Disclaimer: Please park your prejudices, reservations or holier-than-thou attitudes at the door. I am not an audiophile or audio technician, just a music fan who listens to a lot of music on a daily basis.
Following Neil Young’s unveiling of the high-fidelity audio download service, Pono, and the accompanying portable player on the David Letterman show last year, the service has had a tentative website launch. Pono aims to revolutionise the digital music industry by providing music files of the highest possible quality taken from the original studio recordings, on par with the master tracks in studios or a vinyl record. But, how marketable is a high-fidelity audio download service, and just why are audiophiles raging against audio files?
Like many people I’m sure, I have been sceptical about the proclaimed virtues of vinyl audio quality over other formats. All the talk of getting a ‘warmer sound’ just seems like borderline-obsession, scrutinising the minutiae for merit on a nostalgic format. I’m not much of an audiophile, having been brought up on compact discs and being of an age where I could buy my own music by the time mp3s came around. And while if money and practicality were no object I would choose vinyl over CD or mp3, my choice is largely rooted in an appeal to the aesthetically enhanced physical packaging and an enjoyment of the ritual of setting up a turntable, rather than audio quality.
However, the way CDs and mp3s compress audio information necessarily reduces the dynamic frequency range which has a proven, knock-on effect in the way our brains perceive the recordings (for a more technical and in-depth account, read Sean Poynton Brma’s accessible explanation here). In layman’s terms, the less audio information your brain is given (mp3s lose about 90% of the audio information in conversion), the poorer your experience of the music will be. Many musicians have openly supported this view, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers even going so far as to say that “Mp3s suck!’. Audiophiles have often commented that should you listen to the same recording in various formats the difference in quality should be immediately noticeable. Having recently set up my parents’ old deck, I figured this would be a good opportunity to test this claim and hear for myself whether a difference is noticeable on modest equipment or if it is merely splitting hairs. Coincidentally, one of the only albums I have access to on record, CD and mp3 is Neil Young’s seminal album, After The Gold Rush. Not only that, but because of the prevalence of CD and mp3, recording technology has adapted itself to that market too, so I reason an old album is more likely to be a better control sample than, say, Yeezus or AM. So, here are my observations:
Sticking on the record first, I am struck by the audible space between the piano and Neil Young’s voice on ‘After The Gold Rush’, which give the notes room to breathe. This is something I had not noticed before when listening to the album on CD and mp3 where the piano and Young seemed compressed together into a single source. Similarly, on the other piano centred ballad, ‘Birds’, the natural reverb around Young’s vocals is noticeable, whereas before it sounded like he was singing directly into my ear. Also, the harmonic overtones of the piano at the song’s close oscillate palpably. On ‘Oh, Lonesome Me’ the vocal harmonies in the bridge between Young and Stephen Stills blend more seamlessly and resonate more completely, closing the distance between the two voices. Meanwhile on the heavier tracks, the deeper presence of percussion and bass is immediately noticeable. On ‘Southern Man’ Ralph Molina’s crashing drums sound fuller behind Young’s trebly guitar histrionics, especially the cymbal clashes which seem to shimmer. Meanwhile, the bass is deeper on ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’, emphasising the mounting tension in the chorus. Most powerfully, ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’ is a visceral onslaught as guitars, piano and drums spar against each other over the steady rhythm laid out by bass and rhythm guitar. It feels like a solid wall of sound, whereas before it seemed like a coordinated group of individuals. So far, so good.
Flicking the CD on, I was surprised that the opener ‘Tell Me Why’ sounds slightly flat and limp, and the harmony vocals seem squashed together rather than resonating into one another. The following ‘After The Gold Rush’ actually sounds like a slightly different mix because Young and the piano actually seem positioned closer together, while the mournful flugelhorn solo seems slightly hollow. On ‘Birds’ the vocal harmonies still retain most of their qualities, but it sounds like the band are singing in a smaller room and the piano loses some of its harmonics at the end. With ‘Southern Man’, the cymbals no longer seem to shimmer in the same way, although Young’s solo, pushed to the fore, still retains most of its heft. However, ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ seems to get a case of the doldrums, falling a bit flat and having lost some of its vitality. It’s almost like the band don’t seem as into it, even though it’s the same recording. Meanwhile, ‘When You Dance’ does not seem as unified a sound, as if perceptible cracks have formed between the players. Hrmmm.
