Sunday, November 04, 2012

Formatwatch: Pono

Neil Young is unhappy thathis high-quality music is being squished into mp3 format and played back on crappy speakers.

He's got a plan though: He's going to persuade people to buy a new player and a new format. This will be high-quality music. What could go wrong?

Obviously, if you're punting a high-quality music player, it's going to have to be a high-end product all the way through. So this player, Pono, is going to be a thing of great beauty, right?

Um... okay, maybe they're starting with a Fisher Price version for toddlers to catch them young, yeah?

Young doesn't seem to have any understanding of how people are listening to music now - streaming it from the cloud, using their phones - which is why the obvious questions, like 'what makes you think people are suddenly going to buy a standalone music player like it's 2002 all over again?' haven't derailed the process of bringing this product to market.

More to the point, Young's motivation is misplaced:
For quite some time now, Young has lamented the decline of music during the digital age. It’s not pirating that’s the culprit. It’s the MP3, a format that degrades the quality of the music we hear. Speaking at a Wall Street Journal conference earlier this year (watch here), Young complained that the MP3 can’t “transfer the depth of the art.” “My goal,” he continued, “is to try and rescue the art form that I’ve been practicing for the past 50 years.”
Trouble is, hardly anyone has ever listened to music in high quality. Sure, a few people spent thousands on top-end hi-fi systems and treated playing vinyl as a sacrement.

But most people who played Cosby, Stills, Nash And Young records would have done so on a wobbly turntable, with a needle that should have been replaced at some point in the past. Lucky copies of the disc might have got a quick wipe-over with an EMITECH cloth, but most would have just been defluffed by a rub on a jumper sleeve. Once sent on its bouncy, crackly way, the music would have been heard through a built-in tinny speaker, or a couple of wall speakers located not to create a perfect diamond of sound, but to avoid having to move the fish bowl and to make use of a shelf already on the wall.

Beyond that, it would have been stretched cassette tapes turning at strange speeds as batteries faded, or CD players in cars fighting engine and road noise.

Yeah, MP3 and earbuds are a bit crappy. But there has never been a time in the history of rock when people have treated musical fidelity with the respect Young seems to think it deserves.

[Thanks to Michel M]

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