Quality Hiding In Plain Site

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Derp.


 

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


 

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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?

The Sad State of Consumer Audio

There is a lot of technology available today, some at very affordable prices. Choice appears abundant but it’s a false narrative.

Why is choice a false narrative? Because most of the choices are already compromised and the actual quality of the product is clouded with confusion.

Continue reading

PonoPlayer Review Is Posted

I have a few revisions to make but I thought I’d get this thing posted so I can start sharing out the link next week. Enjoy my long-form run through what a PonoPlayer is, and why you might want one:

http://wfnk.com/blog/ponoplayer-review/


Just a symbol or a way to hear cymbals again?

Just a symbol of hype or the return of hearing cymbals?

 

Walkman IV – The Return of Fidelity

[deep ominous movie trailer chord]

Walkman 1 (1980) – by Sony – stereo cassette – 2 headphone jacks – powered by 2 AA batteries for runtime of 20 hours.

sony_walkman

Finally private jams!

Walkman II (1984) – Discman by Sony – compact disc – 1 headphone jack – powered by 2 AA batteries for runtime of 30 hours.

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Finally digital private jams!

Walkman III (2001) – iPod by Apple – digital file player w/max resolution of 16/44 – 1 headphone jack – powered by rechargeable internal lithium polymer battery for runtime of 10 hrs per charge

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Finally bootlegged private jams with no skipping!

Walkman IV (2014) – Pono Player – digital file player w/max resolution of 24/192 – 2 headphone jacks with 4 output configs – powered by rechargeable battery for runtime of ? hrs per charge

pono_ponoplayer

Finally master-quality in my ears like the artist intended!

You know I’ll have a review as soon as I get mine.


walkman

My HD Digital Audio Life Begins Soon

My new sexy little digital audio player (aka DAP) is arriving at the end of this month. I was an early supporter of PonoMusic and their PonoPlayer on kickstarter, so not only will I have one of the first Pono’s out in the wild, but I was extended a pretty awesome benefit as an early investor – free file quality upgrades for life!Three_Ponos_02_773

That means any purchases I make from the Ponomusic store are guaranteed to be the highest native resolution available. If this is not the case (say the artist puts out a new version at higher native resolution, or licensing changes and Pono gets access to a better version) Pono Inc. will offer me the choice of a free upgrade if I want the bigger files.

This is VERY cool, and a big part of why I signed up. Sadly I don’t believe this feature is going to be available for all customers, at least not at the base price. They should offer it – the “lifetime” digital version. If 32bit/384k audio is all the rage in 2030 it would be great to not have to purchase half my collection again.

They are also claiming they will launch their store with over 2 million HD songs from the 3 major record labels so we will see. Initially PonoMusic and HDTracks will be the go-to places for HD audio, but I think Apple, Sony, etc. will be moving into HD Audio in the next year.

Here’s a pretty and concise (if not totally accurate*) chart showing you the amount of audio data that the formats move:

Pono_Chart_Revised

Note that the blue box above is soon to become the standard for streaming, which is the low-end of the market. If you are storing the media you expect the highest quality possible

[*My issue with the chart is how it ignores bit depth change for sample rate promotion. If you understand what the “24-bit” part of that signal means, the jump from the blue box to the light yellow box, shown as a small jump on this chart, is actually much larger of an improvement to our ears because so much of it deals with timbre, spatial, room sound, overtones, decays – aka the hard to quantify but easy to recognize side of music and recording. The chart shows raw data bandwidth but nothing about sound accuracy and quality.  That said, it is titled “Music quality spectrum” which is misleading and probably applied by marketing people. But I also haven’t heard Pono yet, so maybe it is 5x better than CD!]

