The Problem With Experts Indeed

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Interesting take over on RealHDAudio taking shots at a music producer.

I read and replied to his post but it’s not publishing over there, so here is:


vocalize


Timing, timbre, and room sound.
Timing, timbre, and room sound.
Timing, timbre, and room sound.

These are things that you can’t scope or measure or chart. These are the basic building blocks of music.

This is why record producers, mastering engineers, and artists with a good ear are the experts here.

They are the only ones who understand mixed music. Not test tones. Not frequencies alone and isolated. Every bit of music is a complex stew of multiple tones, some heard, some hinted, some masked, some over/under ringing.

If the people in the studio that did the session say the 16/44 version sounds the best, then it does. If they prefer the 24/88 or 24/192 versions, they are the best. Creators privilege. Only they heard it as it was being made, aka what it originally came from. (They can all be different mixes of the song too, they don’t have to tell us that.)

The rest of us just take it for granted and enjoy it. Unless you are making the mix, or making the original sound being mixed, you are a secondary expert.

Mixed music is a tremendously complex collection of tones, all affecting each other, all containing critical timing, timbre, and layers upon layers of complex sound.

That’s why it’s so powerful. The power of music is ignored in these scientific discussions. If the 16/44 version moves you emotionally, that’s good. If the 24bit version does it more so, it’s a better version. Whichever packs the most in it is the best.


Even for sparse music, acoustic music, whatever…. more data = more sound = more vibration = more enjoyment. It’s simple.

I do think there’s a limit though. I hear some advantage at 24/192 on very good rigs but it does not make 24/88 or 24/92 sound degraded.

The pointless 16/44 is the degradation that we need to remove.


 

Too many people these days try to hear with their eyes and understand with their computer screens.

 

Which is music?

This:

beatles_wave

Strawberry Fields Forever, by The Beatles

 

or the audio track in this?

 

More Hi-Res Rumors For Apple

imagesI guess this is good – rumors are floating again that Apple Music is moving into Hi-Res Audio.  Being a rumor there are very few specifics but a few people more influential than me are saying that 24/96 streaming is coming, along with the lightning port replacing the headphone jack on Apple’s mobile products.

It’s not all good because although Apple is the market leader in the consumer tech space, doubters and ignoramuses far and wide are commenting on music formats in the comments section.  It gets pretty ugly with the nonsense spouted there.

No surprise, many who have never heard hi-res digital refuse to believe it exists. Most ignore it completely, or they’ve tried 1 hi-res file on their laptop or phone.  Of course those devices can’t render hi-res properly, so the user reaffirms their belief that this is all a scam devised to charge them more for the same thing. Stupid users!

If you can’t hear that 256k bitrate < 1000k that’s your problem, not mine. If you don’t believe that 5800k > 1000k this lack of mathematical logic is also not my problem.  Your lack of awareness and listening ability should not hurt my ability to enjoy good music. Perhaps your taste in music also needs an improvement?


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Finally, if you won’t accept that each Netflix/Youtube/Hulu stream is 3000k+ you will never understand that most of us have plenty of bandwidth and storage for hi-res audio.  We just value video far more than music on the internet.

Basic Apple nerds are very anti-hi-fi audio because they have been hooked into the lie that is MP3/AAC, where convenience trumps quality every time. Even the late Steve Jobs couldn’t believe how fast MP3 took over, he thought the quality was too low to fully replace previous formats.


 

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Tidal Shows The Ghost In The MP3

This is a good start. Here’s Tidal trying to explain simply why MP3 sounds worse than CD quality. They want $20/month the stream CD-quality to you, so they will strongly market against lossy compression.

How great can music sound? from TIDAL on Vimeo.

 

But it is also a bit misleading because so much music is recorded in 24bit and then down sampled to CD quality. I do believe that 16/44 is officially the start of “high-resolution” these days, because MP3 lowered the bar so much.

