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.

PonoPlayer is the Stereophile 2015 Digital Product Of The Year

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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.


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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

 

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.


 

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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.


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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).


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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?


 

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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.


 

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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?

Promises Fulfilled

I don’t think I ever posted this – this is from a guy that spends his life testing high-end audio devices – things like $15k Amps and $5k headphones. This ain’t my market as you know.

He ordered a PonoPlayer and by the time it arrived he was so sick of the hype, the politics, and the nerd battles raging online about Neil Young’s latest business venture that he skeptically pressed play.

Read his review to get a real nice impression of the impression this device leaves on people. Even the professionals.

He also has the technical chops and the connections to get into the nitty gritty of what is going on when you press ‘play’ on this odd shaped thing.

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Image from Inner Fidelity

Making Records In The Age of Pono

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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.


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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!

 

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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.

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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!

 

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MP3’s are for hosers!

 

 

PonoPlayer Doing Well At Amazon

During my recent shopping experience I’ve found Amazon reviews to be pretty accurate once enough people use that product and report back.

The Pono Player has been for sale up there for a while and people of all types have been posting reviews. Check it out.

4.2 out of 5. Over 80% very satisfied. Not bad!

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Read it and understand in many other’s words what I’ve been telling you about.  This little thing is a game changer.

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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Breathophile

I love air. I really enjoy breathing, and I do it everyday.

It’s what drives me and is perhaps the most important thing in my life.

I don’t want it constricted or contain some odor of unfamiliarity.

Chiang Mai Open Sewer

I won’t accept known poison unless, of course, I like the way it feels.

This is why it’s important to keep it clean. This is why I am a breathophile.

You can accept poor smelly air or you can move to somewhere better.

800px-Relaxing


I love music. I really enjoy making it, and I play it every day.

It’s what drives me and is perhaps the most important thing in my life.

I don’t want it constricted or contain some odor of unfamiliarity.

450px-Fredric_Effects_Harmonic_Percolator_-_front

I won’t accept known poison unless, of course, I like the way it feels.

This is why it’s important to keep it clean. This is why I am a audiophile music lover.

You can accept poor quality mp3’s on phones or you can move to somewhere better.

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Rip 2.0

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Hello old friends, it’s been awhile

Rip your CD’s again.  Do it right this time.

Most of us went through ripping phases where we created gigs of MP3 files and either traded back in our CD’s or hid them in the basement. We’ve been walking around living with MP3 for over a decade now, either from our files or streaming from the network.

When we ripped our CD’s, we wanted the music from the CD in a small file. The file had to be small because our hard drives were small. A CD holds 0.7 GB, so if you wanted to rip 50 CD’s without compression you needed 35GB of space for them.

If you wanted to rip 300 CD’s like me and you didn’t have 200 GB of space for music – and no iPod/iPhone could hold that much anyway – you made them MP3’s.  Nearly all of us did it. And we could appreciate our music, understand it, sing to it, dance to it, enjoy it in MP3 format. It was the iPod decade.

But this is the thing — that MP3 is actually just a photocopy of the real thing, and the second you go back to using the original CD quality file (16/44) you really hear it.

If you have a real good player, such as the PonoPlayer or Fiio, you can really hear an advantage at 16/44.

So I’ve begin the process of ripping my favorite CD’s again, this time as 16/44 FLACs, loading them onto my DAP, and am finding myself enjoying these CD’s more than ever before.

Then there comes the moment that has come to define this process: I have the FLAC’s next to the MP3’s and I can delete the MP3’s forever, just a bad memory of years past. Like a faded photo of someone you didn’t like much anyway. See ya! Got a better version now!

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BTW – this image of the spaghetti — that’s the various parts of the brain used to process sound and vibration.

That’s why when you feed it degraded quality it knows, and it affects your psyche in ways they have yet to trap for.

 

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.

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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.

Youtube’s Version of HD Audio – My Realtime Review

Oh damn, the internet generation strikes back against pono!