I am also developing a strategy for how to buy digital music again, and what exactly to seek in HD. My current idea is to buy 1 album/month, and to alternate between new (to me) and re-buying existing stuff that I only have at low-res mp3 or damaged vinyl. If I own it on CD I’ll probably just rip 16/44 WAVs again, since the jump in quality from 16/44 to 24/96 is not worth $20 to me.

imagesFor storage I plan on having several 64gb cards to swap in and out of the Pono, but how many albums per card, and how to organize those cards is still up in the air. It’s a new world!

The Pono Player is a new type of consumer device (at least in audio) – a portable digital device that performs at a very high level but focuses solely on it’s core task and does not include many other features. The Pono Player plays portable digital music at a very high quality level. It does not stream, in or out. It doesn’t have any cell, wifi, or bluetooth radios on board. It does not play games. It does not run a smartphone OS or multitask. It doesn’t even have an inline music store on the device.

It just plays music at the highest quality available for a <$500 device, from crappy mp3’s, to ripped CD’s, to super high def 24/192 flac files. It has headphone and line-out. It syncs through a cable to your computer for side-loading of tracks like the first iPods. In fact it reminds me alot of the early iPods except with vastly greater sound quality, which is why I refer to it as “iPod Pro”.

Once it’s in my hands I’ll post some pics and my version of a review, but I can’t wait to hit people with the sound of this thing, either in their headphones or over speakers. The power of music is strongest when the music is the purest and most accurate it can be, and hearing such things in the last 10 years has required that you know a music snob with lots of money invested in their system. Pono brings the pure audio to the portable masses, and I can’t wait!

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Watch The Script & Watch the Apple Watch Become A Hit

The Apple Watch 1 follows the script perfectly for Apple’s version 1 products. If you look at their bottom line over the last 15 years, it’s a great script to follow.


First iPod — They said it couldn’t hold quite enough songs, couldn’t do enough other things than play music, and you needed a new mac with firewire to sync it. It was nearly useless on it’s own. People accused it of being a toy for rich kids, and without more features or capacity it would not compete against the existing MP3 players. Besides, Apple knows nothing about music so of course Sony will crush them.

So easy your grandma could use it.

Yet many overlooked it’s actual differentiating feature – the scroll-wheel interface. This is hardware and software working together seamlessly, something Apple focuses on. This simple round scroll wheel interface (an ancient interface brought to the digital age) meant anyone could manipulate the hardware, regardless of hand size, finger strength, or steadiness. It worked at all angles and fit perfectly into your hand regardless of what you were doing. A single thumb could do most of the operation.

The software end of the early iPod was a simple drill up, drill down mechanism that slid left and right. I’d say 90% of users figured out the whole operation in 2 minutes or less. That’s huge for a new product. Easy hardware. Easy software.

The advertising message — dancing to headphone music like a walkman, except this time, digital with a higher capacity (and white plastic instead of black!). Simple: “All people like music. All people like to dance (at least in private). This little object is the best, fastest, most obvious way to play music.”

Anyone argue that iPod wasn’t a mega successful product line?


First iPhone — couldn’t touch-type, couldn’t add any more apps, and you needed a decent mac to sync it. People accused it of being a toy for the rich. Without more features it could not compete against the Nokia’s and Blackberry’s of the world. Plus Apple knows nothing about mobile so AT&T or Sprint will crush them. Sound familiar?

Huh? Where’s the keyboard?

Yet many (less this time) overlooked the key differentiating feature: the touch interface running an actual touch OS. Touch and gestures – another ancient interface brought to the digital age.

The hardware: a dramatic black/silver slab with a chrome ring and what appeared to be a single button. It looked nothing like a phone. It was a “huh?” moment for most of us. Then the finger starts driving that huge bright screen, we notice there are a few extra buttons for pocket needs, and OMG I want one starts. Instantly all competition looks dated. Nearly everyone copied and today, 7 years later, probably half the phones on earth look like that first iphone.