16/44 is just the start of high-definition (it is high definition from 1980) and if people are willing to pay $20/month to stream it, I’m all for it. If they ever add a radio to the PonoPlayer I would stream 16/44.

The Tidal proposition – $120/year for random-generated CD-quality music. That’s what you’d pay for 7-10 HD album downloads, not a bad deal.

24 Bit Goodness

I’ve been picking up one 24bit release per month to enjoy on the PonoPlayer, and while they have been slow to be released (my theory on why is below), I do really enjoy the ones I have.

My current 24bit collection includes:

  • Hotter Than July by Stevie Wonder
  • Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones
  • III and Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin
  • This Boot Is Made For Fonk-n by Bootsy’s Rubber Band
  • The Cars by The Cars
  • Quadrophenia by The Who
  • Portrait of a Legend – Sam Cooke
  • Slave by Slave
  • Machine Head by Deep Purple

 

The reason why labels aren’t quick to put out 24bit FLAC files is because this in effect gives away their masters with no copy protection.

Labels know and understand that the album, the CD, and mp3 were not the full (master) version of the music. These are called consumer formats, and they are created from the master but are degraded from the master.


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Vinyl degrades as it is played and it also cannot be copied easily. With MP3 the degradation is obvious to most. The CD format tricks many because they were marketed as being more than they are, but most music was recorded in a way that provided more detail than a 16/44 CD translates.

Along comes Pono pushing for selling the full masters with no copy protection. Some labels will drip some stuff out but I doubt they will open the vaults.

24bit FLAC IS the vault – and they can fashion new profitable file formats from it. FLAC is open with no DRM or loss.

This is why I think the labels, along with Apple, will get behind (buy?) the new MQA encoding and push it as the next audio format. It uses MP3-like concepts in the encoding layer to allegedly deliver HD-quality at regular bitrates, and more importantly, it needs a new DAC, making it not backwards compatible.

MQA is claiming they can get near CD-quality PCM (1200k) into 320k MQA format. They are also claiming they can get 24bit PCM quality (2000-4000k) into a 1200k MQA encoding. Very few people have heard this yet, and it’s a longshot to make it as the next consumer encoding format, but it is intriguing.

I think the MP3 engineers made some very poor audio decisions and no one has revisited them since the early 1990’s. MQA’s claiming to address them.

Life With PonoPlayer

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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.


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Extended Playlist Mentality

So I prayed on it a bit, and I am starting to like the idea I’m calling “Extended Playlists” to organize my digital music library v2.

The idea is simple – develop several playlists 30-50 songs deep. They can be anything, no restrictions on theme or content. The only rule is that once I use an artist I can’t use them in another playlist. This is because their entire catalog will be on the card with the playlist, and 1 playlist will spawn 1 128gb card.

Subsequent playlists will have to select from available artists, until all of the artists are used up.

The end result would be cards stocked with vaguely relatable artists, but a rather random selection of music once their entire catalogs are included. The playlist doesn’t need to be played at all, it is just a method for organizing the cards by artist. It can be played, and it might be fun to construct additional playlists using just the contents of that card.

This also allows for grouping of solo artists with their group, as well as style runs of songs that would keep artists together on the card when wanted.

This breaks for compilations and composers. A compilation has many artists per album and a composer is on albums from multiple artists.

Lookups (I need to hear xyz) will require an index of who is one what card, but I should end up with about 10 cards total, so it’s a simple index.

Still though – constructing interesting playlists that build an entire card’s worth of albums (400+) is intriguing. It tweaks both my DJ and radio programming skills, and could make for some pretty interesting Pono listening sessions for the next decade and beyond.

Now that's a music library

Now that’s a music library

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.]

Hi-Def HardFunk aka 24bit or Bust!

Was browsing around the Ponomusic store the other night, and found some good funk at full 24bit:

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 4.08.59 PMScreen Shot 2015-04-10 at 4.10.44 PMBootsy: Playa of the Year and Ahh The Name is @ 24/192 for $21.79

Stevie Wonder: Songs, Musiquarium, Talking Book, Music of my Mind, Innvervisions all at 24bit for around $20 per album.

