Why David Pogue is Right About the Pono Player and High Resolution Music

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.

When Sony sent me a review sample of their new Digital Walkman and High Resolution Headphones they also sent me a copy of Dr. Chesky’s The Ultimate Headphone Demonstration Disc in high resolution (It’s stunning and I mean a stunning, mind-blowing recording).  Smart, no?  I also had a coupon to purchase an album on Acoustic Sounds so that I could load more high res music onto the player.

Listening to something like Dr. Chesky’s recordings shows that high resolution audio really isn’t about just the end file. High resolution audio is really about an entire system.  It’s the recording, the mixing, the digital file, the player/DAC, and finally the playback speakers.  If any one of those elements isn’t correct (you have a bad recording, a bad mix, or inferior headphones or speakers) then the audio just won’t live up to its full potential.
The worst thing that audiophiles can do is put on the proverbial new clothes.  At the end of the day, being an audiophile isn’t about high resolution audio and it isn’t about the gear.  It’s all about the music.  It’s about being able to reproduce music in high fidelity.  We need to be evangelists of that notion more than anything else because let’s face it, having the emperor walk around naked is bad enough.  We don’t need audiophiles to start doing the same thing.


  1. What David Pogue didn't get right: he used some people who have never heard good recordings in high resolution on a good player. My experience with people who grew up with mp3 and portable audio is that they often prefer it to even CD or hi-res, because it's sound is their baseline for comparison. Better recordings sound "wrong" to them. With a little exposure and explanation they start to hear how CD and high res (usually) sound better than lossy codecs.

  2. Thanks for your comments! I'll provide a bit of a long-winded answer here and try to touch upon a few points:

    First, we can't be sure that all of David Pogue's recordings were recorded, mixed, etc. in true high res Mark Waldrep has again made this correct point about provenance. I am going to try and look more in depth at the tracks he selected and see if in fact we can determine that the provenance of the files is correct. If not, then all bets are off and the users were simply hearing CD-quality on both. Again, **just because it says high resolution doesn't mean it really provides better fidelity!**

    Second, I know very few audiophiles who are trained listeners. I've personally advocated for that on the site here but it's very unfair to levy ad hominem arguments here. All David did was ask them for their preference—that's subjective and indeed many audiophile reviews are likewise subjective. I don't fault David for doing this all and he doesn't claim it's a purely scientific study. All one can say for certain is that the results are anecdotal and suggestive.

    Third, I haven't seen any measurements (if there are any I'd love to see them so please share) on the Pono's vs. iPhone's audio output port and the distortion of its headphone amplification stage. Audiophiles know that LPs are not accurate. In fact, they are far from accurate, but the distortion that LPs introduce is pleasing to the ear. We don't fault audiophiles for preferring LPs or tube amps (which also color the sound).

    Fourth, I don't recall David or the listeners saying that the recordings sounded "wrong" to them. All David asked was which version they preferred. You can't fault listeners for having a preference. What David didn't ask was if the users perceived a specific difference between one or the other and to be able to describe that difference—deeper soundstage, elevated mid bass, etc.

    Finally, I'm willing to make a conjecture that the entire signal chain: from recording to playback wasn't truly high-res. You'll read more about this over the next two weeks here. I'm going to be speaking with Mark Waldrep and try to have him as a guest here on the site and I'm also going to have the full review of the Benchmark AHB2 and DAC2 (a true high-res signal chain). Right now, the review is done and we're scheduling out the publication on the site. So let me give you an example here. With the Sony Walkman that I have in for review, what Sony did with providing Chesky's recordings. Chesky's recordings have exactly the same recording that ranges from pure high res all the way to heavily compressed with some variations in between. There, with the same recording with dynamic compression applied you can clearly tell the difference.

    I understand and appreciate what you're trying to say—believe me I do—and I agree with your point (which is why I'm a huge fan of Harman and Revel and their methodical approach to testing).

    But here's the final point. Without doing exactly the same test with exactly the same equipment and exactly the same tracks, we're really in no position to be critical of David at all. On the contrary, the one thing that David's exercise shows is that everything Mark Waldrep of AIX and everything John Siau of Benhmark have been saying about needing a complete high resolution signal chain from recording to playback is spot on.

    Without a confirmed end to end high res chain, we're all blowing smoke in the wind.

  3. Hi-
    No argument with you. But unlike you, Pogue jumped from his little survey to a very broad conclusion: that hi-res doesn't sound any better than CD or lossy and that Pono is like the "emporer's new clothes".

    What his test actually showed is only that the average people he did the test with didn't prefer the hi-res. Nothing more, nothing less. And as I said before, I think people tend to "prefer" what they are used to in this kind of listening test.

  4. You do indeed make a valid point on that re: broad conclusion. However, what we don't know and cannot make any conjecture about is people preferred what they were used to. We don't have any data to support that conjecture. One thing that I think we can definitively conclude is that the whole term and understanding of high resolution has 1) confused people 2) created blind camps (oh, if it says high res then it *must* sound better.

    I do wish that Pono had done exactly what Sony did for me—provide true high res recordings that you can therefore test across an entire chain. The Chesky high res recording is simply amazing on so many levels.

  5. This entire thing sort of reminds me of the AAA/DDD labeling that used to be common on CDs. For a long time, as a CD buyer it was "don't buy it unless it's DDD!"

    Eventually, of course, the labeling went away. The reality was that there were analog mixing and mastering consoles capable of producing much better results than digital, and the arbitrary labeling wasn't helping.

    Consumers like buzzwords, and Marketers like them even more. Listen in whatever format you enjoy–for me that sometimes means vinyl–both new and old–but more often means 256 AAC/320 MP3/ALAC through a Sonos and a DAC because it's more convenient. High res? Meh. Neil Young's half deaf and the fact that he's trying to sell this is just amazing.

  6. I better go to the ear doctor. I hear a difference. But like analog vs digital, which has a world of difference, the digital folks have all the statistics and charts. The test is after listening for an extended period of time, my ears get tired of MP3's in about ten minutes, some hi-rez about 20 and all day playing vinyl LP's. But I guess my ears are wrong. Who knew>?

  7. I'm with you on the MP3 codec. It's just not very good and you need to have very high bitrates for it to start to come to the standards of even lower bitrate AAC. It's still harsh regardless. I have noticed a significant difference with hi-res music but through a good DAC and signal chain. Remember too that Vinyl LP isn't perfect—far from it. However, it's shortcomings are far more euphonic to our ears — thus that "analog sound" — than digital's imperfections. At the end of the day, it's all about the music 🙂

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