In Search Of Higher Quality Audio

– “FINALLY! A new audio player that features negligible improvements to sound quality while digging into my junk with a sleek triangular form-factor!” …or… “Is that a pono in your pocket or do we have a date?”

Record producers are always trying to get an edge over competition and will try any trick in the book to improve the perceived quality of their recordings. Witness the mastering limiter, SA-CD, surround sound, exciters, et al. All of those either lost favor, never took hold, or became self-limiting in the case of the loudness wars (wonky engineering pun intended).

Now we stand at a crossroads in regards to the next great leap in sound technology. It could be argued that the last great leap was the development of the MP3 file compression format back in the mid-90’s – which was a step backwards from the trend of increased recording fidelity. Naysayers aside, the leap that came before the MP3 – the almighty CD – was the last great leap forward. Proponents and naysayers alike agreed that the qualitative shift that occurred from records, cassettes, and 8-track (google it) to CD was vast. It was not a technology that was difficult to sell. You did not have to be a sound engineer to notice the difference in quality that CD could bring. To the average music-listening public it was a “no-brainer.”

Although CDs and MP3s are now concurrent, and equally successful technologies, the widespread adoption of MP3 in favor of CD proves that format adoption goes beyond sound quality considerations. This has been the case in other media as well. VHS tapes dominated the video market, even when better quality options came out, such as the ill-fated laserdisc. Although laserdisc offered better image resolution, it was also in an expensive and unwieldy form-factor (think DVD’s the size of vinyl records). It wasn’t until the DVD came out, with it’s leap forward in video quality, that consumers were willing to adopt a new medium. And today you see Blu-Ray struggling for market share probably due to the fact that the average consumer is unwilling to buy new devices to support what is sometimes considered a negligible difference in quality.

In the realm of audio, there is a new audio format called “Pono” which is being pushed by Neil Young and a few others. Basically it’s lossless, compressed, audio formatted in 192khz / 24-bit. On paper, that means it boasts of resolution over 4 times that of conventional audio CDs. In practice, however, the difference is not quite so clear. Audio engineers have been mixing in such high (and sometimes higher) rates for well over a decade, and most have noted the qualitative differences to be minor relative to the increase in file size it produces. Why do they even use such a high rate to begin with? Well, in the case of music CDs, mixing in a higher resolution allows for less error-produced digital noise even if the destination format is 44.1khz / 16-bit. Digital noise? It’s a common myth that digital mixing is immune to signal degradation. Every time you send a digital signal through a digital process (effect module, conversion, etc) there is a certain amount of calculation error which produces a lower resolution result. Any single process you apply to your track may create an inperceptible loss in quality, however, multiplying fx across all of your tracks will eventually produce a perceivable reduction in quality. So, by mixing in a high resolution and bit-depth, if you lose say 5-bits of information your recording will have a relative depth of 27-bit if it’s in 32-bit to begin with. Versus losing 5-bits of information in a 16-bit starting point gives you as result which sounds more like 11-bit. Thus, even after all of that processing, you can be confident that your 32-bit mix will sound solidly 16-bit quality when rendering down, whereas a 16-bit mix rendered to 16-bit will actually sound less than 16-bit quality.

But, why render down anyways? Why not stay in the higher quality format you used during mixing? That’s what Pono is trying to do, but the qualitative difference is hard to discern on ordinary sound systems by ordinary ears. The reason why is because the human brain can compute information at a limited resolution to begin with. There just simply comes a point at which the brain cannot see or hear extra frames, pixels, or audio bits of information that are sifted to a finer and finer level. Pono also has the added disbenefit of being much larger than MP3 files, but reportedly will be smaller than FLAC format. If past is any indication, it then appears that Pono is poised to compete directly with FLAC rather than MP3. Meaning that the average consumer will probably still favor the speed and convenience of acquiring and using MP3s, whereas Pono is more likely to appeal to the small market of audiophiles. Add to that the high likelyhood of DRM-type issues (the record industry just doesn’t seem to learn) which means Pono, and formats like it, have a steep hill to climb indeed.

What’s that? This just in! Wise to the criticisms and not to be outdone by competitors, there is now a redesign of the original Pono Player (now renamed; Pono sounded too suggestive). Standing for “Polyphonic Organized Omni Player” and slated to hit the market in 2013:

– “Polyphonic Organized Omni Player. Pono player part deux”