Essential Music: Transmission, by Joy Division

Transmission Joy Division2In the late 1970s, amidst the rubble of punk rock, a group of angry young men came onto the scene in Manchester, UK. Joy Division, whose name I’ll let the reader research on the Web, was fronted by deep-voiced singer Ian Curtis, and their music was, at best, gloomy, dark, and depressing, like the city they lived in. Yet it was a different kind of depression than the “no future” of the punk rockers; this was the depression of absolute despair and ultimate nothingness, rather than unemployment and the dole.

Originally called Warsaw, the group changed its name in 1978, and during that year recorded what would be their first LP: Unknown Pleasures . This album was released in June 1979 and quickly helped develop the cult following that the group would have throughout its short life. A second album, Closer, soon followed, which would be their last.Ian Curtis suffered from epilepsy, but also from depression and stress. The group had to deal with high expectations from the public and from critics – high for an independent band – and wasn’t a typical pop band. On top of that, Factory Records, while a discoverer of talent, was not a marketing powerhouse, and Joy Division’s records sold far less than they could have.

In May, 1980, Ian Curtis committed suicide, shortly after the release of what would come to be Joy Division’s most popular song: “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” The group went on to popularity after changing their name to New Order and becoming a new-wave band.

But what remains of Joy Division’s original works, limited though they may be, are a couple dozen intensely powerful songs that are not to be listened to during lonely, dark nights. Curtis’s lyrics are morose and, at times, overwhelming. Combined with his deep, rough voice, which sounds as if it comes from beyond the grave, this is the kind of music that parents don’t want to discover their teenage kids listening to.

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” is not a good example of Joy Division’s music, though it is arguably the most popular song they recorded;if one can call any of their music “popular.” What stands out as perhaps the vintage Joy Division song is “Transmission,” the A-side of the band’s first single. This song sounds as though it was written and performed by a group of boys who barely knew how to play their instruments: the dominant music in the song is a bass riff that could be played with one finger and a guitar riff of about five notes played repeatedly. As Curtis begins singing, he sounds as though he’s pushing his voice to the bottom of its range:

Listen to the silence, let it ring on
Eyes dark grey lenses frightened of the sun

But as the song goes on and the energy builds, his voice moves up to higher climes:

Well I could call out when the going gets tough
The things that we’ve learnt are no longer enough
No language, just sound, that’s all we need know
To synchronize love to the beat of the show

Curtis reaches a summit of both range and emotion as he screams, in the final verse, the approaching cataclysm:

And we could dance
Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio

I’ve put the word “dance” in bold, on the first line; that’s where the scream comes. This is one of those screams that you never forget, one of the great rock-and-roll screams, almost as good as Roger Daltry screaming in “We Won’t Get Fooled Again,” but of a different tone. Daltry screams in ecstasy, but Curtis is a man reaching his limits, howling at himself, his life, his situation, at anything but the moon. The essence of Joy Division is contained in this one word, this cry for help, understanding and relief.

Curtis was no Dylan, but some people listened to Joy Division for the lyrics; I suspect this was similar to buying Playboy for the articles. Yet these lyrics sounded the way his life would end: lonely, painful, with shards of words that gouge your skin. You don’t need to listen to the lyrics, though, to understand the tone; some of the song titles are enough to give you an idea of where Curtis was coming from: “Atrocity Exhibition,” “She’s Lost Control,” “I Remember Nothing,” “Isolation,” “Something Must Break,” “Dead Souls.”

While Joy Division’s music was gloomy, Ian Curtis definitely entered rock-and-roll history with “Transmission,” one of the rare songs where the singer’s tone mimics the story being told in that song. Where a primal scream is the ultimate crescendo. Where life is all about dancing to the radio.

Watch a live performance of Transmission:

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How to Listen to Music in Stereo

I’ve always been surprised that most reviews of standalone speakers or iPod dock speakers don’t mention stereo separation. Those sorts of speakers only provide stereo sound if they are right in front of your head; even then, the speakers might not be far enough apart. The same is true with sound bars. They’re not very wide, and they don’t provide true stereo imaging. Even if you have two speakers, if they’re not far enough apart, then you don’t really hear stereo.

In an interesting article on Cnet, Steve Guttenberg asks Do you ever get to really hear stereo sound? He has a point. Most people either listen to devices, such as those I mention above, that don’t have good stereo separation, or they don’t have their speakers set up correctly to really hear stereo. Do you?

I listen to music in stereo, in both my office and in the living room. Here’s a picture from my office from when I recently bought new desktop speakers. These speakers are set up for “near-field listening,” where the speakers and my head are roughly the points of an equilateral triangle.

