Tuesday, January 27, 2015

And now for something completely different: the Pono Player review and Power Macs (plus: who's really to blame for Dropbox?)

Regular business first: this is now a syndicated blog on Planet Mozilla. I consider this an honour that should also go a long way toward reminding folks that not only are there well-supported community tier-3 ports, but lots of people still use them. In return I promise not to bore the punters too much with vintage technology.

IonPower crossed phase 2 (compilation) yesterday -- it builds and links, and nearly immediately asserts after some brief codegen, but at this phase that's entirely expected. Next, phase 3 is to get it to build a trivial script in Baseline mode ("var i=0") and run to completion without crashing or assertions, and phase 4 is to get it to pass the test suite in Baseline-only mode, which will make it as functional as PPCBC. Phase 5 and 6 are the same, but this time for Ion. IonPower really repays most of our technical debt -- no more fragile glue code trying to keep the JaegerMonkey code generator working, substantially fewer compiler warnings, and a lot less hacks to the JIT to work around oddities of branching and branch optimization. Plus, many of the optimizations I wrote for PPCBC will transfer to IonPower, so it should still be nearly as fast in Baseline-only mode. We'll talk more about the changes required in a future blog post.

Now to the Power Mac scene. I haven't commented on Dropbox dropping PowerPC support (and 10.4/10.5) because that's been repeatedly reported by others in the blogscene and personally I rarely use Dropbox at all, having my own server infrastructure for file exchange. That said, there are many people who rely on it heavily, even a petition (which you can sign) to bring support back. But let's be clear here: do you really want to blame someone? Do you really want to blame the right someone? Then blame Apple. Apple dropped PowerPC compilation from Xcode 4; Apple dropped Rosetta. Unless you keep a 10.6 machine around running Xcode 3, you can't build (true) Universal binaries anymore -- let alone one that compiles against the 10.4 SDK -- and it's doubtful Apple would let such an app (even if you did build it) into the App Store because it's predicated on deprecated technology. Except for wackos like me who spend time building PowerPC-specific applications and/or don't give a flying cancerous pancreas whether Apple finds such work acceptable, this approach already isn't viable for a commercial business and it's becoming even less viable as Apple actively retires 10.6-capable models. So, sure, make your voices heard. But don't forget who screwed us first, and keep your vintage hardware running.

That said, I am personally aware of someoneTM who is working on getting the supported Python interconnect running on OS X Power Macs, and it might be possible to rebuild Finder integration on top of that. (It's not me. Don't ask.) I'll let this individual comment if he or she wants to.

Onto the main article. As many of you may or may not know, my undergraduate degree was actually in general linguistics, and all linguists must have (obviously) some working knowledge of acoustics. I've also been a bit of a poseur audiophile too, and while I enjoy good music I especially enjoy good music that's well engineered (Alan Parsons is a demi-god).

The Por Pono Player, thus, gives me pause. In acoustics I lived and died by the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem, and my day job today is so heavily science and research-oriented that I really need to deal with claims in a scientific, reproducible manner. That doesn't mean I don't have an open mind or won't make unusual decisions on a music format for non-auditory reasons. For example, I prefer to keep my tracks uncompressed, even though I freely admit that I'm hard pressed to find any difference in a 256kbit/s MP3 (let alone 320), because I'd like to keep a bitwise exact copy for archival purposes and playback; in fact, I use AIFF as my preferred format simply because OS X rips directly to it, everything plays it, and everything plays it with minimum CPU overhead despite FLAC being lossless and smaller. And hard disks are cheap, and I can convert it to FLAC for my Sansa Fuze if I needed to.

So thus it is with the Por Pono Player. For $400, you can get a player that directly pumps uncompressed, high-quality remastered 24-bit audio at up to 192kHz into your ears with no downsampling and allegedly no funny business. Immediately my acoustics professor cries foul. "Cameron," she says as she writes a big fat F on this blog post, "you know perfectly well that a CD using 44.1kHz as its sampling rate will accurately reproduce sounds up to 22.05kHz without aliasing, and 16-bit audio has indistinguishable quantization error in multiple blinded studies." Yes, I know, I say sheepishly, having tried to create high-bit rate digital playback algorithms on the Commodore 64 and failed because the 6510's clock speed isn't fast enough to pump samples through the SID chip at anything much above telephone call frequencies. But I figured that if there was a chance, if there was anything, that could demonstrate a difference in audio quality that I could uncover it with a Pono Player and a set of good headphones (I own a set of Grado SR125e cans, which are outstanding for the price). So I preordered one and yesterday it arrived, in a fun wooden box:

It includes a MicroUSB charger (and cable), an SDXC MicroSD card (64GB, plus the 64GB internal storage), a fawning missive from Neil Young, the instigator of the original Kickstarter, the yellow triangular unit itself (available now in other colours), and no headphones (it's BYO headset):

My original plan was to do an A-B comparison with Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon because it was originally mastered by the godlike Alan Parsons, I have the SACD 30th Anniversary master, and the album is generally considered high quality in all its forms. When I tried to do that, though, several problems rapidly became apparent:

First, the included card is SDXC, and SDXC support (and exFAT) wasn't added to OS X until 10.6.4. Although you can get exFAT support on 10.5 with OSXFUSE, I don't know how good their support is on PowerPC and it definitely doesn't work on Tiger (and I'm not aware of a module for the older MacFUSE that does run on Tiger). That limits you to SDHC cards up to 32GB at least on 10.4, which really hurts on FLAC or ALAC and especially on AIFF.

