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Rockin’ in the HD world: Explaining Neil Young’s shockingly successful PonoPlayer

If you had told us a year ago that a glorified iPod would be the toast of the tech world in 2014, we’d have to stifle our chuckles of disbelief. As much as we love the fidelity of HD audio, getting the masses to embrace a clunkier form of music in the age of Spotify just wouldn’t have seemed realistic. Yet that’s exactly what Neil Young has done with his $399 Pono Music player, which blew past its ambitious $800,000 Kickstarter fundraising goal, acquiring over $2.5 million in pledges in about 60 hours.

In the days that followed, HD audio has gone from a backwater obscurity among audio gurus to front-page news, inviting both praise and criticism, inciting debate, and generating lot of misinformation about HD audio. Is Neil Young an audiophile messiah or just a shrewd marketer? Is HD audio worth the expense? Can you hear the difference? Throw on some vinyl and grab a glass of Scotch, we’re here to get you up to speed on the audio trend you never expected.

What’s the point of Pono?

Neil Young started with all this Pono stuff almost three years ago, but the topic got a big boost of awareness when he appeared on CBS’ David Letterman Show, where he showed off a prototype of the player and explained what he was trying to do. In a nutshell, Neil Young aims to turn digital music around by getting music lovers and listeners closer to the quality of music as it was created by the artist. He points out that even the CD is a dumbed-down version of the original master recordings, devoid of its dynamics and detail, never mind an MP3, which can have as little as 5 percent of the original information.

How did it get this bad?

In a word: convenience. The ability to load hundreds to even thousands of songs into device you could stick in your tiny jeans pocket was undeniably cool – and practical. People saw digital music as a way of freeing themselves from CDs and all the hassle of storing and caring for them. Digital files also made music portable again – no more bulky Discman, I’ll take this iPod, thanks!

Though storage space is cheaper, and new codecs make for small files, folks are used to the status quo.

Unfortunately, storage space didn’t come cheap back then like it does now. To make digital music files work, they had to be squished down to a fraction of their original size. The MP3 compression scheme was really efficient at doing this job, and it set a precedent that’s been hard for proponents of HD audio to turn around: quantity over quality. Even though storage space is cheap now, and newer codecs allow smaller file sizes without the loss of quality, folks have gotten used to the status quo. Perhaps that’s why the HD audio players and HD music stores that came before Pono have faced an uphill struggle for recognition the past couple years.

How is Pono different?

We’ve seen a lot confusion and flat-out misinformation being batted about in public discussions attempting to answer this question. References to the player’s ability to play back FLAC (free lossless audio codec) files are frequently hailed as a key differentiating factor, but that’s highly misleading. What makes the Pono Project a potential game-changer in audio is actually a combination of several factors: high-quality file types, improved file resolution, music re-mastering, premium electronics, and an interface people can use. Let’s dig into each of those for a better explanation.

Better music files

pono player yellowThe PonoPlayer will actually be able to play any audio file type. Perhaps the reason its ability to play back FLAC files is getting so much attention is because FLAC files are often discussed as being superior to MP3, and it’s therefore an accessible point of discussion. But FLAC playback isn’t exactly a new trick for portable media devices, Android 3.1 devices and better can all play FLAC files, as can the HiFiMan portable player, several iRiver devices (such as the Astell and Kern series), plus a few others you probably haven’t heard of.

Other excellent audio file formats include AIFF, ALAC and WAV, and the Pono will be able to play those, too. But the file type isn’t really what’s important here. It’s the sample rate and bit depth with which these files were created.

Better resolution

To put things in perspective, a CD has a sample rate of 44.1 kHz and a bit depth of 16. The premium, “HD” audio files being sold through online music stores like HDTracks can go as high as 192kHz/24-bit. That’s a significantly higher sampling rate and slightly higher bit depth. But what the hell does that actually mean?

Very generally speaking, higher bit depth = higher levels of detail; 16 bit is better than 8 bit, and 24 bit is better than 16 bit. To understand what differing levels of bit depth do for audio, it helps to look at what bit depth does for a digital image, so we can see the difference. Below is an 8-bit image next to a 4-bit version of the same image. The loss of detail in this illustration is clear because it is down in a range where the loss of information is well within the visual range – the difference between 8 bit and 16 bit still noticeable, but less obvious. This calls into question whether the difference between 16-bit and 24 bit audio is all that important.

