I’m deep into contemplating my much-ballyhooed Album of the Year honor. On a date yet to be determined, though definitely sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I’ll bestow the award to what I deem to be the top release of 2014. Which means, of course, that I’m sifting through and re-listening to the candidates, and drifting away on the potent melodies therein. I’m cogitating, contemplating, deliberating, pondering and ruminating, as well as chewing, stewing and mulling over the music, and debating the merits of individual selections with Diane and Tyler, our all-knowing feline sage. It’s serious business, a major decision, the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.
(Or, perhaps, not.)
I began the practice in the late ‘70s after reading the year-end picks of music critics. Granted, those scribes had access to much more music than I. Back then, I relied on birthday and Christmas money, plus my allowance, to buy albums. Today, it’s not all that different: I still budget. And, like most folks, that budget often takes a hit from competing needs and wants. Also – I’m 49 years old. Most current music holds no interest to me. So, though I was and am a music obsessive, I don’t pretend to be an all-knowing seer of any particular year’s releases. Specific artists and albums? Yes. Music history in general? Yes. The Top 40, especially of late? No.
I also, from time to time, get it wrong. A great, recent case in point: 2012. I was smitten with Susanna Hoffs’ Someday album, which was – and remains – as perfect a pop record as I’ve heard. I listened to it again last week and again tonight, in fact, and it’s as wondrous as I remembered, if not better. But my runner-up for that year, Psychedelic Pill by Neil Young & Crazy Horse, has become one of my most-played albums of recent vintage. It’s home to propulsive rhythms, swirling and whirling guitars, and, above all, majestic melodies. To my ears, “Driftin’ Back,” “Ramada Inn” and “Walk Like a Giant” rank with Neil’s greatest works.
Yet, I can’t help but to think that the most important music-related item of the past year hasn’t been a recording, but a player – the Pono Player, to be precise. I wrote about it a few posts ago and now, almost a month later, thought I’d expand upon that initial critique.
First, as I think I said last time out, I am not an audiophile. The emotional raison d’être of music has always superseded “sound quality” for me. Through the years, I’ve enjoyed – some may say obsessed over – music via staticky AM radio, cassettes worn so thin that the music on the flip side seeped through, and muddy vinyl (and later CD) bootlegs. But there’s something magical about unencumbered music. It’s akin to the differences between standard-definition TV and HD. If landscapes in HD look incredible, then high-resolution soundscapes are spectacular.
The difference is stark when comparing lossy MP3s to the high-resolution FLAC files. The differences between a well-mastered CD (or CD-equivalent ALAC or FLAC files) and high-res ALAC or FLAC files are negligible when listening via my mid-tier, THX-certified Logitech desktop speakers. “Walk Like a Giant” from the high-res (24-bit, 192kHz) Psychedelic Pill that came with my player sounds just about the same to me whether it’s coming from the Pono Player or the ALAC rip of the CD via my MacBook Pro.
I think I hear a difference, but I could be wrong, and if there is a difference it’s not much of one. When moving between the Pono Player and my iPhone 5, however, the difference is obvious. On my mid-tier Bose headphones, the high-res version is a richer experience – similar, in a sense, to comparing an old-school 4×3 TV picture to the now-standard 16×9 widescreen. Likewise, when listening via our decade-old, mid-tier bookshelf system downstairs – “fuller-bodied” springs to mind. The ALAC-encoded “Walk Like a Giant” sounds good via my iPhone, mind you, but the high-res FLAC file via the Pono Player sounds complete. And in my car, there’s no comparison. The high-resolution music sounds immense. (When I upgrade my desktop speakers, which will likely occur mid-2015, I’ll report back.)
I’m still unsure what it is, exactly, that makes the difference. 16- vs. 24-bit? 44.1- vs. 96- or 192kHz? The DAC (digital-to-analog converter) that’s housed in the oblong Pono Player? All of the above? Or a combination of some? I will say this: my CD-equivalent, ALAC-rip of Susanna Hoffs’ Someday sounds fresher, warmer and richer than via my iPhone. “Picture Me” is a pure delight. It’s Beatlesque, beautiful and utterly sweet.
All that said, there are areas where the Pono player could stand improvement. Battery life is one. I don’t think I’ve gotten more than six hours out of a charge. (It’s not a big deal for me, as during the workday I charge it via my work computer, but it may make a difference to others.) Also, file sizes are much larger than typical MP3s or AACs, so larger storage is necessary. It comes with 64GB, and can take up to a 128GB microSD card, but given the low cost of flash memory, why not up the internal to 128GB or even 256GB? A larger screen would be nice, too, so long as it doesn’t negatively impact the battery life.
Now that I’m used to it, the Pono Music World software (used to transfer the digital files to the player) works great – when my Mac sees the player, that is. Sometimes I have to dock and undock it several times before it’s picked up. And while purchasing high-res files from the Pono Music store can be done from within the software, I’ve found it easier to do via a web browser. Navigation in the store, as it’s currently designed, is a chore – it’s not intuitive, and high-res content isn’t readily identifiable until you click onto an album to see the track listing. Of course, like the player, both the software and store are first-generation affairs – I assumed, going in, that some kinks would need to be ironed out.
All that said, when or if the Pono Player gets around to a Version 2, which I hope they do, I’ll spring for it. I’m no audiophile, as I said above, but after listening to high-resolution files and regular CD rips on this first version, I can’t imagine not having one.