The NY Post Pisses (and Misses) on Pono

Here's the gist of James Covert's "report" for the NY Post:
Product engineers for the shaggy rock icon’s newly released Pono digital music player have privately admitted they aren’t convinced that the high-resolution audio files it plays have any significant technical advantage over CD-quality files, sources told The Post.
Since we know that Ayre is responsible for the digital and analog circuits in the Pono player, and we also know that Ayre supports high res audio, you have to wonder who these Pono "product engineers" are and exactly what they engineered? My guess is this apparently third-hand information, product engineer > private source > NY Post, got buggered somewhere along the line and Mr. Covert has reported, er, a bunch of bullshit.

What you may not know is that prior to Ayre's involvement, Meridian was working with Neil Young on the Pono Player. A byproduct of that work is Meridian's MQA technology, a new method of encoding high resolution audio. One reason that Meridian has put forth for the benefits of high res audio, as reported by John Atkinson here is, to quote Mr. Atkinson, our ability to "detect temporal differences that are equivalent to a bandwidth considerably greater than 20kHz and that the anti-aliasing filters in A/D converters and reconstruction filters in D/A converters introduce temporal smearing that it is considerably greater than what our ear-brains are tuned to expect from natural sounds: this smearing is, I believe, responsible for so-called "digital" sound."

Certainly the rest of the NY Post article offers nothing new in terms of presenting facts to support the notion that high res audio is a waste of time. The usual suspects are dragged out, the typical half-assed "facts" are on parade, but in the end the only people that may swallow this crap hook, line, and sinker share with Mr. Covert the dubious position of never having heard the Pono Player. In fact Mr. Covert never once mentions having listened to high res audio for himself!

I have news for all of these too smart to listen idiots—we are talking about listening to music. If you don't listen your opinion is about as useful as third hand anonymous sources printed in the NY freakin' Post. BTW - the #1 news story trending on the NY Post website is "The brutal secrets behind ‘The Biggest Loser’". Now there's some serious journalism at its finest.

I also want to point you to my colleague Michael Fremer's excellent (and hilarious) take on the Gizmodo Pono article (which I wrote about here) on his AnalogPlanet. You can also read my review of the Pono Player right here.

Beetlemania's picture

I remembered reading that Charles Hansen thinks that well done 24/192 can sound better than vinyl:

I can hardly believe the degree of push-back on Pono. Did Apple pay a bunch of bloggers to randomly shit on a threat to their profit stream?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
My only guess as to why we're seeing so much push-back is taking an anti-Pono stance attracts traffic.
Beetlemania's picture

The push-back is even happening on audiophile websites. Over on audioasylum, which you might think was populated by folks looking for better SQ, some posters are pissing all over Neil Young and Pono. In fact a DAC manufacturer wrote: "Hundreds of thousands of people were duped into supporting something that already exists and is essentially free." (He doesn't tell us who is giving away hi-rez files for free!)

If hi-rez files become more widely available, if will be obvious whom to thank and whom to shun!

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I must admit I don't understand what point Steve is making with the "free" and "duped" comments.

In my opinion, everyone involved in high res audio, including DAC manufacturers, should be thanking Neil Young for spreading the word about high res audio more effectively than anyone within the hi-fi industry has ever done.

Beetlemania's picture

NY has done FAR more to increase awareness of hi-rez audio (and poor SQ of mp3) than all manufacturers and audio websites/magazines combined. Why some computer audiophiles don't recognize this is puzzling. And I find it appalling that a DAC manufacturer has apparently jumped on the gizmodo train. :(

qwak's picture

When I read that article what I see is not “Pissing and Missing” There are few really good points.

Quotation: The benefits of hi-res files may be detectable on high-dollar stereo systems, but “the difference is so miniscule that it’s not even worth talking about,” according to Fikus.
The sound quality on Led Zeppelin’s second album is notoriously poor, Fikus notes. A hi-res version of it won’t change that, he says, although a recent remastering by Jimmy Page helped.
“There are many, many factors that contribute to the final pleasure (of digital music),” Fikus adds. “The density of the media file is only one of those factors — and probably not the first priority, but almost the last.”
Average Joe on basic system cant (probably) hear a difference between 24/96 and cd quality files, he can hear difference between cd quality and 128kbps mp3 file...But poor mastering -that is something else, you can hear poor mastering even on basic few hundred dollars system. So this should be way to go and tree to bark to...“Better numbers” themselves are not equal “better sound”.
Of course it's great to have access to Hires versions of music I love but it's not fair to claim 24/192 to cd quality is heaven and hell...