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I just fired up my old iPhone 4, hit youtube, searched for flac, found ihearttflac and flacsgreatesthits, and was forced to admit after a day of reflection and jamming on my beloved PonoPlayer that I needed to be real about Pono’s chance for success.

This youtube FLAC stuff, whatever it is, sounds pretty good. I didn’t know the Apple/Youtube/mainstream ecosystem could deliver good audio over my average home setup, but I hit it with my PS4 over speakers and then iPhone in headphones and they both are showing a marked improvement over mp-anything. It’s real music, alive again, and it got me moving and emotional like no other youtube video or mp3 has. CD’s sometimes can, but not really. Only vinyl and pono, so far.

Hear My Pixels

Early 21st century art

If this Youtube FLAC is actually CD quality or below perhaps my excitement that is was working at all enhanced my experience. [Edit: a few days later and I still am not sure what Youtube was delivering me. I am still researching this]

So then I went looking for my precious, the PonoPlayer that the tech press is fawning over right now (gee, little old me managed to jump a trend for once!). Except she had a dead battery and this battle of “cool thing” -vs- “thing already in everyone’s pocket” was looking grim for the yellow triangle of pleasure.

Which was actually a good pause because it gave me a few minutes to collect my thoughts on what I had just heard:

The cloud is capable of delivering higher-quality audio over the existing mp3 infrastructure, something I was unsure of. All of my speakers are wired and not noise canceling, I don’t mess with junk on my audio. So I’m focusing on the delivery from network to device, if you go wireless on the speakers that’s another set of problems.

 


 

As I listened to several songs, a couple of jams, some numbers, and a prelude I started to hear a buzz and a bit of flatness overall in the dynamic range, especially on the iPhone. I admit I turned it up and the music hit me pretty hard, dulled by years of suffering in this low-def world. But it wasn’t perfect, I felt some restriction and narrowness, some loss of a clear L/R/Center, and more fatigue than expected. I’m going to read up on what I was actually hearing after filing this true review.

Not sure if youtube cuts it to 16/44 or something lossy, not sure what’s going on but I appreciated the music and heard no obvious digital tells. Yet I felt I needed to turn it down by the end of the song. Most importantly I heard the music, felt the music, but was also aware that I was blasting music and fatiguing my ears a bit.

So the PonoPlayer charged and although I don’t have the same material as is streamed from above sources, I can’t wait to hear the PonoPlayer after the youtube challenge….

 


 

 

Bam! Knockout, Tyson style. This PonoPlayer sounds bad-ass, and you deserve to have one. Earn some tips, give up chocolate for a month, whatever, you should own one of these players if you need music to be you.

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The soundstage is HUGE. Crystal clear. Not just the entire drum set, the tuning and pan and wood of each drum. Amazing. Crash cymbals just decay perfectly, trust me I use them often. Bass is low and round and totally natural. To apply extra “boom” on bass is not the job of the player, you have various other ways to enhance the low end. Chances are the mix is perfect.

Tears again, damn this thing is really hitting me.

It really loves full volume, 70-100% really shines. And I’m just running straight through the single minijack output, unbalanced iPod/phone style. Every voice, every instrument just sits perfectly, nothing masks unless the player (or mixer) wanted it to.

Not a hint of digital tells, OK maybe still some hi-hat smashers like Chad Smith can make you think you hear digital, but it’s so rare and hard to track (at least at 24/96). Yeah no doubt, the PonoPlayer is still the best digital I have ever heard, anywhere.  Plus I have yet to hear it in balanced mode, which everyone swears is a major improvement.

 


 

So what to do about it?

  1. First, hear one for yourself and if you don’t hear it by the second song, sorry about your luck.
  2. Second, remember iHeartFLAC and it’s type on youtube and the fact that the “new school” method of streaming from the internet CAN provide a real upgrade from not only MP3, but the few I played surpassed most CD quality I’ve heard in nearly 30 years. So please let’s try to push that standard up, and if they can stream FLAC on spotify while still paying the artists, I guess I’m for it.

