Neil Young claims he’s going to change the way we listen to digital music by pairing a new iPod-competitive Pono music player (I see “Ponyo” — how about you?) with an audiophile-caliber music download service. The claims are predictably long on sound bites and short on particulars.
What we know so far is this: It’ll offer 192 kHz, 24-bit recordings with “digital-to-analogue conversion technology intended to present songs as they first sound during studio recording sessions.”
192 kHz and 24-bit? That’s way better than 44.1 kHz and 16-bit (basic CD quality), no? Will it be uncompressed as well? Will lossless audiophiles finally have a mainstream, rich-library alternative to sites with limited catalogs like Rhino and Bleep and HD Tracks?
Back in July 2011, I lamented Amazon’s decision to limit its “unlimited” cloud music storage service to compressed audio file formats. FLAC files? Apple lossless audio? No-can-play. Thus “unlimited” only for members of the lossy audio club, i.e. those listening to lower quality versions of songs either ripped from personal music libraries or purchased online. Those of us who’ve fastidiously replicated our compact disc or vinyl music collections in digital form were out of luck.
I disliked but understood Amazon’s decision. Lossy audio occupies dramatically less space than lossless, and portable audio players hold only so many songs. The size of the average iTunes music library is around 3,000 tracks (according to TuneUp Media back in June 2011, anyway). If we say the average five minute MP3 is 5 MB, that’s roughly 15 GB of storage per person, which adds up fast. Amazon’s cloud-based pockets aren’t bottomless, and space on portable players can be dear — who wants to fuss over what to carry or leave behind?
What’s more, most people listening on the go — through earbuds, smartphone speakers, in automobiles, on planes or trains, out for a run on a windy day or in areas with traffic — are hearing music in environments decidedly non-conducive to, shall we say, the connoisseur’s ideal aesthetic. Who cares about audio nuance if what you’re using to listen or the listening environment itself aren’t up to snuff in the first place?
Me, for starters, because even when I’m in one of those compromised situations, I like to know that were I in a great sound space, say at home listening through my high-end monitors (speakers) or a pair of studio-quality headphones, I’d be able to appreciate all the nuance baked in by the musician(s) and whoever engineered the recording. I like the idea of holding in my possession the best version of a song that’s available. If I’m in a pinch, I can compress it any way I like, but if I need to go back to the source, at least there is one, as opposed to something bought through iTunes or Amazon, where you’re stuck with the compressed version, high fidelity playback gear or no.
Sympathy for my position is rare, or at least it has been anecdotally speaking. Most people — family, friends, strangers — claim not to be able to hear the difference, say, between an MP3 encoded at 256kbps and the lossless original. When I push back, I’m accused of being an audio snob. And to be fair, maybe I am (though never in the pretentious sense — I hold nothing against people who don’t care about this as much as I do, nor do I think my audio preferences are “superior” to theirs).
The differences between compressed and uncompressed music can be subtle depending on the compression levels. Working against my desire not to notice: a trained musical ear. I spent years in college-level music programs honing my ear to associate what most people identify as the lyrics to a catchy Rodgers and Hammerstein tune — “do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do” — with actual frequencies in the Western music system. When I hear a piece of music, I can tell just by listening what the chord relationships are, say what the chorus from Peter Gabriel’s “Come Talk to Me” has in common with the first two notes of the main title from Star Wars.
But that’s just pitch recognition — a jumping off point. I’ve also spent a lot of time over the years fiddling with audio formats and reproduction equipment, as well as stuff like ABXTester, a double-blind A/B comparison utility that checks your ability to tell the difference between two music samples. It’s great for testing whether you can discern different compression levels. I’ve found that I can reliably tell the difference at or below 256Kbps (the going compression rate on iTunes and Amazon), and that I only start to mix things up at or above 320Kbps (the rate a subscription service like Spotify laudably offers if you enable “high-quality” streaming). I don’t claim to have a “golden ear,” but I do have a discerning one.
Before I blame ear training and throw in the towel, I want to toss this on the fire: How many of you have built up a library of compressed digital tunes, where they’re your only copy of a song or album? You’ve probably spent a bunch of time and money doing so, right? If someone came along claiming your music collection was inferior and that you could have something of far superior quality, but that it’d cost you to get it, you’d probably balk. Is that influencing your opinion? What you’re telling yourself you hear or don’t hear? I think it’s a worthwhile question.
Then again, you can have too much of a good thing, and who’s to say that’s 192 kHz, 24-bit audio? I mean, you look at video advances and VHS to DVD, sure. But DVD to Blu-ray? Blu-ray to whatever’s next, e.g. “Retina” TVs? When is good enough really good enough? When does it become a truly niche, enthusiast-only thing?
Which bring us back to Neil Young’s music service claims: “digital-to-analogue conversion technology intended to present songs as they first sound during studio recording sessions.” Will anyone care (aside from the core audiophile group)? Does anyone really want to reboot their music libraries for what for most may seem less of a distinction, say, than the leap from VHS to DVD? After all, we’re not talking about a service (or a player) that’s going to solve two of the biggest obstacles to appreciating higher quality audio on the go: portable storage space that’s affordable and audio reproduction gear (to say nothing of ambient acoustics).
Besides, isn’t the real debate these days turning to one-off purchases versus subscription services?
How many of you are flirting with the idea of abandoning digital downloads for a streaming service like Spotify, where you can play back music, from a startlingly complete catalog, at near-CD-quality levels already? Where — artists and publishers and streaming providers willing — you could eventually just stream 192 kHz, 24-bit audio files for a flat rate in lieu of buying them?
Speaking as an audiophile, I wish Neil Young the best in all of this, and I’ll be first in line to try it. But unless he has some crazy sonic trick up his sleeve — some thing we’ve overlooked or failed to anticipate — he’s facing a tough sell, at least on the merits of the service’s superior audio quality.