Miles midnight

Guttenberg says the speakers “should be at least 24 inches apart when you’re sitting a few feet away.” I think there must be more separation than that, and, in my setup, the speakers are about four feet apart. I could move them a bit closer together — perhaps a foot — and still get good separation, but not much more than that. However, if the speakers are too far apart, then the separation becomes too noticeable. It’s a tough balance.

But you also need the speakers to be at almost exactly the same distance from each ear; if not, you’ll hear one louder than the other, and it won’t sound like true stereo. This is not a problem if you have a listening setup with a single seat for a listener, but once you get into a room where more than one person will listen, either none of them will be in the center and hear stereo, or one person – the one in the center – will hear stereo and the others won’t.

Guttenberg also discusses the height of speakers. He says they should be “near the seated height of the listeners’ ears to produce the most accurate stereo imaging.” Actually, what is important is that the tweeters be at the height of the listeners’ ears; this is because high-frequency waves are very small, and they don’t spread out very much from tweeters. Low-frequency waves, coming from larger speakers, spread out much more, so their height makes less of a difference. And with subwoofers, you can place them almost anywhere in your listening room, because the waves at those frequencies are so long.

I also agree with Guttenberg that headphones are not very realistic. I enjoy listening to music on headphones, but I do understand that it’s not the way the music should really sound. The music is in your head, and the right and left channels are all the way to the right and left of the soundstage. Often, if a specific instrument is mostly one one channel[1], it will be too far from center on headphones, even if it sounds acceptable on speakers. For music to sound “right” on headphones, it would have to be mixed for that type of listening.

What about live music? If you’re attending a concert with unamplified instruments – say, an orchestra or string quartet – then you’re hearing the sound as it should be (though it’s not “stereo;” it’s true surround sound). But if you attend a concert with amplification, you’re listening to speakers. Unless you’re centered close to the stage, you’re not hearing stereo at all. If you’re far back in an arena, you’re hearing a blend of all the speakers, and are unlikely to notice any instruments that are more weighted to one channel or the other, for the same reason you may not be hearing music in stereo at home.

I very much appreciate mono recordings. In fact, since I’ve discovered the great mono mixes of the pre-stereo days, I’ve realized just how artificial stereo sounds. Perhaps, some day, someone will invent a holographic speaker, where you only need one speaker to hear music that surrounds you. If so, you won’t need to worry so much about speaker placement. But until then, if your speakers aren’t set up correctly, you’re not hearing the music the way it was mixed.

Take some time to try out your speakers in different setups: in different positions, with more or less space between them, and with different amounts of space in front of walls. If you have speakers next to your TV, try distancing them from the screen. Start by moving them a foot or two, then try moving them as much as possible. Find the right balance; you may find that your music sounds very different indeed.

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In Praise of Mono Recordings

I sit at my desk, listening to Miles Davis playing ’Round Midnight, from his 1957 album ’Round About Midnight. The sound is crystal clear, with each instrument balanced against the rhythm section, as Miles shares the lead with John Coltrane on tenor sax. I’m listening to the original mono mix of this album, and it sounds like the musicians are in my room.

Miles midnight

Around 3 minutes into the song, when Coltrane’s sax takes a solo, the mono mix has a cool, smooth sound; the stereo mix feels harsher, with reverb and artificial space trying to fill the stereo soundscape. The mono sounds real; the stereo sounds contrived.

This is the case for many albums from the 1950s and 1960s, produced before stereo became the norm. When I want to listen to Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, I’m more likely to queue up the mono mix of the album; the way most people heard it when it was released. And if I listen to The Beatles’ Revolver, it’s the one-channel version that grabs me more than the stereo mix. And have you ever listened to The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds in the original mono? It’s a different experience from the two-channel version.

In a time of surround sound, why would anyone want to go back to one channel? Home theater systems offer 5.1, 7.1 and even 9.1 systems, with the plethora of speakers and wires needed to reproduce this sound. Since most recordings today are recorded on at least 32 tracks, it’s easy to manipulate this music and spread it across the soundscape. But does it sound real? Or is it a creation of an audio engineer?

Back to Basics

For the Miles Davis album I mentioned at the beginning of this article – as for many jazz albums of the 1950s and 1960s – mono was the finished product. The mono mix had to allow each instrument in his quintet to come through in a single channel; listening to it today, you can hear how successful it was. This is one of nine Miles Davis albums on Columbia Records recently re-released in their original mono versions. On each of these – including the iconic Kind of Blue[1] – you hear a relaxed sound that doesn’t try to manipulate the music. There’s no attempt to create an illusion of instrument placement; just the music in one plane. And it sounds great.

