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back to article Neil Young touts MP3 player that's no Piece of Crap

Decades of performing may have left Neil Young somewhat shy of the hearing of a 20-year-old, but the poor quality of MP3 still irritates the crazy horse enough to try and do something about it. Meet PonoMusic, which Young hopes will “unleash” all the unheard detail that MP3 (or even, if you believe what's on the company's site, …

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What's the point of all that fidelity if you're going to use headphones? Sure, you can get some very good headphones but they'll never be good enough for you to be able to make any meaningful distinction between this and CD. Then there's background noise to contend with. The best headphones are over the ear but with open backs. They're useless with any sort of background noise, which means you can't use them when you're out and about.

If this product is actually intended to be hooked up to a decent sound system why doesn't it have several terabytes of hard drive space?

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The best full-range floorstanding loudspeakers that money can buy are also useless when there's background noise to contend with, as anyone who experienced the Harrods Hi-fi section would attest (never has a quarter of a million pounds of equipment sounded so bad). And besides, headphones are a much easier load to drive than a floorstander. With a good headphone amp on board, you'd be amazed at how good those "cheap" headphones sound.

Who claimed that this was intended for use in "a decent sound system"? In Mr Young's world view, people who own such things only listen to vinyl albums. Pono is to address the lousy quality of portable players.

If it gets more albums out in high-resolution audio, I'm all for it. (I don't like modern soft Jazz, and that rules out about 70% of all high-res releases, I find...)

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Anonymous Coward

Oh dear.

The Pono Website indicates Pono is there to "let you feel music in ways you've only felt seeing it live" which does rather suggest that sodding great big speakers are required. But the link to information about the Ponoplayer comes up with: "The output impedance is very low so that the Pono Player will deliver perfectly flat frequency response to any headphone made."

So I think it's safe to say that the Pono Website is talking nonsense. This is a portable music player intended for headphone use while on the move, not for serious sit-down listening. The idea that headphones can reproduce the sensations of being present in person to experience the gut-shaking thunder of a symphony orchestra or rock band at full tilt is nonsense.

So many of the claims are nonsense or misleading.

http://www.computeraudiophile.com/f8-general-forum/neil-young-announces-launch-ponomusic-19703/index2.html#post304438

e.g., the claim that low output impedance (standard on almost all modern audio kit) ensures perfectly flat frequency response. Yes it helps, but you need more than low output impedance to get flat frequency response over the audio range and nothing provides perfection.

What's this about no (negative) feedback? Well, it does correct for errors, so the circuitry being designed is going to produce worse results than if they'd designed it sensibly.

I've no idea what this "minimum phase [shift]" digital filter might be for. An analogue filter after the DAC is essential - but a digital filter? The analogue filters used are often Chebyshev filters, which are anything but linear phase shift, although there are DAC techniques which permit the use of different types of filter.

And of course you'd expect a high quality DAC. Any decent audio kit intended to turn digital into analogue needs a high quality DAC.

Pfft.

Mind you, Richard Chirgwin's article isn't beyond a bit of needling. Neil Young's against LOSSY compression - lossless compression of the source is no trouble, surely? And if this Ponoplayer can carry 1000-2000 albums, that's around 10,000-20,000 songs - well, yes less than "many" tens of thousands, but not as much as implied and in any case so what? How many people actually (legally) own even 1000 albums? Or are going to be out long enough with their portable music player to get through even 20 albums before having a chance to re-stock at home?

Regarding derogatory comments about "audiophiles": yes "audiophiles" think all the stupid things that those who diss them claim, provided you define "audiophile" as someone with stupid ignorant ideas about audio reproduction who doesn't care about what the music sounds like, only what the equipment spec is.

I've read convincing articles showing that actually, class B amplifiers (when properly implemented) provide the best practical audio output quality, and that analogue to digital (for processing, storage, and distribution) and back again to analogue (for playback) is the best way to record and reproduce music - provided that you perform all steps thoroughly competently.

Lack of competence will result in poor output quality no matter how buzzword compliant your reproduction chain might be.

This is how come Decca managed to make some really rather excellent audio recordings back in the 1950s, while plenty of modern recordings made with nominally far superior kit are rubbish by comparison.

