Further Thoughts on Neil Young's Pono

If we put all of the pieces of this unfolding Pono puzzle together—24/192 source files, portable proprietary Pono players, and from the mypono.com site's About page (although this text has since been deleted), "Large home systems and other configurations of Pono are currently being presented by Meridian Audio, among others to be announced"—what does it add up to? My guess after speaking to a number of people about this including Jon Iverson is that Meridian is most likely providing some variation of their MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing) technology so that Pono's HD downloads don't take longer than anxious downloaders can wait.

While Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio brought up this concern of HD download times in the comments section of our previous post on Pono, some readers disagreed and pointed to their download times of roughly 12 minutes for a complete HD album. While this can certainly be the case on your average US high speed Internet connection, for people with slower and spotty service or wi-fi users, 12 minutes can turn into hours and I'm assuming fast delivery time is an essential ingredient in Pono's potential success.

This is where Meridian comes in. Their MLP technology which was initially developed for DVD-Audio essentially halves the file size, or employs 1.5:1 compression. If this is in fact the case, that Pono is going to employ some Meridian-developed proprietary lossless compression technology, Pono will require another step in the digital to analog conversion process namely unpacking whatever this proprietary compression software ends up being.

The big questions remains, if our assumptions are correct, will this compression technology require new hardware (which Meridian can obviously also provide)? Or will compliance be handled through software/firmware? Let's hope for the latter.

Here's the only word so far from Meridian Audio chairman and chief technical officer Bob Stuart from an article on CE Pro:

“For three decades Meridian has focused on developing technologies to deliver the best possible sound reproduction, in the service of music and in the pursuit of perfection,” says Stuart. “We are proud to be working with Neil, the Pono team and partners in the music industry. Something different … something great is coming.”

Drtrey's picture

that whatever the outcome of Pono, Neil gets a chance to sell higher fidelity audio to the general public! If that is all that happens, I will be content on the issue.



Michael Lavorgna's picture

And if you had told me even a few months ago that I'd get to hear Neil Young praise the benefits of 24/192 downloads on the David Letterman Show I'd have said you're putting me on.

Neil Young can get the word out so this is already a step in the right direction.

hotsoup's picture

If it supports all formats like he mentioned, I wonder if their web catalog will also offer lossless at redbook-ish quality. That would be a welcomed step too. yes

Michael Lavorgna's picture

...for Pono they were aiming at providing digital recordings in their native format and analog recordings converted to 24/192. Of course I'm kinda guessing since the info is a bit sketchy.

jazz and cocktails's picture

that portable in neil's hand looks alot like an Alan Boothroyd industrial design.

earwaxxer's picture

Yep - that player Neil had was pretty clunky looking if you ask me! Thats not really the issue though, they will get that figured out. The bigger issue is - how much is this stuff going to cost, and will it become a nitch product similar to SACD and die a slow death due to DRM etc.

All of us reading and writing here want high res audio. Not everybody does though. Wheather that 'need' can be cultivated is an open question. Is it good for the human race to have a full catalog of high res. masters of all the important music that has been, and will be created in the past, present and future? Of course. No one would argue with that. Its like having the full unabridged Oxford English Dictionary available on the internet. We have it. Thats of course good. Few are going to shell out $400/yr to have access to it!

deckeda's picture

... that what Young meant by it playing "all formats" was really "all resolutions" including all the way down to MP3.

He'll never sell any to "normal" people if it won't play MP3s. He really seems to be aiming to include the mainstream, and that's where the mainstream is.

I don't mean to say people who only want an MP3 player will buy a PONO.

labjr's picture

I don't think the player looks too bulky. Everyone is used to everything being shrunk by 50% each year.

The problem I see is that it seems like a proprietary format with content locked to the player/user etc. I wouldn't mind if I could buy the disc and put it on the shelf but to need to buy a player and files with DRM nonsense when audiophiles are getting used to downloading DRM-free music from HDtracks etc and using different software to play and manipulate the files with DSP based DACs may be a problem for the tweakers.

The good thing is Neil wants to guarantee good sounding remasters.

CG's picture

I believe that Stereophile's very own JA has compared the bits from an uncompressed Apple Lossless Audio Codec to that of the original aiff file and has found them the same.  (Now, whether performing that unpacking in real time causes some difference in sound reproduction is another question...)

With that in mind, I just took a 623 MB 192 KHz 24 bit aiff file and packed it into an alac file.  The smaller file is 340 MB.  Of course, not all files will compress at the same ratio, but it's within the ballpark of MLP conversion.  It still sounds pretty good.

