Deaf, Dumb, and Blind: The Guardian's Silly Anti-Pono Science

In an article in The Guardian titled, "Pono: only a man pays for music quality that he can't hear", author Charles Arthur, the Guardian's technology editor, states in no uncertain terms that "...44.1kHz, 16-bit audio sampling is good enough to reproduce any music." Arthur reminds us of the Nyquist-Shannon theorem, a "neat piece of maths", which he feels tells us just about all we need to know regarding sampling rates and digital music reproduction. As far as bit depth goes, "It's possible, if you're a mad-keen audiophile, to get 24-bit audio mixes – but they aren't cheap. And it's highly unlikely that in a blind test you would hear the difference." That's it, case closed according to Mr. Arthur. I say, not so fast.

Beyond the fact that Pono is not strictly selling 24/192 downloads, I have to wonder if Mr. Arthur is familiar with sampling theory? We don't have to go to some esoteric audiophile publication to counter his simple argument. Instead let's check in with the AES—"The Audio Engineering Society recommends 48 kHz sample rate for most applications but gives recognition to 44.1 kHz for Compact Disc and other consumer uses, 32 kHz for transmission-related application, and 96 kHz for higher bandwidth or relaxed anti-aliasing filtering." (from Wikipedia). It's that last bit, "relaxed anti-aliasing filtering" that Mr. Arthur fails to take into account and I'd suggest has a lot to do with why we prefer listening to higher sample rates, which are not just about the ability to reproduce higher frequencies. While I'm not going to get into over-sampling here, I will note that modern delta-sigma DACs differ in terms of how 16/44.1 data is processed as compared to higher resolutions which I'd suggest also accounts for some listener's preference for higher resolution source material.

Then there's the recent study, "Human Time-Frequency Acuity Beats the Fourier Uncertainty Principle", published in Physical Review Letters in January 2013 by Jacob N. Oppenheim and Marcelo O. Magnasco (see paper and our original post):

We have conducted the first direct psychoacoustical test of the Fourier uncertainty principle in human hearing, by measuring simultaneous temporal and frequency discrimination. Our data indicate that human subjects often beat the bound prescribed by the uncertainty theorem, by factors in excess of 10.
The importance of these findings suggest that some people hear better than the maths thought they did, meaning some people are able to perceive with what were heretofore believed to be imperceptible levels of precision especially when we take into account the time and frequency domains.
We further found that composers and conductors achieved the best results in task 5 (subjects are asked to discriminate simultaneously whether the test note is higher or lower in frequency than the leading note, and whether the test note appears before or after the flanking high note), consistently beating the uncertainty principle by factors of 2 or more, whereas performers were more likely to beat it only by a few percentage points.
Some people, according to this paper (and common sense), hear things that other people don't. And people involved with music, like composers and conductors, proved to be better listeners. Imagine that. So I'd say its a silly thing to say something like "it's highly unlikely that in a blind test you would hear the difference" since what we hear depends on exactly who we're talking to.

In John Atkinson's essay "What's Going On Up There?" in Stereophile, we can read more about the importance of higher sample rates and "the time-smearing introduced by the ubiquitous low-pass anti-aliasing and reconstruction low-pass filters". John goes on to reference a white paper by dCS' Mike Story, "A Suggested Explanation For (Some Of) The Audible Differences Between High Sample Rate And Conventional Sample Rate Audio Material" wherein Mr. Story offers: although we may not be able to hear energy above 20 kHz, its presence is mathematically necessary to localise the energy in signals below 20 kHz, and it is possible (and our contention) that we can hear its absence in signals with substantial high frequency content. A high sample rate system allows it through (fact) - and allows the high frequency signals to sound more natural (contention) but allowing better spatial energy localisation (fact).

It is our suggestion that some of the audible differences between conventional 44.1 kS/s and higher rates (88.2, 96, 176.4, 192 kS/s) may be related to this “energy smear” or defocusing caused by anti-alias filtering, and that the ear is sensitive to energy as well as spectrum.