I recall reading a Web article by Roy Harper in which he says that as far as he's concerned, 24 bit/44.1kHz in the studio is indistinguishable from analogue tape for mixing and mastering. There's little evidence that higher sampling rates than CD standard produce audible benefits, at least not when properly competent A/D and D/A conversion is involved.

One of my favourite recordings was made in the 1950s (yeah, Decca). I play it from CD or sometimes from PC via an outboard DAC, through 1990s speakers set into 1960s cabinets, and via a mid-range late 2000s amp of unremarkable origin. I enjoy it. Isn't that all we should worry about?

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Vic
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Re: Oh dear.

I've read convincing articles showing that actually, class B amplifiers (when properly implemented) provide the best practical audio output quality

The articles might have been convincing, but they weren't accurate. A properly-implemented class A amplifier will always have higher fidelity than a properly-implemented class B amplifier because it doesn't have the transition at the zero crossing; class B amps aren't entirely linear, whereas a class A is (or at least, it should be).

That said, the difference is almost always irrelevant in power stages.

analogue to digital (for processing, storage, and distribution) and back again to analogue (for playback) is the best way to record and reproduce music - provided that you perform all steps thoroughly competently.

Absolutely so. Digitisation introduces a small amount of noise due to quantisation, and any post-processing will introduce a little more for exactly the same reason - but the total noise is *dramatically* lower than that added by an analogue storage/post-processing environment.

But I always cringe when I see CDs with "digitally remastered" on the cover; it inevitably means "blown out by some YTS monkey who doesn't give a shit".

This is how come Decca managed to make some really rather excellent audio recordings back in the 1950s

The biggest problem with such recordings is the durability of the media. My mate has a huge stash of recordings[1] predominantly from the '70s and '80s. On the quiet bits, you can hear the print-through...

24 bit/44.1kHz in the studio is indistinguishable from analogue tape for mixing and mastering.

Sounds reasonable.

There's little evidence that higher sampling rates than CD standard produce audible benefits, at least not when properly competent A/D and D/A conversion is involved

Don't agree there, though - capture, processing and mix-down should be performed at the highest resolution/sampling frequency available. But once mastered, CD-quality is usually plenty good enough as long as you've done a completent job in production. Such a task is much rarer than it ought to be - but isn't improved by better kit...

VIc.

[1] I made some of them...

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What's the point of all that fidelity if you're going to use headphones?

@ Fibbles

What's the point of all that fidelity if you're going to listen to Neil Young ?

Good old croaker Neil and his no-fi recordings.

Best work was with Buffalo Springfield ending in 1969, though I also like the CSNY period ending in 1971.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Oh dear.

@Vic Re:

(sorry for inability to quote properly)

""I've read convincing articles showing that actually, class B amplifiers (when properly implemented) provide the best practical audio output quality"

The articles might have been convincing, but they weren't accurate. A properly-implemented class A amplifier will always have higher fidelity than a properly-implemented class B amplifier because it doesn't have the transition at the zero crossing; class B amps aren't entirely linear, whereas a class A is (or at least, it should be).

That said, the difference is almost always irrelevant in power stages."

Vic, your last comment is the important one: "the difference is almost always irrelevant in power stages".

I'm sure you're aware that your claim that class A stages are entirely linear isn't accurate: no audio output stage is purely linear.

But the main point here is that no audio output stage is as perfect as it ought to be. The stuff I read (Doug Self, Wireless World or a successor, forget when) posited that when all practical considerations were taken into account, and when a blameless (his word) amp was considered, a class B amp is as good as you're going to get in practice and definitely better than class A/B. Maybe a given class A design might possibly have a better spec - but you won't hear the difference.

The cross-over distortion from a competent class B amp - when correctly designed and set up - is irrelevant to human perception when compared to the other inevitable distortions, was Doug Self's point.

@ Vic: - "capture, processing and mix-down should be performed at the highest resolution/sampling frequency available."

But why? Resolution and sampling frequency can easily be increased to stupid levels (from the audio point of view). However, in doing so linearity and other aspects of fidelity might well be compromised. Surely the thing to consider is how it sounds? If a given combination of resolution and sampling frequency produce results audibly indistinguishable from the best available analogue technology, maybe the thing to do is improve linearity and noise (etc) before bothering with top-line buzz-numbers?

