Rhodri Marsden: Neil Young's quest for purer listening is pure elitist garbage
Young's Pono music player has raised more than $6 million on Kickstarter
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Wednesday 16 April 2014
I like vinyl. By which I mean records, rather than upholstery. Compact discs did music a disservice in a number of ways, from the ugly plastic jewel case to the shuffle function that rode roughshod over any notion (however misguided) of the album as a musical journey.
So I still enjoy listening to vinyl, and the quaint pattern of 20-minute listening periods followed by a disc flip. The fact that the sound is degraded by scratches, a bit distorted and slightly lacking in clarity doesn't matter. That's not the point.
"Whoa, hang on," cry a gaggle of audiophiles in unison, waving placards featuring the face of their new guru, Neil Young. Young believes that the sound quality of album releases has been in decline since the 1970s – from vinyl to CD to MP3 – and that something needs to be done about it.
With the help of some business advisers he set up Pono, a company dedicated to bringing listeners the finest-quality audio possible, and earlier this week its first product, an iPod rival called the Pono Player, was funded to the tune of $6m on Kickstarter. The gizmo, according to the blurb, is "where your soul rediscovers music" and will retail for $399 (£238).
I don't doubt that Young has the most noble of intentions, but Pono, as with much new audio-visual technology, offers questionable marginal benefit to the person who's upgrading. Earnest blokes brandishing gold-plated speaker connectors will talk endlessly about the purity of their listening experience, using deeply scientific terms such as "nuance", "warmth" and "immediacy", and I imagine that the price of the Toblerone-shaped Pono is sufficient to give them faith in its ability to reproduce cello pizzicato with high-grade precision.
But everyone's perception of sound is so different, from person to person, from day to day, that Young's attempt to assert this level of control over it is laughable.
Pono positions itself as a higher quality alternative to the iPod
The Pono has a minijack connector. Neil doesn't know what questionable brand of headphones people may attach to it. They might hook it up to an old amplifier and push the bass frequencies up on the graphic equaliser. The speakers might be out of phase. The listener's hearing might be dodgy. Their brother might sing along loudly, out of tune, in a Fiat Punto.
All these factors would have way more bearing on the sound than Young's insistence on 24-bit, 192khz sound files (as compared to 16-bit, 44.1khz on a CD). Such absurd pursuits of "authenticity" offer minute improvements that are virtually inaudible – and those that argue, well, kindly take a blind test and prove it.
There may be demand for the Pono, but it encourages a reprehensible elitism. Young claimed in a recent interview that MP3s of his music, ones that thousands of us have bought, "sound so compromised that you really don't get the feeling of the music, you don't get into the depth of the music and get the soul of it".
To insinuate that lower-fidelity listening is somehow unworthy, that it's only those who fork out for expensive equipment that can truly appreciate his or anyone else's artistry, that radio listeners, Spotify streamers and club-goers are somehow being emotionally short-changed – this is utter garbage that turns music appreciation into a joyless chin-stroking and box-ticking session. This battle can't be won, Neil – and next time I listen to After The Gold Rush, I'll stick a peanut in each ear just to prove it.
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