24 Bit Goodness

I’ve been picking up 1 24bit release a month to enjoy on the PonoPlayer, and while they have been slow to be released (my theory on why is below), I do really enjoy the ones I have.

My current 24bit collection includes:

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

 

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

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

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

Along comes Pono pushing for selling the full masters with no copy protection. Some labels will drip some stuff out but I doubt they will open the vaults as 24bit FLAC because that is the vault that they can fashion new profitable file formats from, unlike FLAC, which is open with no DRM.

That’s why I think the labels, along with Apple, will get behind the new encoding MQA and push it as the next audio format. It uses MP3-like concepts in the encoding layer to allegedly deliver HD-quality at regular bitrates, and more importantly, it needs a new DAC, making it not backwards compatible, and has extensive DRM built in.

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

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.

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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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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 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.

 

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.

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…