When David Pogue wrote his sizzling review about legendary rocker Neil Young’s high resolution Pono music player, David made some major waves,—at least with some audiophiles. He said that the Pono player was like the Hans Christian Anderson’s story of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
Some audiophile apologists didn’t agree with the review and the analogy. The digital fisticuffs escalated to the point where David Pogue had to write a follow-up article to explain himself a bit more.
First of all, let me get it out there bluntly. David Pogue is right. You read it correctly, David’s right.
He’s right in doing the blind testing and he’s right in calling out the oh so nuanced wording of calling out Pono’s wording of being better than MP3. He’s also right in comparing an AAC-encoded file (which is an excellent lossy codec, by the way and far superior to MP3) to high res downloads. He’s right because he doesn’t have an axe to grind but he’s trying to get to the bottom of the fundamental, blind path that many audiophiles have taken: that if it says Hi-Res, then it must be better and if you can’t tell the difference then there’s something wrong with your ability to hear the difference.
Read his articles again and you’ll see that to be the case. So, David’s right…with an asterisk.
Every audiophile should thank David Pogue for exposing a tremendous amount of confusion in the audiophile world about high res music players and high res music. If we have anything legitimate to complain about it’s that David just didn’t go far enough.
Let me explain a bit.
First of all, a high res music player at its most basic definition plays files that have a high resolution sampling rate and are saved in a lossless format. That’s it, as simple as that. If a player can play a 96/24 or 192/24 file in FLAC or ALAC then it’s a high res player! It does not mean (and follow my logic here please) that what that player plays will sound better than anything else.
“Wait!” you must be screaming. “How can that be? It’s a high resolution music player isn’t it?” Yes, it is a player capable of playing files encoded in a format. That’s it. Saying it’s a high res player doesn’t mean it has a superior amplification stage, a superior DAC, nothing. Unfortunately, audiophiles have come to think that if something plays high resolution files then it certainly must sound better, and even significantly better.
In fact, you may be surprised to learn that playing a high resolution file on a high res player does not even guarantee that any of those “high resolution” files will sound any better than CD quality—or better than an AAC-encoded iTunes file for that matter.
This is where David Pogue nailed it on the head. There are audiophiles out there touting the superiority of high res audio with files that were only mastered at CD quality to begin with! No matter how “high resolution” you make those files, no matter what format you’ll save them in, they will not suddenly become high resolution—or to use a more precise description, better sounding. In other words, yes, the emperor has new clothes and they are exactly the same clothes he wore yesterday. CD quality of a master from yesterday is still CD quality from a high-res file today.
Dr. Mark Waldrep, founder of AIX records has been a true pioneer in high resolution audio recording, mastering and playback. Mark got all of this right (Mark has a regular blog on Real HD-Audio here that I recommend to all). At the time of Pogue’s Pono review, Mark put forth a broad stroke article where he hit on a few key points.
Mark’s most recent post, however, really hits upon all the major points that need to be said about high resolution audio. If you think you know all there is to know about high resolution audio, think again. Read Mark’s post.
I do recommend that you read the post in its entirety, but I wanted to highlight a few items specifically.
First, we’ve always had high resolution music. That’s right! Where do we think that “high resolution” even comes from? LPs and analog tape have always been capable of incredible, high fidelity.
Second, the very term high resolution is simply defined as “better than CD.” That’s not the same connotation high resolution audio has for audiophiles and that’s a major part of the problem. Mark puts it best when he says:
I believe we’ve been oversold on the concept of “high-res” audio or music. Up to this point, the messaging has been almost entirely fluff and spin instead of factual and transparent. The definition of high-res audio is a case in point. The DEG, CEA, NARAS, and labels definition issued a year ago can be boiled down to “better than CD”. Any release delivery format from any source with specifications that exceed 44.1 kHz/16-bit PCM fidelity qualifies as high-res. Then came the hi-res audio logo, the one that the JAS controlled (after Sony developed and promoted it). The CEA got on board and proclaimed that domestic hardware companies and “content” providers could license the logo. This became problematic when the requirements turned out to be much more stringent than the “better than CD” crowd. So now we have two sets of specifications and two logos, each with their own requirements. How’s a consumer supposed to make sense of that?
Finally, Mark is advocating that we simply drop the use of the term high resolution. His inferred point is very simple. The term is so imprecise and made so confusing by the purveyors of high resolution music that it’s best to drop it altogether. In Mark’s own words:
So I suggest abandoning the term “hi-res” and simply providing a brief description that consumers could use to make their own evaluation of whether a file or device produces a musical experience that they enjoy. Virtually all of the content on HDtracks, PonoMusic or the others online downloads sites came from older sources…ones that may or may not have state-of-the-art fidelity. The provenance labeling could simply state that the source was a “remastered digital copy of the safety copy of the master” or “transferred from the analog master at 96 kHz/24-bits”. I was pushing the idea of a “hi-res transfer” category a couple of weeks ago. Seems like a pretty good compromise to me.