So I say, not so fast. While I can appreciate the neat maths employed to squeeze an album's worth of music onto a CD, with file-based playback we no longer have to deal with CD's physical limitations or its attendant compromises. Besides, listening to music on the hi-fi is not a quest for what is good enough on paper. It is a human activity complete with messy things like emotions, expectations, moods, and the inevitable variables related to human perception. You know, listening. One size does not fit all when it comes to music appreciation.

While this is really beside the point, Arthur also claims, "CDs, and digital-to-audio converters, reproduce pretty much everything better than vinyl" which makes it appear as if he doesn't spend much time listening. He also claims, "In promoting higher quality recordings, people often say that some early CDs from the 1980s had horrible sound compared to vinyl. That was because sound engineers at the time overcorrected the treble balance, as they were used to engineering for vinyl, which didn't reproduce high frequencies well." which again misses the more relevant point that the filters employed in most CD players in the 1980s introduced unnatural artifacts that simply sounded...bad. But they did look great on paper.

You can read "Pono: only a man pays for music quality that he can't hear" in its entirety on The Guardian website.

bobflood's picture

I guess that if 44.1/16 is good enough for him then everyone else is a fool to want better. The problem we faced in recent years was that even 44.1/16 was getting hard to find. I thought that 320kbps MP3 was going to become the new de-facto 44.1/16 delivery system. Many so called experts and journalists said that we just could not tell the difference, but, we could and enough are rebelling that MP3 is now on the way out. With the advent of 44.1/16 streaming services like Qobuz,WiMP and Orastream, hi-res streaming will be the next thing to come. Orastream is streaming 96/24 on Classical HD for $7.99 per month right now.

Just ignore guys like this. The people he will appeal to will probably always be happy with MP3, Ogg, AAC and the rest while listening with cheap earbuds from a phone. For those of us who want better, it will be available but it will not be free or even cheap but it will be worth the cost.

UpTone Audio's picture

Good job Michael. Having been involved with DAC design--and a lot of upsampling filter tuning with s/w--I fully agree that the big advantage of hi-res source material, especially with the compromised filters embedded into most of today's sigma-delta DAC chips, is that the higher rates allow for gentler filters and better impulse response/less group delay.

But who would have thought that the audio community would, in 2014, have to defend digital against the knee-jerk laziness of the main stream media? It is almost as if they have become tired of deriding vinyl (especially given its growth in recent years) and decided to ridicule hi-res audio instead. Yet I don't see them picking on 4K video.

Maybe you should go have lunch with Mikey F. to commiserate and to pick up some tips for working the PR circuit to champion hi-res digital. Then again, if they are bashing against Neil Young his successful Pono campaign… they may be a hopeless cause.

Seneca's picture

Excuse my bad English, it is not my mother language)

I am a kind of nerd with a nice system (wilson, spectral, etc) who is an optimistic believer. I do not agree with The Guardian.

I am already on the highres-train ( I love technology), but I am not happy how the audiophile media is treating this topic (Highres v.s. CD-Quality).

All audiophile media and magazines recommend us to stick to what you really hear. (which I did with some professional musicians and a "simple double blind test" with dissappointing results. I did what all the magazines recommended me to do on a non-professional level).

But ff someone claims a different opinion on the highres topic, the answers from the magazines are always external studies or a lab-result with mostly technical explanations from extremely rare golden ears.

What surprises me the most is, as fas as I know, that not even one audiophile magazine or media had the guts or motivation to really set up a professional double blind AB testing with a representative amount of people and share the results.

Am I wrong?
If not: Why?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
(your English appears to be at least as good as mine ;-)

Any double blind test would necessarily be limited by a number of factors including the equipment used, the music used, and the people involved in the test.

Since most modern hi-fi components that include a DAC can play HD downloads, and you can get any number of free HD downloads to try, its a simple and free exercise to see if they matter, to you.