On top of that, who's got audio kit capable of reproducing sound to the fidelity required to spot the difference even between 24 bit and 16 bit recordings? - 24 bit for mixing and mastering makes good sense if you look at it, but better than 16 bit for final distribution and reproduction? I remain unconvinced that it makes any practical difference at all, and I'm certain it makes no practical difference for at least 99% of listening.

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Vic
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Re: Oh dear.

Vic, your last comment is the important one: "the difference is almost always irrelevant in power stages".

Of course. That's why I made it...

I'm sure you're aware that your claim that class A stages are entirely linear isn't accurate: no audio output stage is purely linear.

Class A stages are very, very close to linear - close enough to say that they are indeed so. Class B is nothing like as close.

But the main point here is that no audio output stage is as perfect as it ought to be

No, the main point is that the imperfections very rarely matter. Distortion added in the speakers/headphones and in the room will dwarf the distortion from the output stages.

But why? Resolution and sampling frequency can easily be increased to stupid levels (from the audio point of view). However, in doing so linearity and other aspects of fidelity might well be compromised.

No, linearity will not be compromised to a greater extent than losing that resoution provided your ADC is monotonic. And if it isn't, you've got far bigger problems than word length and sampling rate.

The reason for using as much resolution as possible is that noise always increases - so if you're post-processing (e.g. mixing) two signals with uncorrelated noise x, you'd expect a resultant noise level of sqrt(2) * x simply from the combined noise level. So you minimise your recorded noise (i.e. the value of x above) and keep your interim value quantisation noise to the minimum. You can always shed resolution later (at mix-down); you cannot create it from nowhere.

It's the same reason an old-style studio would master to 2-inch tape, not compact cassette.

Surely the thing to consider is how it sounds?

No. If your recording equipment colours your sound, you've already got fidelity problems. The recording/mixing/processing stages should be as transparent as possible. This means generating as little noise as possible, and in the digital domain, that means high sample rates and high resolution.

If a given combination of resolution and sampling frequency produce results audibly indistinguishable from the best available analogue technology, maybe the thing to do is improve linearity and noise (etc) before bothering with top-line buzz-numbers?

Why? Analogue recording technology pushed the capabilities to the limit to achieve acceptable performance. Digital techniques allow *much* higher fidelity at negligible cost; it would be foolish to restrict those capabilities just because the previous technology couldn't match them.

24 bit for mixing and mastering makes good sense if you look at it, but better than 16 bit for final distribution and reproduction?

I wasn't talking about the final, down-mixed product - if you look at my post, you'll see I said

capture, processing and mix-down should be performed at the highest resolution/sampling frequency available. But once mastered, CD-quality is usually plenty good enough as long as you've done a completent job in production

Vic.

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Pint

"I don't like modern soft Jazz"

That alone was enough to earn up upvote!

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WTF?

How many people actually (legally) own even 1000 albums?

/me raises hand.

Next question?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: How many people actually (legally) own even 1000 albums?

Me too. Although I don't have all of them in MP3 format, lots of them are on vinyl and will stay there.

But I do have 90GB of, mostly, 320k recordings. Many of them I recorded off of my old vinyl (since I have crappy hearing too, I tended to buy the best audio equipment I could), took me over 5 years to rip cd's and re-record albums.

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Re: Oh dear.

@Vic - again sorry for inability to quote correctly. A few points:

"Class A stages are very, very close to linear - close enough to say that they are indeed so. Class B is nothing like as close."

On the other hand, a class B power amp can be produced with linearity good enough to be audibly irrelevant. E.g., http://www.douglas-self.com/ampins/dipa/dipa.htm

It seems to me that once you've got good enough performance on any parameter, it doesn't make sense to try to improve that parameter: a much better idea is to try to improve other parameters - in any engineering context.

""Surely the thing to consider is how it sounds?"

No. If your recording equipment colours your sound, you've already got fidelity problems. The recording/mixing/processing stages should be as transparent as possible. This means generating as little noise as possible, and in the digital domain, that means high sample rates and high resolution."

I seem not to have got my idea across. My thinking is that if an improvement in measurable engineering terms of a particular engineering parameter does not produce any detectable change in how it sounds, then maybe it's a good idea to put your efforts into improving other parameters.

