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Is high-resolution audio really as good as it sounds?

Ian Paul | April 3, 2014
Singer-songwriter Neil Young is on a crusade to save recorded music with a new digital audio player called Pono aimed at offering so-called high-resolution digital audio. PonoMusic, the company behind the player, recently started a Kickstarter campaign, with the promise that a finished version will start shipping in October.

Singer-songwriter Neil Young is on a crusade to save recorded music with a new digital audio player called Pono aimed at offering so-called high-resolution digital audio. PonoMusic, the company behind the player, recently started a Kickstarter campaign, with the promise that a finished version will start shipping in October.

Called the PonoPlayer, the device is supposed to feature high-quality digital-to-analog conversion technology. The device pairs with a digital music download store loaded with high-resolution audio files in the FLAC lossless format. This is no MP3 player: Pono promises better quality sound than what you get from the files you buy from iTunes and Amazon — and in some cases, even the few CDs left sitting on your shelf.

When Young first began talking about Pono publicly back in 2012, the recording legend told late night host David Letterman that Pono plays music that is "as close as digital can get to analog [sound]."

Analog recordings such as vinyl and tape have long been considered the "gold standard" for sound quality among audiophiles. High-resolution audio achieves this supposed high quality by offering music files encoded with 24-bit depth and a sample rate of 192 kHz (24/192) as well as other ranges including 24/96.

If you believe the hype, all that extra aural bandwidth means you will hear classic Springsteen, Dylan, and Fitzgerald as if they were playing on a classic hi-fi system.

What Pono promises

Many products and services have tried to popularize the notion of high-resolution audio. So far, none have been able to attract much more than a niche audience. Pono, however, may have an advantage over previous attempts, thanks to the star power of Neil Young and the Pono ecosystem that replicates the early iTunes-iPod experience.

"There's never been music of this quality, with this level of convenience," says John Hamm, PonoMusic CEO. "That's really the Pono strategy."

As of this writing, Pono's Kickstarter campaign has raised more than $5 million from more than 15,000 backers.

But achieving that supposedly top-notch audio means more than just opting for Pono or another high-resolution audio source such as HDTracks.com; you'll also need to buy all of your favorite recordings all over again in new high-resolution versions. And that will mean shelling out more money for new music files upgraded to high-res audio that, in the case of Pono at least, will cost between $15 and $25 per album. In contrast, a copy of the Frozen soundtrack costs $12 to download on iTunes; many of the other top-selling albums on iTunes cost $10 or less.

Overhauling your music library can be an expensive proposition. But at least the improved quality you'll enjoy in return will be worth it, right?

 

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