PonoMusic Is Bullshit
As I write this, the Kickstarter for the Neil Young backed Pono music player is nearing completion, with the campaign raising close to 6 million dollars, well over their original goal of $800.000.
And that’s too bad. Because the Pono music player is a bunch of bullshit, a rip-off of mammoth proportions that is taking advantage of pretentious “audiophiles” with more dollars than sense, and naive tech geeks who believe everything the Internet tells them. Simply put, there’s nothing about the Pono music player that will make music sound better. That’s because there’s nothing new about the PonoMusic player, and every (old) piece of technology that it employs cannot and will not fix the current problem with audio quality in today’s music.
PonoMusic’s FAQ (which I suggest all fans of fiction check out) seems to focus on one point over and over again; that MP3s are over-compressed garbage that strip away the soul of the music. And while the argument can be made (kind of) that MP3s have been detrimental to audio quality, they’re not the real reason why music sounds worse today. And even if they were, nothing PonoMusic promises would actually fix that problem.
Before I get to the real reason why music sounds bad, let me briefly touch upon what Pono promises to do. Pono will apparently be more than an audio player, it will be an entire music “ecosystem” where music fans can buy audio of varying quality from a special music store. This music will range from standard CD quality to “ultra high resolution” files encoded at 9162 kbps (192 Khz/24 bit).
If you don’t know what any of that technical jargon means, don’t worry, it basically means that the music will be as uncompressed as possible. This is in comparison to other audio formats (including CD) which digitally compress the music to save space. What PonoMusic is basically saying is that, when you listen to music at such a high resolution, that it will no longer sound like “just” a CD or MP3. Instead, it will sound like you’re really there, that it will sound better than anything you’ve ever heard ever. That it will change the way you listen to – oh fuck it I just can’t write that garbage anymore.
Here’s the thing about bitrates, encoding, kilohertz and all that jazz: they all suffer from diminishing returns. If you encode a song twice, once at 32 kbps and then again at 64 kbps, the latter is going to sound almost twice as good. One encoded at 128 kbps will sound even better. But after that the results may vary. Some people can’t even tell the difference between 128 and 256 kbps. I can, but I wouldn’t say that 256 kbps is twice as good. And once you get past that, the differences are even more minute. I encode my MP3s at 320 kbps, but I honestly can’t hear a difference between that and 256 on my headphones – it’s more of a “just in case’ precaution. And I certainly can’t hear the difference between my high-bitrate MP3s and a lossless FLAC that is encoded at 1411 kbps (CD quality). I can’t imagine there would be a quantifiable difference between that and the “ultra high quality” (9216 kbps!!!) that Pono is promising.
And it’s not just me that thinks so. Science backs me up. Study after study (as well as anecdotal evidence galore) pretty much proves that most people just can’t tell the difference between a high-quality MP3 or a CD; or a CD and a better-than-CD format like DVD-A. The human ear just doesn’t have the ability to do so.
Get that? Bitrates and digital encoding aren’t killing music or destroying audio quality. They never have been and never will.
But if you do think that music sounds worse now than it used to – you’re not wrong. In fact, audio fidelity and quality has drastically decreased in recent years. But it has almost nothing to do with digital compression. As I’ve discussed on this blog several times over (and at my MP3 blog Lost Turntable) the biggest enemy against music fidelity are the Loudness Wars.
For whatever reason, record labels, producers and engineers have gotten in their head that “louder is better” when it comes to music these days. So when the time comes to master a record, they squeeze as much noise out of it as possible, making the quiet bits loud and the loud bits intolerable. That destroys the dynamic range (the difference between the quietest and loudest part) of a recording, making everything loud. This often leads to hearing fatigue by the listener, destroys the subtle nuances of the music, and can even lead to audible distortion in some extreme cases.
The people behind PonoMusic know this. More importantly, they know that the kind of people interested in their product know this, so they do address it on their Kickstarter page. And by “address it” I mean “lie about it.”
“with the proliferation of lossy compressed digital formats such as mp3 – where everything became loud and flat and heartless. Yes, mp3s are really convenient, and sometimes, that’s OK. But, if you want to hear all the music, if you want it to be really special, you have to start with all the music.”
That gives the impression that digital compression (NOT the same thing as dynamic range compression) is what’s causing music to be too loud. Furthermore, it also suggests that PonoMusic has the answer with their player/ecosystem, and that their music will not sound as compressed. And that’s a lie. I know that’s a lie because that would require record companies to create a second master of the album explicitly for PonoMusic, one that isn’t as loud as the original master. And since PonoMusic will, at best, be a boutique product for A/V geeks, that’s just not going to happen. So no matter what PonoMusic does, no matter what magic FLAC files they’ll be selling, they’ll still be the same over-compressed, sonically-crushed bullshit that you buy on iTunes or even on a CD.
PonoMusic is sonic snake oil; nothing more, nothing less. The people behind it are being disingenuous about what their product can and will do, and their Kickstarter is straight up lying to you. Don’t support this bullshit, and if you know anyone who is, make sure they know the facts before they throw their money away.
And goddamn how the hell is anyone going to fit a giant cubic triangle in their pocket?