Sony and Pono

One of the other trends to come out of CES this year was the further expansion of high-end portable audio.

I’m not just talking about headphones (which seem to have peaked a bit), but various accessories like headphone amps and… high resolution audio players: Sony’s $1,200 Walkman, and Neil Young’s Pono.

These last two have lit off a surprising amount of vitriol (and effusive praise) and to be honest I don’t get any of it.

Let me start with this: I am a self-professed audiophile. I’ve always had the best audio system I could afford. I carry a fantastic set of mid-range (price-wise) earbuds everywhere. I am never without my iPod Classic, and its many gigabytes of my music.

So when Sony announced a new Walkman at CES, I was initially very interested. I am, or I thought I was, the demographic they’d be looking for. Powerful built-in headphone amp? Great. Expandable storage using SD cards? Sweet! It’s even kinda cool looking. Added bonus! Then I found the price (or at least, the price of the Japanese version). $1,200? Not a chance. Apparently, I wasn’t part of  the demographic .

Then there’s the Pono. Again, pieces of it line up with what I want. My Classic won’t last forever, and I’m always looking for what might replace it. But what genius decided a portable audio player should be something impossible to fit in a pocket?

So on the Venn diagram of attributes for the type of person that’d buy one of these, I’m in many circles, but not the center.

I file this under “things impossible to care less about.”

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But WTF?

The hatred these devices have received in the media is absurd. I’m not going to link to any of it (feel free to google) because I don’t think those writing the articles deserve the traffic.

At the risk of getting a bit meta, the job of a reviewer is to put themselves in the shoes of someone who would buy a product. Would I buy a $4,000 TV? Not on your life (I’m a projector guy, when I’m at home). Does that stop me from evaluating them compared to other TVs? No. If I were to review the Pono or new Walkman, would I give them a fair, review? Of course. That’s my job.

So many of the reviews of the Pono seemed to take umbrage at the very idea of high resolution audio. That it was abhorrent that anyone would be crazy enough to want to spend money to get better sound. I find that inherent (and feebly masked) judgment of someone else’s hobby offensive.

It’s like if I said “NFL Sunday Ticket is a waste of money and anyone who buys it is stupid.” That’s what these reviewers are saying. Would I spend money on sportsball channels? Hell no. Do I care if you do? Why the frak would I?

The other aspect of these reviews I find so pathetic is non-technical and non-audio people trying to say that high-resolution audio is impossible to hear and therefore waste.

Well, I have a degree in audio, I’ve been reviewing and writing about it for over a decade, and, oh yeah, I’ve actually participated in double blind listening tests, in a controlled environment. I have (and often easily) been able to distinguish high resolution tracks over regular and compressed.

But… (Part 2)

That said, that doesn’t mean all high resolution audio tracks actually sound better. Dynamic compression, standard resolution masters, and more, can all mean there isn’t an audible difference between the CD and the high resolution track.

This is something the burgeoning (if you can even call it that) high-res download market needs to address. Selling highly dynamically compressed CD-quality audio, that’s been upsampled to 192kHz/24-bit, as “High Rez” is at best lame, at worst, something worse.

Should Anyone Care?

The number of people that actually care about something like the Pono, or like the $1,200 Walkman, is so small as to be a rounding error compared to most products. That’s not to say people shouldn’t (or don’t) care about good audio. They should, and often do. But getting a better pair of headphones is going to do infinitely more to improve your sound than any high-res audio player.

Since most people don’t even bother to spend money on headphones, the stretch to buy something like these players is significant. And that’s something that should be remembered by fanatics on both sides.


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