‘HD audio’ has been a buzzword for the last few years, as Apple and several record labels have been working on higher-resolution audio formats to repackage and resell older music. But the format took a body blow this weekend when former NY Times columnist David Pogue put musician Neil Young’s new $400 HD Audio PonoPlayer up against a regular old iPhone using a ‘blind trial,’ in which the HD PonoPlayer appears to have lost…

Describing himself as a former professional musician, Pogue said that “the Pono Player story is a modern retelling of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes,’ ” making claims contrary to science. For the blind trial, Pogue assembled 15 people aged 17 to 55, asking them to flip between three songs on the iPhone and PonoPlayer, each song in the device’s best resolution. In separate tests using ‘standard Apple earbuds’ and Sony MDR-7506 headphones, more people preferred the iPhone to ‘Pono’ or ‘neither.’ Explaining the difference between his and Pono’s results, Pogue suggested that Pono’s claims of superior sound were effectively rigged, based on listening sessions conducted in a car using low-fidelity MP3s.

While neither of the headphones Pogue selected is a great choice for comparing high-definition audio (even the MDR-7506 is only a $100 model with mediocre reviews), the point is clear: many average listeners and even audio professionals cannot tell the difference between regular and ‘HD’ audio with regular headphones.

Noticeably absent from the video was any commentary from professional audio folks including the one guy that Pogue signed up earlier in the video. I would have enjoyed getting the perspective from a musician who wasn’t necessarily a big iPhone guy like Pogue.

Pogue’s advice, which I can get behind however, was to skip buying a new player and new music, instead spending $200 on nice headphones. Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50x is a sub-$200 model with stellar (4.7/5) Amazon reviews, and Sennheiser’s HD 598 is sold for under $150 with a 4.6/5 Amazon rating. If you want to go the Apple route and aren’t audio quality-obsessed, a black pair of new Beats Studio headphones can be had for under $220. Any one of these options will make your music sound a lot better than a pair of stock Apple earbuds.

Pogue’s review also indirectly calls into question Apple’s long-gestating plans to offer HD audio in iOS devices and iTunes. In early 2012, Apple began the process by rolling out a “Mastered for iTunes” section, featuring recently-optimized AAC files. Reports that the iTunes Store would start to sell HD audio files based on the new iTunes masters have percolated for some time, and Lightning-cabled headphones have been shown, though it’s unclear whether they will actually include HD audio support or just reduced audio interference.

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Seth Weintraub

Publisher and Editorial Director of the 9to5/Electrek sites.

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