Neil Young's $400 Pono hi-def music player loses to Apple's iPhone in blind audio test

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  • Reply 141 of 179
    trydtryd Posts: 135member

    I'm also a lossless guy - I rip all my CDs in ALAC. Not because I believe the sound is better than f. inst. 320 kbps AAC (I really cannot hear any difference), but because it seems silly to discard some of the information in the recording when harddisk space is so cheap.It is easy to transcode to lossy formats if you want to transfer the files to players with smaller disks.

     

    I also think that the main deciding factor in the sound quality from these portable players is the supporting electronics - the DAC and the output stage, and not so much the format used to store the files. So the PONO may very well sound better than an iPhone, but not because of the format in which the sound is stored.

     

    I have some experience with different sound systems, and there is no doubt that there is a difference between components. I used to plug my Sennheisers into the headphone output from my amp, and found the sound quite anemic and top-heavy. So I bought a separate headphone amp, and the difference was astonishing - the sound bloomed and the bass, that was completely missing earlier, suddenly appeared. 

     

    And a last observation: I find it strange that a man like Neil Young who I am sure has had his hearing permanently damaged from loud sound from his concerts is so concerned about sound quality in portable players. His last recording, from what I read, sound like shit. If the PONO sounds well to him, I'm sure it will sound horrible to people with healthy ears..

  • Reply 142 of 179
    The Pogue article was nonsense. Sony 7506 headphones are good for around $50, but they are in no way high end (I own a set). My ipod and iphone sound okay with 7506s, but not with higher end headphones. My newer ipods and iphone are not even as good as my older, classic 30G ipod. Better headphones need a better source, and it makes a huge difference. My 7506s do not really seem to sound better with better sources, in some ways they are worse. And not all of my music does sound better with flac sources through a true high end player. Some FLACs sound equal in quality to HD MP3s, some sound better.

    I use FLAC and know I am probably at the end of my quest for quality. When I bought my first lowdef MP3s I was assured that was the best quality that anyone would ever need.
    Pogue could stick with the stock earbuds if his object is to find the best source for low end monitors.
  • Reply 143 of 179
    The battery life is less than Apple's DISCONTINUED iPod classic. I think this is one reason why people are interested in Pono. Not everyone wants to listen to music on their phone, regardless of sound quality.
  • Reply 144 of 179
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by ffbookman View Post

     

    Apple spends about $4 on the audio components in an iPhone. You are telling me that $4 sounds the same as $400? Sure it does. Deaf leading the dumb.


     

    Someone else posted this in response to someone else's post, but it seems worth adding here: http://www.kenrockwell.com/apple/iphone-5/audio-quality.htm

     

    I've not don those comparisons my self as I wouldn't know where to start, but the guy certainly sounds as though he knows what he's talking about.

  • Reply 145 of 179
    zoetmbzoetmb Posts: 2,469member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by muppetry View Post

     



    I think you are confusing several different concepts, at least by name. Bit rate is bits per second, not bits per sample. 16 bit describes bits per sample, and is bit depth, not bit rate. Bit rate is samples per second multiplied by bits per sample. Your description of sample rate is correct, and it is often quoted as a frequency (in kHz) although it is technically more accurate to use samples per second.


     

    Yes, you're correct.    I took the previous poster's question about bit rate to be about bit depth.    But everything else I wrote still applies.   

  • Reply 146 of 179
    MarvinMarvin Posts: 14,228moderator
    Someone else posted this in response to someone else's post, but it seems worth adding here: http://www.kenrockwell.com/apple/iphone-5/audio-quality.htm

    I've not don those comparisons my self as I wouldn't know where to start, but the guy certainly sounds as though he knows what he's talking about.

    He only sounds like he knows what he's talking about because you're so used to hearing 2-bit opinions over a few thousand kbps connection. You need to upgrade to 24-bit opinions at 300dpi, they'll totally change your mind on the matter. ;)
    tryd wrote:
    I also think that the main deciding factor in the sound quality from these portable players is the supporting electronics - the DAC and the output stage, and not so much the format used to store the files. So the PONO may very well sound better than an iPhone, but not because of the format in which the sound is stored.

    There's a test here of the iPhone DAC where they suggest software is likely holding back the hardware:

    http://mashable.com/2014/09/26/iphone-6-hd-audio/

    Apple's DAC is a custom-built Cirrus Logic 338S1201. The Pono has a Sabre ES 9018:

    http://www.head-fi.org/t/642653/is-sabre-es9018-the-best-dac-chip-right-now/15

    In that thread, someone mentions that Sabre chip costs $40. No way Apple would put a $40 chip in although they'd probably get better prices for the amount of units they'd be ordering. It looks as though the DAC they used recreates everything ok up until ultrasonic.

