So, it turns out I was wrong about Pono: the difference is not easy to hear. In fact, according to pretty much every review of the device, Pono provides no credible evidence of audible improvement over a smartphone when playing the same file, or even that Pono sounds appreciably better playing back FLAC versus a smartphone using high-bitrate (256Kbps) AAC. David Pogue even went so far as to conduct a blind test with well over a dozen people.
Make no mistake: Pono was developed by some very respected names in the audio industry, sporting components similar to those found in good portable headphone DAC/amplifier units. But instead of showing that a “proper” DAC/amp can noticeably improve the listening experience over an iPhone, Pogue’s test found that ordinary people, even when wearing some universally-lauded Sony monitoring headphones, simply couldn’t tell the difference between Pono FLACs and iTunes 256Kbps AACs.
This bodes poorly for portable amplifiers and DACs, but also supports the apparently unassailable truth that most people simply will not be able to observe an appreciable difference using FLAC versus high-res MP3s or AAC files. If they can, they’re probably telling themselves they can, or are simply conflating undesirable distortion (non-harmonic distortion increases at ultra-high sampling rates) with greater detail.
FLAC purists maintain that it is these higher sampling ceilings and greater bits rates which are responsible for the more pronounced “texture” and “feel” in music (cymbals are often cited, for no apparently good reason – almost all instruments produce ultrasonics). In fact, it is these higher sampling ceilings that expose even my audiophile-approved Onkyo TX8255 receiver-amp as unable to avoid audible distortion (that is, not true to the recording) at these supposedly inaudible ultrasonic frequencies. It’s unlikely the distortion would cause a truly noticeable effect on listening experience, but Pogue’s experiment supports the notion that such sounds in FLAC files might actually be undesirable – more people voiced a preference for the iPhone playing back 256Kbps AACs, rather than FLACs on the Pono.
If anything, Pogue’s test goes to show that, unsurprisingly, the world of digital audio has improved leaps and bounds from the early days when MP3 really was a dirty word and we were all trading crappily encoded CP rips on Kazaa and Napster. This tends to really be my theory anymore: audiophiles were among the first to explore the world of digital audio on the web, and they were around to experience the growing pains of that community. When a 96Kbps MP3 rip was what you downloaded because no one was ripping at 256 or 320, and the rips were sourced from old, scratched CDs read by cheap computer drives and then often compressed into oblivion.
I agree that, for a while there, the digital music industry really kind of was screwing the pooch on audio quality by leaving it to the bootleg community, and early streaming services like Pandora really did no one any favors, dipping down to a wretch-inducing 48Kbps on their mobile app at times. But Apple and the labels themselves started remedying this, and by the time the 128Kbps AAC became the de facto quality floor on the later iPods, we were probably already 90% there in terms of the listening experience.
With the iPhone, we saw a smartphone manufacturer pay attention to audio on a hardware level, and Apple remains the bar to meet in the mobile industry for audio hardware on a smartphone or tablet. They actually care about this stuff (let’s not forget they had 6 years to get it right in the iPod) – and Pogue’s test shows it pretty decisively. The fact that he was able to get away with this while driving a big set of Sony MDR7506 monitoring headphones is even more impressive, proving that mobile amplifiers have come a tremendously long way.
While I’ve generally understood the direction Neil Young and Pono were coming from – even if I disagree with some of the premise – I can’t help but agree with Pogue’s conclusion that Pono seems terribly misguided and reeks of the common snake-oily claims you find in the high-end audiophile world. It also proves that audiophiles will convince themselves of whatever they want, regardless of whether or not data controverting those views exists, and will continue to throw money at products catering to those beliefs because you can’t “really” hear the FLAC difference unless you have the budget (a pretentious argument at best).
Pogue also emphasizes what I’ve always said: focus on your equipment, not the files. The files are only going to be bad if you go out of your way to find ones that sound bad.
While I even find it mildly surprising few people preferred the Pono in Pogue’s study, I think it really does just go to the point that the engineers doing DAC and amplifier work on today’s modern smartphones and the related chipsets have figured out how to downsize and isolate those components very effectively. Is it so surprising that Apple, the world’s largest producer of MP3 players and high-end smartphones – that see vastly higher adoption rates in the music business – is creating an excellent audio experience on its products? I don’t think it’s exactly inconceivable, and Qualcomm seems to be doing a fine job, too.
While I would not go so far as to say standalone DACs and headphone amplifiers are without purpose, I will suggest that it generally seems safe to assume that a high-end smartphone is probably the best headphone DAC/amp in your home if you don’t own such dedicated products. I still believe a good DAC and amp are necessary with most laptops and PCs (I prefer Schiit’s Modi and Magni combo), because I’ve always noticed a very real difference with them on my desktop system.
Still, your best investment remains good headphones, and I can’t recommend Grado’s SR80e enough – they’re insanely good value for money. If you want something a little nicer, I really like the Blue Mo-Fis, whose active amplifier setup really do seem to make a difference to my ears when using a smartphone, since they’re of such a high impedance.
As for Pono, I’d suggest taking a pass: you’re supremely unlikely to notice the difference it provides, and FLAC albums simply aren’t worth the money unless you’re playing home music archivist. Put the money toward a good set of cans or studio monitor speakers – you’ll notice a far greater difference than any triangular prism can provide.