By all accounts, PonoMusic has had a remarkable run. After artist Neil Young appeared on “The Late Show With David Letterman” announcing a special high fidelity audio device that could play original master recordings of hit songs purchased online, Pono raised $6 million in a Kickstarter campaign. It quickly followed by selling $6 million in company stock at Crowdfunder and became the first music company to tap the nascent field of equity crowdfunding.
Young claimed that the idea for a high fidelity music player arose from his frustrations with the quality of music provided by iTunes and other online providers. Instead, the PonoMusic system would put out recordings starting at the CD-quality rate of 16-bit/44.1kHz and quickly move up to the unusual ultra-high resolution rate of 24-bit/192kHz.
Sound experts and analysts, nevertheless, seem puzzled.
First, the science of the 24bit/192kHz audio has many skeptics. The average human ear has a frequency hearing range of between 20 to 20kHz. PonoMusic’s sampling rate of 192kHz would capture frequencies up to the 96kHz, far beyond a human’s ability to hear. It also begs the question of how new recordings will rise to the standard, for sound reproduction is as good as its weakest link.
Second, the PonoMusic player appears to be a standalone product at a time when consumers are integrating media. Apple Music, for instance, adds value already to recorded music by bundling it with radio and other features, and PonoMusic is asking for a single device for one single form of entertainment.
Third, the design of the PonoMusic player, an eye-catching prism, does not fit well in a pocket although it carries well by hand. In addition, battery life, at between six and eight hours, is judged to be under par and there is no Wi-Fi or Bluetooth functionality, making the player outdated.
Lastly, prices at Pono Music for single songs and albums would be double what are currently charged at iTunes. And the price differential is too steep to be justified by storing considerations alone. A 24bit/192 kHz audio takes up roughly six times more file space than compact discs but the storage cost per GB has dropped from $9.85 to $0.03 in 2000-2015.
Growth in the field of “HD Audio” applications ultimately relies on the belief that more audio data returns a higher dynamic range (the span between the softest and the loudest sound), and that this is where the detail in live, original, sound is. 16-bit CD sound corresponds to a range of 96dBs (a measure of loudness) and Pono’s 24-bit sound gives 144dBs. This difference in dynamic range may be noticed in classical music, especially listening to a symphony orchestra, but there is too much compression and processing in a modern recording studio —where the type of recordings that Neil Young and PonoMusic mostly focus on are produced.
PonoMusic is not the first company to capitalize on the idea of a luxurious sound; Bang & Olufsen, Bose, and Beats, among others, have been there. Overall, the funding success of Pono Music suggests that there is an appetite for hi-fi playback audio online. The company is determined to transcend current broadband limitations and many artists and their fans rushed in to make pledges based on that promise. So did investors.
But marketing overkill alone will not do the trick and PonoMusic will have to prove its product the old fashioned way, by subjecting it to independent consumer listening tests.
For the best experience, moreover, the binaural separation of speakers will always yield a more complete sense of space than headphones do, so PonoMusic cannot escape competition with the on ground market. And even assuming that recordings can be made that match the standards of PonoMusic in the future, it is likely that audiophiles will continue to play high-fidelity audio through speaker systems. That is surely what legacy artists expected and what musicians today like. If so, the PonoMusic player is not really advancing the cause of the online playback of richer music files—just their distribution.
By Sanchitha Wickremesooriya
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