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.

Movie Lovers Coalesce The Vapors Around Streaming

It’s not just music lovers realizing that streaming has a long way to go to match physical media.

Film lovers see the same issues:  degraded quality, no extras, no ownership, unknown/ temporary access.

We give up a lot for the convenience of streaming.  #SaveTheAudio ?  #SaveTheVideo


The Problem With Experts Indeed

studio


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?

 

Anti-Audio Tech Sites, Pt. II

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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!

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?


Pono_Player_Photo_BlindTestingGear


 

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.


 

PerceptualCoding

PonoPlayer is the Stereophile 2015 Digital Product Of The Year

050415-PonoCables-600


Ignore those who wouldn’t know good sound if their life depended on it.

The PonoPlayer is winning awards and impressing nearly everyone who hears it.

I’m referring to those that have some idea what they are doing and hearing. First the Rocky Mountain Audio Product of the Year, now Stereophile’s Digital product of the year.

It’s sad but understandable that rave reviews from all kinds of audio blogger types against 2 bad reviews by mainstream tech blogs (Yahoo! and Ars Technica), that those bad reviews would spawn more snark and negativity from uninformed bloggers who have never even heard the device.

These tech sites are all hooked into Googleverse and generate the highest page views, so when you search PonoPlayer you see negative results listed ahead of good reviews.

Here’s what you need to know: Stereophile just awarded PonoPlayer their Digital Product of the Year.

They said it was the least-close category, that’s how impressive the PonoPlayer is at it’s price point.


ponoplayer6


 

Here’s plenty more good reviews if you need convincing that this is the best sounding $500 device made:

Scot Hull – Part-Time Audiophile – 11/19/14
Michael Sawh – Trusted Reviews – 1/8/15
Rick Schmidt – Home Theater High Fidelity 2/9/15
 What Hi-Fi? – 2/13/15
Ty Pendlebury – C-Net – 3/12/15
Sam Berkow – SIA Acoustics – 3/16/15
John Atkinson – Stereophile – 3/23/15
Raymond Wong – Mashable – 3/23/15
Tyll Hertsens – Inner Fidelity – 3/26/15

 

Only Stream If You Also Buy Music

If you stream and don’t buy anything ever, you are hurting us all.

We all do it, or know those that do. Since about 1999 (the early Napster era) the idea of actually paying for your music collection has been passé.

There has been an entire generation that expects music product for free.


shoplifting_charges


 

It’s no coincidence that most of their time is spent listening to fake instruments, fake voices and fake sounds made by a laptop operated by a guy fake playing – aka pretending to be working much harder than he really is. You can sit at your desk as I am now and computer DJ.

I’m a DJ, I know. There’s no reason a computer DJ should ever sell more tickets than a proper traveling band. But that’s the norm these days.

The computer DJ’s have won and it’s sad. I was a computer DJ 20 years ago and I didn’t want to win I just wanted an outlet, a slot, a chance to get my creations heard. Now it’s everywhere yet rock and soul played by actual musicians emoting right in front of us is harder and harder to locate.


Porter-Robinson

I used to computer DJ to 20 people 20 years ago. These guys are hotter than rock bands now, so I suppose I won and lost. Where are the great new bands? Killed by the computer DJ.


 

 

Anyway, find $10 for a CD or a digital download (preferably hi-res) of a classic album, or something from a new artist that does it for you, and just purchase the damn thing. Restart your collection. It’s better than giving to charity.

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.

 

Free Upgrades For Life

Funny how reality got in the way of the Pono bashing and Neil Young hating that was all over the internet in 2013-2014.

The emperor has clothes. He usually wears yellow.


 

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 9.19.02 AM

Oh internet, you can be so stupid sometimes.  No snake oil. No streaming service. No emperor. When you scroll down to the next 10 reviews you find raves.

 


 

  • They claimed Young was trying to make us all rebuy our music in a new proprietary format. Yet Pono chose DRM-free open sourced FLAC as their file format.
  • They claimed Young was a shyster and would never even ship the thing. Yet they sold out of PonoPlayers faster than they could make them.
  • They claimed it was nothing more than marketing and it would sound no better than an iPhone. Yet everyone (except a few notable tech-bloggers at the top of google) is impressed with it’s sound. Read reviews from stereo hi-fi and music production types and you’ll see nothing but raves and it’s already won some industry awards in it’s first year.  Hear it yourself and you’ll know.
  • They claimed that hi-res titles were overpriced and no one would accept those prices for music. Yet most 24bit albums are <$20, most 16bit albums are <$15 and people are buying again, some getting an album for the 4th time in what could be a final digital format.
  • They claimed that the ‘whole hi-res thing’ was a scam of upsampled files being marketed to fools. Yet Pono puts out the Pono Promise and works hard to discover the provenance of each album, buyers are educated, and the company is standing by it’s provenance by guaranteeing you free upgrades if the label raises the bar.