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...makes DACs that support high res audio and DSD so while I agree that there are more important factors than file resolutions, when all is said and done I'll take a high res version over CD-quality every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Because they can and often do sound better. Whether or not "the average Joe" can hear the difference has nothing to do with it.
qwak's picture

Yes I agree, I would also take high-res over cd anytime... :) But another strange thing is - I bought few albums recently on HDtracks like Leonard Cohen- Popular problems, Tom Waits- Bad as me - you pay extra for 24/96 Ok, no problem but when you want liner notes, you have to buy that poor CD anyway because there is only front cover picture...interesting... (this apply to probably 7 albums out of 10 I bought from Hdtracks, Linn, Bleep)

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...for the liner notes ;-)

I agree - the lack of liner notes with downloads is a problem that needs fixing.

Beetlemania's picture

but, all other variables equal, I will gladly pay more for 24 bit files of music I like.

As far as "detectable on high-dollar stereo systems", I think that was the motivation for the Pono player. With a pair of good headphones, it's supposed to deliver much of the SQ of a mega-bucks system. Thus, Joe T. Average will very likely hear the benefits of Hi-rez over mp3 and, hopefully, hi-rez over 16/44.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
We are talking about the reproduction and enjoyment of music. Since when do things like "probably good enough" or "maybe some people won't notice the difference" dictate what everyone involved should set out to achieve? It's nonsense.
rompolompo's picture

The problem is that recorded music from the dawn of age to about late 90s is not considered Hi-Res. Releasing the music in 24/96 does not improve the original recording. The Pono store boasts at million of Hi-Res files while in fact they are not.

Beetlemania's picture

can be digitized at 24/96 or 192, eg, CSN or Beatles (albeit you can't buy the 192 Beatles files). There were a few years when stuff was recorded at 16/44 (eg, Brothers in Arms). There is no help for these.

Yes, Pono is mostly populated with 16/44 and, apparently, NY has modified the definition of hi-rez over the past couple of years, probably because 24 bit files are still very much in the minority. But: 1) we're unlikely to get more true hi-rez files *without* this kind of exposure (ie, Pono's very existence should result in very many more hi-rez titles); and 2) I have already bought a 24 bit album that appears to be available nowhere else.

That said, Pono needs to make it easier to find their 24 bit titles.

Beetlemania's picture

even at 16/44, that is an improvement over most other downloading sources (ie, mp3s from iTunes or Amazon) albeit not any better than buying the CD from Amazon (probably for less $$ than the Pono 16/44).

ktracho's picture

Does Pono make any effort to provide music with reduced processing of the kind that makes it sound louder at the expense of sound quality? If so, that would be an improvement over buying physical CDs.

Reed's picture

I experimented with 44.1 and stuff aand he highest resolution from iTunes. If I was in a totally sanitized environment with good headphones, I could notice a very subtle difference. When I go to the big system, the difference is not very subtle at all. Considering the average Joe listens to music through earbuds while in an environment that has other ambient stuff going on, I think it is pretty accurate to say 90+ percent of the public would not notice an appreciable difference. A more accurate statement would be...the average Joe would definitely appreciate the difference if they changed the way they listen to music. I don't think an improved portable player alone gets them there.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...that the after-market headphone market is ginormous and growing. We're seeing more and more people sporting headphones, not earbuds. This is also a multifaceted issue; the average Joe has been sold sub-standard crap in the form of lossy compressed music (for their smartphones and earbuds) which is clearly a step down from CD-quality. So there needs to be awareness first and foremost that better quality exists and its worth looking into. With something like the Pono Player and a good pair of headphones, you are leaps and bounds ahead of a smartphone and earbuds.

Pono's EVP of Technology Pedram Abrari's response to my Pono review is really worth a read (see his Manufacturer's Response) as he gets into this issue.

junker's picture

Actually, I've been forced to avoid or delete a great number of recent remastered efforts whether in standard CD redbook, or in hi-res - they are often just too compressed and limited (and even clipped!) compared to many of the original releases.

Reed's picture

I went to RMAF, excited about high rez progress. I came back and sold my dac and dismantled my server. I had a DAC that did 44.1. Then I purchased one that did 96/24...oh it's the best it will ever get. Guess DAC was one capable of 192/ it will ever get, theoretical limit. Well, one year later DAC me again so I can do DSD. So, then guess what? 2X DSD....not compatable. Then I attend a seminar at RMAF that says 4x and 8x are just awesome and the way of the future. I felt at one with Ozzy...sitting on the Crazy Train. I jumped off, sold my DAC and picked up a killer new CD player that blurs the lines of high Rez (whatever that is), and buy mostly vinyl again. I was really pumped about the server thing and high rez, but the rate of change is beyond anything that has existed in the past. The direction right now is everyone scrambling around. Even artists are confused.

