Hi-Fi Downloads

Better-sounding music downloads are on the way in the near future.

It is one of the peculiarities of music downloads in 2013 that they are based on the audio CD. Music providers then compress the music audio stream in various ways so that the sound quality is less than that of a CD. The connection to the audio CD format provides a slight advantage to listeners like me who make audio CDs of music downloads, but why shouldn’t music downloads provide a higher audio quality than the CD?

That’s a change that is bound to happen sooner or later, and according to musician and PonoMusic founder Neil Young, it’s time. This summer he has been showing a prototype Pono music player and working on the technical details of the PONO audio format with Meridian Audio. Now he is promising the launch of the new format, music player, and download service early next year. Early speculation about the audio format is that it uses a 32-bit stereo audio stream with a high sampling frequency and a compression format that emphasizes the stereo waveform. Details of the audio format haven’t been released, and Young himself, who has heard the prototypes and had the chance to compare them with his own masters, says only that it is like not having an digital file at all.

One reason audio download providers have been slow to upgrade audio is that untrained listeners can barely hear the difference between the current audio formats. Yet it is a difference in sound quality that musicians, record producers, and audiophiles have a visceral reaction to, and it is likely that the average listener will experience some of the same reaction even if they cannot pick out the details of the difference they are hearing.

There is a lively debate about the merits of the PONO format, with some engineers saying it could be a big step forward and others claiming it will be no better than current CD-quality encoders such as FLAC and ALC. It is an uninformed debate at this point since the participants have neither heard the format nor seen any specs. But that, I am afraid, is the nature of the audio business. The debate might as well wait. We will all get to hear higher-resolution digital audio next year, if not from Young and PONO, then from someone else trying to beat them to release.