Category Archives: Tech

Of Pono, Apple Music & Sound…

My Pono Player has become an important cog in my enjoyment of music. Everything sounds better on it, which in my case means either lossless (ALAC or FLAC) rips of CDs, some of which I’ve owned for 30 years, or high-resolution files that capture every note and nuance found on the master tapes. Oh, I know, some folks will tell you that the difference between high-resolution and standard-def (or even well-encoded MP3s) isn’t audible – but they’re wrong.

Mind you, when first listening to high-resolution music, it’s not an immediate difference. But, as your ears become acclimated, the sound becomes deeper and more robust, and most noticeable when you shift back to standard-def or MP3s/AACs. That said, standard-def still sounds great – the Staves’ If I Was is an excellent example. Listening in my car, as I often do, volume up high, the sisters’ voices swoop in and out, and harmonize, as if they’re singing to me from the backseat. It’s remarkable, actually. Rumer’s Seasons of My Soul is another set of songs that, though only available in 16/44.1, sounds wondrous, with the gradient shades of her honey-smooth voice wafting from the speakers like bubbles in the wind.

Rumer’s second album, Boys Don’t Cry, is available in 24/88.2. The gradient shades of her delivery are richer as a result, with a velvety texture added that’s near-impossible to describe. You feel like you’re in the studio with her.

But I’m no sound snob. Anyone of a certain age grew up on radio and, to my ears, MP3 and AAC files are basically akin to FM radio – no one ever claimed that FM sounds as good as the traditional turntable setup of yore, but most folks enjoyed it nonetheless, often spending an afternoon or evening listening to their favorite station(s). The diminished sound quality didn’t preclude one from enjoying the music. In similar fashion, the iTunes download of the U.S. version of Seasons of My Soul possesses the same magic as the CD; the true crime there isn’t the reduced quality of the sonics, but the change in song order – the gentle push-and-pull pace of the original, with each song acting as a perfect lead-in to the next, was lost. Yes, of course, some of the gradient shades I referenced above are missing; that goes without saying. The emotional quotient remains the same, however, and it’s the emotional quotient that, for my money, is the most important ingredient in music.

Which leads to this: A few weeks back, I signed us up for the free three-month trial of Apple Music. If we decide to keep it, and we likely will, we’ll pay $15/month for access to 30-million tracks, all streamed as 256kbps AAC files (which are on a par with 320kbps MP3 files). In a sense, it’s akin to trading an antenna-equipped 55-inch HDTV for a 10-inch standard-def set that’s plugged into the cable ecosystem; the visual quality you’ve become accustomed to is gone, but you have access to most of the premium channels under the sun.

I have no intention of giving up my Pono Player or of no longer buying high-res albums, be they catalog items or brand-new titles. Just this morning, for example, I cashed in part of an HDTracks gift certificate (a Christmas gift) on Glady Knight & the Pips’ Imagination album. That’s the one with “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” two songs that I absolutely love. The soundscape is immense; and Gladys’ vocals…

The charm of Apple Music (and Spotify and other streaming services, for that matter) is that I can listen to what I want whenever I want. Coupled with T-Mobile’s Music Freedom program, which allows you to stream music without it counting against your data cap, well, what’s to lose, right? The other week, while stuck in traffic, I had a hankering for hearing the Bangles’ A Different Light – a longtime favorite that I haven’t listened to, in full, for eons. No, their creamy backing vocals weren’t as creamy as on CD or (one day, as it’s not available as of yet) in high-resolution, but it still brought a smile to my face. Likewise, after spotlighting it in a recent Top 5, I played Jane Wiedlin’s self-titled solo debut from start to finish; and followed it up with a Belinda Carlisle best-of. The result? I arrived at work in a good mood. To hear them on my Pono Player I’d have to, 1) find the CDs, which is easier said than done; 2) encode said CDs as FLAC or ALAC files; and, 3), load the tracks onto the player. I.e., plan ahead; and, too, have an endless supply of micro-SD cards.

No, the sound quality isn’t what I’m used to, but sometimes “good enough” is, indeed, good enough. All in all, and I was just saying this to Diane last night, I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoy the service.

I should add, I haven’t loaded Apple Music onto my computer, just my iPhone, due to the issues that, from what I’ve read, it has with many existing libraries, especially large ones like mine. I.e., matching songs to wrong albums and displaying the wrong cover art. Plus, I’d rather be able to choose what to make available. The Unsurpassed Masters bootleg series of Beatles’ outtakes, for instance, isn’t something I need on every device 24/7; I just don’t. The same goes for some albums that are basically Diane’s – and vice versa. I doubt she’d want my ONJ catalog littering her library.

(Apple needs to give the user the ability to decide which tracks, albums and artists to make available on all devices instead of assuming we want everything.)

