There’s been a lot of heated discussion about whether audiophiles are getting their money’s worth by downloading expensive hi-res digital tracks.
A couple of new devices have pushed onto the market in the past year trying to woo fans with the lure of high resolution songs. The two main players are Neil Young’s hugely successful Kickstarter project, the Pono, and Sony’s expensive new Walkman NWZ-A17.
More recently, Jay-Z’s streaming service Tidal promises lossless music at 1,411kbps – what you’d expect from a CD. The industry standard is around 320kbps.
Young’s Pono Player, if you buy hi-res tracks, can play them at up to 9216kbps.
But can the average listener actually hear any difference? That’s a debate that’s raged ever since recording was invented, but even though $400 for a Pono sounds steepish, it’s actually a bargain considering audiophiles have historically not blinked at laying out thousands for high-end systems.
The Pono’s arrival has simply brought the argument into the internet age, where a single post like this can spark a debate that runs for months.
It’s a fight Neil Young is possibly tired of following. Last night, an update rolled out for his Pono which adds a “PonoRevealer” to your player.
Install the PonoRevealer and you get a free version of Young’s classic “Heart of Gold”. But it’s a special version because embedded within it is the ability to switch through various bitrates of the recording. Like this:
Young himself sells the feature in this video, sitting in the front seat of his admirably retro car near a beach somewhere:
It’s a 200MB download, for a single song. You’ll fit about 800 tracks at that rate on your Pono out of the box, but there’s also expandable memory for you to play with.
You can set the PonoRevealer to run on any tracks you have on your Pono.
I’m a Pono owner and I played around with “Heart of Gold” last night. There’s definitely more depth to the 192kHz version, but in my experience, you need to start by throwing in an expensive set of headphones to appreciate it.
And because it’s unlikely you’d buy the Pono if you don’t already own an expensive set of headphones, the addition of the PonoRevealer has a whiff of desperation about it.
There’s no other reason for Young to roll it out it other than to prove to a) the Pono owner and b) the Pono owner’s friends that the Pono player does indeed deliver higher quality sound that human ears can hear.
Maybe it’s just a good way to justify to yourself why you paid $17 for Beck’s latest album rather than stream it alongside an unlimited number of other albums for $11 a month.
To be honest, if you own a hi-res player, you’re the only one who cares. The only thing that making your friends listen to your music with the PonoRevealer on actually reveals is that you’re probably doubting it yourself.
If you want to join the argument, here’s a great explainer of the science behind hi-res audio from whathifi.com that will get you up to speed.