Clicking play on the 320 kbps mp3 copy of the album in my iTunes library does little to inspire confidence. The guitars on ‘Tell Me Why’ sound comparatively reedy, while the vocals seem slightly tinny. The piano on ‘After The Gold Rush’ sounds flat as if the song had been played on a keyboard instead, while the flugelhorn sounds almost muffled. Also, Young now sounds like he’s singing right next to the piano. Similarly, ‘Birds’ sounds a bit limp and the piano harmonics seem almost completely absent at the end. The percussion on ‘Southern Man’, which I had always regarded as dramatic and cataclysmic on my iPod, sounds like they’re being played in the next room. By comparison, they lose a lot of their punch from the record or CD. Young’s guitar solo also sounds a bit negatively smoothed out, and again that piano-cum-keyboard sound persists. Meanwhile, ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ has an even larger case of the doldrums than on CD, as if the life had been sucked out of it. That statement does sound a bit dramatic, but the difference is startling. Conversely, ‘When You Dance’ sounds more unified than on CD, but it too sounds flat. Rather than a dense, concrete wall of sound, this is a single layer garden fence that is missing a lot of the immensity heard on the record. In addition, the drums almost sound like they were programmed into an 808 drum machine by comparison.
I am honestly surprised by the audible difference between the different formats, or rather how immediately perceptible these differences were to me. I honestly expected it to be a lot of hot air, reserved for studio playback technology, but even on a modest set-up the differences were present. In listening to the vinyl album everything seemed to be in the right place, especially acoustic space: Notes were allowed to breathe when needed in some places and in others cracks were smoothed over and harmonies seamlessly blended together. The analogy I would draw would be with seeing a film. Listening to the album on vinyl was like seeing a film in the cinema, while listening to the album on CD and mp3 was like seeing the film on a HD and a 60 hz television, respectively. Obviously the cinema is the fullest experience of a film you can have, but some films don’t lose much by watching them at home. Similarly, not all albums are essential listening on a turntable or lose their fundamental properties on lower-fidelity formats. So, will I now eschew all manner of digital devilry? Will I take to the streets, urging people to burn their CD players and refuse to listen to After the Gold Rush on my iPod or on CD in my car in favour of the vinyl record? Well of course not, not least because of the impracticality of carrying a turntable with me everywhere I go. All I am saying is that each format provides a different experience and that as a sceptic I was surprised by the audible discrepancies between these experiences.
So, given my recent experience, would I say that Pono is a surefire winner that is set to turn over the marketplace? Well, I’m not sure I am convinced there. Launching a service that offers high fidelity audio downloads seems feasible, but launching a specific player that is required to play the format seems too ambitious, if not unrealistic. It will require a lot of publicity backing to make a dent in the competition. Also, the side effect of having such an information-rich audio format means that Pono’s format may put cost and file size a bit on the uncomfortable side. Having said that, the Pono player purportedly will play all other audio file formats so I think cost and storage capacity will be a major factor whether people will shell out for one. In its favour, it is also the case that in recent years there has been a marked increase in the sale of vinyl, especially with younger generations. Amazon has claimed a 100% growth in vinyl sales year-on-year, with Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories being the best vinyl seller of both 2013 and since 1999, which indicates that there is an appetite for vinyl in the casual online marketplace, as opposed to being relegated to a second-hand market. Evidently Sony and Warner Music Group must recognise this appeal to enter into deals with Pono, because although being Neil Young may help it does not get them onboard without some kind of foreseeable return. Ultimately, it’s success will, as ever, be down to how consumers react. What does remain clear though is that having an option for higher-fidelity digital music can only be a good thing, and that there is a growing number of people who agree.
Pono is set to launch in 2014