    The test of value for the Pono is really how well it plays uncompressed or lossless audio vs standard music players like the iPhone. If there is a difference, there's also the question of how much difference justifies $400 and only being able to carry about 1000 high res tracks (2000 with the SD card).

    This kind of attention to spec is understandable in production environments but it's a consumption device. If there's a small difference and the difference can only be heard with the high res tracks and good quality studio headphones, it applies to a small market.

    Reviews like these are consumer reviews aimed at consumers where people want to know if a $400 investment will make their listening experience better. For people who spend thousands on audio equipment and invest in lossless audio, consumer reviews aren't important anyway.
  • Reply 147 of 179
    muppetrymuppetry Posts: 3,328member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by muppetry View Post

     
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by cnocbui View Post

     
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by muppetry View Post

     

     

    That's a tough one. I'm not sure the track is very well suited to that exercise, since it has so many transitions of its own. I transferred it to CD and played it on my reference system, and I was unable to hear any significant changes. A time-resolved FFT of the data does not show much variation in bandwidth of the kind that is obvious when comparing lower bitrate music samples, so I the compression artifacts are not very apparent.




    I have thought about doing it to a purely orchestral piece, but it is a bit time consuming and these days there is Foobar, which can take a source and a compressed version of whatever bitrate is of interest, and conducts a proper double blind trial alternating the sources in multiple instances which the listener chooses between and then spits out a nice report on whether the listener's choices were correct with statistical significance - or not. The user base of Hydrogenaudio.org have been conducting codec trials at varying bit rates for years and have amassed evidence from a lot of such double blind tests with a multitude of subjects.

     

    I assure you the file is as represented and that it does contain sections derived from a compressed version of the source.

     

    I have another file where I did the same thing, but recording the analog output of my iPod and the analog output of my CD player and mixing those together.  I have gotten the gripe that my Mac's A/D converter isn't good enough to resolve the difference so I keep that one shelved.




    I was not doubting your test - just observing that the variations must be rather subtle. It's easy (FFT or just listening) to tell a lower bitrate MP3 from a lossless version, but neither method showed up the variations in your sample. I'll try a couple of other techniques and see if I can pull anything out.




    None of the analysis techniques that I tried showed the splices. I think that the main problem from an analytic point of view is that the bit rates and depth on your original samples are being obscured by converting it back to the high resolution format of the composite file. Interpolation is hiding the lower bit depth, and there is enough information present that the entire file appears to have a similar bandwidth, with components present all the way up to 22 kHz.

  • Reply 148 of 179
    I am sure that many so called audiophiles can only tell the difference in sound quality of very expensive equipment because they personally have spent more money than sense and would feel stupid to admit it's no better than something significantly cheaper. It's really a case of the Emperor's New Clothes.

    Now, that said, I think the Pono player could have genuine merits over standard playeres BUT it will require the very very highest quality in order to give it a chance to reveal the better sound quality. Most recording studios seem to deliberately mangle the sound to make it good when played back on a cheap mobile phone or mp3 player with the crappy headphones they come with, so even if the studio gives you their final rendering of the music in 24 bit @ 192kHz sampling, they've probably already ruined it.
  • Reply 149 of 179

    I'll point out a few things that should be obvious but apparently aren't to a lot of people. For context, I'm a professional musician and recording engineer. I've done plenty of A/B tests in my studio with friends I invite there after they tell me they think that 128kbps or itunes MP3s are "good enough" casually at parties/get togethers, etc. I use a range of remastered 50s-60s jazz and classical, modern pop music and modern "audiophile" jazz and classical recordings in the process, with software that matches volume levels on each source. 192kbps VBR vs 96KHz/24bit FLAC files from HDTracks. 100% of the time, people do hear the difference, and i've probably done it 50 times in the past 3 years. Some people might "like" the sound of one or two recordings better as MP3s, but the overwhelming response is that HD audio sounds better on my setup, in my studio. For what it's worth, I'm not a "cable nerd". I can't hear a difference between a $25/meter cable and a $100/meter cable, so I just go for quality connectors and solid construction/flexibility while minimizing how long cables are (cutting them to be as short as necessary). I can hear a difference in source, converters and monitoring, so i've invested appropriately.

     

    -In the 80's, most newspaper articles about the "new technology" of CDs told readers that the human ear couldn't tell the difference vs cassettes and/or LPs and wrote them off as a passing fad.

