Archive for the ‘Pono’ Category

It’s early Sunday morn as I write, and Roberta Flack is killing me softly with her songs. My trusty Tribit headphones cover my ears, and – though Bluetooth capable – are plugged into my Macbook Pro via an M-Audio Micro DAC. It’s a plug-in sound card that, as the picture shows, is just a tad larger than a thumb drive, and enables me to listen to 24-bit, 192-kHz music files in all their glory without first copying said files to my Pono player. 

A MacBook Pro can output 24/96 through its headphone jack, of course, by switching the settings in the MIDI utility, and the sound quality is quite good for both high-res files and the Neil Young Archives, which streams up to 24/192. But this $100 Micro DAC improves the sound, be it through my headphones or solid Logitech Z623 THX-certified 2.1 computer speakers.

I should mention that, a few summers back, I stopped using the Pono player on a regular basis. It overheated once, then twice, and then a few more times during the summers of ’16 and ’17 while I was out and about, and then, while listening in our den one hot-and-humid afternoon, it didn’t just overheat, but fried the 128g micro-SD card inside. (I made the “mistake” of listening while charging.) By that point, however, I’d already grown tired not just of adding and subtracting files from my micro-SD cards, but of toting two gadgets around.

Around the same time, I decided to give Apple Music a go. While there was a drop-off in quality, there wasn’t a drop-off in what – to me, at least – is the most important factor when it comes to music: emotional quotient. And, truthfully, what I hear via my iPhone or MacBook Pro is better than what I enjoyed via the Realistic stereo system my parents gifted me with for Christmas ’77  and the Realistic cassette deck I installed in my little brown Chevette in ‘85, to say nothing of staticky AM radio. All things are relative, in other words. Sometimes “good enough” is enough.

Yet, when at my desk and in the mood, I often fire up the Vox app and play some of the high-res files I collected from 2014 through early ’17 – or just stream from the NYA site. How to enjoy that music to its fullest? While there are many options, some of which are rather pricey, for me right now it’s the M-Audio Micro DAC. It gets the job done.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Sunday, 9/1/19. 

1) Roberta Flack – “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” A few years back, Diane and I watched Killing Me Softly: The Roberta Flack Story, a one-hour documentary about Roberta’s ascent to stardom, on (I think) Amazon Prime. For me, it was something of a revelation – I picked up a few of her albums from the Pono Store in the weeks that followed. This, her rendition of the Simon & Garfunkel classic (found on her 1971 Quiet Fire album), is just mesmerizing. 

2) Simon & Garfunkel – “American Tune.” One of Paul Simon’s greatest songs, from his 1973 There Goes Rhymin’ Simon album, was given the Simon & Garfunkel treatment during their now-legendary 1981 Central Park concert. The lyrics are as appropriate now as they were in ‘73: “And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered/I don’t have a friend who feels at ease/I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered/or driven to its knees/But it’s all right, it’s all right/We’ve lived so well so long/Still, when I think of the road/we’re traveling on/I wonder what went wrong/I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong.”

3) Courtney Marie Andrews & Deer Tick – “You’re the One That I Want.” Speaking of duets… and to lighten the mood… there’s this clip of a Grease cover, which I just discovered last night. Trust me when I say, “It’s electrifying!”

4) Courtney Marie Andrews – “Downtown Train.” Speaking of Courtney, she’s part of the forthcoming collection of Tom Waits songs, Come on Up to the House, which also includes Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, Rosanne Cash, Iris DeMent, Phoebe Bridgers and Patty Griffin, among others.

5) Allison Moorer – “The Rock and the Hill.” One album I’m anticipating is Allison Moorer’s Blood, which will be released alongside her memoir of the same name in late October. If this tasty track is any indication, it’s going to be flat-out great. (If you’re so inclined, head over to Allison’s website and pre-order both it and the book. And then check out her online journal, which is always an interesting read.)