Meanwhile, sampling rate is the number of times a sample (a sonic picture, if you will) is taken of an audio signal per second. The more times you sample an audio signal, the more information you end up with. Sampling an audio signal is like shooting a video of a fast-moving object. The higher the frame rate (sampling rate) the more depth and detail you can capture and the smoother the end product is going to be. Say you’re shooting a video of a cheetah running across the savannah. At 24 frames per second, you will still be able to tell it’s a cheetah, but the details are lost in a blur. At 1000 frames per second, though, you might be able to see all of the cheetah’s whiskers, count its spots and notice its tail is slightly kinked toward the end. Again, it’s all about more depth and detail.

Re-mastering music the way artists (not record moguls) want you to hear it

Some are arguing that none of this high-resolution stuff makes a bit of difference if the source is no good to begin with – it’s the old “you can’t polish a turd” argument. If all that was happening with HD audio was a “high quality” adaptation of an existing product, we might tend to agree. That’s not all that’s happening though. Many of the people producing these HD audio files are obtaining re-mastered versions of the original, raw recordings or re-mastering the originals themselves. In re-mastering, they can leave out a lot of the dynamic compression that has fueled what audiophiles like to call “The Loudness Wars.” In music, dynamics usually refers to the wide swings in loudness, from very soft to very loud. Dynamic compression is a process that takes dynamics out of the picture. It makes almost everything you hear the same volume level. Then the entire level of the recording can be pushed way up, creating a very loud record where the strum of a guitar is as loud as the snap of a finger.

Dynamics are a big part of what make a live concert sound like a live performance. By leaving more of the dynamics in place, mastering engineers argue that it gets the listener closer to the performance. And it’s a very convincing argument.

Premium electronics

Here’s a sobering fact: None of the work being done to make digital music sound better means anything unless the hardware used to play it back is also of high quality. That’s the final piece of this Pono puzzle: Inside that Toblerone-shaped bar is a bevy of premium guts.

pono player internal components

The two most critical components to sound reproduction in a portable music player are its DAC (digital to analog converter) and its headphone output stage, which amplifies the signal to drive the tiny speakers inside headphones. The PonoPlayer is meant to have very good-quality versions of both. In fact, the people behind the Pono say its shape is, in part, a result of the need for enough space to put the quality components in, and in the right places. Since the Pono team partnered with premium audio company, Ayre Acoustics, to develop the hardware, we have every reason to believe it will deliver on this front. We’ll know for sure once the PonoPlayer begins to ship.

Pono’s amazing Kickstarter success

Nobody – probably not even Neil Young himself – expected the Pono project to do so well, and so quickly, on Kickstarter. How in the world did a geeky, audiophile-aimed portable media player snag $1 million dollars in pledges in less than 24 hours? And how did it sail right on past that to $2.5 million in just a couple more days?

The PonoPlayer could be the right blend of high quality, portability, affordability and accessibility that enthusiastic listeners have been waiting for.

Marketing likely has a lot to do with it. Neil Young probably didn’t do this on his own (though we’re sure he brought a bunch of Canadians to the campaign), but throw in a bunch of heavyweights like Sting, Marc Ford, Eddie Vedder, Rick Rubin, Jack White and Arcade Fire, all enthusiastically singing your product’s praises, and you’re going to get some traction.

But we think some credit should go to the notion that the PonoPlayer could be the right blend of high quality, portability, affordability and accessibility that enthusiastic listeners have been waiting for. What good is a high-definition audio player if you don’t like using it? And who’s going to blow a mortgage payment-worth of cash on electronics that’ll never leave your house? Maybe the PonoPlayer is just the first audiophile-grade product that really spoke to a broad range of people, and those folks decided to vote with their wallets.

One thing is certain: the Pono project is off to a very strong start, and if word spreads that it is as good as it’s hyped up to be, it could be the game changer proponents of HD Audio have been looking for. Imagine if Pono does for HD Audio what Beats did for headphones; we could be looking at the birth of a whole new era.

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