     

    -In the 90s, Napster and many media types were telling us 64 kbps MP3s sounded as good as CDs, or that humans couldn't physically hear the difference.

     

    -In other situations, we've been told by other "journalists" that DVDs aren't much better than Betamax, we won't see a difference between 720p and 1080p, etc etc. In the video game world, there are people saying 30 fps is just as good or better than 60fps.

     

    -The guy writing the original article calls himself a "former professional musician." This could mean he played in a Bon Jovi Tribute band and made some money doing so for 3 years way back, and maybe destroyed his hearing in the process. Former and current musicians, professional or not, can still be clueless when it comes to nuances in music/sound.

     

    -The same guy doesn't mention what his signal chain is in detail. Using a shitty switch between the player and headphones will make a big difference, and a cleaner source signal with greater dynamic range might expose whatever the shitty switch does to the music more than lower definition audio.

     

    -He doesn't mention whether or not he matched volume levels exactly using reference equipment. Volume levels are probably the #1 thing that affect A/B testing of gear. Most people are more emotionally affected by a louder signal (barring volumes that are physically painful)

     

    -Most people like what they're used to. Somebody who's listened mainly to lossy audio via shitty apple earbuds, boomboxes and sony mini-stereos is "used to" that sound and may find it immediately more "natural" than a listening experience in which more details and a greater dynamic range are prominent. 

     

    -Most albums produced or remastered in the past 10-15 years have been done so by engineers working with 96KHz/24-bit, with a lesser number done at 192KHz/24-bit audio files. This is what mixing and mastering engineers as well as their clients (producers and musicians) are hearing during the creative process. Good/smart mastering engineers work with 44.1KHz/16bit in mind as well, but the core of their work is on files with about 6-15 times more information than an iTunes "plus" MP3. High Definition tracks from Pono, HDTracks.com or SACDs are going to give you a source close to or identical to what the people making the album used in the studio.

     

    -Putting a clearer, more dynamic recording through shitty D/A converters, amplifiers and speakers or headphones can in many or even most cases accentuate the problems in a signal chain. Bad converters can have problems with larger files, causing more artifacts and/or a brittle sound, and speakers/headphones can turn the increased "peaks and valleys" stemming from a greater dynamic range into horrible daggers of sound/noise in certain frequencies.

     

    -The audiofile experience requires the entire signal chain to be of a high standard to work, not just the source file. However, it doesn't have to be prohibitively expensive, especially nowadays. Something like the Marantz 7005 Integrated Amplifier is a quality amplifier with D/A converters a huge step up from anything a typical computer, smartphone or the average CD Player has, and the amplifier is rock solid, noise free, and doesn't colour the sound appreciably. It costs around $1000 new and plays music directly from a computer or media player via USB (or ADAT or SPDIF). A set of quality speakers for a medium-sized room can be had new for between $600 and $800 (if you go the Headphone route, a great pair of cans can be had for $300-400). Sure, that system would cost 5-10 times more than a Sanyo all-in one shelf system, but a good steak dinner costs 5-10 times more than a trip to McDonalds, too. It's all comes down to what kind of experience you want and what you want to put into your body.

  • Reply 150 of 179
    muppetrymuppetry Posts: 3,328member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by cnocbui View Post

     
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by muppetry View Post

     

     

    That's a tough one. I'm not sure the track is very well suited to that exercise, since it has so many transitions of its own. I transferred it to CD and played it on my reference system, and I was unable to hear any significant changes. A time-resolved FFT of the data does not show much variation in bandwidth of the kind that is obvious when comparing lower bitrate music samples, so I the compression artifacts are not very apparent.




    I have thought about doing it to a purely orchestral piece, but it is a bit time consuming and these days there is Foobar, which can take a source and a compressed version of whatever bitrate is of interest, and conducts a proper double blind trial alternating the sources in multiple instances which the listener chooses between and then spits out a nice report on whether the listener's choices were correct with statistical significance - or not. The user base of Hydrogenaudio.org have been conducting codec trials at varying bit rates for years and have amassed evidence from a lot of such double blind tests with a multitude of subjects.

     

    I assure you the file is as represented and that it does contain sections derived from a compressed version of the source.

     

    I have another file where I did the same thing, but recording the analog output of my iPod and the analog output of my CD player and mixing those together.  I have gotten the gripe that my Mac's A/D converter isn't good enough to resolve the difference so I keep that one shelved.




    Strike my previous comments - a little more digging shows transitions at 0' 17", 0' 37", 1' 10", 1' 43", 1' 58" and 2' 46".

  • Reply 151 of 179
    cnocbuicnocbui Posts: 3,613member

    Great effort!