So, now what?  Where I live, the highest downstream bandwidth I can get to my house is 6 mb/s from any service.  Unless, of course, I want the special $200 a month - first year only - high speed service from the cable company.  This is in a medium sized town in New England, complete with a serious university just down the street, not some outpost on the Arctic circle, too.  Some areas of the country have much higher broadband speeds, but not as much as you might think.  Other posts notwithstanding.  (Disclaimer - I do this as part of my day job...)

OK - forget about the download speed.  That might change some day when the economy improves to the point where investors will want to throw money at fiber optic cable installation to the street corner or home, or when cable companies adjust their business model.  In the mean time, I can live with overnight downloads.

So, is this a better technology?  Maybe not.  Instead it's probably just a different angle for the music distribution business.  

If Neil Young can get the artists to squeeze the music companies into offering higher resolution copies of the mixed master tapes, I'm all for it.  The music companies may be all for that, too, given their present economic state.  After all, they've done very well selling the vinyl albums, if not the 45's, then the eight tracks, then the cassettes, then the original CDs, then the remastered CDs, then the remastered vinyl albums, and maybe even the SACD or DVD versions.  Why not the downloads?  Except, they might fear that this is the end game with nothing left in the arsenal to deploy later.

Jaron M.'s picture

I think it'd be awesome if this thing had more storage than an iPod Classic ( 160GB ) and costs less than a HiFi-Man 801/iBasso DX100.

I'd think at least the former would have to be true. Heck, a uncompressed CD rip of mine alone is around 400 - 500 MB. That's only at 16/44. I can only guess how much a 24/192 album would be.

Oh, and if it's only function is for music play back, the battery life better kick ass.

CG's picture

Oh - it's possible that the delivery mechanism is 4G wireless.  That would work (where available), have all the DRM essentially built-in, allow the record companies to keep the ownership part intact, and so on.  

A very quick calculation says that 6 mb DSL or cable modem service would just barely be fast enough for ~2:1 losslessly packed 192/24 files to stream live.  Of course, that doesn't help any mobile users, which is where all the investment is going.  Hence the 4G idea.

It's all kind of out there, but so was HDTV just 14 years ago. 

notung's picture

Why do we need another portable device to listen music in 24-192? Even with the best state-of-the-art codec technology available today, what memory will the Pono have to carry to storage a library of 500 albums in 24-192?, no way. 

Talking about new home players from Meridian or potentially other vendors, what's new here? 24-192 downloads have been available DRM-free for a while and you have plenty of low cost high-quality media players like J River, Foobar for Win and  iTunes+ Amarra and the likes to play hi-rez files or in dedicated music servers. I don't see audiophiles being locked again in a new propietary audio format and closed (likely expensive) hardware.

Having said that, We'd all be gratefull to Neil Young if he convinces the 3 majors to remaster their catalogs to 24-192, but I don't just believe they'd do it just for the Pono player. 

labjr's picture

Is Neil gonna oversee every single 24-192 remaster? Will the record companies continue to upsample etc. Because they don't want to spend any money to make it. I mean there's 10's of 1000's of albums to remaster. Are they really gonna search for the original master tapes for every album? Judging by past history, probably not.

marcusavalon's picture

Cant see that HD music is ever going to take off if it gets these types of negative commentry although I'd be very interested in commentry on the in depth technical reasons why theres no point to 24/192Mhz infact I think this first article is so interesting you should try and get the writer to post it on audiostream as well.



deckeda's picture

That original xiph.org article was previously hashed out here. There isn't much as to the "why" offered by its author beyond blind testing, itself irrelevant for people that listen to music as opposed to "test" for defects if you understand the important difference.

Monty Montgomery's creation is the Ogg Theora lossy format. He simultaneously maintains no lossless format is important because no one can hear whatever it might bring, and that his lossy format sounds better than the others.

After you've digested that dichotomy of logic (consuming mind-altering drugs may help but that's not a recomendation per se) his opinons on hi res audio make "a lot" of sense.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

You'll find many more articles in support of higher bit and sample rates than against and if you look around the internet you'll find an argument against everything including gravity.

I talk about the Montgomery article here.

marcusavalon's picture

The flat Earth society has an i tunes link!


Its obviously all a consipracy by Apple!laugh

deckeda's picture

It only looks like a web site. :)

mytek's picture

There is a new article here about how the project originated: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/neil-young-expands-pono-digital-t... Great this is happening, it's a great first move for the majors. 24/192k at Warner is a leftover from DVD-A wars, ultimately it's about high resolution masters in general and it will eventually include DSD , 128xDSD and 384k+ as these formats are inevitable superior in sound quality. Mytek would love to help with this. Apple in meantime is watching, let's see for how long. Best Regards, Michal at Mytek