Beetlemania's picture

DSD is a fringe format (to me, it sounds excellent but not any better than 24 bit PCM). As computer audiophiles who want hi-rez, we would be smart to rally around Pono and HDT as the format they are peddling (PCM up to 192 kHz) sounds excellent and has the best chance for commercial success.

jim9899's picture

"...have privately admitted they aren’t convinced that the high-resolution audio files it plays have any significant technical advantage..." possibly this post by Monty (xiphmont):


When Neil's group contacted me, the first thing they wanted to talk about was 24/192. I replied I probably wasn't the person they wanted to talk to, because I'm a skeptic on the subject. They replied that they didn't believe in high-res either, but they couldn't sell to audiophiles unless their product was high res.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
So, Neil Young had some people working for him that felt that releasing a portable digital audio player in 2015 that could not play back high resolution audio was a good idea? Genius! They should have released a player that could only play Monty's Ogg Vorbis format. Now that would have made perfect scientific sense!

I find the whole "Monty" thing to be much more about Monty than music.

garysi's picture

Quote from front page of Xiph.Org Foundation does not primarily create software for the end-user. Usually, we create specifications, reference implementations, libraries, and documentation for all of the above. We try to make it easy for developers to include support for the Xiph family of codecs....Nowhere is any mention of audio engineers or video engineers. I get the feeling Monty had his feelings hurt when Ayre decided not to call him back, and now it is all..I'll get you my pretty..Grow up Monty, you need to get your head out of your ass. BTW, has anyone asked for, or seen a list of what Monty uses for playback of CD or files? Is he listening on some god awful Dre Beats with mp3's.

Archimago's picture

Guys, I think there are a number of issues here and it's important to treat each separately without getting too muddled into a single argument as to whether HRA is "good/needed" or "bad/worthless". Here's how I see it:

1. Is high resolution 24/96+ better? Of course! It affords better objective dynamic range for the music and accurately records more of the spectrum than 44kHz sampling rate. We know that LPs retain more than 22kHz. High sample rate gets us away from any concerns around ringing due to filters functioning near the audio spectrum (let's not overplay this either, folks because it's at best subtle!). As a perfectionist audiophile, I (and I hope all audiophiles) rally around getting a good high resolution version of our favourite music!

2. Is HRA audible? For the vast majority of people, I think the answer is clearly NO. Differences are at best subtle. Neil Young's musician buddies are clearly overplaying what they heard or he did something to the car audio to show off the difference between MP3/lossless/hi-res IMO (part of my concern about how NY portrays HRA and I think this will lead to disappointment when most folks won't be as 'impressed'). CD vs. HRA is not analogous to the visible difference between DVD and Blu-Ray 1080P obviously otherwise we wouldn't be arguing about this. For those lucky (usually young) folks who have awesome auditory acuity, the DAC has to be good enough. Amps, speakers, headphones just as important if not more. Plus a quiet soundroom. (Forget walking around with a DAP and claiming that hi-res makes a difference.)

3. Do we have music worth of HRA? This is the **BIG** problem. Other than audiophile recordings (mainly classical, jazz, vocals from specialized sources like Classic Records, AIX, etc.), or remasters from high-quality sources like AF/MoFI/SHM-SACD, etc... the vast majority of music does not require the resolution of HRA whatsoever. Heck, most of the top-40 pop/rock doesn't even challenge high bitrate MP3. Mark Waldrep (Dr. AIX) has been warning us about this for years - I believe he's right. I had a look at some of the releases from Pono in my blog last week and clearly there are issues. Highly dynamically compressed music with high inherent noise floors and unnatural recordings that were done without intent to preserve the full spectrum does not sound any better in 24/96+.

Ultimately, I hope folks don't get too side tracked by things like the hardware or whether any particular company is worth backing (ie. Pono). Already, decent DACs these days are clearly capable of >16/44 resolution. What we really need is better recordings. Recordings truly worthy of 24-bits and >44kHz. Whether we can hear the difference with HRA or not I think we have to leave to each audiophile to decide. If consumers, reviewers, and the press unite to get us better sounding albums that can actually benefit from high resolution instead of crappy, loud, typical remasters we've been subjected to in the last 2 decades; we all win.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
If consumers, reviewers, and the press unite to get us better sounding albums that can actually benefit from high resolution instead of crappy, loud, typical remasters we've been subjected to in the last 2 decades; we all win.
This is exactly where I believe Neil Young has been most effective as he appeals to a much wider audience than the audiophile world.
Archimago's picture

He would talk more about this! I really have not seen him be direct around this at all.