Miles mono

Several high-profile mono box sets have been released in recent years. The Miles Davis is the most recent, but two other important sets are Bob Dylan’s Original Mono Recordings and The Beatles in Mono. The Dylan set includes his first eight albums, “as most people heard them, as they were expected to be heard, and as most often they were meant to be heard: in mono.” As mono recordings represented the majority of sales, the stereo mixes were often rushed out as an afterthought. As engineer Guy Massey says about The Beatles’ early stereo mixes, “The mono was always The Mix. On Pepper they spent three weeks mixing that, and the stereo was done in three days.”[2]

You can hear the differences clearly in certain songs on Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. For example, in Desolation Row, the mono mix has Dylan’s voice front and center, with the acoustic guitar behind him. But in stereo, that guitar is set mostly on the right channel, and stands out both in volume and in position, distracting a bit from Dylan’s poetry, especially when heard on headphones.

Dylan highway 61

Like A Rolling Stone, the first track on Highway 61 Revisited does benefit from stereo, though. Al Kooper’s signature organ riffs come through more clearly, and the electric band, at a higher volume on the stereo mix, has more punch. But go back to the early albums, such as The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, or the 1967 John Wesley Harding, and there’s no real benefit in listening to Dylan singing with an acoustic guitar in stereo. The mono mixes sound more honest.

It’s a bit different with The Beatles. The stereo versions of their albums – all but three of which, Abbey Road, Let it Be and Yellow Submarine, were originally released in mono – can be jarring, because George Martin used panning effects on Them. This is where the vocals are on one track and instruments on another.

Listen to I Saw Her Standing There, the first song of Please Please Me. The vocals are on the right channel, and some of the drums and other instruments on the left. Hold Me Tight on With the Beatles has all the vocals on the right and a vague rhythm track mixed on the left and center. Not all of the early songs used this effect, but even as late as Strawberry Fields Forever (from the 1967 Magical Mystery Tour) the drums are on the left channel, with the vocals in the center. A Day in the Life (from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) also has vocals mostly on the right channel.

Listening to The Beatles’ early albums, it’s hard to deny that the mono mixes have more character. The stereo mixes have gimmicks; they seem to be designed to show off stereo effects rather than to make the music sound good.

Beatles revolver

Listening in Mono

If you’re like me, you may have spent a fair amount of time setting up your speakers to get the best sound and separation. My living room speakers are on stands, slightly angled, and set up so the sweet spot – the point where the stereo image converges – is in the center of the room. Of course, this only works ideally when I’m the only person listening to music; otherwise, with two people, that sweet spot is between them.

You can listen to mono music on a stereo – with two speakers – but you’ll have the same problem with that sweet spot. In fact, it may be more pronounced with mono recordings; there’s no music on the different channels to give space to the soundscape. And listening to mono recordings on headphones can be tiring. The sweet spot is there, right in the middle of your head, but you have no space at all.

The best way to listen to mono recordings is to use just one speaker. The sound will flow around you, reflect off the walls, floor and ceiling, and will develop its own space. Try it. Find a mono album – you probably have at least one – and put it on your stereo. Unplug one of the speakers, and move the other in front of you.[3] Close your eyes and listen to the glorious one-channel sound wafting over your body.

Is One Channel Enough?

I’m not some sort of luddite suggesting a return to one-channel recording. While some recordings can be made in mono using today’s technology and sound great, I’m not suggesting that artists go that route.[4] I merely want to look back to a time when the mono mix was carefully crafted to provide a rich, full sound with no trickery, and the stereo mixes were afterthoughts. There’s a certain “yum” factor when you listen to the music the way the artists and producers intended it to sound, and it’s a shame to miss out on it.

It’s especially interesting if you’re a fan of, say, Bob Dylan or The Beatles. Or to listen to any of the hundreds of great jazz albums from the 1950s and early 1960s, in the early days of stereo. You may hear familiar music in a way you hadn’t expected.

See my recommendations for some great mono recordings to listen to.

This article was originally published in issue 19 of The Loop Magazine.