Advertisements

Kevin Spacey, Bobby Darin, Peggy Lee & Me

IMG_4885

Favorite movies – everybody has some. Mine include Almost Famous, American Beauty, Billy Jack, Casablanca, Grease, Rear Window, Serenity, Some Like It Hot, the Bourne trilogy and last year’s big-screen Veronica Mars flick, among others. A few are stone-cold classics. Others – some might call them mediocre or even dreck. But, so what? I enjoy them.

Beyond the Sea, the 2004 Kevin Spacey film about Bobby Darin, is yet another favorite. It’s flawed, for sure – and something I may never have seen save for my mother-in-law, who loves going to the movies. As a result, for a time last decade, we did just that. In this particular instance, the film before had been a bore – a French film that should have been called Ennui. Ennui, Part II, was next on the docket – if my mother-in-law had her way, that is. Diane, however, suggested we see the new Kevin Spacey movie instead as a way of placating me.

Understand, all I knew about Darin at the time was “Splish Splash” and “Dream Lover”; and only from hearing them on Happy Days and Michael St. Johns’ Saturday night oldies show in the mid-to-late 1970s. Darin made his mark, of course, when he graduated from pop ’n’ roll to “Mack the Knife” and became an adult-contemporary/supper-club performer with a knack for making every song he sang his. That’s how I describe him now, mind you. In December 2004, however, when presented with the option of seeing Beyond the Sea, I simply figured: It’s Spacey. Non-French. Why not?

Suffice it to say, the movie proved to be a revelation. Spacey’s performance led me to buy the soundtrack, and then an actual Darin best-of, which in turn led to various live sets and studio albums. The movie also led, indirectly, to more than just Darin. Prior, I gave short shrift to the supper-club musicians of yore – I was a kid of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, after all, raised on rock, pop, country, folk, R&B and soul. I’d been led to believe that Darin and what (I mistakenly thought) he represented just weren’t cool.

Beyond the Sea taught me that I was wrong.

That’s a rather long-winded introduction to this next bit: One day, while browsing Bobby Darin CDs on Amazon, I noticed a Peggy Lee collection listed under the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…” recommendations. I made a mental note, moved on. I’d seen her name from time to time, as most of a certain age have, and was familiar with her classic “Fever”…

…but that was it.

A year-or-so later – yes, that’s how long it can take me to pull the trigger on a purchase (I am great at not making up my mind) – I plunked down $33 for the 4-CD Singles Collection. The sales price was too good to pass up.

My short-and-simple review of the set, then and now: There aren’t enough superlatives to describe it. At her best, regardless of genre (and the collection veers from big band to swing to late-‘60s/early ‘70s adult contemporary), she’s living the lyrics as she sings them – happy, sad, sensual, world-weary, what have you. Over time, the set led to other Peggy Lee albums, both on CD and iTunes and/or Amazon downloads – especially the latter, due to Amazon’s (at the time) frequent sales. One download, from Amazon, was her collaboration with legendary jazz pianist George Shearing, Beauty and the Beat! At $2.99, it was a steal; and it quickly became my second favorite Peggy Lee set, with only the sultry Black Coffee ranking ahead of it.

Those were the days, I hasten to add, when I couldn’t discern a difference between CD-quality and downloads – not because of my ears, but my speakers. Most of my listening, then and now, comes here, at my desk – and my desktop computer speakers at the time, while decent, just weren’t good enough. CDs, downloads and YouTube videos sounded the same; and because I made mix CDs from what was on my computer for the car, what I heard on my car’s speakers sounded as good (or bad, depending on how one looks at it). It wasn’t until I upgraded the speakers in 2010, after a year-plus of deliberating, that I realized how foolish I’d been.

The thousands of CDs that I’d encoded at 256kbps and 320kbps became a figurative albatross around my neck. Mind you, the sound is akin to FM radio – decent, if somewhat distant and thin. And the albums and songs I’d bought at those bit-rates were… a sign of my ignorance. That’s why, in 2010, I began encoding everything as ALAC (the Apple equivalent of FLAC). Sure, they took up more room – but the sonic results were more than worth that (small) sacrifice.

Well, last night, thanks to a birthday gift (certificate) from my friend Luanne a few weeks back, I downloaded Beauty and the Beat! from HDTracks.com in full 24-bit, 192kHz glory – that means the master tape (or close equivalent) was encoded into digital at those settings and, for download purposes, not dumbed down to 16-bit/44.1kHz CD settings (or worse). I.e., it’s as close to the original as possible. I loaded the album onto my Pono Player and…wow. Just wow. The Amazon download sounds decent – like I said above, akin to FM radio. The high-res download, on the other hand, sounds like Peggy Lee is singing in my ear.