The software was a shrunken OSX designed for touch input only. Companies like Microsoft had been demoing tablets and touch interfaces for a decade but hadn’t bothered to actually design a touch OS. The UI is dependent on the input mechanism so Apple did the work, in top secret, to develop an actual touch OS that worked on small screens. It had the stability of unix with the home button being the best Escape key ever made. You just always went home first, and the icons were always in the same place. Easy software to go with the Easy hardware.

So easy your grandma waited in line to buy one.


>Now there’s The Watch.
[Small-eyes have been left behind after a good run of what, 18 years of things starting with “i”?  #iWillMissU.]
 

Nice watch.

iSee nice watch.

 
The first watch – just an iPhone touch on your wrist, plus you need a new iPhone just to use it. Just a toy for the rich. The hardware – it looks like a watch, we were expecting that. No big surprise it’s a very generic looking watch with what appears to be 1 button and a winder knob for authenticity. It does have the most important new iOS chip – NFC payment chip. All the new weird health sensors and charging stuff is on the bottom, hidden while wearing. Easy to dismiss, but even easier to accept. Easy.
 

3 Apple UI's on 1 Device - Touch gestures, scroll-click, and single home with apps.

3 Apple UI’s on 1 Device – Touch gestures, scroll-click, and single home button/screen

 
The software is a lighter version of iOS, and actually relies on a full iOS nearby for some functions. I suppose this is very much in development over the next 6 months.

But that UI uncovers hardware features that aren’t obvious at first glance – besides the expected touch screen, the wind knob is actually the iPod scroll wheel and the iPhone home button in one! Win+Win could be sweet. That obvious button below it goes right to the contacts/social app – that’s new, but I get it. Why wake up, go home, and then select contacts each time? This is your communicator! There’s not even a dock/shelf to put favorites on the watch. [I bet they eventually let that button hook to other apps ].

 

Your away party.

Your away party.

The other feature hidden from the naked eye is the haptic IO – input and feedback. “Haptic” is when the machine physically shakes or moves to contact us, and we can shake or poke the machine to contact it. The watch screen knows how hard you are pushing it so it can do another layer of functions per touch. Then, like game controllers, the watch can do all sorts of fancy vibrates including left/right, heartbeats, and even relay tapped messages from another watch.

Haptic screen. Haptic vibrations. Sensor array on your wrist.

Haptic screen. Haptic vibrations. Sensor array on your wrist.

Overall, the input and UI for the watch is a new model. It combines 3 of Apple’s UI stalwarts into a single device: the touch screen gestures, the scroll wheel interface, and the single home button model.
Assuming it works nearly as good as the first iPods and iPhones, it should find similar success. By version 3 you won’t need an iphone or constant charging, and the competition will probably have adopted versions of the scroll-wind interface and haptic features. Welcome to the future, space cadets!

iWatch Your Health

Finally, mainstream consumer technology has noticed the health of the consumer. Instead of computers just making us fatter, lazier, and more spoiled than ever before, there’s some pushback in the form of wearable health tech, and it looks like Apple might be the driving force here.

Last week they announced their HealthKit API to developers, which is a nerdy way of saying “Here, build things”. Healthkit is a set of frameworks to track, share, and communicate calorie consumption, sleep activity, blood glucose, blood oxygen levels, and other health metrics.

Any mobile iOS device (not AppleTV) will be able to act as your sensor array and primary tracking system. Macs will probably be able to track but not monitor, as they do not have the same mobile sensors as iOS devices. This is not revolutionary but evolutionary, as the iPod has been helping people track their jogging performance for almost a decade now, and of course GPS is used for tracking your travel by bike or foot. The health section on Apple’s App Store has been buzzing.

iwatch-concept-nike

It gets really interesting when you factor in a possible new mobile iOS device – the iWatch. If you shrink down the key elements to the iPhone5 and put them behind a curved glass wristband, well then you might have something.