  1. The original mono mix of Kind of Blue has been lost, and the version in this set is a mixdown from the original three-track tape. See  ↩

  2. See  ↩

  3. If you have a Sonos system, I’d recommend using a PLAY:5. This speaker contains five drivers – a woofer, two mid-range and two tweeters. It provides excellent sound for mono recordings, and has a solid low end.  ↩

  4. Several artists have done just that. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication is mostly in mono; there are some stereo effects added to it. The same is the case with Portishead’s Dummy. And Bruce Springsteen recorded two tracks on Born to Run in mono: Backstreets and She’s the One. And occasional artists record something in mono to try and achieve a vintage sound: John Mellencamp did this with No Better than This, and Charlie Hunter recorded Pucker in mono.  ↩

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Sony’s Web Content Claiming High-Resolution Music Sounds Better than CDs Banned in UK for False Claims

I recently explained how high-resolution music is a marketing ploy to get you to pay more for the same music you’d get on a CD. I noticed an interesting ruling recently by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority, banning content on Sony’s website which claimed that high-resolution audio sounds better than CDs. The content includes some of those stair-step graphs, which are often used to “justify” high-resolution audio, with the following text:

Simply, it gives you digital audio formats that deliver better than CD quality sound to your ears. That’s because it converts analog music to digital at a higher rate than CDs. CDs are standardised at 16bit/44.1kHz, while high resolution sound is normally 24-bit/192kHz. The result? You get to hear performances exactly as they were recorded, without any sound compromise.


The ASA rejected the ad, saying:

Whilst we acknowledged that the technology used in HRA allowed more data to be captured and greater frequency range and wider dynamic range reproduced, we had not been provided with any evidence that the differences were perceptible by the average person. Although we considered that whether or not different sounds were better or more pleasant to listen to was a matter of subjective opinion, we considered that the graphs implied that the sound quality produced by HRA was perceptibly different to CD audio quality. Because we had not seen evidence that was the case we concluded that the ad, and in particular the graphs, misleadingly exaggerated the capabilities and benefits of high-resolution audio.

The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 (Misleading advertising), 3.7 (Substantiation) and 3.11 (Exaggeration).

The ASA cited the following action to be taken:

The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told Sony Europe Ltd to ensure that any use of the graphs in their advertising did not exaggerate the capabilities and benefits of high-resolution audio.

As of this writing, the Sony website still has the offending content online.

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Neil Young Is Confused

Okay, I swore to a friend that I wouldn’t keep harping on about Neil Young. I have nothing against the guy; he made some great music back in the day, even though I’m not especially a fan of his music.

But this 68-year old musician, who suffers from tinnitus, and most likely some hearing loss, thinks he can tell everyone that only he knows how music should sound. I’ve written about Pono – his new high-res music service and player – and pointed out how some of the numbers cited are bogus. I’ve also explained why high-resolution music is a marketing ploy.

But today I read an interview with Neil Young which suggests that the guy really is confused. Speaking with Spin magazine, Young discussed his forthcoming album, A Letter Home:

Well, A Letter Home is going to be very confusing to people because it is retro-tech. Retro-tech means recorded in a 1940s recording booth. A phone booth. It’s all acoustic with a harmonica inside a closed space, with one mic to vinyl. Directly to vinyl.

An interesting approach, and one that a few other musicians have used in recent years. But here’s where Young seems to lose his grip on reality:

You can make a lo-fi, analog record, direct to vinyl, transfer it to 192 [kHz], and you have a high res copy of a lo-fi vinyl record.

There’s a word for this, Mr. Young: bullshit. Neil Young is suggesting that by up sampling a poor-quality recording, you can somehow magically transform it into high-resolution audio. Nope; that’s not how it works. In fact, that’s what audiophiles – the ones who believe there is a difference between CD-quality audio and high-resolution audio – are worried about. There have been many cases when retailers claimed they were selling recordings in high resolutions, yet these were simply upsampled from CD quality, or even worse.

To understand what this means, let me give you an easy-to-understand analogy. Unless you’re sitting far from your TV, you can see the difference between DVDs and HD videos. Imagine upsampling the DVD video from the DVD quality – 480 or 576 lines, depending on whether the DVD is in NTSC or PAL format – to 1080p, or HD. The video won’t look like it’s in HD; it will still look like a DVD (albeit a bit better). But with audio, it won’t sound any better at all; it’s simply using more bits for the same music.

If Neil Young thinks that’s how high resolution music works, he truly is confused.

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Music Notes: Taming the Dragon, by Mehliana (Brad Mehldau and Mark Guiliana

taming-the-dragon-cover-art-extralarge_1384969111073.jpgI’ve long been a fan of Brad Mehldau, and I have no problem with him branching off from the standard piano trio format that he’s been exploring for most of his career. While there are some good tracks on this new album, a duo with Mehldau and drummer Mark Guiliana (, Amazon UK, iTunes Store), there are as many throw-aways.

