Neil Young's book about his most recent efforts to push high resolution audio into the mainstream is finally available. As an audiophile this book is gold in many ways. Seeing sound quality discussed in a book that will reach mainstream audiences makes me feel good inside, just like my favorite music. Reading insider details about the process of bringing Pono and high resolution music to market is insightful and interesting. Many of us have speculated about details such as high resolution music pricing, record labels' opinions about high resolution, and the late Steve Jobs' thoughts on why Apple hasn't released anything in high resolution. To feel The Music gets into all of these details.
Neil appears very candid in To Feel The Music. I talked to a couple people about this book to fact check what was written and I believe Neil is telling the truth about details such as Pono's failing in the market, former Pono CEO John Hamm, MQA, MQA's co-inventor Bob Stuart, and Compagnie Financière Richemont SA, more commonly called the Richemont Group the Switzerland-based luxury goods holding company.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention all the inaccuracies and myths in this book, mainly perpetuated by Neil Young, a a little by his co-author Phil baker. It's my opinion that Neil pushes these myths out of passion and ignorance, rather than malice and a desire to make money. Neil hears what he hears and believes what he believes. I know that's a sentence from the master of the obvious playbook, but I believe it's the honest truth and best way to describe Neil's mission to make high resolution music mass, not class. Let's Get into the details.
Neil's Raison d'etre
"Musicians such as myself attempt to record music at the highest sound quality available. We take excruciating care to preserve every detail from each instrument, each voice, and the surrounding environment. We do this knowing that the more you hear, the more you feel the music in your soul."
Above is the opening paragraph to the book. I believe Neil wrote it from his heart and it's why he is so passionate about high quality sound and music. It's about a feeling one gets when music eases into the body and brain, and the elevated feeling when this music sounds as close to reality as possible. I'm sure all of us in the Audiophile Style community understand this 100%, based on real experiences we've had with our favorite music.
Where Neil goes a bit sideways in this book, and in his push for high quality sound in general, is when he equates high quality sound with high resolution audio. Forget the engineering aspect of this for a minute, and think about your own experience. You've no doubt heard the highest of high resolution albums that sound terrible. Dynamic range compression and poor recordings are facts of life that no bit rate, bit depth, or sample rate can overcome. Listening to Metallica's Death Magnetic or the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Californication at 24 bit / 192 kHz just can't make them sound better. They are crushed to death. Period.
I promise this isn't about bashing Neil, but I have to mention where he not only goes sideways but treads heavily into mythical waters. He is right to say that the first CDs on the market were major disappointments. The sound quality was far short of what was sold to consumers. Neil says, "When digital music became available on the compact disc (CD), I got very excited. I thought, Finally, no more cracks, no more pops, no more surface noises that accompanied vinyl records. All the artifacts would be gone." Quickly followed by, "When I went to the studio ... I cranked up the volume and started mixing and listening to CD quality ... That was when I first realized that something was wrong." I know many audiophiles who share this same sentiment.
The book gets mythical on page 16 with the debunked stair step graphic showing analog sound as this smooth sound wave and digital audio as a series of pixelated steps trying to reproduce that smooth signal. Following the graphic, the book says, "The more frequent the sampling, the higher the quality; the less frequent, the poorer the representation of the original recording." And, "The higher the sampling rate the better the representation."
On page 32 of the book is a graphic showing Vinyl records with 100%, high resolution digital as 90%, CD as 25%, and MP3 as 5%. The percentages are the amount of data in each of the formats. This is a half-truth. With respect to file size, sure a high resolution file can be 65% larger than a CD quality file and 85% larger than an MP3. Calling vinyl 100% is downright funny when it comes to data. The intimation here is that data amounts equate to sound quality. This is factually incorrect, but I don't discount anyone's subjective experience with any of the formats. Even MP3 is the preferred format for those who've grown up with it according to Stanford Professor Jonathan Berger's informal experiment (later refuted by the Harmon Group).
Speaking of Harman, in 2015 Neil met with the Harmon Group at CES to discuss a partnership that could've saved Pono. However, Harman's price was too steep. It wanted Neil to endorse and support all of Harman's products via ads, personal appearances and other marketing. Neil told them to take a hike, or in Elliot Roberts' words, "Group at CES to discuss a partnership that could've saved Pono. However,
Neil's decision to turn down
Don't Throw The baby Out With The Bathwater
Despite Neil's beliefs about the technical aspects of high resolution, one mustn't place all his ideas and words in the same mythical basket. Neil is dead right when he says, "All of the limitations that forced music to be compressed and compromised have disappeared as technology has advanced. There is no longer any need for us to compromise." Neil understands so much at the same time he gets so much wrong. Such is life, nobody perfect in all aspects.