The set, I should mention, is billed as live, but is actually a studio set with the applause spliced in. Shearing and band have some wondrous instrumentals – especially “Mambo in Miami” and “Isn’t It Romantic”; Shearing’s piano reverberates as if you’re in the room with him, and the percussion…have I said “wow”? Check out the bass run on “Satin Doll.” The reason for purchasing it, though, is Peggy Lee. Her vocals are beyond belief. “Do I Love You,” “I Lost My Sugar in Salt Lake City,” “Blue Prelude,” “Always True to You in My Fashion” and “There’ll Be Another Spring” sound – well, I already said it’s like she’s singing in your ear. If you close your eyes, you’ll swear that’s the case.

It makes me yearn to hear Black Coffee – both the album and title track – in high-resolution.

And, listening to “Blue Prelude” as I type, I realize that I have none other than Kevin Spacey – and my mother-in-law, of all people – to thank for introducing me to Peggy Lee. If not for her penchant for movies, and Spacey’s decision to make Beyond the Sea, I never would have discovered Bobby Darin and, through him (and Amazon), Peggy Lee. And if not for Peggy Lee, my discovery of Melody Gardot – her modern-day heir, in my opinion – might not have happened.

The point of this too-long post? Don’t discount the decades that came before one’s birth; nor genres of music you assume you’ll dislike. There are too many good sounds to be enjoyed; and history to be learned.

Oh – and the Pono Store needs gift certificates.

Pono Player, Take 2

IMG_3592

It’s been a quite some time since I wrote about the Pono Player and high-def audio. Given that Pono founder – and music legend – Neil Young made news a week-or-so ago when he yanked his music from all the streaming services due to his dismay over their poor audio quality, I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss it again.

First, as I think I wrote in my initial take on the device, I am not an audiophile. I appreciate good sound, but own mid-tier most things; and am quite content listening to music via my THX-certified Logitech desktop computer speakers here in my home office. They sound good, to my ears, though never quite as good as when I have the Pono Player plugged into them. Our downstairs sound system, a 15-year-old (or so) Phillips mini-system, does a good job, too, though never as good as when I have the Pono Player plugged into it. And the sound system in my Honda Civic is, I think, quite good – though never as good as when I have the Pono Player plugged into the aux jack.

The last halves of those last three sentences say it all.

I have decent headphones, as well, that I occasionally make use of – but I have a love/hate affair with headphones as a whole, so listen with them less often. Sometimes, at work, I pull them out and plug them into my Pono Player – and the sound is much, much better than what I experienced on my iPhone 5.

Right now, I’m listening to Elite Hotel by Emmylou Harris – 24-bit, 192kHz – in my home office via my THX-certified Logitech speakers. The best way I can describe the difference between it – or any well-mastered high-def recording – and, say, an MP3, ACC, OGG or whatever format the streaming services use – can be summed up in one word: space. The instruments and vocals aren’t smushed together into an unholy alliance, but instead possess distinct tonalities that one can easily distinguish. The subtle shadings of Emmy’s vocal delivery in, for example, “Here, There and Everywhere” are audible. It’s akin to listening in the same room as one’s speakers vs. listening to them from another room. You can still make out the melody, instruments and vocals in the latter instance, but the sound is nowhere near as clear as the former.

That said, the gap between high-def audio and CD-quality (16-bit, 44.1kHz) isn’t quite as wide. High-res material, which can range from 24-bit, 44.1kHz to 24-bit, 192kHz and up, sounds a tad sharper and deeper, but – to borrow an analogy from another technology – it’s somewhat akin to the difference between 720p and 1080p on an HD TV, I think, or even 1080p and ultra-HD. The additional pixels only matter the closer one sits to the TV. I say “somewhat akin” because, as I said at the outset, the difference in sound quality is noticeable – but it’s not a dramatic difference. (Admittedly, part of my conclusion may have to do with my mid-tier equipment; and my unwillingness to deal with headphones on a regular basis. I do plan, at some juncture, to upgrade the former.)

Where the Pono Player shines, however, is in its DAC, which makes everything it plays sound better. First Aid Kit’s 16-bit, 44.1kHZ rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America,” for instance, sounds heavenly. (It’s available in the Pono Music Store, I should mention.) Their harmonies aren’t quite as lush as they are on the songs found on the 24-bit/44.1kHz Stay Gold, but the difference isn’t as stark as between MP3 (or equivalent) and CD-quality or higher.

All that said, do I recommend the Pono Player? For a casual music fan, no. But for anyone who loves music, still buys CDs and rips them into lossless FLAC or ALAC files, yes. Even if you never buy a high-resolution song or album, you’ll appreciate the sonic difference. And if you do take the plunge, whether at the Pono Music Store or any of its competitors, such as HDTracks, you’ll appreciate the difference all the more. I can’t imagine not having mine.

I hesitate to say that the Pono Player makes one feel the music, but it does. It’s not the live experience distilled into a portable container, mind you, but – at its best – it’s the studio experience. When listening to Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, for example, you feel like you’re in the room with them.