The first track is very self-absorbed, with Brad reading a text about a dream he had; the same text that’s in the liner notes. Several tracks have voices speaking over them, which detract from the music. This type of “voice-over” was a thing back in the 1980s, but it’s just a gimmick now. While there are some good sounds on this album, it really comes across as a hodgepodge of different types of music, with no firm direction.

I like Hungry Ghost, Swimming and a couple of other tracks. But the title track is a waste, Gainsbourg is annoying, and some of the others are just plain mediocre. (Seriously, there’s nothing I want to hear less than the creepy Serge Gainsbourg talking over music.)

This isn’t like Miles Davis discovering electricity; what Mehldau and Guiliana are doing is nothing groundbreaking. They have a lot of potential, and this album shows that they could go far, but they need to be more discerning with what they release.

This album is an example of the type of collection where there are one or two good songs, and the rest of the album is crappy filler. I’m quite disappointed, especially since I really like Hungry Ghost, the track that was released prior to the album release.

Oh, and “Mehliana?” Couldn’t they have come up with something better than that?

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Music, Not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music Is a Marketing Ploy

High-resolution music has been in the news over the past few days. Neil Young’s Pono, recently announced, is a new music player designed to play high-resolution music files.[1] Pono will also have a music store; users will be able to buy high-resolution music files and sync them to the Pono Player, in a process that could be as seamless as using iTunes and an iPod.

High-resolution music files cost more than other digital downloads, and cost more than CDs as well. But are they worth the money? Can you hear the difference between a CD and a high-resolution music file?

The answer is most likely no. While there may be a small number of people who have the necessary audio equipment and good enough ears to hear this difference, those people are few and far between. Most people cannot even tell the difference between a high-bit rate MP3 or AAC file and a CD, let alone a high-resolution file.[2]

But digital music purveyors market high-resolution music in an attempt to make purchasers think that they are special, that they may, indeed, be one of the few people who can hear the difference between CDs and high-resolution audio files.

So what exactly is high-resolution music? Why couldn’t it sound better than CDs? And why doesn’t it? You can’t test the subjective experiences of listeners, so how much of that experience is just an expensive placebo effect?

Some Terminology

For any discussion of high-resolution music, it’s important to clear up some terminology. When you see high-resolution music files, you may see them described as, for example, 24/96. This means the music in the files is 24-bit, and 96 kHz. While high-resolution music comes in a number of different levels of quality[3], I’m going to focus here on the most common high-resolution files, which are 24/96.

Let’s begin by explaining the specifications for audio CDs. The Red Book standard[4] specifies not only how CDs are manufactured, but also how recorded music is formatted for them. Audio CDs contained two-channel linear PCM audio [5] at 16-bit and 44,100 Hz; this is commonly abbreviated as 16/44.1. There are two elements here: the bit depth, which is 16-bit, and the sample rate, which is 44,100 Hz.[6]

Bit depth affects the dynamic range of music as well as the signal-to-noise ratio. The dynamic range of music is the difference between the softest and loudest parts of the music. A good example of music with a very broad dynamic range is Mahler’s third symphony. Listen to the final movement, and you’ll hear some very soft sounds as well as an extremely loud sounds. Or listen to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven; it starts with a soft acoustic guitar and builds up to a fuzz-box crescendo.

The bit depth is essentially the number of variations a recording can choose from in a given slice of time. 16-bit audio allows for a range of 65,536 possible levels; 24-bit audio increases that to 16,777,216 levels. However, between the threshold of hearing and the threshold of pain, humans cannot distinguish enough of these volume differences for this to be noticeable.[7]

The second number in our pair is the sample rate: this is the number of “slices” of audio that are made per second, and are measured in Hz (Hertz). 44.1 kHz means that the music is sampled 44,100 times a second; 96 kHz means it is sampled 96,000 times a second. The sample rate primarily affects the range of frequencies that can be reproduced by a digital music file.

And the combination of the two determines the size of audio files. A CD can contain up to around 80 minutes, but if it were encoded at a different bit depth or sample rate, it would contain less music. A four-minute piece of music on a CD takes up 41.1 MB; at 256 kpbs (AAC or MP3), it takes up 7.5 MB. But jump to a 24/96 file and it is around 138 MB, though, using lossless compression, it can be shrunk by about 1/3 to 1/2 of its original size.

Is Bigger Better?

This is where the marketing comes in: bigger is always better. It could seem logical that higher numbers would result in better sounding music, but this isn’t the case. Let’s take the bit depth. 24-bit music, according to the marketing department, sounds better than 16-bit music. Yet 16 bits are more than enough to cover what human beings can hear.[8] Too broad a dynamic range can be harmful; if you set the volume to hear the quiet parts of the music, the loud sections could burst your speakers, and hurt your ears.

