Pono, We Have a Problem

Pono, the promised portable 24-bit FLAC player scheduled to ship within a year, has me all excited about high definition music.  Because I couldn’t wait, I started researching options to play 24-bit FLAC files now.  I ended up buying a new Denon AVR-X1000 receiver, and here’s where I discovered three huge problem that Pono might have.  I’m all dressed up with no place to go.


Music Selection

I’ve been clicking through HD Tracks catalog of HD audio files, and even though they have big selection, I can’t find anything I want to buy.  Now I must admit, when SACD came out I bought about 15 of my all-time favorite albums in that format, and see no reason to buy them again.  Those SACD albums are available as FLAC files, and if I hadn’t bought them on SACD, they would have been my first purchases.  The selection is very disappointing if you want 96-192kHz 24-bit high resolution music files.  I could think of plenty of albums I would buy, but they aren’t there.  Ironically, there’s no Neil Young.

Most of the 192kHz/24bit files are for older albums, which is great, but I’d like to hear new stuff with studio master quality.  The new Bruce Springsteen came out as 44.1kHz/24bit.  If the whole selling point is massive high-resolution files, this misses the target.

I have to hope when the Pono comes out, and the Pono Music store opens, this will change.  And there are rumors that iTunes will start selling high resolution music files.  I’d prefer to buy from Amazon, since my other digital music purchases are stored there.

Album v. Song

Right now, you generally have to buy a whole album, and this sucks.  The digital music revolution has taught us we want to buy songs, not albums.  There are many albums at HD Tracks that have songs I would buy, but I just don’t want the whole album.  Right now it seems like Pono is a scheme to get people to buy whole albums again!  I don’t know if that’s going to work.

I’ve been thinning my CD and LP collections and it’s so painfully obvious that I bought most of them for one song.  Many albums that are legendary in my memory, but when recently replayed showed I no longer have the patience to sit through entire albums.  On many CDs, some now 30 years old, I’ve even forgotten the song that made me buy the album in the first place, and sometimes even after playing the entire CD I can’t remember.

It’s a hit song world now.  Few albums are like Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan, where I love most of the songs.  And that’s the first SACD I bought, along with Layla, and The Allman Brothers Band at the Fillmore East.  (Isn’t it odd they were all double LPs.)

There is a naturally tendency to want to hear songs we’re obsessed with at the moment.  Back in the 20th century when LPs and CDs were the only way to get music, I’d buy 2-4 of them a week trying to find music I’d love.  It was always a gamble.  iTunes has taught us not to gamble, but just buy the song that presses that button in our brain that makes us want to play songs over and over again.

With the prices they charge for high resolution music, and the fact that I have to buy a whole album, that means I will only buy albums that are truly incredible.  Sadly, those are few and far between.  I would be very tempted by those old Rhino double CD anthologies as FLAC files, especially those for Quicksilver Messenger Service, Graham Parker, Free and Savoy Brown.

If HD Tracks sold by the song, I would have already bought about 50 of them, even at twice the price of an iTunes song.  As it is, I’m struggling to find the first album to buy to test out my new receiver.  I hate to waste $25 just to test the concept and end up with only one song I like.


I’ve been going through the HD Tracks catalog anxiously looking for something to buy and the $25-30 sticker shock is making the decision agonizing.  Most of the albums I want I already own on CD, or even twice on CD because I’ve already bought the remastered edition.  And for a handful of my favorite albums, I’ve already bought them on SACD.

Rich audiophiles probably think nothing of the pricing of 24-bit FLAC files, but for the masses, it’s going to be a problem.  For the Pono or other high resolution players to catch on, I think music publishers will need to be willing to sell by the song, and I hope that’s what iTunes will do.  I’d prefer to get my songs from Amazon though.

Mass Appeal

I truly doubt high resolution music files will catch on with the masses.  Several of my readers have told me my posts about high resolution music are the ones that bore them the most.  (Sorry guys.)  And I’ve talked with a bunch of my music love friends, and they have little interest either.  And despite Neil Young’s famous video of all these big name musicians getting out of his car and exclaiming the Pono sound blew them away, I’m not sure if the average person can tell the difference.

My new receiver allowed me to play my SACDs again.  I haven’t played them in a while since my new player wouldn’t work with my old receiver.  I put on a SACD and I was amazed at the sound quality – for a while.  I tried Blood on the Tracks and instantly said to myself, “Just listen to that guitar!”  The texture of the bright strings made it feel like a guitar player was right in the room.   However, this magic only worked as long as I applied my full focus of concentration.

I then played my favorite song,  “You’re a Big Girl Now” via Rdio.  My mind sensed something was missing, that this version wasn’t quite as good, but as soon as I relaxed my concentration, it no longer mattered.  MP3 music isn’t bad at all, it’s just not all there, and you have to really focus to notice the missing stuff.

To appreciate high resolution audio you have to concentrate.  You have to listen to the music with total rapt attention.  I listened to some 24-bit classical music and it felt like I was at the symphony, but only while my mind stayed razor sharp on the music.  As soon as I relaxed and listened to the music like a drug washing over me, the high resolution sparkled disappeared.

I’m not sure if most music fans ever concentrate on their music enough to appreciate high resolution sound.  It’s not a dramatic jump like going from analog TV to HDTV.  Which is why 4K TV probably won’t catch on either.  And it’s why all those articles by geeky guys explaining how the Red Book CD standard is more than enough for the average ear is probably true.

I still want to buy a 192kHz/24bit album to test on my new receiver, but between limited selection, finding an album with enough songs I love, and price, it’s proving to be damn hard.  Sorry, Neil, we have a problem.

[Read about which FLAC album I pick and the testing.]

JWH – 4/24/14


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