Recently, my close friend (whom I think of more like a brother), Bill Hunt has opened up my closed mind to digital downloads. Specifically, higher resolution digital files. For me, although the sound is great, they still have a noticeable flat sound. However, with Bill’s urging, I have begun to show an interest in the format that I haven’t before.

What started this was the upcoming Neil Young project, his Pono player that promises to revolutionize the way we make our music portable. With the popularity of the iPod having gone south due to the increase of phones acting as “all in one” devices. (Who needs to carry two things around when you only need one!) But, phones have distinct problems in that they do not have appropriate hardware to maximize true listening experiences. The casual listener doesn’t have a thing to worry about. They are amply represented. But the folks that insist on superior sound, or are, at the least, curious, are about to be introduced to a brave new world of music replay.

Neil Young’s Pono system is a new, oddly shaped, player that will replay hi-quality digital files in a fantastic way. It will allow for the storage, organization, and replay of files that are presented in 96k/24-bit, or even 192k/24-bit, with the lower end of sampling bottoming out at 48k/24-bit (standard is set at 44k/16-bit, CD quality). The problem it’s presented with is its initial cost. The Pono player will retail at $399.

Pono

At the 2015 CES show, a new player has emerged. Sony, using the familiar Walkman series, will introduce a high-end player that not only looks great, but may even outplay the Pono with additional adopted formats that include DSD format (go HERE for everything that’s beautiful about this player). Of course, there is one slight problem with this set. It will cost upward of $1200. Of course, only first adopters will jump right in. However, in time, this player will become accessible by a reasonable price-frame.  The DSD format – Direct Stream Digital – is used on SACDs. On the player, there will be two forms of DSD that include DSD DFF (the same used on SACDs), and DSD DSF (a PC-friendly streaming for burning onto CDs), as well as the standards FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), WAV (Waveform Audio), AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format), and Apple’s ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec).

Sony Walkman ZX2

What all of this is saying is this: we are in a new phase of music listening that promises to take the music you listen to further. With new albums being produced, we’re seeing Deluxe Editions with a DVD-Audio that includes the high-quality files that you can simply extract, and put on your player. Or you can buy them via sites like HDTracks, the Pono support site, Pono Music, and others that are sure to spring up. Other emerging online stores include Super Hirez (AcousticSounds), Pro Studio Masters, Blue Coast Records, iTrax, and Native DSD Music.

If you use your PC to host your files, then a high-grade DAC machine can heighten your experience further. With a Sonos speaker system to run through your house, you can be in awe of your music in a better way, and soon!

I promise to write more about this in the future as things become more readily available. But it really appears exciting. Bill swears by his player, headphones, and batch of files TODAY!

 

By MARowe

10 thoughts on “Life In A High Quality Digital World”
  1. Glad to see you dabbling in digital, my friend. My experience comparing analog with digital, is that analog has a bigger, smoother but also sometimes flatter soundstage, where as digital is more precise, spacious and “forward” so to speak. Analog is warmer, but I feel more immersed in digital. I think with digital it’s all about amplification to get that same kind of big analog sound. Get yourself a nice tube amp, play lossless digital through that and I bet you’ll be surprised. Of course, it all depends on the mastering quality. I don’t know that one experience is better than the other – it’s almost like listening to music in two different rooms, with different acoustical properties.

    By the way, don’t forget about the Fiio players – for sure the X3 and X5 and maybe the X1 – will also play DSD files. And the X1 is just $100. X3 less than $200 and the X5 is about the same as a Pono at $399. So there are definitely some DAPs that are more entry-level friendly.

    And on friendship: Right back at you, brother.

  2. +1 for the Fiio X5 (although some argue it’s not “audiophile grade” I disagree on that one). It retails for $350 actually and has dual microSD card slots, which was a plus for me and one of the reasons I didn’t wait for a Pono (which has built in storage and a single microSD card slot).

    So I don’t sound like a complete Fiio schill, I wish Neil and Pono the best of luck. I feel the push for better audio player and (perhaps most importantly) better mastered audio to sell (via their Pono web store) will only help the consumer in the end.

    My biggest hangup with downloads is that I’m admittedly a physical medium dinosaur. I’m just not ready to give up my extensive liner notes, photos and a “backup” (if you will) in case my hard drive or microSD cards fail on me. ALL of my personal high res material has been ripped from Blu Rays for playback on my Fiio X5. Pricing and whether or not releases include PDFs of liner notes will greatly influence whether I’m willing to jump in to downloads only for certain titles.