And that sample rate? Interestingly, CDs use a sample rate, as we saw above, of 44,100 Hz; not a random number at all. This number was chosen because the highest frequency that humans can hear is around 20,000 Hz. According to the Nyquist theorum[9], the sample rate of music must be at least twice the maximum frequency that humans can hear. Since it’s best to leave a little bit of wiggle room, audio engineers took 20,000 Hz, multiplied it by two, and then added bit of padding, just in case.[10] Most of us don’t even hear up to 20,000 Hz: and, as we age, our hearing deteriorates. I can’t hear above around 12,000 Hz; you can test your hearing here.

Yet high-resolution audio files at 96 kHz can reproduce sounds up to around 48,000 Hz. Dogs can hear sounds that high; but not humans. In fact, it’s very likely that your stereo system cannot reproduce sounds at such levels. Most standard stereo equipment reproduces sounds from 20 to 20,000 Hz. So for ultrasonic sounds to be reproduced, every element of the audio chain needs to be able to reproduce these sounds. If your amplifier can go up to 40,000 Hz, but your speakers or headphones cannot, no amount of voodoo or magic can make high frequencies audible.

While it is certainly possible to have stereo equipment that can reproduce ultrasonic frequencies, you’ll never hear them. Yet, very high sample rate music files can actually cause distortion. As an article on[11] says, “If the same transducer reproduces ultrasonics along with audible content, any nonlinearity will shift some of the ultrasonic content down into the audible range as an uncontrolled spray of intermodulation distortion products covering the entire audible spectrum.” There are a lot of $10 words in a sentence, but what they mean is that very high sample rates — in this case, 24/192 – can actually make music sound worse; harmonic distortion can occur when the ultrasonics intrude on audible frequencies.

On top of that, hardly anyone can distinguish music at high sample rates from CDs. A number of blind studies have proven this, time and time again.[12]

“Music as It Was Intended to Be Heard”

One of the biggest marketing arguments for high-resolution music files is that “this is how music was intended to be heard.” Pono Music says, “[Musicians] want their music heard and experienced the way they brought it to life with great care and commitment, in the studio.”[13] This is how the music was recorded; this is how engineers heard it when they edited the music. Therefore, this must be better.

Two elements separate the recording studio – or, more correctly, the engineer’s control room – and home listening spaces. First, control rooms have high-quality monitors (speakers) which are neutral, and which are designed to provide the best possible audio fidelity. Second, control rooms are completely soundproof rooms with no parallel surfaces and completely absorbent walls. Again, they are designed to have no obstacles to reproducing the music as it was recorded. But you won’t have that at home, unless you have a very expensive listening room (and there are some people who go to this expense).

Some websites sell high-resolution files under the moniker “studio masters.” And, in fact, these files are studio masters; what engineers used in the studio. But that doesn’t mean that these are files that we should use when listening to music, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they’ll sound the same on home audio systems.

There is a very simple reason why engineers use high bit depths and sample rates when recording music. Digital music involves a lot of calculations; when you make changes to music, with equalization, speed changes, etc., you are multiplying and dividing numbers. When mixing and mastering an album, an engineer performs thousands of operations to alter sound. Each one of these calculations — to simplify — leads to numbers being rounded off. The bigger the numbers, the less of a chance there is for rounding errors to affect the music. But this doesn’t mean that we, as listeners, need the same types of files. We don’t manipulate these files; we may change volume, or even use some subtle EQ, but that’s it.

In some ways, suggesting that listeners need studio masters is akin to saying that instead of eating sausages, we should get all of the ingredients put together ourselves. Nevertheless, you will find many vocal audiophiles will provide a number of reasons why they need to listen to music files that contain sounds that they simply cannot hear.

However, if someone really wants to provide “music as it was intended to be heard,” they’d do a lot better to look at the mastering process that’s been destroying music in recent decades. Colloquially known as “the loudness wars,” music producers, prodded by record labels, use dynamic compression to increase the overall volume of music, making it sound horrendous. Since, in general, louder sounds better, or brighter, when you compare two songs, producers have been cranking up the volume to make their songs stand out. But string together an albums worth of overly loud tracks, and it’s fatiguing. But it’s a war of attrition, and our ears are the losers. No high-resolution files will make this music sound better, ever.[14]

Also, mastering is often done by someone other than the recording engineer, and someone who may not have been involved in the recording process. So is this music truly the way the artists and engineers intended you to hear it?

