High-Resolution Audio - Are You Creating a Sonic Bottle-neck?
At the time of writing, there is a lot of hype surrounding the release of Neil Young's PonoMusic. This post is, to a certain extent, inspired by Neil Young's project...
Not Sure What Pono Is? Let Me Explain.....
PonoMusic is an end-to-end ecosystem for music lovers, consisting of a new music player and download service specializing in high-resolution audio. The player itself is capable of playing music at any digital resolution, and therefore, meets Neil Young's goal of delivering studio recording resolution to the masses.
What Does "Studio Quality Sound" Mean Anyway?
In basic terms, ' studio quality simply means - Music played at the resolution it was recorded. If the music was recorded on analog equipment, "studio quality" would mean using high sample rates and bit depths to capture the analog signal as accurately as possible. In the digital realm, it means bouncing down a track at the rate it was recorded. For example, if the track was recorded at a sample rate of 192khz and a bit depth of 24, then the final stereo master would be the same.
Pono is not the first to push for higher resolution audio. Other portable devices for lossless audio are available on the market - for example, systems from Astell & Kern.
Why Is This Perceived as Better?
Before we answer this question, we first need to understand some of the backgrounds on current industry standards... Most digital music is currently released on CD or as a compressed digital format such as MP3. The basics are as follows:
CD's playback at a sample rate of 44.1khz and a bit depth of 16. A 16-bit system with a sampling frequency of 44.1kHz has long been the widely accepted benchmark for consumer digital audio, and when manufacturers boast of 'CD-quality' audio, they are basically describing a system that operates within these specifications. It is, however, lower than most modern studio recordings. The reason 16bit 44.1khz was chosen as the benchmark is due to the human hearing range, which is approximately 20hz -2okhz. To capture this range, a minimum sample rate of 44.1khz is required as described by Shannon-Nyquist Theorem, which states that, in order for a signal to be accurately reproduced by digital systems, at least two samples of each cycle of its waveform must be taken.
Compressed formats, on the other hand, use complex algorithms based on psychoacoustics to reduce the file size by attempting to identify the most important properties of a waveform to the listener and prioritize them. A more detailed description of mp3 compression and sample rates can be found on the Sound on Sound website, but essentially, the more advanced the mathematics and process used to determine so-called irrelevant data, the lower the amount of discoloration or distortion and the better the result.
So if we can only hear the range captured by 'CD Quality' systems, why make the resolution higher? The value of high-resolution is a much-debated topic, but despite Nyquist Theorem, and clever algorithms; audiophiles will argue that by capturing frequencies above the rate of human hearing – and by not removing so-called irrelevant data – the tonal quality of recorded music is significantly improved within the audible range.
Although the jury is still out on whether or not high-resolution is worth the hassle - it doesn't stop projects like PonoMusic pursuing a philosophy of more (or higher) is better.
Is High-Resolution Audio for Me?
Well, that depends on a number of factors - the most important being your ears. Pono will offer direct from the master tapes, high-resolution releases of your favorite records, but if you can't hear the difference between this and your original CD, or worse, your Spotify account, then it really isn't worth worrying about.
The other important factor is the equipment you use when listening. The end result when listening to high-quality recordings can only ever be as good as the weakest point in your signal chain. Therefore, assuming the internal components of Pono are of the highest quality, you'll need the very best headphones on the market to benefit from anything better than 'CD quality'. Plugging your stock mp3 or consumer earphones into a device like Pono or an Astell & Kern system will only act as a sonic bottle-neck, and is ultimately pointless.
Another aspect to consider is the 'loudness war', which is a modern phenomenon only possible in the digital domain, which has seen mastering engineers aggressively compressing music and stripping away dynamics to the point of audible distortion - all in the name of sounding louder than the next person. If your music has been mastered in this way, it won't really matter how high the resolution is.
Note: Vinyl records are often mastered with better dynamics - thanks in part to the inherent limitations of the analog format. If you prefer the sound of your vinyl for this reason, but love the convenience of digital - it's worth considering a high-quality pre-amp such as the Radial J-33 combined with a high-quality audio-interface for archiving records to your computer.
The Bottom Line
Digital systems from the likes of Pono and Astell & Kern provide a higher quality alternative to mass market mp3 or phone-based music players. You can't control the mastering process – or even how the music was recorded – but high-quality components, such as better headphone pre-amps, combined with lossless file formats, will give your music the very best chance of being heard the way the artist intended. Just make sure you don't fall at the last hurdle with your choice of headphone.
Shure Options for Getting the Most from Your Music and Audio System
SRH940 - Professional Closed-Back Headphones - $189
SRH1540 - Premium Closed-Back Headphones for Audiophile Listening - $469
SRH1840 - The Flagship Shure Professional Open-Back Headphone - $399
*Approximate pricing from Shure partners at the time of writing