Posts Tagged ‘PonoPlayer’

I spent a large chunk of yesterday moving and organizing music files. The external hard drive I’d been using is 15 gigs short of its one-terabyte capacity, so I had little choice but to commandeer one of my other external hard drives and turn it into a Pono-exclusive drive.

The primary space culprit: my original music library. It contains the 4000+ CDs I ripped as 256kbps and 320kbps back in 2007, plus the hundred or so I ripped as 320kbps between 2007 and 2010, and everything added in the years since, which, with the exception of occasional iTunes or Amazon downloads, are space-hogging Apple Lossless files. There’s more on the HD than music, of course – I’m a well-rounded entertainment junkie: Battlestar Galactica, Fringe and Pretty Little Liars downloads, plus various one-offs. There are also a few Super 8 home movies that I had converted to digital several years back, including this one that I compiled from my father’s Vietnam stint –

Anyway, by rights, running out of room shouldn’t have occurred for a few months, if not longer. I don’t buy new music at the rate that I once did, and re-purchasing re-issues of albums I’ve bought before is something I rarely do, nowadays. That said, since receiving my Pono Player in November, I have acquired some humongous-sized high-res versions of a few favorite albums and downloaded several high-res Bruce Springsteen concerts from his website. (The 24-bit/192kHz 1978 Cleveland show clocks in at 7.8 gigs!) I’ve also re-ripped as FLAC 250+ CDs that I originally encoded as MP3s. One external HD devoted to Pono Music makes sense – not just for high-resolution music, but the CD re-rips.

That’s an admittedly long-winded way to say that much of yesterday was devoted to the boring, mundane stuff that makes up the modern, digital life. Yet, I made the most of it, putting my Pono Player on shuffle and enjoying the tunes. One of the many songs I heard was Rumer’s rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “Flyin’ Shoes” from her 2012 Boys Don’t Cry album.

I’ve written about the album before, so I won’t rehash what I said, but perhaps this will place it into context: It’s one of the few non-Neil Young albums that I’ve re-purchased in high-res form (in this case, 24-bit/88.2kHz). She’s often compared to Karen Carpenter and, tonally speaking, the similarities are indeed striking, but the singer she most reminds me of is Dusty Springfield, who caressed and phrased lyrics in such a way that songs transcended into private, albeit one-sided (and very melodic) conversations.

The other song that leapt out: Natalie Duncan’s “The Sky Is Falling” from her 2012 Devil in Me CD. One of the things that I’ve discovered with my Pono Player is that CD-quality stuff simply sounds amazing on it – better than my iPhone, and I’ve always thought ALAC rips sounded good on it. Such is the case with this song. Listening to the same ALAC file via the Pono is akin to sitting beside her on the piano bench instead of, say, halfway across the room.

And, as long as I’ve mentioned Ms. Duncan, here’s another glimmer of her future greatness – her rendition of the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”

In any event, the leap from MP3 to CD-quality is far greater than the leap from CD-quality to high-res, though some high-res music – like Boys Don’t Cry or Dusty in Memphis – does sounds remarkable. It’s one of the things the few reviews of the Pono Player that I’ve read have missed – they concentrate on the form factor, the high prices attached to some (not all) high-resolution downloads, and the claims that people can’t hear all the sonics contained in 24-bit/192kHz music files. That last point may or may not be true; I’ve read conflicting arguments. However, there’s no denying that a simple 16-bit, 44.1kHz CD rip sounds better on the Pono.

At the end of the day, though – and this ties in with leading a modern, digital life – in and of itself, pristine sound quality means nothing, just as 4K television means nothing. Sometimes we – and, yes, I likely mean “me” when I say that – get so caught up in the technical promise of things that we forget the most important part of the equation: the music, movie or TV show. There was a time in my life when I obsessed over scratchy 45 singles, after all, and when I regularly watched – and enjoyed – TV shows on a small black-and-white TV.

A great song or performance is great regardless of the delivery system; it transcends the device used to play it. Such is the case with Boys Don’t Cry and Natalie Duncan’s “The Sky Is Falling.” Regardless of what you play music on, seek both out. You won’t be disappointed.

I’m deep into contemplating my much-ballyhooed Album of the Year honor. On a date yet to be determined, though definitely sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I’ll bestow the award to what I deem to be the top release of 2014. Which means, of course, that I’m sifting through and re-listening to the candidates, and drifting away on the potent melodies therein. I’m cogitating, contemplating, deliberating, pondering and ruminating, as well as chewing, stewing and mulling over the music, and debating the merits of individual selections with Diane and Tyler, our all-knowing feline sage. It’s serious business, a major decision, the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.

(Or, perhaps, not.)

I began the practice in the late ‘70s after reading the year-end picks of music critics. Granted, those scribes had access to much more music than I. Back then, I relied on birthday and Christmas money, plus my allowance, to buy albums. Today, it’s not all that different: I still budget. And, like most folks, that budget often takes a hit from competing needs and wants. Also – I’m 49 years old. Most current music holds no interest to me. So, though I was and am a music obsessive, I don’t pretend to be an all-knowing seer of any particular year’s releases. Specific artists and albums? Yes. Music history in general? Yes. The Top 40, especially of late? No.