Neil talked about his effort to improve car audio when he visited Lincoln Motors. The audio engineers went on and on about all the DSP they'd put into the cars. I could feel Neil's body cringing as he relayed this story in the book. It turns out his hesitation about what the engineers told him was proven valid when they all went on a listening ride in the car. Neil heard something that just didn't sound right. "Something was muddying up the audio." Said Neil.
The engineer's response to Neil's sonic impression was to tell him they'd simulated the sound of an 8 cylinder engine and pumped that through the car audio system. This masked the sound of the car's smaller 4 cylinder engine. I get it, the car companies produce what people want to purchase, but come on, this is just bad.
The book goes into tremendous detail about the entire Pono lifecycle. From the company's beginnings to its demise, all the gory details are here. I was much less interested in all the talk about component sourcing in China and finding the right manufacturer to build the product than I was in sound related decisions with Charley Hansen's involvement, the decision not to enable streaming, and the major misstep that may have sunk the company, the firing of John Hamm.
The people at Pono realized the company wasn't the first to market with such a high resolution Audio player, citing examples from Astell&Kern at $1,000 - $3,500. Neil wanted to offer a player at prices the masses could afford (thus his requirement to manufacture Pono in China).
One critical decision Neil made early on was to not include streaming in the Pono ecosystem. He just didn't think streaming of high resolution would come to market very soon, so he marched on with a file based player using the purchase, download, and synchronize model.
After parting ways with Meridian and Bob Stuart, much more on this later, Pono worked with Ayre Acoustics founder Charley Hansen. It was then-CEO and fellow audiophile John Hamm who brought in Charley because of his brilliance as a designer and eagerness to build the best portable device for the masses. The book details Charley's completely opposite approach from the mainstream. Whereas most manufacturers would purchase off-the-shelf amplifier chips for mobile devices, Charley specified discrete components, resistors, transistors, and capacitors. This is the Charley Hansen / Ayre way of doing things.
In a nod to Charley, Neil later incorporated the sound from Ayre's volume control in his Neil Young Archives website / streaming platform. The clicking sound of moving through drawers on the NYA site is that of the Ayre volume control. Those who've heard it, immediately identify it as Ayre.
Pono as a company churned through leadership like a company run by a rock star. Everyone has their specialties, but not everyone recognizes when to hand over the reigns or when to let go of one's baby. From the beginning Pono was run by Neil and his close friends and associates. Trust was a huge part in selecting the board of directors. Neil included his late wife Pegi Young, long time associate Elliot Roberts, neighbor Gigi Brisson, among other. Corporate lawyer Rick Cohen was selected as legal counsel for Pono. None of these people has deep experience with electronics start-ups.
One of the many CEOs of Pono was Mog founder David Hyman. The book doesn't speak of him very highly when it details what lead to his separation from the company. Hyman tried to take credit for the vision of the company and wanted to change outsourcing companies to one without product experience. The straw that broke the camel's back was when Hyman announced on social media that he and Neil Young had just founded a new company together. Hyman was gone shortly thereafter.
John Hamm entered as CEO and took the company from a well-meaning kludge of people to a real company. Hamm had experience with building high tech companies and as an investor and management advisor. John knew what to do and how to get it done. Plus, John is an audiophile. He understands good sound and the reason for Neil's passion.
John Hamm had the knowledge and connections to get Pono the investments from outside sources that were required to boost the company to another level. He also knew that the familial board of directors needed to change, like it does with all companies in this position. Hamm also asked Rick Cohen, the lawyer for Pono and personal lawyer for members of the board, to choose one or the other. This was the decision that lead to Cohen painting a negative picture of Hamm and talking everyone into kicking Hamm out of the company. I've since talked to people involved in these talks and learned that narcissist doesn't even begin to describe Rick Cohen and his decisions that likely sent Pono to an early death.
What do you know, when Hamm left, Rick Cohen became the CEO. According to co-author Phil Baker, "Neil and Elliot, both agreed that they made a serious error in supporting this change. Elliot, in retrospect, thought Cohen has overplayed the issue and that he and Neil we both overly influenced by him. Elliot explain, "Both Neil and I were out of our element.""
It was great to read in the book that Neil and Elliot both later saw Hamm's firing as a crucial mistake and that they both had a lot of respect for Hamm. I've talked to Hamm several times about Pono and high end audio. He is an ultra-capable leader with many skills. I believe his firing lead to the downfall of Pono.
Can anyone say streaming? Yes, Hamm proposed the streaming solution Neil would ultimately choose for his own Neil Young Archives years later. According to Neil, when he heard about this new streaming platform, "I thought about John Hamm."
