Since the dawn of the digital age, some audiophiles have maintained that new formats from the CD to the MP3 and beyond have degraded sound quality. Ever since we left vinyl, music has sounded like crap, they say. Some of the down-with-digital crew say we need to do away with audio compression and go beyond “CD quality,” increasing the sampling rate of the music we listen to from 44,100 times per second (44.1 kHz) to 192,000 times per second (192 kHz) — while also boosting its bit depth from 16-bit to 24-bit. I myself proposed a similar idea five years ago.
This is precisely what Neil Young proposes to do with the Pono format and player, first reported by Rolling Stone and demonstrated by Neil Young on Late Night with David Letterman this week.
To be clear, these Pono files will not play on your iPhone, Android, or any other current portable save perhaps this one, so you’d need to buy the Pono player in order to hear them. It’s also not clear where they’ll be for sale. (The owner of Pono.net told Evolver.fm that he hadn’t heard from Neil Young or his people, while the owner of Pono.com [nsfw] has yet to respond.) Regardless, these files will cost a lot to make, and the players will cost a lot to buy.
According to Rolling Stone, “Warner Music Group — home to artists including Muse, the Black Keys, Common and Jill Scott — has converted its library of 8,000 album titles to high-resolution, 192kHz/24-bit sound.”
If Pono takes off, despite the added cost for both users and makers, Apple, Samsung, and every other smartphone maker could decide to build 24-bit 192 kHz D/A converters into their phones, and Apple, Amazon, and everyone else would start selling the files too.
Sampling rate dictates the highest pitch a format can represent, while bit depth concerns number of gradations of loudness. But can humans actually tell the difference?
In other words, is there any point to Pono?
Evolver.fm brought in some guests to shed some light on the situation:
by Ed Jennings, freelance music writer
by Monty Montgomery, creator of the open-source Ogg Vorbis audio format
Photo courtesy of Flickr/NRK P3