If he can turn the discussion more towards this issue, then we'd really get somewhere. I think he'd get a huge amount of support if he did this.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Here's Pedram Abrari, Pono's EVP of Technology, from his response to my Pono review:
The weakest link in the music creation and delivery chain determines the quality you hear. This chain begins with the recording of music in the studio, to the mixing and mastering process for various delivery media, to the streaming/download process, to the digital playback device, to the preamplifer/amplifier, and ends with the headphones/earbuds or speakers used. Compressed music is tantamount to fast food. It satisfies your hunger but over time takes a toll on your health and your quality of life.
solo2's picture

That's some of the most reasonable stuff I've read on this topic.

bobflood's picture

audio is not technical. No, the real problem is one of economics. Quality products of any kind never sell in large quantities and economies of scale cannot be achieved without a mass market. Reading Pedram Abrari's statement above, I was struck by how accurate and insightful it is.

The chain can so easily be broken and the effect lost. The beauty of the CD was not in how good it sounded (the first ones did not sound very good at all) but in how easy it was to use. It was portable (think convenience) and it was durable and it did not require specialized equipment like an expensive and finicky turntable. It was the first medium that could be played at home, in a car or while on foot all with reasonably good quality.

Hi-Res audio is an orphan. It has no physical medium to carry it. All that have been tried have largely failed and it really doesn't matter because the era of the physical medium is rapidly coming to an end. It is being replaced by downloads and streaming. Downloads are an iffy proposition because you really do not own anything at all. As Michael has said here before, your money buys you "a lifetime right to listen with an option to delete". Streaming Hi-Res can be done (Naxos/Orastream) but the demand for it and the internet infrastructure needed are at this point weak at best.

I fear that Hi-Res audio will remain a product produced and distributed in very limited quantities for a very small subset of a very small hobby at a very high price for a very long time to come.

Frank's picture

It's like politics and voting: we look at personality more than the real issues. I have no issue with those who cannot tell or care about what they do or do not hear. But don't write bullshit about a guy who put his money where his mouth is and has passion for what he does. Neil Young did not start high def but he believes in it and for me it's a pretty good thing. Apple could be doing this in its sleep, but they want to pedal junk headphones instead and hey more power to them. It could pan out for them financially, but I will take the low road with Neil's instead. Jeez just wait until the Post hears about Tidal.

whell's picture

So Pono sucks, hi res sucks, the world is flat, and gimme my MP3's? Good Lord. The last I heard consumer choice was a good thing. Is there something I'm missing?

Pablo's picture
Michael Lavorgna's picture
...and dynamic compression are a known issue that plagues the music industry. But you cannot blame Pono, or HDtracks or Qobuz, etc., for something they have no control over. As Pedram Abrari suggests in his response to my Pono review, the notion of sound quality has to be re-introduced into the entire music chain, from the point of origin in the studio, to the consumer. Pono is helping to raise awareness for sound quality but the sins of our past cannot be undone in a day.
CG's picture

My own opinion is that there really is two different markets here.

One is for folks who want background music. Whether this is from streaming, thousands of MP3s, or whatever. Here, convenience is paramount. This is an activity that more or less runs in the background of your brain while you do other things. Having top quality sound mostly is wasted and not what the market desires.

The other is for people who want to sit down and focus on listening to music. Here, high quality is often desired for a bunch of reasons.

There's overlap between the two groups, but the general aspirations of each are really different. Hence, the conflict.

Why one group feels the need to crap on the other is puzzling, but it happens all the time. I guess people generally have a need to be part of a group of some kind.

I think that all this compression stuff really began with radio stations. They added various forms of compression and processing so that their signal would stick out when people spun the tuning knob on their radio. That was back when radios had tuning knobs, radio stations weren't programmed by consultants who dictated a limited playlist, and people listened to music on the radio.

That's not the way the world runs these days, but that's how the music industry seems to think still.

The problem for very recently recorded music is that the actual recordings are often bits and pieces of a zillion takes all processed and spliced together to make "perfect" songs. It may be impossible to go back and undo that, because unprocessed recordings never even existed in the first place.

Older recordings didn't have the same problem, but is the source material even available? How much has deteriorated or just plain been lost or thrown into a dumpster? If these recordings do all exist, do the music companies really want to take the time to redigitize it? Based on their seeming unwillingness to use A/D converters more expensive than the ones home hobby studios use in many cases, I wonder.

