Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Righteous Bits

Daniel Rutter takes on Neil Young’s stupid Pono music player:

The argument put up against this by 24/192 enthusiasts is that the much higher sample rate and rather smoother waveform capture esoterica like ultrasonic instrument resonances which, on playback, combine to give a noticeably better sound.

Most instruments do not output such frequencies, and almost no microphones, speakers or headphones work significantly above the normal human audio range either. So, unsurprisingly, these opinions are shot down by blinded testing. And, equally unsurprisingly, if Neil’s done any blinded tests of Pono, he’s keeping them a secret.

I like Neil Young; I like most of his records, and I like that he’s trying to raise the bar for the quality of online music distribution. But this 24/192 product is completely nutty.

Unsurprisingly, the crowd who thinks that there is a noticeable difference between 24/192 audio and the 16/44.1 audio of a CD is as resilient and stubborn as homeopaths, conspiracy theorists, and others of a similar calibre. So, naturally, Rutter received letters, and they were not kind:

Astonishingly, there’s no nutty audiophile product that someone doing an uncontrolled listening test doesn’t swear works. Not one! Every one’s a winner, baby!

Unless you do a blinded test. Whereupon, to a first approximation, none of these things work.

I’ve been over this before: you are a human being. Your ears are decent, but they cannot tell the difference between CD audio and high-test studio-quality audio. You probably can’t tell the difference between a very high quality compressed format — 320 kbps or V0 MP3, or 256 kbps AAC — and a lossless format (I can’t).

Here’s a comparative: grab your remote control, face the infrared blaster so you can see it, but not towards your face, and click a button. Don’t see anything? Now grab a camera, and point the infrared blaster of the remote towards the lens while clicking a button. Depending on your camera, you’ll see anywhere from a faint flickering to a giant glow being emitted.1 The human eye can’t see infrared frequencies, but your camera’s CCD can.

Imagine, for a minute, that infrared were not dangerous to human eyes. Now consider a company releasing a television which they consider a breakthrough because it can display infrared. That’s the visual equivalent of the Pono.

  1. If you use a smartphone made in the past few years, you probably won’t see much, as most newer smartphone cameras have an IR filter built in to capture better images. ↩︎