In mid-July, Harman -- the company that owns storied audio outfits Harman/Kardon, Infinity, JBL, and Mark Levinson, among others -- released a YouTube video called The Distortion of Sound. A stylish, 22-minute documentary featuring Snoop Dogg, Mike Shinoda, and Slash (of Guns N’ Roses fame), it explains what audio compression is, and why it’s important for both recording artists and listeners. It’s a worthwhile watch, if not terribly informative for the average audiophile. While surely self-serving -- Harman is a publicly traded company whose holdings peddle audio hardware -- the video states one crushingly obvious truth: “The whole challenge of everything right now in the arts is convenience. What we’ve learned in the last ten years is that people will sacrifice anything for convenience.” Commendably, while the ostensible premise of the video is to raise awareness about compression, Harman stops short of suggesting that salvation can be found with a set of JBL headphones or a pair of Infinity loudspeakers. It’s primarily an appeal to preserve fine sound artistry -- so all credit to Harman on that count.
The downside is that all the viewer is left with is an appeal. There is no advertorial for a Harman-branded music service, or a slide show of various audio products that can enrich our lives. This is hardly an indictment of Harman, but a commentary on how we consume music these days. It seems that sound quality will forever be far down the list of priorities, and convenience at the very top. Harman is at least attempting to do its part -- the company has partnered with phone maker HTC on HTC’s One (M8) smartphone, which can decode 24-bit/192kHz audio signals. Still, the fundamental issue has never been the availability of hardware that can faithfully reproduce recorded music; the problem is getting listeners to care that it can, or even to recognize that it does.
Andy Moore, production manager of Arcam, once told me of a demonstration he performed at an audio show using a modest system. He began with a crap MP3 recording, then ascended the ladder of sound quality rung by rung, from high-quality MP3 to CD quality to high resolution. The crowd oohed and ahhed, describing how they could hear greater detail with each step up in sound quality. Then Moore played the final track, and everyone was deeply impressed -- until he revealed that it was a 192kbps MP3 file. This demo had not been intended to demonstrate that there is no difference in sound quality between MP3 and higher-resolution formats. It did illustrate, however, that even a modest stereo system can make a lowly MP3 sound awfully good. It also demonstrated how easily the human ear/brain system can be fooled.
Which takes me back to 2005. It was Parents’ Weekend at my college, and I was seated in a lecture hall for my course in the history of Modern East Asia, taught by a dreadful occidental woman in her late 40s who had an air of near-palpable disdain for anything Western in origin. Seated directly in front of me were three people: a rugged-looking gentleman in long hair and cowboy hat, a middle-aged woman with long blonde hair, and one of my classmates -- their daughter. The rugged gentleman, it turned out, was Neil Young.
Like Harman, Young is on a mission to get high-quality sound into the average listener’s ears. He founded Pono Music to, as he said, “rescue the art form that I’ve been practicing for the past 50 years.” To this end, having raised over $6.25 million via Kickstarter, Pono has adopted a two-pronged strategy. The first is its online store, PonoMusic, which, beginning in October 2014, will offer high-resolution FLAC content, with albums expected to cost between $14.99 and $24.99. Having inked deals with major labels well in advance of the store’s grand opening, Pono promises to offer a wide selection of mainstream music that outlets such as HDtracks simply don’t carry. The other, more curious prong is a dedicated music device, the 128GB PonoPlayer ($399 USD), developed in collaboration with audio-industry stalwart Ayre Acoustics.
The problem is that the PonoPlayer won’t be terribly successful. As Harman’s The Distortion of Sound so aptly points out, convenience is king. When I walk out of my downtown apartment, it’s with my iPhone 5 and my Shure SE535 earphones. Sure, I could stroll about with an Astell&Kern player shaped like a bulky smartphone -- but I’d still have to carry my phone, as well as my wallet and keys. Sorry, no. While the PonoPlayer is only half the price of Astell&Kern’s AK100 Mk.II, it’s shaped like a Toblerone bar -- something Pono actually intended. Best intentions aside, the player’s awkward shape and surprising size will make it a nonstarter for many. Its precise dimensions have yet to be announced, but the player looked worryingly big in Neil Young’s hand when he demonstrated it to David Letterman in 2012.
This is to say nothing of PonoMusic’s distribution model, which appears to be predicated entirely on hi-rez recordings. The average user listens to lossy MP3s and streaming services like Spotify. Maybe they’re rocking a pair of $100 earbuds or $200 Beats headphones. But if there’s little present demand for even CD-quality music, something that every smartphone can handle with ease, I don’t see how a dedicated audio device that costs more than most phones, with content that carries a heavy helping of sticker shock, has any shot at succeeding. Of course, the definition of success depends entirely on one’s perspective -- it wouldn’t surprise me if PonoMusic surpassed the popularity of HDtracks. But on a larger scale, Pono will be of no greater significance than the utterly transient vinyl renaissance we are currently enjoying.
Pono is borrowing the Beats model of marketing by enlisting celebrities to help spread its message, with video testimonials from Dave Grohl, Eddie Vedder, and James Taylor. Such promotions surely can’t hurt Pono’s chances. But will seeing a veteran musician rave about hi-rez audio have the same galvanizing effect as Lebron James sporting black-and-red headphones with a lowercase b on the side? Don’t bet on it. Even if the uninitiated won’t, audiophiles will gladly buy hi-rez versions of Coldplay and Madonna -- but please, spare us the Toblerone.
. . . Hans Wetzel