One might think that recording companies would jump at the chance to sell - yet again - very high quality versions of their libraries to the people who'd buy them, while the market is still alive. Or at least while the customers are still alive. But, maybe not.

nick's picture

i heard a pono recently, and it sounded great. imo, where they have dropped the ball is pricing. i love hi-res stuff, but i have a hard time justifying the cost over a new (or used cd). if i bought only vinyl and hi-res, my music collection would be much smaller. not sure how much vinyl costs to manufacture/distribute these days, but surely they should be able to sell hi-res downloads (sans covers,booklets, etc..) cheaper than cd's. just because it sounds better, does it have to cost more?
you can get a hd flat screen today for way less than crt tv's used to cost. way better yet cheaper, why can't that apply to audio?

CG's picture

I thInk the TV thing isn't a good comparison. How many TV manufacturers have lost their shirts over the past decade? They all can't be stupid and poorly run, can they? They are a good example of how market forces - and government economic practices - can distort prices.

Back in the early 70's, a newly released LP might sell for about $6. This was a time when LPs were sold by the gazillions, oil was really cheap (oil is used in making vinyl), and generally the economies of scale were pretty favorable.

Adjusted for inflation, that's $35 today.

I personally can't complain about the price of a CD or a download using that as a guideline. (I can, and will, complain, about some conscious decisions made by the music companies that diminish the sound quality.)

Unfortunately, there's no law, either statutory or economic, that requires prices to go down over time. It's too bad, but that's life.

nick's picture

actually, there is a law that says prices should go down: the law of supply and demand.
as demand for a product goes down (which is certainly the case for music sales) the lower the price should go. instead they are focusing on gouging those few who care about sound quality and still pay for cd's, vinyl, and downloads.

CG's picture

I think my economist acquaintances would argue with you that your law only holds depending on the elasticity of the market, but I won't quibble.

My point is that in real dollars, the prices to the customer have stayed pretty much the same for the highest sound quality product available at any time. If you consider the actual product to be the content - not the vessel it arrives in - that actually makes sense.

If you think that the prices are too high, I won't argue with your opinion. The prices don't please me, either. But, my own interests aren't to own a zillion recordings I might get to listen to once or twice, so buying an album here and there doesn't bother me. Compared to what you get for your money at an awful lot of concerts, it's a good deal to me.

nick's picture

don't get me wrong, i still think albums are a great deal ($15-25 for a work of art that you can enjoy for years) my point is that they lost the masses a long time ago, and they ain't getting them back at those prices.

CG's picture

A lot of those masses demand that the price be free. I'm no business expert, but that doesn't sound sustainable to me.

I have to wonder how that attitude is tied to the ravings over higher resolution being worthless.

I get that there's a whole generation of people out there who think that many of the institutions of today are outdated and not suitable for today's world. It's hard to argue with that.

I don't get how so many of these same people, who've come to expect technological progress, are so vehement in their denunciation of higher quality audio.

Phlzfan's picture

I have a reasonably big bucks system that was set up primarily for vinyl reproduction. However, I do have a nice PSAudio DAC and have set up an OK streaming system from my computer using JRiver, asynchronous, WASAPI, etc. Sometimes hi res sounds better than 44.1, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes DSD sounds better than PCM, sometimes it doesn't. Depends on how the original was sampled, mixed, etc. I fully agree that the bit depth, sampling method and frequency are the least important parts of how much I enjoy the music. Not unimportant, just not all that important. If I tell you that my RCA shaded dog European pressing is superior to the pressing on the black label issued two years later, I'm not kidding and it makes our hobby fun to think about and argue over. However, it ain't all that big a deal. Why so scatological and overheated? There is no way that hi res downloads at $40 will ever be more than a niche product with relatively tiny sales. I'm looking forward to the death of the CD so I can buy them 3 for a dollar and get music that I like to listen to right out of the Red Book.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
And here I thought I was being playful.

The reason I chose to write about this article is mainly because it's a piece of crap (wink) and insinuates more than it proves, relying on third-hand anonymous sources in an attempt to discredit high res audio. It's shoddy irresponsible reporting.

But I'm as calm as a cucumber. You'll know when/if I get worked up.

Brett McAteer's picture

I remember wiring a salvaged TV speaker into my portable Sears "record player". The 4 by 6" oval was way better than the 3". It was my first great leap forward on the slippery slope of audionervosa. I'm excited to have new things to try when time and money permit and I've never been disappointed by any of the upgrades I have tried, whether an upgrade for subjective sound quality or subjective convenience.

I say hi-res is absolutely great. Best sound I've ever enjoyed. I'm looking forward to getting these old ears into some MQA. I bet it'll be great, too. Greater, even.

And it's my own damned subjective business anyway, isn't it?