I also, from time to time, get it wrong. A great, recent case in point: 2012. I was smitten with Susanna HoffsSomeday album, which was – and remains – as perfect a pop record as I’ve heard. I listened to it again last week and again tonight, in fact, and it’s as wondrous as I remembered, if not better. But my runner-up for that year, Psychedelic Pill by Neil Young & Crazy Horse, has become one of my most-played albums of recent vintage. It’s home to propulsive rhythms, swirling and whirling guitars, and, above all, majestic melodies. To my ears, “Driftin’ Back,” “Ramada Inn” and “Walk Like a Giant” rank with Neil’s greatest works.

Yet, I can’t help but to think that the most important music-related item of the past year hasn’t been a recording, but a player – the Pono Player, to be precise. I wrote about it a few posts ago and now, almost a month later, thought I’d expand upon that initial critique.

First, as I think I said last time out, I am not an audiophile. The emotional raison d’être of music has always superseded “sound quality” for me. Through the years, I’ve enjoyed – some may say obsessed over – music via staticky AM radio, cassettes worn so thin that the music on the flip side seeped through, and muddy vinyl (and later CD) bootlegs. But there’s something magical about unencumbered music. It’s akin to the differences between standard-definition TV and HD. If landscapes in HD look incredible, then high-resolution soundscapes are spectacular.

Sometimes.

The difference is stark when comparing lossy MP3s to the high-resolution FLAC files. The differences between a well-mastered CD (or CD-equivalent ALAC or FLAC files) and high-res ALAC or FLAC files are negligible when listening via my mid-tier, THX-certified Logitech desktop speakers. “Walk Like a Giant” from the high-res (24-bit, 192kHz) Psychedelic Pill that came with my player sounds just about the same to me whether it’s coming from the Pono Player or the ALAC rip of the CD via my MacBook Pro.

I think I hear a difference, but I could be wrong, and if there is a difference it’s not much of one. When moving between the Pono Player and my iPhone 5, however, the difference is obvious. On my mid-tier Bose headphones, the high-res version is a richer experience – similar, in a sense, to comparing an old-school 4×3 TV picture to the now-standard 16×9 widescreen. Likewise, when listening via our decade-old, mid-tier bookshelf system downstairs – “fuller-bodied” springs to mind. The ALAC-encoded “Walk Like a Giant” sounds good via my iPhone, mind you, but the high-res FLAC file via the Pono Player sounds complete. And in my car, there’s no comparison. The high-resolution music sounds immense. (When I upgrade my desktop speakers, which will likely occur mid-2015, I’ll report back.)

I’m still unsure what it is, exactly, that makes the difference. 16- vs. 24-bit? 44.1- vs. 96- or 192kHz? The DAC (digital-to-analog converter) that’s housed in the oblong Pono Player? All of the above? Or a combination of some? I will say this: my CD-equivalent, ALAC-rip of Susanna Hoffs’ Someday sounds fresher, warmer and richer than via my iPhone. “Picture Me” is a pure delight. It’s Beatlesque, beautiful and utterly sweet.

All that said, there are areas where the Pono player could stand improvement. Battery life is one. I don’t think I’ve gotten more than six hours out of a charge. (It’s not a big deal for me, as during the workday I charge it via my work computer, but it may make a difference to others.) Also, file sizes are much larger than typical MP3s or AACs, so larger storage is necessary. It comes with 64GB, and can take up to a 128GB microSD card, but given the low cost of flash memory, why not up the internal to 128GB or even 256GB? A larger screen would be nice, too, so long as it doesn’t negatively impact the battery life.

Now that I’m used to it, the Pono Music World software (used to transfer the digital files to the player) works great – when my Mac sees the player, that is. Sometimes I have to dock and undock it several times before it’s picked up. And while purchasing high-res files from the Pono Music store can be done from within the software, I’ve found it easier to do via a web browser. Navigation in the store, as it’s currently designed, is a chore – it’s not intuitive, and high-res content isn’t readily identifiable until you click onto an album to see the track listing. Of course, like the player, both the software and store are first-generation affairs – I assumed, going in, that some kinks would need to be ironed out.

All that said, when or if the Pono Player gets around to a Version 2, which I hope they do, I’ll spring for it. I’m no audiophile, as I said above, but after listening to high-resolution files and regular CD rips on this first version, I can’t imagine not having one.

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These past few weeks I’ve immersed myself in alternate universes: Fringe, which I’m re-watching, and The Gilmore Girls, which is brand-new to me. One of the things that amuses me about the latter is Lorelei’s stream-of-consciousness/beat-like patter; another is Rory’s friend Lane’s music obsession. In between watching those shows, well, there’ve been the usual suspects: Covert Affairs, Homeland, The Big Bang Theory and Once Upon a Time, plus the occasional Law & Order rerun.

There’s also been plenty of music.

