Sound Sense

There’s been quite some chatter about Neil Young’s new portable music player (set to release in October this year) that pipes high quality, ‘immersive’ sound to the human ear. The Pono music player got massively crowd-funded on Kickstarter. The well-meaning yadda-yadda about the name – it means pure, righteous etc. in Hawaiian – doesn’t provide adequate cover for a terrible brand name. Anyway, how many of these things will sell in Hawaii? But that apart, Mr. Young has brought once again to the front and centre the debate on the effectiveness of high-definition music and whether people can discern the difference between the popular mp3 format and any of the full, lossless formats. That debate, for most parts, should not even exist. The mp3 specification is a lossy format and it’s like having a gallon of water poured into a quart bottle (or for those of you that prefer otherwise, something like 5 litres splashed into a 1 litre container). Most of that dubious debate is around if the lost bits make any difference. They do. Without getting technical, you will hear a ‘fuller’ sound where you can differentiate instruments (even if you don’t know what they are) on a lossless format as against its mp3 version which will clip the very highs and ‘crunch’ the instruments together producing a muddled sound. And you don’t need a high-end system to be able to discern the quality variance. Sure, if you listen on a rubbish system, nothing matters.

To my mind the real issue lies somewhere else. It’s a vital question of having a choice. The mass popularity of mp3s has meant that a lot of people are used to just that. With no reference point, they believe what they hear ‘rocks’. In my experience, practically everyone that I have played the lossless and and mp3 versions of the same song to has felt the difference. And to those that have been brought up on a steady, ear-numbing heavy dose of mp3s, listening to a high quality version has been a revelation. But perhaps the truly insidious effect of mp3 is the compromises that music producers could be making. Usually, the difference in quality between lossless and lossy forms is not as stark in music that has low dynamic range, i.e. the difference between the quietest and the loudest parts is not much, to put it very simply. Given the wide acceptance and the commercial considerations of mp3s, it’s very tempting for producers to deliberately go for songs that have a low dynamic range so that the sound is not as severely compromised. So as a consumer, I was stuck between lack of a better, full-quality option and some potentially bad choices that music makers themselves could be making.

People ought to be able to make a choice. If one’s fine with mp3, that’s cool. But if you prefer the entire gallon over the quart and are willing to pay the price for it, then you should be able to have it. I’m not a fan of physical music media like CDs, but I found lossless electronic formats hard to come by till quite recently. Thankfully that’s changing. Not many of us have had the opportunity to listen to studio masters. I’ve been fortunate there. That sounds even better. And that’s part of the promise and lure of these new-generation high-quality digital music players like Pono and Fiio’s X3 and X5 (which incidentally are already available and are cheaper than Pono). The fact that a lot of musicians are backing this direction bodes well for music. Perhaps once again, we’ll be inTune.



  1. John S says:

    David Byrne, in his book, “How Music Works” pointed out that most of us have settled for lower quality sounds in order to hear them at our convenience – on the move, at our computer, on the mobile device. The places we spend so much of our time. I’m completely guilty of that. I just don’t have time to sit down and devote myself to music on a really good system. I’m always doing something else while I listen. Commuting, walking, reading, writing, checking my blog – whatever. A bit depressing if you are a musician, but, again, as Byrne points out, some artists adapt their sounds to the environment they’ll be played in. He uses the example of rap making sure it sounds good on car stereos. Fascinating stuff.


    1. DyingNote says:

      That David Byrne book’s a terrific one, isn’t it? I’m with you on the convenience factor – I use mp3s when I carry music because my iPod can’t seem to play FLACs (but now my phone does). The point that I was trying to make, hopefully without sounding like a high-def snoot, is that musicians should not have to compromise their sound and listeners should be able to make a choice. In this case, it’s not all that difficult given that the source is one and the release formats are just outputs of that. I’m not building a case for getting rid of mp3s although I think that’ll happen naturally. Processing power required to handle higher definition files is no longer an issue – some of these new phones have surprisingly good DACs built in. Bandwidth and storage costs continue to drop and soon, file sizes will cease to be a constraint. Of course, that doesn’t mean we’ll all live happily ever after 😉


  2. Yes indeed we will happily ever after. I have never listened to MP3s because what I heard when I sampled them was crap. I now, finally, have purchased a player that can play FLAC. I have never had a portable player before. Thankfully the reality of accurate, full-range, and especially 3D positioned music is available. Oh yes, we will happily ever after!


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