And one bonus…

6) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – “Milky Way.” Another album I’m looking forward to is Colorado, which is also due out in October. It features Neil backed by a reconstituted Crazy Horse (with Nils Lofgren on guitar in place of Frank “Poncho” Sampredo). This, the first single, is both stirring and subdued at once.

 

img_2437A little more than five years ago, on an October eve, Diane and I ventured to the World Cafe Live Upstairs in Philly to see a British singer who had yet to release an album in the U.S. – Rumer. At most, 50 folks were in attendance; and half of them, I think, were there for dinner and drinks, not the show. As I wrote in my first post to the Hatboro-Horsham Patch (since relocated to this blog), only a smattering – including us – were already familiar with her music.

Here are a few clips from that night (taken with a Canon digital camera):

img_2433Afterwards, Rumer stuck around to sell merchandise and meet the fans… and, despite not having a working turntable, I bought (for $10 or 15) her debut LP, Seasons of My Soul, which I’d had on CD since the previous fall. We talked a bit, as not everyone stuck around. She was exceptionally nice and gracious (as she has been the other two times we’ve met).

To the point: Through the years, I’ve collected quite a few new (and never played) LPs – Neil Young, Blake Babies, First Aid Kit, Fleetwood Mac, others – that came as part of “deluxe” packages. I’ve intended, for quite a while, to return to the days or yore, but one thing or another – usually, the purchase of CDs and high-res downloads – cut into my music budget. But with the advent of Apple Music, my costs have gone down. I rarely purchase. Rumer’s new one? Yes, I bought that (and, in fact, have a CD-LP combo flying across the Atlantic to my doorstep); Neil? Of course. He’s a no-brainer. Most others? Eh. I’m quite content with the sound quality of Apple Music. As much as I enjoyed my Pono player, and I did, I’ve relegated it to home-use. But that’s a post for another day…

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Back on point: Today, I listened to Seasons of My Soul the way nature intended – analog. In my case, that means via a Sony turntable connected to a Samsung shelf-stereo system that I picked up, for free, through my job earlier this month. The sound is good. Great? Probably no better than the CD, given that the system isn’t top-end, but that’s okay. It’s cool to slip a vinyl disc from its sleeve, drop onto the turntable and let the music wash over you. Like days gone by.

Even my wooly bully of a feline, Tyler the Love Cat, enjoys it.

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I don’t have time for a proper review – that will have to wait until Saturday, sad to say. But Nous, the new extended-play from the pastor of the Church of Birch is simply hypnotic. It opens with “Hymn for Hypatia,” a short piece that conjures stained glass, pews and confessionals, which segues into “How Long,” the first in a string of moody songs that smolder like a soul on fire. Uptempo is out, in other words, and intensity is in. “Stand Under My Love” is amazing. Here’s a version she posted to YouTube last month –

The set, which she produced herself, is available for purchase (for $5) directly from her Bandcamp page – as MP3s, AACs, FLAC, ALAC or WAV files.  The FLAC, ALAC and WAV files are 24-bit/48 kHZ, I should mention; I went with the ALAC – sounds amazing on my Pono Player. (You can also stream the music via the Bandcamp app.)

My Pono Player has become an important cog in my enjoyment of music. Everything sounds better on it, which in my case means either lossless (ALAC or FLAC) rips of CDs, some of which I’ve owned for 30 years, or high-resolution files that capture every note and nuance found on the master tapes. Oh, I know, some folks will tell you that the difference between high-resolution and standard-def (or even well-encoded MP3s) isn’t audible – but they’re wrong.

Mind you, when first listening to high-resolution music, it’s not an immediate difference. But, as your ears become acclimated, the sound becomes deeper and more robust, and most noticeable when you shift back to standard-def or MP3s/AACs. That said, standard-def still sounds great – the Staves’ If I Was is an excellent example. Listening in my car, as I often do, volume up high, the sisters’ voices swoop in and out, and harmonize, as if they’re singing to me from the backseat. It’s remarkable, actually. Rumer’s Seasons of My Soul is another set of songs that, though only available in 16/44.1, sounds wondrous, with the gradient shades of her honey-smooth voice wafting from the speakers like bubbles in the wind.