I think it’s technically possible beause most of the battery life in an iOS device is used to power the display. The smaller display requires a smaller battery. The removal of all ports except a lightning connector also saves a ton of space. Apple has spent their billions the last few years working on both curved glass and custom battery shaping tech. If the whole band is battery there’s plenty of space. Have you seen the size of some current watches? Plenty of volume if you can work in that rounded shape.

If Apple gets a touchscreen iOS watchband to market I think they could have a winning product. It’s all about the feature set – what it can and more importantly can’t do. Do you need your “cloud” in your watch? Do you need the full internet? Do you need wifi, 3G, etc?

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Perhaps Apple will say no. Your watch should tell the time and help monitor your body metrics, at least version 1. Maybe if it’s within bluetooth range of a trusted device it can sync or use internet, I don’t know. Perhaps they cram those radios into it, we will just have to wait and see. I know Apple has been combining and reducing the size of their various mobile radios.

I also know my life could use a simple sleep tracker, calorie counter, exercise tracker, and electronic medical record holder that also knew my schedule, my contacts, and my habits. These apps exist as stand-alone concepts, but each one has to be configured to your liking and then your data is not shared with any other systems.

The Healthkit API could finally force the sharing of this data, both for personal goal encouragement and for medical professionals tasked with providing you care.

(BTW – This weekend I saw a Samsung ad saying ‘the future is here now’ with their smart-watch prominently displayed. Apple could counter with an ad that shows their smart-watch doing various things with the tagline ‘our future works’ ;-))

 

Righteous Audio – Finally!

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I love knowing I’m not alone in my rants. I have been complaining about digital audio compromises since the 80’s, and now, finally, a product is coming for people like me. It’s called “Pono” (Hawaiian for ‘righteous’) and its basically the iPod redone with no audio compromises. Just like the classic iPods, it will cost under $500 and play all your various media types, but everything played through it should SOUND TRULY BETTER.


 

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The difference is the sound. The whole difference. How could people discount the sound quality as non-critical? MP3’s are “good enough” for much use, like streaming, but if you want to hear music the way it was intended when created, you have to go beyond the CD standard and go higher with high-def audio files. Pono does this, and then uses hi-end electronics and amplification to round out the package.

The Pono player looks like perhaps the last portable digital music player I’ll ever need to buy. It has 64gb built-in, with 64gb cards to swap in and out more music library. A 64gb card can hold hundreds of hi-def tracks depending on how hi you def. The Pono has hi-end audio circuitry designed for audio only. It has 2 outputs for either headphones or powering a real system with low-noise line level (as opposed to running out your headphone jack like many of us do with our portables now).

Anyone complaining or shooting down this concept (and they are out there) must have some sort of problem with either Quality, or Their Ears.


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Why would people push back against a higher-quality version of something, a version that the original artists approve of? Ignorance or previous investment, I would think. All these jokers own HD TV’s too, too stupid to miss the obvious in front of their eyes. Higher quality digital sound than was possible in 1977? Yeah right!

Listen, don’t buy the Pono if you don’t want one, but I personally purchased my last mp3 file last year. The quality is horrible (and no liner notes!) to have to own that thing forever. I’ve been slowly buying or re-buying the classics in HD digital or vinyl.

If Pono succeeds in making the general public aware of what they’ve been missing for 30+ years – what every pro musician anywhere knows – that there was a lot of good stuff removed from music in the 1980’s, and that we can now bring that back along with the digital conveniences – well that’s something I fully support. I’m buying one of these little tablerone’s of musical goodness.


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Coupla random opinions on the matter:

24/48 tracks should not cost more to purchase than 16/44 – the so-called “lossless” CD standard. Sorry marketing titles, it’s already lost much. CD’s & 16/44 should be discounted because it’s 37 year old digital tech.

24/48 is as low as you can go for “HD” marketing label. 16/44 was a compromise in 1977 and of course it still is. 24/48 is what most producers work at these days, and is the audio-for-video standard.