Most of Otis Reading’s career at 24/192

6 different Ray Charles LP’s at 24/192

Slave’s self titled debut from 1977 at 24/192 for $24

Donny Hathaway Live @ 24/192 for $24Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 4.09.53 PM

Sly’s There’s A Riot Going On @ 24/176 for $25 (listen to that tape buzz!)

Monk’s Genius Of Modern Music vols 1 & 2 at 24/192 for $21 eachScreen Shot 2015-04-10 at 4.12.05 PM

4 Sam Cooke albums at 24/88, some of them less than a $1 per track

There seems to be more 24bit material every time I search, but in some cases 16/44 is the best you are gonna get for some time. It still sounds a lot better than what’s the norm these days, and ponoplayer plays 16/44 FLAC as good as anything in the world.

Lecture: Quality Sound Matters

Stop listening to internet experts and listen to real experts. Here’s a panel of mastering engineers talking about quality sound and consumer trends. Interesting, informative and correct!

Bonus fun is that they invited a guy from streamer Rdio who has to defend 320k streaming in this room full of quality experts. I bet he’s the young one on the end looking exasperated 😉

Studio To Stereo

Here’s something really cool – a bunch of people are putting together an interactive event in London that details the process of creating music in the studio and then releasing it to the public, using iconic artists, classic albums, and high definition audio displays.

Who’s the consumer tech company behind it? Sony, a small Japanese startup you might not have heard of.

Sony stages Studio to Stereo high-res audio exhibition

Black Sabbath, The Doors, Pink Floyd — in the studio, behind the scenes and in HD, damn someone want to fly me to London?

The Doors in the studio

The Doors in the studio

Music Hoarding Future

OK I’m doing some serious internet-style scientific research (aka asking friends) on the future of buying music, discussed in this post. Here’s a few ideas so far on the future of music product packaging:

Idea 1-  The “All of the Above” set — for $40 you buy the release and receive a vinyl record, a CD, and download codes for both HD and MP3 digital files. Nothing new here but it’s a nice spread of the existing formats and gives you redundancy and multiple formats for different locations, loaning out, etc..

Idea 2-  The “21st Century” set — for $30 you buy the release and receive a Blu-Ray disc and also download codes for all of the content. The disc contains the stereo mixes and 5.1 mixes (if available), and plays in a standard BluRay setup. The data portion of the disc contains the HD and MP3 versions of the stereo mix. The download codes are for those without a BluRay drive in their computer. This gives you a new format (5.1) and doesn’t include any vinyl or CD’s. The entire thing can also be sold w/o a disc (dl only) for $20.

Idea 3- The “Sponsor/Crowdfund” system — this isn’t a product per say, but a new twist on an ancient system for funding music. For maybe $100 you become a sponsor/superfan/investor/subscriber for the artist for a period of time, maybe 2 years. In that timeframe you receive a few things: their new musical output for nearly free (maybe just cost of materials and shipping, or free online); free tickets to any of their shows in your region (you will drink alot that night and the venue will make money); some usual fan club stuff like stickers, swag, and behind the scenes stuff, and a more personal relationship with the artist.

An artist would have fans that were invested in their art and it’s output, and the fans just wouldn’t renew if they weren’t feeling the value of that relationship. 10k facebook likes could be 1 million dollars, which would fund many mid-sized artists for 2 years and cover the shipped product, and doing 25 shows around the country has the potential for 400 fans per gig before you even show up.  Those people bring friends, the place is packed, everyone makes some money, and music lives on (and everyone gets laid that night :-)).

Also, because you want them to succeed and make more music for you before your subscription expires, the artist is invigorated by this direct correlation between output and revenue and the fans demand excellence. A really amazing release where the artist pushes farther and better than before would up their capital immediately. Lazy and misguided artists would find their capital dwindling.

 

Each of these have pros and cons but I thought it would be fun to start thinking about such things.

