gonna be about $400 and probably not 4x better sounding, since they are basically similar in important specs.

You know that iPod and that phone just don’t sound that good. Investigate with your own ears.

Will Apple Go HD in Audio?

Rumors are swirling that Apple will soon announce a major upgrade to it’s iTunes Music Store, and one of the features will be 24-bit lossless files for sale!

They might even use Led Zeppelin to push the new higher quality, which is pretty exciting.

I bought a Pono player and it is supposed to play Apple’s ALAC’s (their version of FLAC), so more stores selling HD files is all good for me!

91lossy.promo_

Apple still sells 10% music files! Well they don’t sell much anymore. They missed the hi-res moment.