It’s not one or the other to me as long as everyone gets an audio upgrade. The MP3 trickery is real and subtle, but it’s robbing you of the full experience no matter how much they hype it. It was built for dial-up modems and we are so past that. This streaming FLAC thing is a bit of a game changer for me.

But does it sound better than a PonoPlayer? Oh hell no. PonoPlayer is the real deal, Holyfield and Tyson playing both the standard 16/44 files you already own (and are still the most common HD format, sadly) and true HD files. When you make that jump to 24/44, then up the sample rates to 96 or 192k, oh yeah, it gets intense.

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To those rare ones that scream(type) “yeah but when will it stop, 32bit, 64bit, 128bit?” I say chill. 24bit word length is plenty to blow you out the water.  There are limits to our natural hearing and emotional abilities. 16 million readings might be all the resolution our bodies have. My science fans should let me know on that.

MP3 built a horrible McMansion on a toxic 16/44 swamp pretending to be true audio and the whole investment is sinking slowly into oblivion. FLAC seems to be the first digital format for real music, and I suggest you get it while you still can.

The modern file formats.

The modern file formats.

 

 

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?

 

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 😉

Praise The Wire


In our rush to modernize and upgrade the conveniences in life we can forgo quality for convenience. Often times the better way gets out-marketed and replaced by the new way, and life goes on.

Wireless digital was the new thing in the 1990’s. In the oughts it was deployed everywhere -from offices to battlefields and mountain summits. By now we simply expect most things to be wireless, because wireless is how we do it now.

But when it comes to the world of pro audio, the wire has not been replaced, at least not yet. A wire is called interconnect and it’s going strong.

Continue reading

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.

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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

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

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


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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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Buying Musical Product – What Do You Want?

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So the CD is dead, the mp3 is going nowhere fast, everyone seems to stream or listen to their mp3 libraries, the HD Digital files are just starting to gain traction, and analog records keeps chugging along towards their 100th birthday.

What’s a music lover to do with their money these days? Many that I know go to shows whenever possible, buy vinyl, both new for around $25/LP and used around $2/LP. Many pay Apple, Google, Spotify or whoever to buy or stream an mp3 version. One strange dude I know still goes to BestBuy to buy new CD’s. Indie shops and truck stops still have random cassettes.

I’m getting a first generation Pono Player any day now, so I’ll be soon buying some HD digital albums to expand on the 5-10 I own now. I’ll also be re-ripping some of my favorite CD’s as 16/44 WAV’s to load onto the Pono Player – it’s high-end amp and DAC should make them fresh and new after years of mp3’ing my ears to death.

Figuring out what to buy from the world of music (and sadly, the fraction of it that is available in HD digital) will be tough but I’m all about getting as close to the “album” model of listening – put it on and let it play, in order, with no random access cueing, for 12-20 minutes, with an endless side. Then flip the side and play the rest.

Then’s there’s the issue of storage…. do we want nearly permanent discs of plastic, to be read by either vibrating stylus or laser light, for our precious music? Do we want to own nothing and just rent everything? Somewhere between those two extremes lies the answer.

More to come on this topic soon…

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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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.

 

Hi There I’m Walkman 2014

Neil Young’s preaching has been working — Sony recently announced their latest WalkMan, the 35th Anniversary model, and it’s pretty bad-ass. Save the Audio!

NW_Z__ZX1_01-1200

 

That little slab of gadget-lust has got hi-fi audio specs (DAC, amp, wiring, shielding), excellent build quality, and it plays high resolution digital!

This is the proof that there is a market for true music playback systems again. If Sony’s 35th anniversary walkman plays HD audio it immediately differentiates it from the “low-fi” phone and iPod world we’ve been in for the last 10 years.