 

A Lil Dap Available Now

Why Wait for Pono? The Fiio X5 is here now, and getting good reviews.

I say more HD players will equal more HD digital music, which is always good news for our psyche , and even ripped CD’s and old mp3’s manage to sound better on a dedicated audio player with proper components.

It will be interesting to see if Apple stops at adding 24-bit support to it’s existing iDevices, or if it will push a higher quality audio systems in 1 or more of it’s devices.


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HD Apple Rumors Swirling

HiFi-Music-Review-May-1958-Mag


Rumors are flying that Apple is about to include 24-bit audio in it’s new iOS products, both from the software end of things and hardware – updating the Lightning cable for faster interconnects when HD Audio is being used with external devices, and designing some new earbuds to capitalize on the higher quality source.

This isn’t immediately tied to their rumored acquisition of Beats Music, but it certainly affects the same markets.

Reading through internet opinion it’s heartening to see many applauding a focus on sound quality. But the usual suspects are pushing xiph.org’s “science” saying <= 16/44 is all you need. I sense a shift that those people are being grouped with the claimants of “1080p is useless”.

Arguing against higher digital resolution is arguing against a reality that will always pass you up. We are still learning about sound and hearing and these bad assumptions of the past will fall into disuse as time marches on.

Other interamus’ claimed that “the 10 people that bought a pono must be upset”. Actually, no, this validates Pono’s cause, and if iOS products can play 24-bit files the market for HD audio will open wide.

Pono will always sound better than an iPhone or iTouch, because there’s several more parts of the signal chain that pono goes upmarket on, and Apple goes general purpose.

The Problem With A-B’ing And Why Neil Young Is Right About Sound Quality

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Great Tape Op post that’s thinking big about audio, music, and hearing.

The main crutch of the good enough team is what is called the double-blind listening test (shortened to ABX). When doing studies based on perception, it is the great measuring stick, and perhaps the only way they can start to squeeze some numbers out of human sensory perception.

It’s basic – here’s source A, here’s source B, maybe switch back and forth a couple of times, now make your decision. Which one was better? Can you hear a difference? Do you like one better than the other?

But as the article states, every ABX test is flawed because of it’s short sample time, and building out theories on these short ‘taste-test’ findings has led us to this mess of bad science and bad assumptions.

Since we live with and love music in intimate ways we cannot accurately write or describe, the author proposes that for any “double blind” tests to be valid the subjects should actually get to keep and live with their music collection for a month or two, then report their feelings towards it.

Much like how a sugary treat tastes better than anything next to it, but if you lived on sugary treats all month you would be feeling much worse than the person with the quality diet. Often the lesser files are close enough on initial inspection to fool enough people, and the ABX test stops right there. No one is doing long-term ABX tests, we all are doing taste tests, not nutrition tests.

Neil Young and the high-def audio movement is about getting the nutrition back into your music. There’s industrial white bread, and then there’s all those other breads. They both hold the sandwich together but living off the nutrition inside of it leads us to different outcomes.

 

Resolution, Not Frequency Range

Anyone arguing about audio and getting stuck on the overall hearing range of humans is actually missing the point.

What digital audio has really been doing is giving us lower resolutions on the sounds we can hear.

Have you ever had a car radio with a dial that won’t go to the exact volume you want? The ‘chunks’ are too big to get it exactly where you want it? That’s a lack of resolution in that volume knob. Put that lack of resolution throughout every part of the audio program and the overall effect is perhaps not easily heard, but it seems to be easily felt. – Excerpt From Save The Audio

HD audio is really about the resolution, not the frequency range. The color’s won’t be brighter, there will just be more of them available. Having more available means you leave the computer to guess about less.

The whole “no one can hear above blah blaah” is just a diversion from the fact that we can all hear and do indeed miss what the computers have been removing from our music.