Of course the recording and processing stages should be as transparent as possible. The question is how best to achieve that. Certainly high resolution in the amplitude and time domain when using digital recording are helpful, but how high is high enough? But high resolution is worthless unless your measurements (which is what digital sampling is) are also precise and accurate.

I'm no expert in the field of digital sampling. You tell me: what are the tradeoffs between precision, accuracy, and resolution when doing audio digital sampling?

""If a given combination of resolution and sampling frequency produce results audibly indistinguishable from the best available analogue technology, maybe the thing to do is improve linearity and noise (etc) before bothering with top-line buzz-numbers?"

Why? Analogue recording technology pushed the capabilities to the limit to achieve acceptable performance. Digital techniques allow *much* higher fidelity at negligible cost; it would be foolish to restrict those capabilities just because the previous technology couldn't match them."

You talk about negligible cost - well, maybe. I'm just wondering how much improvement you actually get from increasing resolution in the amplitude and time domains beyond a certain limit - what might that limit be? What compromises are being made to increase those resolutions? At what point should engineering efforts be spent on improving other aspects of the sampling process?

I don't know, but I do have doubts that there's much point in going beyond 32 bit / 192 kHz sampling from the point of human audio recordings.

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Trollface

@Fibbles

What's the point of all that fidelity if you're going to listen to Neil Young?

There, fixed it for you.

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“high resolution” albums

So they are trying to push singles back in the bag? Go back to the golden age of buying two good tracks and 8 "Piece of Crap"?

There are already quite a few formats that are better then MP3, and players that sound better then an iPod. Almost no one seems to care, most people just use their phone now.

And that assumes this player is not just a scam from the people who brought us Monster cables, Headphones with a letter on the side, and $1,000 power cords.

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Re: “high resolution” albums

> Almost no one seems to care, most people just use their phone now.

The LG G2 can playback 192khz 24bit FLAC files natively. Reviews I've read of its audio performance are subjective, as you would expect, but generally positive.

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Re: “high resolution” albums

forget $1000 power cords, you're not going to get any kind of decent quality unless you use £1600 Ethernet cables http://www.chord.co.uk/product/chord-sarum-ethernet-tuned-aray/

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Re: “high resolution” albums

" you're not going to get any kind of decent quality unless you use £1600 Ethernet cables"

Ah, yes -- I'm on a FB group (yeah, yeah, fetch the pitchforks and garlic) where such things are regularly posted when found.

Who wouldn't want a short phono to phono cable for £300?

And don't forget the thousands to be spent of a power supply.

(We need a 'mug' icon)

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Devil

Re: “high resolution” albums

Feel free to submit such items to Wat Hifi.

http://wathifi.tumblr.com/

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Anonymous Coward

more money please

Is a crap modern day Hollywood film, digitally recorded in 8K format at 60 frames per second, better than an old celluloid black and white Laurel and Hardy comedy. Lets say The Music Box (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vfeb0tSj5mA).

The problem with any new audio format is that it will always suffer from crap in crap out. It does not matter if the sample rate, bit resolution and number of channels makes you feel like you are sitting in the room where it was recorded. If you wished that you were not there because the music is crap, it does not matter how fantastic the quality is.

Adding a new format sounds too much like "give me the money again" that you have spent before on all the previous formats - You bought it on vinyl, you bought it on 8-track, you bought it on cassette, you bought it on CD, you would not buy it on Super Audio (we are still unhappy about that), you bought the mp3, now we would like you to buy it in our new patented Pono format, that will only be accessible and play on our Pono devices.

We could have used 8 channel 32bit 65KHz FLAC as the new format, but then we could not limit the playback to only our patented devices.

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CAPS LOCK MUSIC

Neil Young was one of the pioneers in turning up the volume until it massively distorted into a new sound. I'm guessing this device adds some magic distortion that sounds good to old buzzy ears. Zero feedback amplifiers are terrible performers, especially if you're trying to keep the power consumption and parts count low for portable use. I'm sure it's great compared to MP3's destroyed stereo phasing, but that's setting the bar extremely low.

If you want to target people who really care about sound, skip the "audiophile" gimmicks. Just build a high quality player with enough storage for lossless encoding. If you really want a fanbase, let people upload custom DSP code that can mess with the raw bitstream. People will be trading DSP algorithms and buying players just to try them out.

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Re: CAPS LOCK MUSIC

I'd be curious to know if research can prove a true audiophile exists and, if so, what this person would use as audio equipment.

