Neil Young: Say Yes to 24-bit/192-kHz audio

-March 18, 2014

Some time back I wrote about musician Neil Young's campaign against MP3s and accompanying proposal for higher-resolution digital audio for consumers - not just higher resolution than MP3s, but higher than that of even CDs (see "Neil Young: Say No to MP3s"). Despite such a proposal's questionable technical and audible merits, Young apparently moved ahead with the idea and recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for a new music service and player designed to "revive the magic that has been squeezed out of digital music."

And - perhaps reflecting audiophiles' willingness to spend money on anything that claims "better sound" - the launch of Young's venture, called Pono Music, has been a smashing success. With 28 days to go to reach an $800,000 goal, the campaign has already raised over $4,000,000!

So what is it? It's both a music download service - offering up to 96-kHz/24-bit or 192-kHz/24-bit music files in FLAC format - and a $399 portable music player, called PonoPlayer, which will feature 128 GB of storage (64 GB built in, and 64 GB on a removable microSD card) and be able to store 100 to 500 high-resolution digital music albums.

The player sports all sorts of audiophile-approved features, including minimal-phase digital filtering, zero-feedback circuitry, one of the "best sounding" DAC chips available, and an all-discrete output buffer. Its overall physical design is ... interesting (see figure below). Functionally it provides the same features as other portable music players, but its 5" x 2" x 1" triangle shape is certainly unique - a design decision that allowed for the use of larger audio components (for "best performance") and a large cylindrical battery.

A look inside early prototypes of the PonoPlayer digital music player. (Pono Music Kickstarter project)

Details aside, the real question of course is, is there really a need for such a product/service? It certainly doesn't come without a cost, even just in terms of storage space and download bandwidth. But that would be a small price to pay as far as most music lovers/audiophiles are concerned if it truly delivered on the promise of "better sound."

But despite claims by many audiophiles and professional recording artists, there is little to no objective evidence that there is any significant audible difference between well-encoded high-bitrate MP3s, CDs, and higher-resolution "studio quality" audio files (everything else being equal). In fact the case can be made that the latter may actually sound worse (see "24/192 Music Downloads ...and why they make no sense").

As a result, I'm not one of the so far 12,000+ backers of this project. Nonetheless it will be interesting to see how this new service/player fares in the marketplace.

Related articles on digital audio:
Neil Young: Say No to MP3s
MP3: Audio boon or bane?
Rolling Stone: Hi-Fi not dead after all
Vinyl vs. CD myths refuse to die
Audio myth: Vinyl better than CD?

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