     

    At least it shows there was no subterfuge on my part.  These days with storage being so much cheaper and available, there is of course far less need to have compressed files, but in circumstances where there is, a bit of compression is unlikely to be sonically detectible or interfere with listening enjoyment, which I think is something worth knowing.

  • Reply 152 of 179
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Apple ][ View Post

     

    I believe it uses a fork of Android, no wonder it's sluggish! <img class=" src="http://forums-files.appleinsider.com/images/smilies//lol.gif" />

     

    The shape also doesn't make any practical sense. Who wants to walk around with that yellow Toblerone in their pocket?


     

     

    Alan Partridge.

  • Reply 153 of 179
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by macinthe408 View Post



    Oh lord.



    "192kHz/24-bit"



    My dog loves this, but my human ears can't hear the expanded dynamic range 24-bit music offers over 16-bit.



    Do what you want to make yourself feel better; if listening to lossless audio files makes you happy, then it did its job. But never kid yourself into thinking you didn't take a sip of snake oil.



    Thank you, Mr. Young. I'll still wave when I see you driving around the mountain roads near La Honda.

     

     

    Most of us can't hear above 5,000 or 6,000 hertz anyway, let alone 20,000. A middle A on the piano is 440 hertz.

     

    That said, I don't think it’s as simple as that. Just because we can't consciously hear very high notes doesn't mean that we can't feel them. Low notes are more obvious: very low notes can't be heard, but certainly make a difference to our ears. And notes don't exist in a vacuum, so inaudible sounds react with audible and change the nature of them; they are waves, after all.

     

    But it’s all moot. Most people listen to garbage on cheap earbuds in noisy environments, and for them, iTunes is more than adequate. But for those of us who listen to good music in a quiet setting, a good pair of speakers is the way to go. I have good and bad audio both on CD and from iTunes. I prefer CD, but iTunes is usually fine. It’s the equipment that really matters, not the medium.

  • Reply 154 of 179
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by blazar View Post



    Level matching does make a difference. They didn't describe how this was done. Even a half decibel louder sounds "better" to many.

    Speakers make a major difference in the overall sound character.

    Crappy amps make a difference, but there are relatively few of those these days.

    Wires make just about none.

    Lossless is best but 320k is pretty damn goodand hrd to distinguish without the best of system and a trained ear.

    High bit rate vs cd quality audio is marginally if at all different.

    Room acoustics make a massive difference

    Recording quality makes a big difference but we cant control what the artist wants. adele 21 is an example of a very poor recording if you want to compare.

    People who have not heard high end speakers with their own music in a properly setup room seem to belittle audiophiles just so they can make fun of "rich" audio nerds.

     

     

    I mostly agree, but in my experience, a new cable has transformed the bass of my speakers.

  • Reply 155 of 179
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by chadmatic View Post

     
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by ECats View Post



    "Audiophiles" have been thoroughly debunked in much the same way as other fields that fail to meet statistical significance (Wine tasting, etc.)

     

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by macinthe408 View Post



    Do what you want to make yourself feel better; if listening to lossless audio files makes you happy, then it did its job. But never kid yourself into thinking you didn't take a sip of snake oil.

     

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by cnocbui View Post

     

    Some time ago I created an audio file that had sections that were from a 223 kbps AAC rip of the original CD track and sections that were from a lossless WAV rip.  You can grab it here.

     

    I would be very interested to hear if anyone thinks they can discern where the quality transitions.


     

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by ElectroTech View Post



    So much 'voodoo' nonsense from these idiotic 'audiophiles'.

     

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by TheWhiteFalcon View Post



    The second reality is that quality 256kbps files are about the highest the human ear can really appreciate. Which happens to be the format of iTunes Plus music.

     

    Do any of you think you could hear the difference between a piano being played live before you and a 256 kbps recording of it?


     

     

    Good question!

     

    A piano recording can be very had to distinguish from the real thing, if it’s in a different room of the house.

     

    Sound is such an illusion, and it is amazing what tricks our ears can play on us.

  • Reply 156 of 179
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by LordJohnWhorfin View Post

     
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by mieswall View Post

     



    @knowitall 

    My equipment isn't that expensive: the DAC/amp is about $300, close to the cheapest you can get. And the headphones cost about $100, $300, and $900 (which, btw, is not that much for somebody that really, really loves music). The differences among those three cans are simply enormous, and bear in mind that the three of them are considered very, very good in their respective price categories. Use one or another, and it is a different space or singer what you begin listening to.