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Happy

Re: CAPS LOCK MUSIC

I'll just leave this here.

http://www.engadget.com/2008/03/03/audiophiles-cant-tell-the-difference-between-monster-cable-and/

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Re: CAPS LOCK MUSIC

Tis true, cables don't really matter as much as people think.. but it does matter, Al is not as good as Cu for electrical signal transmission, its just that audio is such a small range it is very hard to tell....

but what does matter is the contacts... if you have a bad connection then it doesn't matter if your cable is made of platinum, the quality will be crap, that goes for digital as well as analog..

I always try to buy gold plated connectors with copper cables, BUT I won't pay specially for it, I often end end up using CAT6 cable for speakers, its copper and works pretty well!

£1000 on cable though? that is pure madness...

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Megaphone

Re: CAPS LOCK MUSIC

The best speaker wire is ribbon cable. Fits nicely under the carpet!

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MJI
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Re: CAPS LOCK MUSIC

I just look to see what is best on price versus robustness,

As long as it is chunky and copper I would use it and I do biwire, simply brcause I can.

With cables the important things are.

1) Is it copper, copper is good.

2) Is it nice and beefy, this equals less resistance.

3) Is the covering good, we don't want it letting the cable get damaged.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Gold is still controversial

Gold is a fairly good conductor and doesn't corrode, but there are still issues apparently...

http://www.epanorama.net/newepa/2010/11/06/gold-connectors-a-good-or-bad-idea/

And http://wireworldcable.com/categories/connectors.html says "As impressive as they may look, gold-plated connectors are not a reliable indicator of quality in cables. Most gold-plated plugs are made of brass, which is plated with bright nickel and a thin layer of gold. Brass and nickel are rather poor conductors that introduce significant loss at the points of contact."

Things are never as simple as they should be!

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Re: CAPS LOCK MUSIC

" I often end end up using CAT6 cable for speakers, its copper and works pretty well!"

Nooooo, a true audiophile, such as myself, uses 0.5 twin flex.

( I wonder how separate plastic hosepipes filled with water would sound)

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MJI
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Re: Gold is still controversial

Gold plated TOSLink cables

Most stupid idea ever.

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Re: CAPS LOCK MUSIC

CAT 6 for speaker cables? You're joking right? It might be good for noise rejection, but that's hardly an issue for speakers. The problem is the cross-section and the insertion loss due to resistances. It's only 0.58 mm2, which is only good for about a metre at best on a 4 ohm speaker system. Anything longer than that and you'll want much bigger cross-sectional area.

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Holmes

Golden ear set again

O2 free copper, massive hot hot A class amps and unproven claims are back ? Ironic that a tinnitus sufferer is pushing sound quality way better than the level that someone with perfect hearing could detect distortion. Given the syncopated constipated noise flogged as music these days how does one tell when the distortion is not meant to be there ? Back to the Bach then. And MeatLoaf in ogg format.

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Re: Golden ear set again

Class A amps never went away. The amp that I made from discrete components in 1972/73 with 30W+30W power transistors bolted to a huge heatsink machined from a block of Alloy by myself is still going strong.

The power transistors are 2N3055 and 2N3054's

Had to replace a few capacitors and the mains transformer a couple of years ago but the Amp is working perfectly.

I was inspired to build it after seeing the stack of Class A amps being used by Pink Floyd on their 'Tour 72' tour where they debuted Dark side.

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Re: Golden ear set again

There's no snake-oil about Class A amplifiers... it's still the best way to design an electronic amplifier if all you care about is output quality. But, it's not the most power-efficient (quiescent current, the current flowing at no input signal, is half of peak current)

I've little time for fancy cables, but a lot of time for correct termination of said cables (and use of balanced signal links where possible).

The old "modern music is so distorted anyway" has been made since the days of Motown, and it's still not true. The idea of a good reproduction system is to reproduce the noise that the recorder put there for musical effect, without adding any additional noise.

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Vic
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Re: Golden ear set again

There's no snake-oil about Class A amplifiers... it's still the best way to design an electronic amplifier if all you care about is output quality.

Absolutely so. But I very rarely come across anyone who cares enough about the improved quality over class B amps to pay for the electricity...