Frankly the notion that we have "prove" the veracity of HD downloads with double blind tests strikes me as the same as saying we have to prove people like pizza with DBTs.

Chigo's picture

Michael, you offer a nice, succinct, and easy-to-follow (even for non-techies) counterargument to the claims made in this article. And that's just the sampling rate side of the coin; we could go further addressing his assertions about bit depth as well.

Personally, I really have no problem if there are people out there who believe anything above 16/44.1 is pointless and want to publish that opinion. It's their opinion, they're entitled to it, and that's fine. What I find obnoxious is the vehemence with which they assert these opinions as if they are indisputable facts and scorn anyone who thinks otherwise. Why can't the folks on that side of the debate publish reasonable, moderate arguments? Something to the effect of "some people on some systems may not notice a difference; some research suggests many people can't. So before spending extra money on high-res music, I recommend you try some to see if you think it's worth it on your particular set-up. Here are some links to free sample files to try." Done. Now was that so hard?

This is why I appreciate the reasonable, respectful tone of publications like AudioStream. Obviously, Michael likes high-res music and advocates for its place in the world. But never does he shove it down our throats and imply that anyone who listens to CD-quality or below is an idiot. So for that, sir, I thank you.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
In the end we are talking about the enjoyment of music. How people get there is none of my business (although it is some people's business ;-) but if I can help make that experience more engaging I figure I'm doing my job.
Chigo's picture

To Superdad62, the mainstream press doesn't need to pick on 4k video; the A/V press is already picking on it enough :)

dunitz777's picture

I submitted this article as part of my school's monthly contest for poor science or poor logic examples in the press. We are only allowed to submit one "audiophile" story per person per year because the teacher running the contest says "that market is too easy to find examples".

This story won for the worst and most misleading use of science and logic. Everyone laughed as we tallied the strawman, red herring, personal incredulity, cherry picking, appeals to authority and other fallacies we learned about in class. And thanks for the ipad!

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I'm honored.
bernardperu's picture

The Guardian's article was poorly crafted and needed no response.

In my opinion, the audiophile media tends to cover technical qualities of equipment and medium far more than the technical qualities of recordings. A well recorded MP3 will sound far better than a highly dynamically compressed 24/192 version of the same album.

The audiophile media has applauded N Young, though he has barely addressed the loudness wars.

Hi-Rez sounds better, but well recorded music is king. Our musical emotions totally depend on the quality of the recordings. Let's start talking about that!

CG's picture

While I completely agree with you, I've found that there's almost nothing I can do from my end to fix other people's work product deficiencies. Believe me, I've tried.

As for the article, it seems to be a great amusement for some people to pick on the details of audio products and other hobbiest pursuits. Why, I'm not sure. Yeah, a lot of the promotional stuff put out is hardly based on science, even if the product really has a strong engineering basis. Like most promotional material, it tugs at people's emotions because that is a more effective marketing approach. Not so many beer commercials talk about the details of the brewing, for example. Yet, nobody seems to be especially bothered by these ads. I guess picking on minority sized groups never goes out of fashion.

bernardperu's picture

It is very interesting how in the anglo world so many people pick on audiophiles. I never figured out why exactly. What makes things more interesting, is that the average audiophile is far more educated and well off than the average person.

One huge reason must be the stigma attached to spending thousands of $$ on cables and equipment that has highly subjective results. Most audiophiles don't do this, but the stigma is there.

Another huge reason must be the difficulty to explain what goes on in our minds and hearts when we turn off the lights and focus just on the music. This experience is incomprehensible for those who do not go thru it. I cannot explain my audiophile experience unless I share it.

I believe we audiophiles should change our denomination to active-listeners, as that is really what we do. If we focus on the active listening experience and the quality of the recording we stand a far better chance of gaining public support.

CG's picture

For the longest time, people who bowled were considered hicks and unsophisticated by a lot of folks. As were fans of country music. Now, not so much. Maybe things will change over time on this as well.

