We recently covered an article that appeared in The New York Post written by James Covert, which was a surprisingly reasoned and well researched piece detailing why the Pono music store is largely a cynical exercise. At the end we also mentioned a similar article in Gizmodo, which we did not cover in detail. That article, written by Mario Aquilar, is much more openly hostile to the entire concept of high-res audio, and after reading it, I expected to see some pushback from the traditional “audiophile” press given Gizmodo’s reach. Sure enough, Michael Lavorgna of Audiostream was quick to respond.

I actually don’t think Lavorgna is entirely wrong, but I think he misses the larger issue with the Pono store and the way Young and Pono are choosing to sell high-res to the general public, which ultimately was the goal of the Pono store from the very beginning. In its earliest stages, before the Neil Young dog and pony show, Pono may have been an effort to try to close the barn door on music piracy by reintroducing a DRM scheme decades after the horse was long gone. But the severely negative reaction to that idea led to Pono selling the exact same FLAC files that HDTracks does.

Lavorgna begins by quoting part of the Gizmodo article which I’ll reprint here:

“The CD-quality standard—which Young and HRA proponents say isn’t sufficient—wasn’t adopted randomly. It’s not a number plucked out of thin air. It’s based on sampling theory and the actual limits of human hearing. To the human ear, audio sampled above 44.1 kHz/16-bit is inaudibly different.“

While it’s true that the 16-bit, 44.1kHz format covers enough dynamic range to handle just about every commercial recording known to exist, and the generally accepted human hearing range, it’s also true that Sony and Philips were being pragmatic when they settled on those figures. A 24-bit sample rate just simply was not a reality in those days, nor was the available optical storage capable of supporting it, and the 44.1kHz format, as opposed to say, 48kHz, made it much easier to utilize the video tapes that served as the basis for the earliest CD authoring. Sony and Philips definitely did not pick those two numbers out of thin air, but they also did not choose them purely because they were “all that anyone would ever need.”

Lavorgna then counters with this:

“Does Mario Aguilar, the article’s author, talk about anti-aliasing filters? Nope. Does he touch on our sensitivity in the time domain? Nope. He does talk about high resolution audio relying on “junk science” and refers to the Meyer and Moran AES paper “Audibility of a CD-Standard A/DA/A Loop Inserted into High-Resolution Audio Playback” from 2007 as his only proof. That’s his science.”

I highly doubt that Aquilar has any clue what an anti-aliasing filter is or any real understanding of how our brains perceive different frequencies in the time domain. That’s beside the point, because that’s not what Pono is selling. Have you seen Pono ads touting how your DAC’s reconstruction filter (if it happens to use a steep linear type) may introduce pre-ringing artifacts when fed 16/44 material (assuming it doesn’t upsample incoming content before it reaches said filter), and high-res may alleviate all those issues? Me neither. No, Pono is selling you the idea that you need high-res because it’s life changing. Well, news flash, it’s not.

Related Pages:

MP3 Is Not A Four Letter Word

The Myth And Reality Of Mastering

At best, high-res audio may sound a bit better on some very high-end systems. That’s it. It’s just a bigger bucket than standard res. If it’s full of gold, you’ll have a bucket of gold. If it’s full of pig slop, congratulations, you are now the owner of a bigger bucket of pig slop. The Flesh Prevails at 24/192 will be every bit as crap as the CD (Actually, according to high-res advocates it will sound a lot crappier. -Alex) Since storage is so plentiful these days, I’ll happily take a recording the way it was done in the studio (most are 24/48). But if the option is a dynamic recording at 16/44 or a crushed recording at 24/192, I’ll take the more dynamic one every time.

Lavorgna then ends his piece with this juicy bit:

“That said, the way I look at this issue is far simpler. If we are to believe people like Mario Aguilar of Gizmodo, one of three possibilities is at work with high resolution audio:

Every designer of audio gear including pro and consumer kit as well as every recording engineer, musician, and listener who prefer high resolution audio are misguided twits who have bought into an empty marketing scheme and are hearing something that is not there.
Every designer of audio gear including pro and consumer kit as well as every recording engineer, musician, and listener who say they prefer high resolution audio are lying and are just involved in a great big scam.
High resolution audio can and does provide a more natural and engaging sound.

Since I easily hear the differences between CD-quality and higher resolutions myself nearly every day, I’m going with #3. For all those people who simply know better based on some thin slice of science or for those conspiracy theorists who revel in schadenfreude, feel free to mix and match.”

Come on Mke, you’re making this too easy. Designers of audio gear are out to sell a product, and inflating the value of a product you are trying to sell is as old as time. Engineers, musicians, and listeners will hear what they want to hear. That’s why you have to take that option away from them – with a double blind test (DBT). Then you have to put up or shut up.

As for number two, we’ve covered the Harman produced “documentary” intended to stealthily promote their “Clari-Fi” audio restorer technology, where yes, Harman flat out lied, both in the video, and in a web demonstration where the “Clari-Fi enhanced” version of a track was subtly louder than the regular version.

I also can easily hear the difference between the HDTracks high-res version of Megadeth’s Thirteen and the CD version. How? Because the HDTracks version has full dynamic range. The truth is that audio reviewers and journalists like Lavorgna regularly compare different versions of an album that often are sourced from entirely different masters or even different mixes, and then will equate the differences they hear to the formats, rather than the recordings (If I had a nickel… -Alex).

In the end, I’m not sure any of this really matters. Pono’s goal was to make high-res music mainstream by making it easy, by taking the way the confusion of “what’s the difference between 24/96 and 24/192” by simply selling the “Pono version” as they put it, in the highest available resolution they can get from the artist and record label. The prices though are simply ridiculous, and as long as that continues, Pono will never be mainstream.

When you pay more for an album on vinyl as opposed to the Amazon MP3, you’re getting something tangible, and it costs a lot more for artists to press their albums on vinyl than create a couple of MP3s. But it costs approximately $0.00 more to sell you an album in 24/192 FLAC in addition to MP3, and yet you’re expected to pay as much as 200% more. High-res music pricing is a house built on sand, and phony marketing and the protestations of professional audio reviewers won’t be enough to hold it up for any more than a very niche customers.

If you’re a regular Metal-Fi reader, I’m sure you know by now that its recordings and masters that matter, not formats. So if you want people to stop streaming everything they listen to and go back to buying their albums, then the record industry has to stop making them sound like garbage by compressing the hell out of them. Until then, the Pono store’s value proposition is dubious at best.