Is There Any Merit To Neil Young's Plan To Improve The Quality Of Digital Music?
from the the-(record)-needle-and-the-damage-done dept
A press release issued last September by Penguin Group imprint Blue Rider Press, which is publishing Young's upcoming memoir, may have revealed the working title of Young's entire project. In addition to the memoir, says the release, "Young is also personally spearheading the development of Pono, a revolutionary new audio music system presenting the highest digital resolution possible, the studio quality sound that artists and producers heard when they created their original recordings. Young wants consumers to be able to take full advantage of Pono's cloud-based libraries of recordings by their favorite artists and, with Pono, enjoy a convenient music listening experience that is superior in sound quality to anything ever presented."
But does Young actually have a new idea? There are already lossless formats like FLAC that some audiophiles swear by, not to mention uncompressed formats like WAV and AIFF. But there is theoretically room for improvement: most uncompressed digital audio is sampled at a rate of 44,100 Hz, but some pro studio equipment can record at twice that, and technologies like DSD can go much, much further. Moreover most consumer audio consists of 16-bit samples, which could be bumped up to 24-bit. So on the technical side, there is the potential for new formats to popularize higher-quality digital audio. Who knows if that's what Young has in mind.
That, however, leads to the bigger question: is there really a market for such a format? The digital audio debate has been raging for years, and it has a lot of contours—not just the strengths and weaknesses of digital and analog formats, but also changing approaches to sound engineering and the debates over loudness, audio compression and overprocessing. While some audiophiles insist they can tell the difference, blind listening tests have proved they rarely can. For the average listener, convenience, selection and price surely trump such a negligible (and possibly undetectable) quality difference—and since it sounds like Young hopes to develop a proprietary, cloud-only format, I'm guessing those other factors aren't high priorities. Moreover, since most people are listening to their music on earbuds and other low-definition systems, the quality bottleneck exists much further down the line than the file format—and since an increasing amount of music is recorded with consumer tools like GarageBand that operate at the standard sampling rates for uncompressed AIFF/WAV files, there's another bottleneck above the file format too. Though, in theory, these factors are part of what Young wants to change with his push towards higher quality—and there may be some potential in that direction over time as bandwidth and storage space increases, and even some sort of immediate market among audiophiles. But it's hard to see what he could offer that existing formats don't already provide.
I know some people will insist that digital audio sucks, and that they can tell the difference—but frankly that's a meaningless assertion if they haven't done a controlled test. There are simply too many biases to account for. But even if it is a real problem for some people, it is likely to be a very small niche market, not a cultural sea-change like Young seems to envision. Some of his proclamations about the effect of music sound eerily close to Prince's insane ramblings about how audio interacts with the brain, which is hard to swallow. Music may create transcendent human experiences once it's inside your head, but your ears are still made of flesh and bone, not magic. And evidence suggests that most people's ears can't tell the difference.