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.