24/96 is the comfortable place for a modern digital audio standard, at least in popular music. Studios rarely record, mix, or master the originals at higher than that, and at 24/96 there is enough data to really get close to the total experience. You’d have to have an great listening environment, amazing music, and really good ears to get into hearing the improvement at 24/192. Classical fans with money to spend, maybe. Or cymbal tests in isolation. Both will show an improvement going up to 192.

These numbers 24/48, 16/44 are used alot, but keep in mind that they include all your dynamic range (loud to quiet), all your panning and depth (soundstage), all of your overtones and timbre (still impossible to quantify), all of your reverberations (tons of math!) along with the raw frequency response. There’s a lot of data in audio, and the computer chips of 1977 could only do so much. Going to 24/96 gives all needed variables more storage room, and you can feel it in the music.


 

Totally Wired

Totally Wired

Save The Music One Hertz At A Time

OK I have been listening to mp3’s for about 15 years now, and I have to say I’m ready for the next digital format. I want 96k minimum range (192k preferred) so it almost sounds as good as my albums. I want 24 bit so it makes my modern multi-speaker systems work at all volumes. I can cheaply have enough storage to handle it. I want my music’s emotion back!

WOODSIDE, CA - DECEMBER 15: CEO of Apple Steve Jobs sits at his home in Woodside, CA on December 15, 1982. IMAGE PREVIOUSLY A TIME & LIFE IMAGE. (Photo by Diana Walker/SJ/Contour by Getty Images)

WOODSIDE, CA – DECEMBER 15: CEO of Apple Steve Jobs sits at his home in Woodside, CA on December 15, 1982. IMAGE PREVIOUSLY A TIME & LIFE IMAGE. (Photo by Diana Walker/SJ/Contour by Getty Images)

I primarily listen to funk, rock, hip-hop, soul, and only a bit of classical, and I miss the full range of Bootsy’s bass, Eddie’s guitar, and Al’s voice. Friends who listen to opera, voice and classical probably avoid MP3 already, but the real culprit is the concept of “CD-quality”. This equals 16/44, and this is simply not sufficient in 2012. It was not even sufficient in 1973 when everything was analog. Only the convenience and laserness of CD’s convinced us that this was about as good as we were going to get. Real technical limitations of 1982 CPU technologies made it the best we could get cheaply.

This was 1982 people. The mp3 format is built on top of the CD format, and audibly it’s a disaster. We have nearly regressed back to the dynamic range of a 1920’s turntable. All those compressors (yeah you dubstep) just make it worse. Remember when the meters really moved?

If you could measure music’s emotional content in a data unit it would be clarity through it’s full range. The days of compressions built on top of dead formats should end.

michell_gyrodec_mki_courtesy-Michell-Engineering

I support any movement to improve the sounds entering our ears. All we want to hear is the same thing in the Steve Jobs photo above.

#SaveTheAudio

 

Music Halo

This guy nails it. He nailed it 11 years ago and he nails it now. It’s the power of and passion for music that continues to drive our finest human accomplishments. Apple showed that sticking to your passions and delivering your best possible product can eventually pay off.

capsulethins-nano-4g-clrPeople who dislike Apple’s style or politics have been loving those stock prices the last 10 years. Apple now pulls in more revenue from iPhone alone than the total of Bill Gates’ sad remains of a powerhouse’s entire product line. The tables have definitely turned from the 80’s & 90’s in several markets. Apple’s support of progressive employment and corporate policies, while turning such a healthy profit, is finally justifying their stance. Bottom-line really is the only justification in the corporate world.

So whether Apple maintains this lead or gets passed by the knock-off and bootlegs (again), their story this last decade has been an amazing ride. That first iPod syncing to iTunes then going out in the world, white click-wheeling away with just our songs at first, then our calendar, then notes, then games, then phone calls and and and….. it’s been a wild ride. I was at a meeting of non-tech people today and over 50% of the devices in the room were Apples. Crazy success story this iOS.