 

Reality bites. I’m sure there were more attacks I haven’t debunked here. I just wanted the record to show that no matter what happens to Pono Inc. in the long run, they delivered on their promise and more, slapping all the haters and skeptics right in the jaw. Bravo for Neil, Bravo for Pono Inc. and bravo for music.


FullSizeRender 2

 

Quality Hiding In Plain Site

54cab076bc5e5_-_blindness-ld-md

Derp.


 

Why the hatred of quality music and sound right now?  Is it really the machines taking over?


 

Little_Wizard_Stories_of_Oz,_1914


 

Consumer audio suffers this weird delusion. It seems to be a digital blindness.

It started in the 80’s but was a small segment of the listening population. Simple nerds.

In the 90’s it was distracted by the creation of the internet. They built the infrastructure while the arts flourished (money helps), and the digital babies sprung up everywhere.

[note – I’m one of the early ones. By 1991 I was pretty convinced computers were going to run just about everything by Y2K so I learned them, made a career of them, and continue to this day to be a technology worker, user, and lover.]

Then the iPod hit. “Good enough” took over for a nice ride that I figured would have run it’s course by now. Of course they would get better at playing music!  (ok once). Of course digital would figure out how to sound better than a 2001 mp3 on a 2002 iPod (it has).


Apple_historic_iPod

Even Steve Frickin’ Jobs didn’t think people would stand for the quality of mp3’s.

 

 

I don’t know, did 9/11 knock everyone into everything is a matter of life and death, and if my iPod gets better sounding, well that is shallow thinking?


 

Change_of_Authority_Ceremony_at_Joint_Service_Station_War_Eagle,_Baghdad,_Iraq_DVIDS159745

Sound quality is not life and death, it’s about life only.


 

It’s been 15 years of this downward turn in quality. Even the best artists working now release things that are so loud, so pumped, so faked (in some cases) that no one really even trusts them anymore.

The gods of music are long gone and there are no new ones that aren’t vintage re-do’s. OK very few. I blame the digital machines and our willingness to accept their flaws in quality.


1980 Curtis Mathes TV 1-13-12 002

I’m a 1980 TV. I should be good enough quality forever, right? Oh no, I’m not a stereo, haha!


 

Meanwhile, TV has been upgraded at least 4 times in the USA since the CD shipped.


 

PIONEER_SX_1980

I sound way better than a phone you downgraded suckers!


Now Jay Z, pushing his Tidal service, is forced to talk sound quality. That’s the only thing Tidal has over competitors – BITRATE. They stream the same stuff, they just stream it at 5x the data rate. CD quality.


 


 

If he cracks the code and gets mainstream person to understand that 1400k > 256k EVEN IN AUDIO, and you guessed it, 5800k > 1400k too.  See how easy?

Making Records In The Age of Pono

_DSC0819AA

Great blog post covering Pono and the trends in music from a well known music producer. There is a lot of work to still be done in ending the era of bad sound quality but I like how he acknowledges that Neil Young has been leading the fight with a Pono-shaped machete, hacking away at low quality playback habits wherever he sees them.


cover_tapeop53

The Resolution Wars

256px-Lichtenstein_jpeg_difference

Visual representation of “lossy”. These pixels are what is lost when this image is compressed using mpeg.


MP3’s are dying, thank god. MP3 is a transitionary technology that has overstayed it’s welcome. If you believe lossy MP3 is all you need for music, goodbye. Come back when you want to listen. Yes 320k is better than 192k or 128k. Yes it’s getting close to CD quality. It’s still less than half the data (Not to mention CD is 37 year old digital technology!). MP3/MP4/AAC is a lowest common denominator. It has no place in a discussion about quality.

CD quality is 600-1400k so you can just get CD quality these days, even streaming with Tidal. Once you leave the world of lossy and get to real resolutions, you won’t go back.

Confused with all the combinations of bit depth and sample frequencies available: 16/44, 24/44, 16/48, 24/96, etc.?

So what do you need?  Avoid buying expensive 16 bit. Don’t pay new prices for it, unless it’s the best that material ever hopes to be released at. Demand 24 bit versions and pay full price for 24 bit versions.

  • 24/44 is awesome enough for The Beatles and The Cars, two amazing bands
  • 24/88 and 24/96 are the emerging standards for hi-res audio
  • 24/192 is the highest resolution anyone works at and is starting to become popular

I haven’t heard 16/48 in 20 years but I can assure you that 16/44 is not able to deliver the full audio signal -if- the material is from higher resolutions or analog masters.