Rumer’s second album, Boys Don’t Cry, is available in 24/88.2. The gradient shades of her delivery are richer as a result, with a velvety texture added that’s near-impossible to describe. You feel like you’re in the studio with her.

But I’m no sound snob. Anyone of a certain age grew up on radio and, to my ears, MP3 and AAC files are basically akin to FM radio – no one ever claimed that FM sounds as good as the traditional turntable setup of yore, but most folks enjoyed it nonetheless, often spending an afternoon or evening listening to their favorite station(s). The diminished sound quality didn’t preclude one from enjoying the music. In similar fashion, the iTunes download of the U.S. version of Seasons of My Soul possesses the same magic as the CD; the true crime there isn’t the reduced quality of the sonics, but the change in song order – the gentle push-and-pull pace of the original, with each song acting as a perfect lead-in to the next, was lost. Yes, of course, some of the gradient shades I referenced above are missing; that goes without saying. The emotional quotient remains the same, however, and it’s the emotional quotient that, for my money, is the most important ingredient in music.

Which leads to this: A few weeks back, I signed us up for the free three-month trial of Apple Music. If we decide to keep it, and we likely will, we’ll pay $15/month for access to 30-million tracks, all streamed as 256kbps AAC files (which are on a par with 320kbps MP3 files). In a sense, it’s akin to trading an antenna-equipped 55-inch HDTV for a 10-inch standard-def set that’s plugged into the cable ecosystem; the visual quality you’ve become accustomed to is gone, but you have access to most of the premium channels under the sun.

I have no intention of giving up my Pono Player or of no longer buying high-res albums, be they catalog items or brand-new titles. Just this morning, for example, I cashed in part of an HDTracks gift certificate (a Christmas gift) on Glady Knight & the Pips’ Imagination album. That’s the one with “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” two songs that I absolutely love. The soundscape is immense; and Gladys’ vocals…

The charm of Apple Music (and Spotify and other streaming services, for that matter) is that I can listen to what I want whenever I want. Coupled with T-Mobile’s Music Freedom program, which allows you to stream music without it counting against your data cap, well, what’s to lose, right? The other week, while stuck in traffic, I had a hankering for hearing the Bangles’ A Different Light – a longtime favorite that I haven’t listened to, in full, for eons. No, their creamy backing vocals weren’t as creamy as on CD or (one day, as it’s not available as of yet) in high-resolution, but it still brought a smile to my face. Likewise, after spotlighting it in a recent Top 5, I played Jane Wiedlin’s self-titled solo debut from start to finish; and followed it up with a Belinda Carlisle best-of. The result? I arrived at work in a good mood. To hear them on my Pono Player I’d have to, 1) find the CDs, which is easier said than done; 2) encode said CDs as FLAC or ALAC files; and, 3), load the tracks onto the player. I.e., plan ahead; and, too, have an endless supply of micro-SD cards.

No, the sound quality isn’t what I’m used to, but sometimes “good enough” is, indeed, good enough. All in all, and I was just saying this to Diane last night, I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoy the service.

I should add, I haven’t loaded Apple Music onto my computer, just my iPhone, due to the issues that, from what I’ve read, it has with many existing libraries, especially large ones like mine. I.e., matching songs to wrong albums and displaying the wrong cover art. Plus, I’d rather be able to choose what to make available. The Unsurpassed Masters bootleg series of Beatles’ outtakes, for instance, isn’t something I need on every device 24/7; I just don’t. The same goes for some albums that are basically Diane’s – and vice versa. I doubt she’d want my ONJ catalog littering her library.

(Apple needs to give the user the ability to decide which tracks, albums and artists to make available on all devices instead of assuming we want everything.)