    One last point to make, many will argue the rise of streaming services has as much to do with the “downfall of the iPod” as all in one devices. Apparently there is an entire generation out there not as concerned with audio quality and who would rather “rent” their music on demand than actually buy albums or tracks.

  3. Matt amp; Bill,
    At some point, I know that I’m going to have to start doing the downloading thing. My primary reason for it would be for things like the Springsteen live series from nugs.net . What I’m having the problem with is that I don’t want to do it through my computer and run the risk of losing the files. Pono and the one Matt was also mentioning intrigue me. I want to find out just how many Springsteen and other shows I can cram into one of these devices to make it worth my while. I don’t know all of the math involved in figuring it out. I’d just like to find something that can hold mega-amounts at an affordable price so that I don’t have to keep buying players endlessly. I’d rather download at better bit rates than just MP3 which is a turnoff for me.

    1. I know it’s a “wild” estimate but just in case it helps…

      I’d almost maxed to two 64gb cards on my player with about 25% high res content (mostly 96/24) and the rest CD quality 44.1/16 bit. My total song count was approximately 3600 songs. That should give you some idea of what you might need. If you go for something like a Pono with only one card slot, I’d recommend the largest microSD card you can get (which as of this writing is 128GBs). It’s worth nothing that 64GB cards are significantly cheaper than 128GB cards right now, so you could always do two cards and swap them out (too much of a pain for me personally).

  4. I happened to read an article about that new Walkman earlier today and it caught my eye too and opened me up to the idea. Still don’t like the idea of paying $20 and not getting a physical product, but if the quality is noticeably better then I could see downloading some favorite albums that aren’t available in a high quality physical form.

  5. I just wanted to add something to this interesting discussion.
    There are levels of quality audio, and it really comes down to the gear you have. I went not long ago to one of our audio stores and got a lot of information about digital files. And what I came away with is that we are entering the same thing that happened when CD players came in. First there were high end players, then the prices started to drop, and eventually you could find a CD player for $99. The claim at the time from many sources, was that the need to go into higher end audio was gone; digital was digital and so it didn’t matter. This of course, was a crock, but the same thing is happening now. Go into a quality audio store and see how much it costs to get an audiophile DAC. Sure, you can download high Rez files, but a lot of that is lost unless you have the gear to match. So I would caution people getting into this to be sure that they have the gear to match their expectations.

  6. “although the sound is great, they still have a noticeable flat sound”

    A bad, overly compressed/poorly EQ’d master stills sounds bad at high resolution. Lets hope the loudness war doesn’t intrude into this area.

  7. It is about time that high resolution audio is gaining attention. While my wife would slaughter me in my sleep if I purchased the Sony $1200 Walkman, Sony does offer a highly lauded Walkman that can play high resolution audio and costs $299 (and user comments have been very positive). My concern with PONO is this. They are a stand alone company that is putting all their eggs into one basket (actually two, their PonoPlayer and their high resolution music store). But if you sign into the Pono Communiity it seems that their
    PonoPlayer is having tons of glitches and problems which would be expected with any new product. But myself, I would rather invest in a company such as Sony (not as hip or cool, granted) because Sony will be around for the long haul. Pono was given life by Kickstarter and that life can be taken away (hey, I still have a pile of laserdisc movies that cost me $40 a pop or more and now are worth about $3 each). I wish Pono and Neil Young all the luck in the world, but when it comes to investing money, if Pono is worth all the buzz generated, then some other company will either buy it out or put it under. Pono cannot compete with the giants such as Sony if Sony feels they have a hit on their hands (and high resolution audio appeals to more of the aging Baby Boomers and not so much the kids who watch HD movies on their tablet or phone). And to be honest, my hearing isn’t what it was 30 years ago so lots of high resolution is being wasted on ears that cannot hear the very high or low tones (and my mid-range in my left ear is not great either). I hate to say that Pono is doomed to be a niche product, but until people are willing to pay $25 for an album when before they could pay $10, a niche product it will forever be. A rather COOL one, but one that I don’t think will ever break out into the mainstream. Time will tell. Too many people simply think Mp3 is good enough, whether that is true or not. That’s the view of the mainstream. And they drive the market.

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