 

31-14_static

One part of one inner ear – the most amazing vibration detector I can imagine. Every component does multiple tasks with such detail and subtlety that some of our finest machines could only hope to match it some day.


To spell out audio resolutions in human terms: you need at least 18bits of space to store the data and you need about 30k of undamaged samples per second.

If they had a format of 20/60 it would have been perfect for CD, but they didn’t, so we have to overshoot a bit since the format is just the container. The music is the content and you don’t want the container smaller than the content. In 1977-78 when the CD was being designed, this was a necessary compromise for reasons that have long since expired.

This 18/60 threshold is about the total of what we can detect as humans, so to me, 24 bit is the indicator of true high-resolution audio.  Higher sample rates might give you slightly more detail and audio data, but to my ears 24 bit is the primary upgrade.


 

There's a lot going on inside your ears.

At a micron level inside of the human inner ear. There are thousands of these tiny hairs positioned into arrays at multiple depths, each able to detect certain frequencies and timbres. Each hair sways, the entire mechanism can move, and opposite this area there is a mysterious fluid that appears to defy physics while it adjusts it’s location and density based on the sound. Some researchers believe this fluid performs a liquid-based form of compression/limiting/expansion as well as EQ and is controlled by still unknown forces. That’s serious resolution right there – self-organizing liquids and moveable micron-microphone arrays?  320k/sec is not holding that, nor is 1400k/sec.

The Pono Promise Is Real

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 12: Young walks into the press conference. Famed singer, Neil Young held a news conference on Jan. 12 to tout his benefit concert that same day raising money and awareness for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Legal Defense Fund. The event was held at Massey Hall. January 12, 2014. (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

More crazy ideas!

 

This crazy old rock star started another company. He named it the Hawaiian word for righteousness. He has long hair, wears jeans and a leather coat, it’s a for-profit small business, and he is hated by conservatives.

The goal of the company is not modest — just to save an art form. The art of recorded music is under attack and good old Neil Young has swooped in to try’n save it!

 

Pono_1394708212_crop_550x296

Dave, I just care so damn much. Look at this cute little thing.

 

Bullshit right? Nope. They just posted the policy that anything you buy from their store will be upgraded for free if a better native version becomes available in the future.

 

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The new best store ever.

That’s ballsy. They are basically promising their customers are getting the finest goods from them and there isn’t a better version hidden away somewhere waiting to be sold to you again. And again.

 

I know I’m buying everything from Ponomusic.com from now on so I have that upgrade available if the labels release better versions than what I was sold.

Their text:

Free Album Resolution Upgrades

The PonoPromise

Because we love and appreciate our Pono community of music lovers so much, all music purchased at PonoMusic.com will now be upgraded for FREE when a label offers a higher resolution upgrade of the same recording.

That is the PonoPromise.

People have had to deal with changing and eroding quality formats over the years, starting with vinyl, then eight tracks, cassettes, CDs, MP3s and now streaming services. Music lovers have been forced to buy or “rent” their music over and over and over again. We here at Pono, think that sucks…. But with Pono, those days are over.

Now, when you buy your favorite music at PonoMusic.com, the PonoPromise means you will never have to purchase it again, ever! If and when a higher resolution album you have already purchased becomes available, it is yours for FREE!

 

That’s righteous.

IMG_7842

Buy buy buy and save save save the audio

 

I didn’t get too deep into the fine-print regarding other formats and remixes but I love the concept. It’s so hippy dippy it just might work!

 

o-grande-sucesso-de-neil-young-em-1972-1

MP3’s are for hosers!

 

 

24bit or Bust: Bill Withers & Led Zeppelin

They trickle out slowly but at least they are finally coming:  24bit versions of classic albums by classic artists, ready for purchase for under $20. This is the full-quality studio master for your library so don’t pass up these opportunities.

Two classic artists that have gone 24bit lately are Led Zeppelin and Bill Withers. Jimmy Page, guitarist and leader of Zep, has completed his remastering project where all 9 of the legendary band’s studio albums have been given the modern HD treatment.

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 10.12.43 AM

This includes versions with the original track list but remastered to 24/96, and a deluxe version of each record complete with outtakes, alternate versions, demos, and other rarities. The remasters come in under $20, the Deluxe versions are about $25 each, and you can even buy the whole catalog on vinyl, CD, or HD-digital download, with the physical media including the digital downloads. Very nice.


