Monday, December 1, 2014

Neil Young's Pono is a Fraud

Really, who's surprised to find out that the reason why Neil Young is selling the Pono player has everything to do with appealing to a need to feel different and special from other human beings and nothing to do with actual science?

CDs, and digital-to-audio converters, reproduce pretty much everything better than vinyl. To say so is to spit on the holy writ of many audiophiles, but there's science behind it. Nyquist-Shannon's theorem is a neat piece of maths that shows how quickly you have to sample an analogue signal to turn it faithfully into a digital one. Every sound is a combination of multiple frequencies at different volumes. To digitise sound, you have to capture all the frequencies. The theorem shows that, to capture a sound at frequency X, you need to take a digital sample double that frequency. Now mix in that the absolute limit of human hearing is 20kHz (and for most people more like 14kHz or less), and you realise the 44.1kHz sampling rate for CDs is fine. It will capture everything, assuming your sampler is any good.

Then there's the question of 16-bit audio. Really, is 16-bit enough to capture a sufficient range of volumes in what began as a smoothly varying analogue signal? This isn't so easily settled; 16-bit gives you 65,636 possible sound levels, while 24-bit increases that to 16.7m. It's conceivable that using more bits to encode the audio (while sticking with the same sampling rate) will improve the sound – if you have wonderful hearing. But most of us don't. Studios tend to record in 24-bit because they don't want to lose any data. But that is then mixed down to 16-bit. It's possible, if you're a mad-keen audiophile, to get 24-bit audio mixes – but they aren't cheap. And it's highly unlikely that in a blind test you would hear the difference.

So given that Pono is going to play music where the sampling rate and bit depth won't improve reproduction, why do people want it? Simple: those extra numbers are a specification, and if there's one thing certain groups of men (it's always men) love above all other things, it's a specification on a list. So Pono offers you a feature – for a premium – that you can't actually perceive. It's like invisible clothes or odourless perfume. Marketing people must be looking at it with envy.

If you can trick people into paying $700 or more for audio equipment that reproduces sound in a way no human being can fully hear or appreciate, then you're pretty smart. Getting them to buy the old vinyl albums everyone threw out for twice the price and then a sound system worth $40 grand? Yeah, you're on your way to being immortal. Convincing them that they need to spend $100K for a forty year old guitar that doesn't play better or sound any different than a $3,000 Paul Reed Smith made last month? Damned fine marketing. Getting them to pay $3 million dollars or more for a Stradivarius? Genius.

In my own travels and experiences, music appreciation is subjective. People will only pay so much and then they will get tired of the bullshit. The iPod existed and the MP3 exists now solely because this delivered a massive amount of free music that people could manage and control. That's all. The best thing I have ever heard is a FLAC file played through the Winamp application on a Microsoft XP machine. Winamp and XP are long gone and so is the idea that music can only be appreciated by white men with lots of money. Your best experience with music is yours and yours alone. Mine is mine. We need not agree for all of this to be true.

I love Neil Young. But we are never going to have nice things until all the Goddamned hippies and their crazy, unverifiable, exclusive ideas are dead and gone. It all comes down to these counterculture-inspired nonsense concepts that were born out of bullshit sessions held long ago. Yeah, there's a magic tone in the timber of that Stratocaster, dude, and it can't be reproduced or copied or improved upon because shut up, that's why.

What other generation relies on resume inflation and tallying the amount of money they spend on bullshit as an indicator of how much "better" they are than everyone else? Sheesh.

The bottom line is, you don't have to buy the same albums you already own in a new format. You don't have to feel bad about using an old iPod. You don't need a $20,000 turntable. You don't need to buy all of the music you want in the FLAC format, although FLAC files do sound pretty good. You don't need to own $300 headphones.

I mean, good God. Is everything just a ripoff now or what?

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