The last straw for Pono, without a great leader to guide the company through rough waters and find creative solutions, was Apple's purchase and subsequent closure of Omnifone. Omnifone was Pono's supplier of digital music behind the scenes. Apple quickly shut down the service, cutting off Pono and other Omnifone customers from their source of income, music downloads.
While it's certainly possible or likely Pono would've failed anyway, I believe with John Hamm and streaming via OraStream the company would still be around and possibly as successful as Astell&Kern or other digital audio player companies.
Pono attempted to work with download provider 7 Digital, but things went haywire as the two companies got further down the road working together. Implementation prices escalated as did complexity. When Neil looked the cost to make switch providers and make all the necessary changes to Pono's platform, it just didn't make financial sense. After pumping in a lot of his own and his friends' money, Neil had to close down Pono in December 2017.
I obtained a copy of Neil's letter to Pono investors, the certificate fo dissolution, and stockholders written consent.
Here's a link to the PDF. https://audiophile.style/pono
Now it's time to enter into the hot zone of MQA. I've said my piece ( https://audiophile.style/mqa ) already, so I'll hold back on commentary. On page 45 of the book Neil writes his first words about MQA. This time with respect to Jay-Z and Tidal. Neil says, "Jay-Z has done a lot with Tidal to improve streaming quality. I don't agree with their technology, but I think they are trying to do something good. I find the technology they bought into, Master Quality Authenticated (MQA), limiting. While there are people who thing that's something innovative or important, I'm not in that camp." And, "MQA is just another format, another manipulation of the original performance and proprietary, as well. It is obsolete - we're past the time it was designed for."
According to Neil, he was introduced to Bob Stuart by Craig Kallman, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Atlantic Records, and Mike Jbara, who would later become the CEO of MQA. Neil was told that Bob had been working on a technology for several years that reduced the size of audio files without reducing audio quality. Neil claims he told Bob that file size is less of a problem now than when he first invented MQA and that storage prices would continue to drop. But, according to Neil, "[Bob] had been working on [MQA] for so long, I think he came to believe it was more important that it really was." Neil also mentions that Bob had the support of the record companies and that played a role in Pono's acceptance of the technology at first because Pono also needed support from the record companies.
When Pono, attorneys and Bob Stuart all met in New York for the first time to begin working on a deal, "Stuart was always somewhat vague about exactly what he was doing." According to Neil. Based on my experience and that of others, Stuart remains somewhat vague even today, many years later. Neil also explains that everyone involved had several meetings at his Northern California ranch, including Bob Stuart. But, a formal arrangement always alluded the parties.
Neil was worried about the provenance of the albums from early on and says in the book that Bob Stuart came up with the idea to put a blue light on the Pono player, to signify a file was authentic. The exact details about what would illuminate this light are very vague and described as "the highest resolution, a pure, unaltered file."
Several chapters later in the book, after prototype versions of the Pono player were out in the wild, Bob Stuart's "compression software" was still "Missing in Action." Bob assured Pono that it was coming but it needed more work. According to the Pono design team, this was slowing down work on the final Pono player.
Still missing in action is the paragraph heading, in which Phil Baker describes the situation in late 2013. Bob Stuart hadn't delivered his "compression software" even though Stuart received a "sizable chunk of equity" for delivering this to Pono.
In a deja vu type paragraph, co-author Baker says this of Stuart, "In these meetings Stuart would describe his software in general terms with little specificity. He explained it as something very complex the involved encoding and decoding using both software and hardware. But he was always reluctant to provide specific details about when we'd see it." It's no surprise that the entire Pono team was nervous about a solution ever being delivered. Baker even thought to himself, "that this was not the way a partner with equity should be behaving."
Late in 2013 Bob Stuart, to book goes on to say, was ready to discuss terms for Pono using his software. Pono CEO John Hamm flew to the UK for a meeting with Bob Stuart and the investors in Meridian, the Richemont Group. Stuart and his group proposed terms that included, "monthly payments, royalties for each player sold, more stock, and no exclusivity." During the talks John Hamm explained the financial situation of Pono and that the terms didn't make business sense or align with industry standards. The talks went on for many months, but nothing every materialized.
In the interest of fairness I want to include that Bob Stuart told Phil Baker, "he thought that Pono management had been unreasonable by not accepting his terms." And, that the two company's valuations of his software were vastly different.
If I were in Pono's shoes I'd have to blame myself for not sealing a deal far earlier in the process, before Bob and Meridian had more leverage (players were built and close to going to market). Pono has itself to blame, but I'm not sure Stuart's demands we reasonable. I wasn't there and playing a game of he said - she said can be sketchy.