 

The Bill Withers albums didn’t receive any rare add-ons, but it sure is nice to see them at 24bit and most of them are under $15. Bill is a traditionalist, so his piano, his voice, his guitar, and the rest of the arrangement should sound very warm and intimate at 24bit. Real instruments, real voices, real soul.

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Check out PonoMusic for the Zeppelin and Bill Withers pages.

 

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.

 


 

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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.

 

 

 

Progress Being Made Towards High Definition Audio

Finally! The recording and music industry is discussing standards and practices for proper high-resolution audio, which will hopefully lay the groundwork for mass acceptance by consumers.

This is 20 years past due. Better late than never.

All of this vibration won't compress to 256k.

All of this vibration won’t compress to 256k.

The various entities are having trade shows, panel discussions, demonstrations, and are talking standards, consumer education, and branding for music of all qualities.

Here’s an overview of the talks taking place.  Here is another tech overview. Here is a mainstream consumer view on it.

The keys here are A) provenance and B) final resolution.  Provenance covers the origin of the recording while final resolution is what you are actually being sold. How it got from A to B is important when pushing quality and asking consumers to buy something that many have devalued.

The industry has recommended the following grades that they are calling Master Recording Qualities:

  • MQ-A: From an analog master source
  • MQ-C: From a CD master source (44.1 kHz/16 bit PCM digital), could be up-sampled
  • MQ-P: From a PCM master source that is 48kHz/20 bit PCM or higher (typically 96/24 or 192/24)
  • MQ-D: From a DSD/DSF master source (DSD encoding)

Similar to the 3-letter code on vinyl telling you if it’s sourced from analog or digital, this should inform the consumer and allow the labels to sell guaranteed quality.

This could be a big step towards the mainstream adoption of high resolution audio (HRA).

 

Note: This has nothing to do with Meridian’s new encoding format dubbed MQA (their acronym for Master Quality Assurance, I think) which is built to be a replacement for PCM, the encoding used for most digital audio. If anyone ever records in MQA, it could perhaps become MQ-M above.

Technically Tripping Over Feet

One of the most contentious nerd debates online is about audio quality, and those that believe there are no differences in quality always point to AB tests as their primary justification.

This guy explains why this is fatally flawed, and he nails it:

http://www.aletheiaaudio.com/Double-Blind-Testing.html

Sometimes it's what you don't hear

Sometimes it’s what you don’t hear

I already put this link into our Save The Audio series. Good stuff.

1000k and Beyond

Control the terminology, control the message.

I am listening to Sam Cooke right now. It’s stunning. Through $24 computer speakers. You think I’m kidding?  Try it yourself.

It’s a 3000k bitrate file. That’s sure helps.

It’s being played on the ponoplayer and it’s amazing analog circuitry, that helps a lot too.

Those two, combined, are what you need to achieve musical playback bliss.

  1. 1000k and up bitrate files (1000k is roughly CD quality up to 6000k studio masters)
  2. capable playback device (not a phone tablet or computer)

Apple’s iconic iPod ads had the uncontrollable movement part right, just the wrong device playing the wrong files.

Totally Wired

Totally Wired

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.

Recording Quality Rule Of Thumb

Allow me to speak some truth about the recording arts — the overall quality of music production has been going down since before I started. I’ve done nothing to reverse the trend ;-).

This is due to multiple factors not least of which is the march of technology and the reduction of overall recording budgets bootlegging has brought us.

How much would you spend on producing an album that most of your actual fans won’t even purchase?

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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.

 

FUNK @ 24/192: Oh My!

But of course, why did I ever doubt it?

I worry. More than my cool attitude allows.

I worry about incompetence and greed getting in the way of a good time.

I worried that the high resolution thing would pass by my beloved funk music.

I just purchased Slave’s debut record at 24/192 (one of the few of their peers to go all the way)  and OH MY….

You want a better commercial for HD audio? I don’t think there is one. The space, the timing, the bite of the instruments, the interplay, the growl of the bass, the polyrhythms, the horns…..  Very impressive. My new favorite album on HD.

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 11.41.48 AM

24/192 funk – OH YEAH.   Please funk bands (and Rhino) if you are reading this – go back to the tape and put out 24/192 asap. I will buy all that I can.

Because this is the sickest funk around, in my pocket. Very powerful. Best my ears have heard in quite some time.

ResolutionBandwidth_sta

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.]

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.

 

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

Pre-CD Grandeur

Great write up on a classic opera recording finally being released properly in HD/Hi-Res audio:

Rediscovering Maria Callas in High-Resolution Audio

Internet experts continue to argue and debate about hi-res, but music lovers that consider themselves real listeners (not just background music) have heard a nice improvement when going to 24 bit for a long time now.

The Diva

The Diva