Some general information, in case you are interested in purchasing one:

  • available in Japan and Europe late 2014, street price expected around $700 US
  • plays up to 24 bit, 192k FLAC and other formats
  • 64gb on-board memory, not expandable
  • runs the full android OS with app installation allowed, including outside music stores
  • wifi and bluetooth expected for non-audio features. not clear if it can send audio over bluetooth

 

Compared to the Pono player, I think we will have some choices in this emerging market:

  • available in the US late 2014, street price expected to be $400 US
  • plays up to 24 bit, 192k FLAC and other formats
  • 64gb on-board memory + card slot for swapping 64gb cards (128gb cards coming soon)
  • runs a proprietary OS with audio only features. no apps or internet connectivity
  • no wifi or bluetooth. Neil says you can’t take away the wires if you can’t replace what originally went through them 😉

 

There’s two other DAP’s I found on the market in the US, one from a company called Fiio and one from an upscale stereo maker whse name is slipping my mind. But the Fiio one was around the $400 price point and looked to be an impressive device. The other one is high-end all the way, with the player over $1k and even the cables were $100+, so no thanks on that.

 

 

 

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.

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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.


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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.

 

 

Wow Righteous Indeed

Excellent talk from Neil Young at South By Southwest about his new product – the Pono Music Player. He breaks it all down in simple terms, better than any amount of text I can type:

Listen: Neil Young Explains Pono

I just bought one over at kickstarter. I have been waiting for “iPod II – Pro” for 10 years now. This thing is going to sound amazing. High-end audio in your bag, on your desk, wherever. They are busting out their kickstarter goal!

“Rescuing an art form is not something of interest to many in the investment community.” – Neil Young, on Pono’s early funding

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It will play your current mp3’s and most other formats much nicer than your phone, but it will also play the high rez files all the way up (most iDevices top out at 24/48, androids less than that) as high as you want to purchase through their HD store, or through existing stores like HDtracks.com, or your own files ripped that high.

More importantly than all of that, it is attempting to restore some sanity to the digital audio world. Audio, and audio alone, has been going down in resolution for the last few decades. Every other digital media tech we have – cameras, video, television, film, displays – has increased resolution every decade or so. But audio has been dropped, disrespected, misunderstood, confusing familiarity with quality.

“There was really something wrong. What it was was – we were selling shit. People were still buying it because they liked music, but they were buying wallpaper, background sounds, xerox’ of the Mona Lisa. They were buying musical history, supposedly preserved for everyone to hear, now preserved as a tiny little piece of crap with less than 5% of the data of the highest resolution in digital recording today” – Neil Young, on the recent music industry woes

BTW — Ignore the people online spouting ‘science’ about how no one can hear beyond 16/44. Every music producer and most musicians I know can hear a difference (even old ones ;-)). Audiophiles can hear a difference. Classical and jazz heads can hear it easily. Anyone who listens to any music created before 1988 would hear a difference. Beyond the usual internet ignoramuses, some have dead ears and/or business interests in the “good enough” digital music world. There’s some real science behind these lossy formats but it’s all kinds of flawed. Thankfully facts are catching up.

“5% became the standard of the world” – Neil Young, on the mp3 generation

Listen to the experts – the people who make, mix, and remix legendary music. Every one of them works at higher than 16/44 these days, and they can all hear why. It’s obvious.

“MP3’s are very convenient. So what we decided to do was to come out with a new system that was not a format, had no rules, respected the art, respected what the artist was trying to do, and did everything that it could to give you what the artist gave, so that you get to feel not just what the artist intended you to feel, but what the artist did. And that is what Pono is. Pono plays back whatever the artist wants you to hear. The artist makes the decision.” – Neil Young

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.

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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

 

I Support Pono

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Neil getting full balanced goodness into his ears

I love this idea.

Neil Young finally got his wish to attempt to restore audio fidelity to our lives. They are calling the thing Pono and most of the press reports on it present it as a battle with Apple’s iTunes world (which is currently living on the 256k mp4 format).

But most modern ears miss the real battle Young is waging – Continue reading