Why this sort of attack merits space in a large general interest publication is a puzzle to me. The topic must inflame something inside the folks who write the articles and even more in the readers. I guess people's self-perception of where they fit in the grand pecking order of life is very important. That's why picking on minority groups of any kind has always been sport for so many. Wars often start over this set of thing.

judmarc's picture

Sorry, I think that was the 20th Anniversary Edition....

CG's picture

Time flies, doesn't it?

DaveBSC's picture

I agree that The Guardian article is fundamentally misguided. HOWEVER, that doesn't excuse the fact that the Pono marketing is all based on conflation, obfuscation, and in some cases outright lies in order to push a product.

24/192 does NOT have "30X" more musical information than standard 16/44 material. Leaving aside the fact that everyone's favorite vintage recordings were done using mics and tape that had AT BEST 20kHz response (and that's being quite generous) modern recordings tend to roll off somewhere between 25-30kHz, which would seem to make the 24/60 idea suggested by Dan Lavry ideal in most cases.

I agree that digital filtering is a major issue at 16/44 (though modern minimum phase/apodising filters have lessened the impact, as have upsamplers. Still, no one in their right mind would engineer an album at 16-bit, and considering the amount of cheap storage we have today vs. what was available on a 5" disc created in the 1970s that was already obsolete at least 20 years ago, I see no reason to dither commercial recordings down from their native 24-bits used during mixing and mastering.

Plenty of folks ARE engineering at 48kHz though, and much of the "audiophile 24/96" recordings you can buy are simply pre-upsampled. Just look for those telltale buzzcuts at 24kHz in any spectrum analyzer. Supposedly Pono is going to vet their content and only sell files at the sample rate they actually are. You can bet I'll be checking on that.

The GIANT elephant in the room however is dynamic range compression, and it's an elephant that Young and Co have danced around and otherwise done everything they can to avoid directly addressing. The fact is this, the amount of damage that digital filtering does at 44.1, or even MP3 compressors do when encoding at 320kbit, is like a pinprick compared to Loudness War compression, which is like being shot in the face with a cannon.

I have two different masters of a particular album which were given to me straight from the mastering engineer. One is a 24/96 master intended for the CD release, with DR6 level dynamic compression as required by the label for "competitive" reasons. The other is the master created for the vinyl release, at DR11, which I have as a 320kbit MP3 version. Guess which one sounds better? Yep, the MP3. By MILES. If Pono gets CD masters with CD compression levels at 24/96 or 24/192 as HDTracks usually does, the whole endeavor will be completely worthless. What's the point of worrying about digital filters when you have an album that HARD CLIPS from beginning to end?

bernardperu's picture

Finally, someone focuses on music and not technicalities!

Quality of recording is king!

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I completely agree with you in that dynamic compression is an issue that directly impacts sound quality and can be more detrimental than lossy compression and the resolution of the delivery format. That said, I think its a worthwhile endeavor to raise awareness for the basic notion of sound quality in every aspect of the music recording and playback chain including mastering, delivery format, and playback.

My hope is that as more people listen to music through better headphones and amps/DACs, this will trickle up the recording chain and help place more focus on sound quality.

Archimago's picture

Good discussions on here!

I put up a 24-bit vs. 16-bit test on my blog... Whether you think you can or can't hear a difference, why not give it a try and see for yourself?

Michael, Steve, Neil give it a shot... Can't hurt...

Archimago's picture

BTW... Taking submissions on the survey until mid-June. Let's see what people think!

deckeda's picture

It's my belief (Already! See what I did there?) that the authors of such pieces as what appeared in The Guardian have some feelings of inadequacy stemming from a misunderstanding of what they read from anyone proposing better sound. Can't help them, which is why debates and explanations to the contrary have little traction.

Sorry to disagree Michael, but your piece IS well written and expressed. And there are some good and thoughtful comments above.