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Back in March, I signed on as a backer of Neil Young’s Pono Kickstarter campaign, pledging for one of the limited-edition Neil Young & Crazy Horse-branded players. “Pono,” for those who don’t know, is Hawaiian for righteous; and the player is definitely that. I wrote a rather long and convoluted post about it, but decided to nix it and start again, beginning with the description from the Pono page:

“The PonoPlayer transports you to a sublime musical experience, from the most delicate passages of a string quartet to the thunderous power of a heavy metal band. This portable audio player uses circuitry taken straight from Ayre’s own top-of-the-line products, costing tens of thousands of dollars, for unparalleled sound quality and unrivaled listening pleasure. Pono supports playback of high-fidelity audio of up to 192kHz/24 bit resolution.”

It’s an audiophile’s version of an iPod, essentially.

Now, some audiophiles will tell you that, long before the shift to MP3s and AACs, digital distilled the warmth out of music. I disagree. A well-mastered CD sounds as good to my ears as vinyl ever did. Natalie Merchant’s self-titled album from this year is a good example. The sound is warm and spacious – phenomenal, actually. But in the early days of CDs, an assortment of variables iced the sound – not all the time, mind you, but often enough. The use of production masters meant for vinyl, for one, resulted in what might best be called “mimeographed audio.” The music was faint, thin and flat, not full and well-rounded. Another variable: nth-generation masters, which – just like nth-generation cassette copies –  sported degraded sound. There are also stories (and they may well be urban legends) of record companies, in those early years, of using cassettes as the source for some CDs in their mad rush to get product out the door.

By the time that was sorted out, the early- to mid-1990s, another variable was introduced: loudness. The volume was pushed to the max in the mastering process, resulting in clipped highs and lows. Dynamic range went out the window, in other words. (See this excellent explanation on CDmasteringservices.com for more information.)

To shift gears for a second: Store-bought MP3s and AACs are generally encoded at 256kbps. That a CD is 1411kbps, consumers are told (often by one another), is beside the point. Compression algorithms ensure that we’ll hear a faithful representation of the source material. So an MP3 or AAC of a subpar track is going to sound equally lousy. Conversely, a great-sounding CD that’s been encoded into MP3s or AAC will, in many instances, sound “good enough.” Almost everyone multitasks these days, after all, and for many people the music is pushed to the background when doing so. I see it in my office, where many folks, including me, often have headphones on while focused on their work; and, at least with me, I’m often so focused that I don’t even hear the music.

But for serious listening “good enough” isn’t good enough. FLAC and the Apple lossless equivalent, ALAC, have always been the way to go. Until now.

In an A-B test pitting the PonoPlayer against my iPhone 5, using my mid-tier Logitech desktop computer speakers and standard-def FLAC and ALAC (Apple Lossless) files of Rumer’s “Dangerous,” “Sam” and “I Am Blessed” (from her new Into Colour album), Pono delivered a wider and deeper soundscape. The music is more visceral, immediate and – dare I say it? – warm; and her luscious vocals are whipped-cream rich. The same’s true when listening with my mid-tier Bose headphones. That’s due, no doubt, to the Pono’s singular focus on audio; unlike a smart phone, it need not be all things to all people.

A quick comparison to my MacBook Pro with the same files, however, reveals a negligible difference. If I wasn’t the one hitting stop and start, I likely wouldn’t have known which was which.

Where the Pono has the edge: Its ability to handle high-resolution audio. That means 24 bit and up to 192kHz vs. the iPhone’s CD-quality 16 bit/44.1kHz limitation and the MacBook’s native 24 bit/96kHz support. Theoretically speaking, the high-resolution files should be akin to the original studio masters, with no limits on the highs or lows, and no compression.

It’s been said (and proven) that humans can’t hear all the additional frequencies included in high-resolution tracks, and I am one who believes in science. But there is a difference. The deluxe Paul McCartney reissues, which I’ve religiously purchased since they began in 2010, come with 24 bit, 96kHz “unlimited” downloads in addition to the physical CDs. The opening tracks of the high-res Venus & Mars reveals a slightly richer, well-rounded sound – that’s evident via listening on my MacBook, but on the PonoPlayer they sound even better. And the same result is had when comparing the 24 bit, 192kHz version of Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Psychedelic Pill, which came with the player, to my Apple Lossless version.

Comparing the high-resolution tracks to MP3s of the same source material, however, is akin to comparing day to night. Joni Mitchell’s Blue is a sheer revelation; you hear the vibrato of the plucked guitar strings. It’s magical. And Dusty Springfield’s classic Dusty in Memphis conjures the smell of new vinyl.

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At present, the biggest issue I’ve had hasn’t been the player or its sound, but the PonoMusic ecosystem. The software is somewhat clunky, especially for one coming from iTunes or Windows Media Player; and the store, though well stocked of standard-resolution content, lacks much of the same high-resolution material that can be had elsewhere (HDTracks.com) – and is a tad overpriced. I expect both to change in the coming months, however, as more people sign on.

Oh, and one more thing: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere rocks. It’s the best version of that classic (one of my Top 10 albums of all time) I’ve ever heard.

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