Neil Young has been dreaming up a new music service he hopes will raise the bar on audio quality and change the music industry by enticing consumers to re-discover music they love through a higher-resolution listening experience.
Young’s audio ecosystem, Pono, which is set to launch in early 2014, includes a download service offering digital audio files transferred from the original audio masters at 192kHz/24 bit and a dedicated player that can play the files at the same resolution.
But he’s not alone in his efforts to spark a sonic revolution.
Sony just introduced a new line of products it will release this fall that process and play a variety of high-resolution music formats including new Direct Stream Digital (DSD) downloads.
Sony hopes to attract consumers with downloadable music that improves on MP3 and other compressed formats, and delivers a vinyl-like listening experience.
"It's been more than a decade since the first MP3 digital downloads and music players were introduced to the public," said Sony president and COO Phil Molyneux in a statement released in conjunction with the Wednesday announcement. "Now is the time to offer high-resolution audio products that bring music enthusiasts closer to their favorite recordings, and allow them to experience those recordings the way the artists, producers and engineers always intended."
Meanwhile, in a secret house in Melbourne, Australia, a group of sonic renegades behind a new company called Maya have also been exploring the boundaries of sound reproduction technology. Maya researchers conducted their original research on building acoustic spaces between 2004 and 2010 in Melbourne, and finished testing and fine-tuning their findings over the past two years in Malaysia and the United States.
Maya researchers completed a comprehensive set of tests to build a series of ideal acoustic spaces and determine how to reproduce digital sound in a way that convinces a listener’s brain he or she is experiencing the music “live.”
This radical new approach to digital sound reproduction attempts to deliver the ideal acoustic space to the right- and left-brain by incorporating “incoherent” or indirect sound that is generally inaudible or not identifiable by the human ear, but is still sensed and perceived by the human hearing system.
Consumers have a growing interest in high-resolution music, Molyneux said, citing new data from the Consumer Electronics Association. For nine in 10 consumers, sound quality is the most important component of a quality audio experience, research suggests. And nearly 40 percent of consumers with a moderate interest in audio say they are willing to pay more for high quality audio electronics devices.
But how much are they willing to pay?
Historically, consumers have always chosen convenience over audio quality. As Bobby Owsinski astutely pointed out in a recent Forbes article, Shellac 78 was replaced by less breakable vinyl record, which was replaced by more portable cassette tapes, which were replaced by random access CDs, which were replaced by easily shared digital music downloads, which are now threatening to be replaced by more convenient music streaming.
Against this backdrop, many question how financiers of high-resolution audio formats will profit.
Pono investors are clearly banking on gaining market share based on quality alone, given that the service is far from convenient. Users must purchase a dedicated player instead of using a device they already owns and, since the files are so large, they will have to wait much longer for song purchases to download—and have considerably more storage space to save them.
More than 10 years ago, SACD and DVD-Audio were hailed as the next big things in higher quality audio. Everyone thought multichannel music would soon replace stereo. But stereo's still here, and 5.1 music is nearly extinct. Both formats essentially failed because they asked too much of consumers, who always take the path of least resistance. They required a player that could handle the formats and a receiver with 5.1-channel inputs as well as a home theater speaker setup.
One huge advantage of Maya’s approach is that its technology does not require consumers to replace their existing music catalog. Maya technology is compatible with any digital file format and enables listeners to play back compressed MP3 collections at an audiophile quality, even on less expensive equipment.
“We know the world has mp3s, so how do we make them sound really good? That’s what we’re focusing on,” said Maya Chief Executive Officer Kirti Vashee. “We are treating acoustic space like it’s another instrument—perhaps the most important instrument—and believe that adding this ‘space’ to mp3s can dramatically change the sound quality.”
Vashee says research shows that what’s most appealing to listeners, psycho-acoustically, is hearing both direct, coherent sound alongside incoherent, indirect sound. The brain then reconciles these coherent and incoherent sound cues, processes its auditory perceptions, and decides whether a new sound is natural, important or false.
Essentially, Maya technology reconstructs indirect sound from its recorded DNA in an existing recording, applies it to the “ideal” acoustic space, and thereby recreates the emotional satisfaction of a live performance within a typical home listening environment.
Maya executives plan to first build an audiophile brand around its technology by offering high-end speakers, sub-woofers, and a high-quality digital to analog convertor (DAC) as well as analog to digital convertor (ADC). The company eventually plans to expand into the mass consumer market with a set of Maya speakers.
Maya in Hinduism means, “The power, as of a god, to produce illusions; the power of a god to transform a concept into an element of the sensory world; or the production of an illusion.”
Maya is indeed a suiting name for this new technology, which feels—and even sounds—very different during A-B listening tests, but still seems to be more parts magic than logic. Then again, if magic is what it takes to spark a sonic revolution, let it be.
April White is a writer, recording artist, producer/DJ, label owner, and the former Manager of Communications and Public Relations for eMusic. She is currently the President and Founder of her own firm, April White Communications. Her label is Daisy Pistol. She is also part of the electro-pop trio, Tiny Machines. Follow her on Twitter @iamaprilwhite.