    What I did say is that a 24/96 audio file differences are subtle, compared with a very good 16/44 recording (still, the sound is more bodied, silkier, deep). The article, instead, says an MP3 can sound better than a lossless file. That's simply impossible. It is fully equivalent to say that a medium resolution monitor is better than a retina display, because colors look more saturated. Things with hifi audio are the same. Some kind of music/listener may benefit from compression (nothing too loud or too soft), or false exaggeration of bass, for example, but for most serious, artistic performances, subtlety, tonal accuracy, micro detail, spaciousness, etc, are absolutely key factors in the listening pleasure. There is huge difference, btw, between "passive" and "active" listening, between casual listening and instead to put your whole concentration (and emotional) capabilities in that. The latter, once you fully experience it, may well open a whole new world to you. Imho it is, in fact, almost a life-changing experience.

    Happy listening, too.


    The conditions of the test aren't very clear but if they compared the same file played back on both devices it makes no sense.

    The real test would be comparing identical tracks purchased on both stores, because that would be real life use conditions. Still, I'm not sure there's enough of a market out there of people who care enough about the ultimate audio quality for this to be a successful business. It's not the first attempt at providing higher quality audio, and previous ones have failed miserably. Good luck, Pono.


     

    iTunes started out at 128, and later doubled to 256. It also improved the quality of AAC, which even in its first iteration, was an improvement over mp3.

     

    Considering the dominance of iTunes today, I wouldn't say that it has failed miserably.

  • Reply 157 of 179

    Quote:


    Originally Posted by TheWhiteFalcon View Post

     



    It's triangular because they used cheap as can be electrolytic capacitors in the back.

     

     

    http://mikebeauchamp.com/2014/12/pono-player-teardown/

     

    Not worth the $399. If the iPod Classic were still around I'd readily recommend it over this. Even then...buy a used Classic, do some internal mods, and you'll have a better player for less.


     

    Those are the power caps, and actually-indicitave of good design for driving quality cans.

     

    1) Everybody's power-caps are electros, even the ones in my NAD receiver. 2) Super high-sound-quality caps like PS don't come in reasonable-sizes for portable media players.

     

    That being said, if you'd recognized the wrapper, you'd realize those are Nichicon audio-grade caps, likely FWs or SWs.

     

    It would be hard to do much better for the space+cost, except for Muse, Fine-Gold or Silmic; -some people even like Panny FCs on the power end. Even MKP would be too big if they weren't mounted sideways.

     

    (+you do realize the iP6 undoubtedly used stacked-film chip-caps that are unlikely to handle 150, 300, or maybe even 600 Ohm cans, as the pono may, right?)

  • Reply 158 of 179
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Benjamin Frost View Post

     

     

    iTunes started out at 128, and later doubled to 256. It also improved the quality of AAC, which even in its first iteration, was an improvement over mp3.

     

    Considering the dominance of iTunes today, I wouldn't say that it has failed miserably.


    Maybe I wasn't clear. What I meant was all previous attempts at delivering "premium quality audio" such as SACD and DVD-Audio, have failed, because CD was good enough. And iTunes audio is good enough. Maybe not for everybody, but there aren't enough audiophiles willing to pony up for Pono in order to make it a successful business, in my opinion. I'll be very happy if they prove me wrong and I wish them to be very successful, I just don't see that happening.

  • Reply 159 of 179
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by ffbookman View Post

     

    Blind tests don't work for audio. 


     

    What exactly is your justification for this ludicrous statement? Of course double blind tests work for audio like they work for everything else. The listening panel does not know which equipment they're listening to, and the test is setup in such a way that the person switching the sources and collecting the results can not influence them, usually by relying on a neutral third party to call out "System A" or "System B".

     

    If you can't tell the difference, either there isn't any, or it's not significant enough for you to hear it, or your hearing is just not that good. In any case, you'd be wasting your money on audiophile equipment -- like most people.

    Always cracks me up to see bozos "auditioning" power cords, or spending fortunes on high end digital interconnects. There's a sucker born every minute...

  • Reply 160 of 179

    To be honest, this "Hi quality formats are worthless" discussion is absurd. With that same criteria, the rubbish sold by android vendors would be also "good enough" compared with IOS. That violates the basic principle of why we love and invest in AAPL.

    IMHO, Apple should buy Meridian (English high-end audio company). They have just disclosed a new compression and recording  format (MQA) that not only allows to stream high quality audio in a less than CD-size format, but also supposedly allows the digital file of such a good quality as to be an exact copy of the master tape (so much so, that they think it can be authenticated by the musician itself). If Apple is able to socialize this, it would be a human contribution as big as the very ipod/itunes.

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