At last month’s SXSW Neil Young took to the stage to announce a Kickstarter crowd-funding project for PonoMusic, a digital music player and accompanying online store and app that promises to deliver high quality audio from a wide range of artists at competitive — or at least industry-standard — prices. Though, as a former (read: recovered) music journalist, the Pono Player and ecosystem appeal to me, and I hope it does as well as Young seems to think it will, I still won’t be buying one.
I’ve never owned an iPod. It’s not that I didn’t want one, or that I wasn’t blown away the first time I handled one back in my student days, but the money spent on one always seemed better spent on CDs, records or concert tickets. By the time I was in a position to buy one I had a smartphone, which not only played music, but helped me navigate, manage my diary, communicate and capture images. I knew the music quality wasn’t the best you could get, but I was willing to compromise in exchange for convenience.
Recorded audio necessarily involves compromise. Beyond the difficulty of creating the perfect recording environment to achieve the closest rendition of the sounds produced live, every storage format has its perks and its flaws.
Vinyls are fragile, tape cassettes wear out and even CDs degrade over time. Digital music isn’t fragile, subject to wear and tear or degradation, but it comes with its own set of compromises. To limit file sizes for download, storage or streaming, digital audio files tend to be compressed using various codecs.
The most common codecs — MP3, Microsoft’s WMA and Apple’s AAC — all involve compression and are called “lossy” because they dispense with various elements of the original audio to achieve extremely compact file sizes. However, there are also a range of so-called “lossless” codecs available, from the enormous and wholly uncompressed WAV and AIFF formats to the somewhat com-pressed FLAC and Apple Lossless formats. In the case of lossless formats the compromise is file size.
Storage constraints aside, for most people — namely those who use portable music players, smartphones, middle-of-the-road home audio systems or their default car audio system — the problem of audio quality is less to do with the format of the audio and more a result of the hardware through which they’re playing it. The highest quality, uncompressed audio is unlikely to sound any better through a VW Citi Golf’s sound system than its heavily compressed counterparts.
This is part of what the Pono ecosystem wants to address. It’s not just about offering audio in the FLAC format (a format audiophiles have been using for years) but about offering the hardware to play it. However, beyond using the Pono Player with high-end headphones, enjoying the purported benefits of the device and the audio on it is going to require that anything it is plugged into is similarly high-end. When it comes to truly high fidelity audio, the file format is only one link in the chain. Audiophiles have known this for years, hence their ongoing love of component-based audio systems that allow them to optimise each link in the chain.
Beyond the age of owned music
Beyond the lack of high-end audio equipment in most people’s homes, cars or pockets there’s another, bigger problem with the Pono ecosystem: it doesn’t address the enormous changes in consumption patterns that have happened since Apple launched the first iPod in 2001. Back then, a portable music player was the epitome of innovation and convenience. But it’s not anymore.
Streaming services have substantially changed consumer behaviour and expectations. On the paid front, services like Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, Deezer, Rara, and Simfy all offer device agnosticism and affordability.
These services, along with video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, are helping move people away from ownership models to access models. Why store swathes of content and contend with the administration element entailed when you can pay a small fee for access to more content than you could ever consume? It’s this convenience that has seen music piracy plummet in countries in which Spotify operates. Cheap and convenient trumps free and laborious.
The most common music-streaming service among teenagers, and those with internet connections but little disposable income, is YouTube, which costs users nothing beyond a few seconds of attention before they can skip an advertisement. Throw other free services like Grooveshark and SoundCloud into the mix and asking anyone (whether the money-conscious teen or a middle-aged music enthusiast with a large, existing collection of physical recordings) to buy music again is a tough proposition.
Extolling the virtues of high-quality audio is nothing new. Beats by Dr Dre used the same selling point to move its US$300 headphones by the truckload (although there, shrewd marketing and notions of fashionability created by it arguably played a greater role in its success than the public yearning for better sound).
Most streaming services already offer various compression options so that those with high-speed connections or little concern for their mobile data bills can opt for higher quality audio. There’s no reason to believe the offerings will get even better as connectivity becomes faster, cheaper and more ubiquitous.
I really like the idea of the Pono, and so do the more than 15 000 people who’ve backed the project at time of writing, but I can’t help thinking it’s unlikely to ever be more than a curiosity — the preserve of upper middle-class music fanatics and — assuming it can get the marketing right, like Beats did — wealthy youngsters, musicians and celebrities.
Perhaps that’s the best thing about the Pono project. Aside from reigniting the discussion about audio quality — which is still worth having as codecs improve and data, storage and bandwidth become cheaper — it’s also a reminder that the falling cost of technology combined with tools like Kickstarter mean individual’s dreams and ideas can be actualised by taking them to a committed, albeit niche, audience directly.
In theory, I’m all for the best quality audio possible. In practice, however, convenience wins me (and most other people) over every time.