By Jack Sharkey, February 7, 2018
The news that Pono is dead didn’t come as a surprise. The concept of Pono was spot-on but music technology is changing so rapidly that the execution almost immediately fell far behind the state of the art. Founded by rock legend Neil Young (and others) in December 2011, Pono filed for dissolution on December 16, 2017 with an outstanding debt of $2.5 million.
Fans of high-resolution audio (HRA) who were early adopters of Pono’s hi-res player held out high hopes that the company would find a way to compete in an ever-changing and increasingly competitive market, but alas, Pono is no more.
Pono’s Demise Begs the Question: What Is the General Health Of High Resolution Audio
Fear not, fans of music that sounds awesome, high resolution audio is not only here to stay but the argument could be made that the health of HRA is bringing about the well-deserved demise of low-resolution audio. There is a quiet revolution happening as music consumers are awakening from their unfortunate fourteen year mp3-induced low-res slumber as high resolution music becomes increasingly available and affordable.
But in an industry with a somewhat spotty history of introducing gimmicks and over-marketing the capabilities of its products a little transparency is called for (who among you still has the green felt tip pen that was guaranteed to make your CDs sound better, and better still, who among you has ever tried to install an upgraded audio system in your car?).
Yes There Is Such A Thing As HRA And It Does Sound Better
We’re not going to get into the nuts and bolts of the technology in this piece (please see A Comprehensive Guide to Digital Music Formats KEF Blog May, 9 2017) but here’s a quick definition of what exactly high-resolution audio is:
Using CD Audio (CD-DA) as the baseline, high-resolution audio is any audio format with a higher resolution than CD, specifically a sample rate higher than 44.1kHz and a linear bit depth higher than 16 bits. As the technology exists today, this means sample rates of 96kHz or 192kHz and a bit depth of 24.
FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, WAV and DSD are the formats that are capable of storing high-resolution audio.
A Quick And Painless Look At Some Numbers
When it comes to digital audio and streaming, bitrate, or the amount of data transferred per second (XXXbps) is the key. Simply put, the higher the bitrate the more nuance, subtlety and sonic dynamics you will hear. If you listen to a lot of post-grunge metal or garage-rock you might not hear a big difference between bitrates, but with pretty much every other type of music you will.
The bitrate for HRA files is seven times that of CD, so differences may not jump out at you right away, plus the equipment you’re using plays a big role in how much better HRA will sound over CD. But, CD transfers data at a rate twenty-nine times higher than mp3 or most streaming services. At this differential in bitrates mp3's inherent flaws become obvious, even on run-of-the-mill equipment. When you get to the stage in your musical journey where how music sounds magnifies how it makes you feel, imagine what a few tweaks to your listening habits and equipment will produce!
If the Music Business Cared About Sound Quality Their Releases [Would] Sound Great In Every Format
So said a popular Internet tech blog a few years ago. There is absolute truth that many record labels provide masters that vary in quality depending on the intended release format. For example, there has always been instances of master quality manipulation to justify the extra cost of a SACD over a CD, so a certain amount of cynicism from the music buying public is undertstandable but the simple truth is an mp3 from a great master file cannot compete in terms of quality with a 96k/24bit file cut from the same master.
While the need for high-resolution varies from consumer to consumer, the science is clear that the higher the resolution throughout the signal chain (from mastering to your speakers) the more detail, clarity and emotion you will get from your music. While it may seem overly subjective to use the word emotion we’re dealing with an ethereal subject matter (music) and there really is no other way to describe it.
In 2015, NPR Radio published a nifty little audio resolution quiz. I was able to tell the difference between mp3 and higher resolution files every time but I was only able to tell the difference between 192k and 96k half the time the first time I took the test and 75% of the time on my second pass. I used my KEF M500 headphones plugged into the standard audio jack on my PC, using the internal audio drivers. Check it out: How Well Can You Hear Audio Quality?
High Resolution Audio Is A Thing And It’s Worth It*
Now that expensive and limited storage (the main reason for the invention of the mp3 in the first place) has been replaced by amazing leaps in technology and price we can have convenience and high quality: If you want the most you can get out of your music without forfeiting the convenience of streaming or digital storage go right ahead and enjoy.
* You may not need or care about HRA in your own life but take comfort in knowing that as your pursuit of that perfect musical experience evolves there are formats, players and speakers available to you that will give you every subtle nuance and emotion the artists and engineers of your favorite music worked to provide you.