Class D might well be the way to go in the future - there is necessarily some distortion added, but the idea of digital-to-the-output-stage is very appealing.

The old "modern music is so distorted anyway" has been made since the days of Motown, and it's still not true

Perhaps. But the modern "production" standards of a big smile curve and <2dB dynamic range still makes everything sound like shite, though.

Vic.

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MJI
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Re: Golden ear set again

It could be due to hearing issues that MP3 is causing the problem.

My hearing is not wonderful but I can still hear high notes and can hear very quiet noises. But MP3s can sound terrible.

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MJI
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Re: 2N3055

Haven't heard those mentioned for ages, they were THE power transistor, also used it controllers for model railways.

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Happy

Re: Golden ear set again

"Given the syncopated constipated noise flogged as music these days "

Woo hoo, someone's getting old.

Luuuverly Dubstep - wub wub wub with bitcrushers to play with.

Or QotSA where recording clarity is paramount to get the distortion just right.

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Boffin

Re: Golden ear set again

"..amp that I made from discrete components in 1972/73 with 30W+30W"

Was that a Super Tiger, the project in Popular Electronics? I still have a half-assembled one in a box with the transformer I bought for it. Never did finish it. Maybe I will, after I retire.

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Re: Golden ear set again

down vote for the dbstep, upvote for the QOTSA ;)

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Re: Golden ear set again

"I was inspired to build it after seeing the stack of Class A amps being used by Pink Floyd on their 'Tour 72' tour where they debuted Dark side."

Upvoted for a) getting The Floyd into an audiophilia thread and b) Just Being There, in '72. I have to content myself with watching Live At Pompeii. I was only old enough to see them in '87, but it is still the best concert I've ever attended, with RW's recent The Wall a close second.

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Go

Re: Golden ear set again

@Elmer, yep old at 12. If you want real music, Saber Dance done by full symphony orchestra makes rock bands look feeble. As for class A amps, successor commentard is correct. Might be technically better, but how many mere consumers can tell ? Still have 2N3055s in junk box, along with OC45, OC74s and AO90. Nice to see Clive Sinclairs decades old idea of using short pulses to speakers returning. Seen circuits using timer chips to make an audio amp. Meanwhile, I will have to dig out that valve amp and radio from back of shed somewhere to see the glass bottles light up again

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Def
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Paris Hilton

Every time...

I saw 'Pono', I read it as 'Porno'. Long live the PornoPlayer.

Paris, because I bet she likes a good bit of Pono.

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Re: Every time...

Pono is a Hawaiian term, it means balanced / fair / righteous and about 20 other things. Very haole of them to use it on a commercial product.

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Like!

1 Like for that p.o.c ditty.

Like:- also as in Like a Hurricane.

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Am i being a numpty

or isn't FLAC lossless???

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Re: Am i being a numpty

The "audiophiles" are claiming the loss occurs sooner: at the point of digital conversion (like at the ADC). They figure humans have an Uncanny Valley of audio perception and can subconsciously detect the discrete steps.

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Re: Am i being a numpty

>or isn't FLAC lossless???

The FLACs I play on my Galaxy Note 3 certainly are.

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Re: Am i being a numpty

It can do lossless compression. It can also compress 192khz 24bit audio. There are already online stores that will sell you music in this format, as well as some blu-ray discs.

To play it back in the home doesn't require anything too exotic- a good quality external DAC, or some AV receivers. On the hoof, there is the Colorfly player, or the LG G2 phone.

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Re: Am i being a numpty

"To play it back in the home doesn't require anything too exotic"

Sansa Clip handles FLAC rather well

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Re: Am i being a numpty

Aye. For a shitty little mp3 player they do a sterling job with FLACs (rockbox erm, rocks). But, just to make the audiophiles cringe, my sansa clip is mostly filled with MP3s... at 32k,mono.

For those who are still breathing, yes, I've got mostly audio books and podcasts.

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Re: Am i being a numpty

"or isn't FLAC lossless???"

But that's a freetard, commie format that is missing key features like lock-in, royalty streams, patents, or the return of DRM to music.

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When I visited the Pono website all I got was two paragraphs of blurb and a 'visit us on facebook' link. It was a piece of crap.

Seriously, for an outfit that claims it is dedicated to music reproduction without added bullcrap they sure seem to subscribe to a different philosophy where other forms information are concerned.

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