Listen Better

As I said in the title of this article: music, not sound. There is a small minority of music listeners who are obsessed by the idea of obtaining “perfect” sound. They go to great lengths, and great expense, to try and reproduce the sound that one hears in a concert hall. By focusing on sound quality alone, it can be easy to neglect the music. Such people may get frustrated if the music doesn’t sound good enough, and find it hard to become immersed in great music.

I’m a music fan. What I want most of all, is good music. Some of my best listening experiences have come on tinny record players or booming car stereos. If the music is good, then the sound quality is less important. This said, without getting obsessive, there are a number of ways you can make your music sound better without maxing out your credit card.

For portable listening, start by getting rid of those white earbuds in a bundled with your iPod or iPhone. Get better earbuds, or get proper headphones. With headphones, you get what you pay for, up to a few hundred dollars. After that price point, it gets a bit iffy.

If you listen to music on your computer, get rid of those little desktop speakers and hook up a real stereo. I strongly recommend getting a good DAC — a digital-analog converter — because the sound card in your computer is probably not great. (Though no DAC will help if your amplifier and speakers are poor.) I have a DAC between my Mac and my amplifier; I find that it does make a difference, providing a more detailed soundstage.

And if you’re listening to digital music — you’re reading this article, so I assume you are — make sure it is at sufficiently high bit rates. Apple’s iTunes Store sells music at 256 kbps, which, for nearly everyone, is indistinguishable from uncompressed music. If you use MP3 files, go for 320 kbps; it should sound just as good as CDs as well.

But unless you’re willing to spend as much money on your stereo system as you do on your car, and set up an acoustically-controlled room, there is simply no way that high-resolution files will make any difference to the music you listen to. Lots of people try and convince you that there is a difference, but most of these people simply want to take your money. And you have to ask yourself: of the ones who aren’t asking for your money, how many are desperately seeking validation for the very large sums of money they’ve spent on something modern science tells us they cannot hear.

  1.  ↩

  2. I consider high bitrates to be at least 256 kpbs for AAC or 320 kpbs (or VBR V–0) for MP3 files. Check whether you can hear the difference:  ↩

  3. The most common high-resolution music files are 24/48, 24/88.2, and 24/96. Pono will offer files up to 24/192, and some companies sell files up to 24/384.  ↩

  4.  ↩

  5. Linear pulse-code modulation:  ↩

  6. One must not confuse bit depth and bit rate, which is used to describe how much data is in a music file per second. For example, 256 kbps means that there are 256,000 bits of data per second of music.  ↩

  7. See Is Bits Really Bits?. And, how about a test? Check whether you can hear the difference between music at 16 bits, and the same music downsampled to only 8 bits: The 16-bit v/s 8-bit Blind Listening Test. I got 7 out of 10 when I did the test; that’s better than random.  ↩

  8. Dynamic range is quite complicated. See this article for more detailed information than you probably want.  ↩

  9.  ↩

  10. There are also some other technical reasons why that specific sample rate was chosen. “Professional video recorders were originally used to prepare CD master tapes because they were the only recorders capable of handling the high bandwidth requirements of digital audio signals. Because 16-bit digital audio signals (and error correction) were encoded as a video signal, the sampling frequency had to relate to television standards’ line and field rate, storing a few samples per scan line. […] With three samples per line, 490 x 30 x 3 = 44.1 kHz, it is just right. […] Therefore, 44.1 kHz became the universal sampling frequency for CD master tapes. Because sampling-frequency conversion was difficult, and 44.1 kHz was appropriate, the same sampling frequency was used for finished disks.” Principles of Digital Audio, Sixth Edition, Ken C. Pohlmann. (, Amazon UK)  ↩

  11.  ↩

  12. See, for example, The Emperor’s New Sample Rate.  ↩

  13. Or Try for yourself.  ↩

  14. See The Future of Music and, for a more technical explanation, ‘Dynamic Range’ & The Loudness War. And The Dynamic Range Database is a list of more than 50,000 albums, showing their relative loudness.  ↩

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What’s the Point of Pono? And Why Are Pono’s Numbers Bogus?

When Neil Young first touted Pono – his soon-to-maybe-be-real music service and player – it was all about a better file format. The Pono format was supposed to be better than existing formats, but, at the time, Young gave no details about it, other than saying it would be very high resolution. The Wikipedia page set up after Young first announced this is called, in fact,

Now that the Pono Player has been announced, it’s clear that either Neil Young’s idea made no sense, or that he was never really talking about a new audio format at all. The Pono Player will play high-resolution FLAC files – up to 24/192 – but will also play all those other files that we already have: MP3 (which Young has derided constantly), AAC, Apple Lossless, WAV, AIFF and FLAC. In fact, after making such a kerfuffle about a new format, the Pono website says this:

We want to be very clear that PonoMusic is not a new audio file format or standard. It is an end-to-end ecosystem for music lovers to get access to and enjoy their favorite music in the highest resolution possible for that song or album.