ResolutionBandwidth_sta

Digital Audio Verses Timbre

If an electric guitar and a piano both play a C major chord at the same volume, can you tell the difference between them?  Would you be able to discern a difference between the guitar and the piano’s version of the same note? Digital audio programmers hope you can’t.

If a violin and a plastic keyboard both hit a D and hold it out, can you hear a difference between them? What are the differences between the violin and the electronic keyboard when the result is the same note? Digital audio programmers hope you don’t know or care.

If you recorded the two tests above and played them back, would you still be able to hear a difference between them? Of course you would, but the more you degrade the digital audio by compressing in a ‘lossy’ format, the differences between the two would diminish. Somewhere around 128k lossy you’d have trouble hearing any difference between the instruments, even if in different families all together.

So how exactly do you tell the differences between the instruments, and how well they are played? We don’t even have words to describe all of what is happening there. But you can hear the difference even if the computer just sees the frequency and the volume. Most of this familiarity as to “what is making that sound” is put under the term timbre, and then most of it is thrown out in the digital realm.

Timbre is where they go looking for things to LOSE when compressing digital audio. Why do you care if it’s a piano or strings, you hear the note, you get the point, right?  The timbre is what many like Neil Young talk about as being part of the ‘soul’ of music, unquantifiable and very emotional for each person.

Lossy media compressions were developed for dial-up modems (remember those?), and to shrink the file by 80% they actually threw out most of the timbre, most of the sub-lows,  most of the highs, and most of the steps for panning and depth. Part of what you hear as mp3 artifacts are all those holes in the timbre being filled with wrong data.

BTW — the cover image is a microscopic view of an actual groove in a record. Look at the amount of vibration data the stylus picks up as it drags through that groove. 16 bits is just not enough data space to recreate all of that.

groove-of-a-record-for-detail

Bad Science + Business Interests = Trouble

Computer geeks know lots of things. The sheer breadth of stuff that geeks have crammed in their head is impressive.

But their major mistake is often not acknowledging their own ignorance. Many have come up in a world so digitally driven that they forget they are analog animals.

They forget sound, light, smell, touch are all analog. These are things computers don’t do natively.

In fact it has taken 40+ years of digital advancement to even start competing with original (analog) methods of creation.


NEM U87AISETZNI

Hi there I’m analog


Most computer nerds know nothing about professional media production. They might know the basics or have clicked around a bit with an app, but they know nothing of producing high quality media for a living.

On the other hand, most producers these days have to know their computers, especially the parts critical to creating professional media. I believe some nerds don’t like the competition so they declare themselves experts on everything digital.

Experts are the people that do it for a living, not people tasked with spreading false information on the internet.

A computer programmer/nerd believes there is a digital solution to everything.

Then they build on this bad foundation the fatal flaw of believing a digital copy of something analog will somehow be superior. Many sub-measurements of that digital file might be superior to the analog, but remember to always step back and say “what is this trying to solve?”.

Music is created to get an emotional response from us and that requires as much audio data as possible.


gemini-pt-2000-ii-direct-drive-turntable


All consumer digital music, from the CD in 1978 on, has been a compromise. When you hear analog playback you are hearing a reflection of the recording, that is, an analog copy that is slightly degraded but overall intact and whole.

The original sounds hit the microphone in analog and it will hit your ears in analog.  It has not been broken up and re-assembled, and no computer decided what to keep and what to throw out.

Nature does degrade the signal to a certain extent (magnetism in a tape or physical dragging movement on vinyl), but no programmer had to determine mathematically what parts of your music to throw out.

Computer nerds trust in the computer to decide what’s important in our audio signal, more than they trust their own intuition or senses.

Computers don’t have skin, hair, ears, or emotions, so what do they know about music? Nothing. Nada.

Programmers with agendas are behind much of this nonsense, and it is all based on a total misunderstanding of how we hear, and what we actually get from music.

Familiarity is just step 1. “I can recognize that song I like!” is not the same as hearing the whole thing the way it was intended.

Check out this cool article about a guy that helped design the Pono Player.