Second, the internal storage is not accessible directly to the OS. I plugged in the Pono Player to my iMac G4 and it showed up in System Profiler, but I couldn't do anything with it. The 64GB of internal storage is only accessible to the music store app, which brings us to the third problem:

Third, the Pono Music World app (a skinned version of JRiver Media Center) is Intel-only, 10.6+. You can't download tracks any other way right now, which also means you're currently screwed if you use Linux, even on an Intel Mac. And all they had was Dark Side in 44.1kHz/16 bit ... exactly the same as CD!

So I looked around for other options. HDTracks didn't have Dark Side, though they did have The (weaksauce) Endless River and The Division Bell in 96kHz/24 bit. I own both of these, but 96kHz wasn't really what I had in mind, and when I signed up to try a track it turns out they need a downloader also which is also a reskinned JRiver! And their reasoning for this in the FAQ is total crap.

Eventually I was able to find two sites that offer sample tracks I could download in TenFourFox (I had to downsample one for comparison). The first offers multiple formats in WAV, which your Power Mac actually can play, even in 24-bit (but it may be downsampled for your audio chip; if you go to /Applications/Utilities/Audio MIDI Setup.app you can see the sample rate and quantization for your audio output -- my quad G5 offers up to 24/96kHz but my iMac only has 16/44.1). The second was in FLAC, which Audacity crashed trying to convert, MacAmp Lite X wouldn't even recognize, and XiphQT (via QuickTime) played like it was being held underwater by a chainsaw (sample size mismatch, no doubt); I had to convert this by hand. I then put them onto a SDHC card and installed it in the Pono.

Yuck. I was very disappointed in the interface and LCD. I know that display quality wasn't a major concern, but it looks clunky and ugly and has terrible angles (see for yourself!) and on a $400 device that's not acceptable. The UI is very slow sometimes, even with the hardware buttons (just volume and power, no track controls), and the touch screen is very low quality. But I duly tried the built-in Neil Young track, which being an official Por Pono track turns on a special blue light to tell you it's special, and on my Grados it sounded pretty good, actually. That was encouraging. So I turned off the display and went through a few cycles of A-B testing with a random playlist between the two sets of tracks.

And ... well ... my identification abilities were almost completely statistical chance. In fact, I was slightly worse than chance would predict on the second set of tracks. I can only conclude that Harry Nyquist triumphs. With high quality headphones, presumably high quality DSPs and presumably high quality recordings, it's absolutely bupkis difference for me between CD-quality and Pono-quality.

Don't get me wrong: I am happy to hear that other people are concerned about the deficiencies in modern audio engineering -- and making it a marketable feature. We've all heard the "loudness war," for example, which dramatically compresses the dynamic range of previously luxurious tracks into a bafflingly small amplitude range which the uncultured ear, used only to quantity over quality, apparently prefers. Furthermore, early CD masters used RIAA equalization, which overdrove the treble and was completely unnecessary with digital audio, though that grave error hasn't been repeated since at least 1990 or earlier. Fortunately, assuming you get audio engineers who know what they're doing, a modern CD is every bit as a good to the human ear as a DVD-Audio disc or an SACD. And if modern music makes a return to quality engineering with high quality intermediates (where 24-bit really does make a difference) and appropriate dynamic range, we'll all be better off.

But the Pono Player doesn't live up to the hype in pretty much any respect. It has line out (which does double as a headphone port to share) and it's high quality for what it does play, so it'll be nice for my hi-fi system if I can get anything on it, but the Sansa Fuze is smaller and more convenient as a portable player and the Pono's going back in the wooden box. Frankly, it feels like it was pushed out half-baked, it's problematic if you don't own a modern Mac, and the imperceptible improvements in audio mean it's definitely not worth the money over what you already own. But that's why you read this blog: I just spent $400 so you don't have to.

5 comments:

  1. Individual is willing to comment: Don't get your expectations too high, right now I'm playing with Dropbox API and testing what is and what isn't possible. I hope to have some basic functionality working by the time PowerPC Dropbox client dies, but I won't make any promises.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Re: your experience converting FLAC files, I do this frequently on both Intel and PPC Macs using a universal app called XLD. Per the developer's website (http://tmkk.undo.jp/xld/index_e.html), it supports 10.4 up. Even better it is a maintained app, most recently updated two months ago. I've used the app both for audio format conversions and as an ultra-reliable CD ripper and highly recommend it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I think it is possible to format >32GB volumes as FAT32 on OS X.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Cameron have you seen this:

    http://forum.powerpc-notebook.org/index.php?topic=35.0

    ReplyDelete
  5. http://www.amigans.net/modules/xforum/viewtopic.php?topic_id=6723&forum=25

    ReplyDelete

Due to an increased frequency of spam, comments are now subject to moderation.