After it was clear MQA wouldn't make it into Pono, it's interesting to read one of the major factors the Pono team was disappointed. The team said MQA (not known by the acronym yet) was a major distinguishing / selling point and without it the Pono player wouldn't be that different from other players. This reminds me a bit of the manufacturers now who implement MQA because they need to check that box on the spec sheet for consumers.
During meetings with Charley Hansen and Ayre about working together on a player, Hansen "dismissed Stuart's technology as solving a problem that didn't exist and therefore no longer needed solving." And, "[Charley] was opposed to a new proprietary format that added new restrictions to the music files and was controlled by for-profit companied." Just like here on the Audiophile Style forum before his passing, and directly to Neil Young and his team, Charley didn't hold back his true opinion about MQA.
Still More MQA
This part of the book details what I consider to be a cheap shot by Bob Stuart. Readers can obviously see it as they wish. During the development of the Pono player, the design team included a programmable chip on the circuit board that would be used only if Bob Stuart delivered his "software compression" technology. The chip was added early on so they didn't need to redesign the board when Bob was finally ready to deliver MQA to them.
Cut to a couple years later when Pono launched its Kickstarter campaign. The campaign included videos and images of the Pono player. In one of the images the Pono circuit board was shown. This image included the chip that was included but never used for MQA. It wasn't a proprietary chip belonging to Meridian, Bob Stuart, or MQA.
The morning after the Kickstarter launch and successful meeting of the project's goal, Bob Stuart called Pono's lawyer suggesting that Pono was disclosing confidential information because one image showed the unused, off-the-shelf chip. The book doesn't explicitly say Stuart demanded the image be taken down, but why else would he place the call to the lawyer. After the image was photoshopped, Pono's lawyer also made the team get back all 50 prototypes in the field because they also had the unused, off-the-shelf chip.
Last Thing On MQA
Toward the end of the book a paragraph titled "NOT PROPRIETARY" includes the following text, "Pono never used a proprietary file format or limited what you could do with the downloads our customers bought, something the industry is once more attempting to do indirectly by using Meridian's MQA compression scheme. While I applaud the industry's effort here to offer higher quality, using a proprietary format that manipulates the audio and requires compatible hardware is shortsighted and another costly and greedy mistake by the record companies supporting it. I don't think it will ever work. It comes at the big cost."
Neil On ...
Neil touches on many subjects near and dear to many of our hearts in this new book. Here are a few snippets:
"DRM: Where greed meets music"
After discussing high resolution and 5G with Qualcomm in San Diego: "When I was finished and answered a few questions, one of their executives took me back to his office, not to discuss what I just presented but to take a selfie with me. They were clueless."
Record Companies: "The degradation of music began with the premium pricing of high-res audio by the record companies."
Steve Jobs: "I had met Steve in the past ... While he appreciated high-res music and listened to vinyl himself, he had no interest in high res for his products...He told me his customers were perfectly satisfied with MP3 quality... He had one standard for himself and another for his customers ... he said, "We are a consumer company.""
Working with Jim Hillegas and JRiver: "JRiver's CEO, Jim Hillegas, was also a Neil Young fan but was very skeptical of Pono and our odds of success. Nevertheless, he agreed to work with us to deliver a Pono-branded version of their desktop software for both Windows and Mac computers" - Co-Author, Phil baker
Last but not least, the book details Neil's "discovery" of OraStream. I put "discovery" in quotes because it was John Hamm who told Neil about it and Neil says so on page 221. OraStream offers really nice technology that adjusts the quality of one's audio stream based on available bandwidth. If bandwidth is very limited, the files will be reduced via lossy algorithm, but in most cases the full size file will be streamed. Neil elected to use OraStream's technology and renamed his use of it to XStream By NYA for the Neil Young archives. Neil's archives and OraStream's technology are great material for a full article here on Audiophile Style. Neil goes into some detail in the book for those who can't wait for a follow up article.
Overall I loved the book. Any book directed to the masses that mentions HiFi brands like Ayre, Lenbrook, BlueOS, and companies like JRiver and high quality audio, is great in my opinion. I finished this book the first time in about one day and I'm sure many of you will too. It's packed with information that is right in our wheelhouse as audiophiles and music lovers. I applaud Neil for his high quality crusade, even though it's a bit off the mark in some areas. He has done much more good than harm with his efforts.
P.S. Neil, if you read this (I know you have an account here on the site), please tackle dynamic range compression next. Thank you :~)
Where to Buy
I'v never tried this before, so here goes nothing. The following link is an affiliate link that gives Audiophile Style a little kickback if you purchase something on Amazon. This is in beta around here and it won't be used for much. I think the book is a pretty benign product on which to try this out.