Feature

Why CDs May Actually Sound Better Than Vinyl

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Pedram Abrari, Pono's executive vice president of technology and engineering, says the idea behind the player and the store is to sell and play back tracks at the rate at which artists record them. Since artists typically record at rates much higher than 44.1 kHz for editing purposes -- such as 96 and 192 kHz -- the company believes that offering recordings at their original rates drastically improves the sound.

This, however, is a matter of intense debate.

"There is no evidence that humans can perceive frequencies above 22 kHz," says Dr. Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and author of the best-selling book This Is Your Brain on Music. "There is nothing in the auditory system or brain that processes sounds this high, as far as we know."

In double-blind tests conducted by Levitin and others -- some results of which were published in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society -- listeners cannot tell the difference between high-resolution audio and CD-quality audio.

But many audio professionals, including Bob Ludwig and NYU's Jim Anderson, say they can hear an improvement over CD quality, and they prefer the higher frequencies and sample rates. Anderson even teaches a class at NYU in which he instructs students on how to listen for the differences.

"I think if people can't hear it, they probably didn't know what they were listening for," Anderson says. "Someone has to say to you: Listen for this, listen for this, listen for this. And when you start to home in on those details, it starts to become very clear."

Abrari says Pono doesn't like to get into the science. And he says it's not just about what a person can hear but what they feel.

But even if humans can hear or "feel" above 22 kHz, the experience of listening to high-resolution digital tracks is very different from listening to vinyl. If anything, it's closer to that of the CD.

The ticks and pops are gone. There is no disc to ritually flip. The tracks sound closer to what the artist laid down in the studio, but that's only because the distortion and limitations present in the vinyl pressing are no longer part of the experience.

It's not as cheap an obsession, either. You can buy an armload of used LPs for the $21.79 it costs to buy a 192 kHz version of Young's Harvest at the Pono store.

As he's been pitching Pono, Young has continued to promote the idea that analog formats and recording gear offer the authentic sound, and digital is a compromise.

"I don't think [Pono] can sound better than vinyl," he said earlier this month at the Consumer Electronics Show. "Because vinyl is a reflection and any digital is a reconstitution; it's not the same thing."

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Chris Kornelis