So, if the Pono Player is simply playing existing file formats, what’s the big deal? It’s not the first portable player able to play high-resolution files. The Fiio X3 (, Amazon UK) can play files in the same formats, and it only costs $200. Granted, it has limited storage, but you can add a microSD card for up to an additional 64 GB. (128 GB microSD cards should be hitting the market soon as well.) The Pono Player will have 128 GB, though only 64 GB is in the player; another 64 GB will be on a microSD card.

Apparently, the big deal behind the Pono Player is its little light:

The PonoPlayer will show you, via its user interface and a special “light” (to indicate a certified PonoMusic song) exactly what quality level you are hearing – when you are hearing Pono quality, and when you are not. If the light is lit, then the music you are listening to is Pono-certified as the best available quality.

But Pono gives some very confusing information, which is simply deceptive. In their FAQ, they say:

On the “low end” of higher resolution music (CD lossless, 16 bit/44.1kHz), PonoMusic files have about 6 times more musical information than a typical mp3. With ultra-high quality resolution recordings (24 bit/192kHz), the difference between a PonoMusic digital file and an mp3 is about 30 times more data from which your player reconstructs the “song”.

Early in that section, they talk about “PonoMusic files,” but information about their store suggests they’ll be selling music in various formats, not all of which will be 24/192; some will only be CD quality. And the claim of “about 30 times more data” is just snake oil: most of that “data” is inaudible (you can’t hear about 20 KHz, and probably not even that high), and the “30 times” comes from a deceptive calculation. On the Pono website, they discuss the following qualities:

  • CD lossless quality recordings: 1411 kbps (44.1 kHz/16 bit) FLAC files
  • High-resolution recordings: 2304 kbps (48 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files
  • Higher-resolution recordings: 4608 kbps (96 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files
  • Ultra-high resolution recordings: 9216 kbps (192 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files

They’re making their calculations based on compressed MP3 files (using 256 kbps) and uncompressed high-resolution files. All of the 24/96 files I have in my iTunes library come in at about 2,000 – 3,000 kbps, because they are compressed, as are the FLAC files that are mentioned above. That’s about half the actual bit rate, because FLAC compresses about 50%. But if the Pono people quote uncompressed bit rates, yet still say these are FLAC files, they’re simply lying. (For example, 1411 kbps is the bit rate of uncompressed CD quality files, in either WAV or AIFF format, not in FLAC format as the Pono FAQ says.)

Here’s an example; it’s in Apple Lossless format, which offers essentially the same level of compression as FLAC:


So what’s the point? As I said in my previous article about Pono, is the setting up of a high-resolution music platform, which may have the impetus, through Young’s name and those of other musicians, to dethrone existing players. While the high-res music sector is very small, it does represent a demographic willing to spend a lot of money on music.

(Also, the initial Pono press release said that the device would hold from 1,000 to 2,000 albums; the press release was corrected to say that it can store from 100 to 500 high-resolution albums. It’s hard to get something like that wrong, but they managed.)

Pono is being deceptive in its marketing, and this, to me, is a big strike against them. They’re selling something that doesn’t matter to most people, and they’re trying to convince others that it does matter. The only way they can do this is to be truthful, not manipulate numbers to suit their message.

Update: It’s interesting to see how out of control the marketing is for the Pono. If you read the thread on the Computer Audiophile forum where the press release was initially published (and why was it published there first?), you’ll see a number of areas where information is unclear, and corrected. The capacity of the device (not 128 GB, but 64 GB with a 64 GB microSD card), the number of albums it can hold (which I discuss above), and more. I’ve done a lot of work in marketing, from both sides – working for companies and as a journalist – and this sort of confusion is rare.

I’m also a bit confused about the terminology they use when describing the device. They say:

The PonoPlayer has two output jacks. The first is a normal mini-stereo output specially designed for headphones and is meant for personal listening. The second is a stereo mini-plug analog output specifically designed for listening on your home audio system, in your car, or with your Sonos Connect – so you can share the PonoMusic experience with your friends and family.

What is the difference between a “mini-stereo output” and a “stereo mini-plug analog output?” I think they’re the same. The former is a standard 1/8″ headphone jack, and the latter is, most likely, a standard 1/8″ headphone jack, perhaps at a higher level to use with other devices. So why call them different things?

See also: Music, not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music Is a Marketing Ploy.

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