Pono Now Does DSD

IMG_7812Pono released a firmware update for its Player this last Wednesday. The big news: DSD playback has been added.

Last weekend I downloaded and installed the update, then sideloaded a batch of DSD files to the Pono Player. I bought Blood On the Tracks from AcousticSounds’ store and cued up “Buckets of Rain” and “If You See Her, Say Hello.” The detail is just outrageous; the effect eye-widening — in the best possible way. No, DSD can’t coax Dylan into singing in tune. But, on a good pair of headphones, the acoustic guitars on this recording seem like they’re being plucked by your synapses; the percussive snap of the strings on “Buckets of Rain” is a thing of beauty.

Next up was a 2.8 DSD rip from the US Geffen SACD of Peter Gabriel’s 3rd. The transients on this album’s ubiquitous gated percussion are fast, and Ayre’s ESS ES9018 chip is up to the task. Equally prevalent is multi-layered Fairlight fuckery, heavy with texture, grain and drone. There’s a little of the DSD etch here, but the sound actually seems to benefit from it. “Family Snapshot” and “Not One Of Us” possess a drama that’s missing from CD, FLAC and WAV.

I also loaded Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence score, obtained on DSD from e-onkyo before they brought the hammer down on international customers. Sad to say that this wasn’t one of my wiser purchases. The bonus tracks aren’t that exciting unless you’re a rabid fan (me?), and the DSD version of this classic sounds extremely…flat. I even pumped Pono’s single-ended miniplug output through my Zesto Leto preamp and Cavalli Liquid Glass headphone amp in a valiant attempt to infuse some tube goodness into the DSD files, with limited success. Mind you, this wasn’t Pono’s fault. DSD just couldn’t improve upon the source material.

Overall, Pono’s DSD implementation is VERY welcome. The sound is remarkable, especially considering it’s a $400 device. More hardware manufacturers need to develop products that increase in value via user-installable firmware updates. Pono and PS Audio know this. Others should (and hopefully will) follow.

A full list of the firmware update’s changes is pasted below. It appears that some of the new developments aim to improve the stability of the PonoMusicWorld software, and, while I haven’t attempted to test those various improvements yet, it looks promising.

Below the release notes you’ll find a short, helpful video tutorial on how to update the Player’s firmware.

Firmware Version 1.0.5 Release Notes:
Feature Enhancements & Bug Fixes

Added DSD playback capability

  • Playback of DSD file utilizes the DSD mode of the player’s DAC. The data in the DSD file is presented directly to the DAC.
  • Support for 2 channel DSD64 and DSD128 files
  • Support for DFF file container (containing uncompressed data)
  • Support for DSF file container including ID3 tags
  • Improvements to Audio file support

  • Corrected “Scanning Music Library” issue for MP3 files that have malformed UTF-8 tags
  • Added handling for truncated/malformed WAV files
  • Added handling for AIFF files with invalid chunks (some HDTracks files had this issue)
  • Added support for 32 bit WAV files
  • Improvements to USB mode and device management

  • Fixed issue where the PonoPlayer drives weren’t always detected if the player was asleep when plugged into a computer
  • The screen rotation locks automatically while Music Transfer Mode is enabled
  • Detect corrupted files that cause the “Scanning Music Library” issue and display a dialog with the filepath of the file to allow users to connect via USB and remove the file.
  • Detect if the internal storage is formatted to an unsupported filesystem or has filesystem errors that the player cannot repair. Display a dialog allowing the user to reformat the internal storage if this occurs.
  • General Improvements

  • Improved support for microSD cards with certain types of invalid partition tables
  • Exit Balanced Mode if a cable is removed while the player is powered off
  • Prevent overwriting playlist number if microSD card is removed and firmware is updated
  • Fixes related to playback with Volume Leveling enabled
  • FindHDmusic.com

    FindHDmusic.com aggregates new additions to high-resolution download stores and includes alerts about deals and discounts for various online outlets: HDtracks, Pono, Qobuz, AcousticSounds, HIRESAUDIO, Linn, eClassical, Native DSD, Pro Studio Masters, Hyperion, more. You can search by service, or genre, format, sample rate…the site is no-frills and easy to navigate.

    The search capability can be very useful — for instance, did you know that the Pono Store added over 1000 titles last weekend?

    There’s also a page indexing sites that give away sample downloads.

    It appears that all links within the site are affiliate links, meaning FHDM gets a cut for sending you to various services.

    I set up an RSS feed for new entries, and soon had difficulty keeping up with the updates — sometimes more than 350 new titles a day. My only quibble is that their RSS feed prioritizes title, not artist, so skimming is more difficult than it should be. There’s also a degree of duplication involved in scanning feeds as new titles are rolled out to various services over a period of time. I’d also love to see entries for Tidal, but that’s a CD-res streaming site, and FHDM seems to focus on high-res downloads only.

    Other than those qualifiers, if you like keep up with high-resolution music, FindHDmusic is an easy place to kill an afternoon or evening.

    Quiet Music – A Bandcamp Playlist

    In my parallel existence as a Music Business Professional — a middleman, if you will — I believe I’m supposed to feel threatened by Bandcamp.

    I don’t.

    Not yet, anyway.

    PS Audio Bridge is bricked by new DirectStream

    I ordered and received a PS Audio DirectStream last week.

    I grabbed my old PerfectWave Mk II with Bridge, ran a firmware update on the latter, pulled the card out of the Mk II and slid it into the DirectStream. Booted it up.

    No dice. Bridge not recognized, IP not showing up on web browser or Fing. JRiver doesn’t detect it.

    I removed the Bridge card and put it back in the Mk II. It wasn’t detected there, either. Rebooted everything. Nothing.

    I began to worry.

    I put the card back in the DirectStream and rebooted. I finally got the Bridge menu to show up on the DS by using the remote.

    Multiple attempts at keying in a static IP failed.

    I resorted to another firmware upgrade attempt — the screen on the DS read “FINDING BRIDGE” for over an hour. I finally aborted and rebooted, then discovered the Bridge has lost its IP and reverted to DHCP. Reconfiguring a static IP found the same thing happening – network indicator was red after saving the config, and Bridge still wouldn’t show up on browser or Fing; multiple attempts at keying in IP info were fruitless — it disappeared when input was changed.

    I’ve removed the SD card and rebooted the DS and network numerous times. Still no luck. I downloaded
    “DirectStream Bridge Rescue” from PSA’s support page onto a USB stick, rebooted, waited an hour, no luck.

    Did it again. Same luck.

    I’ve emailed PS Audio support with no response.

    ——————————–
    UPDATE February 6th: Heard back from PS Audio support and they asked me to send the Bridge card to them for warranty service. More soon.

    Hertzbeat Over-Ear Headphone Poll

    Abel Melaku at Hertzbeat asked 44 audiophile-type bloggers and writers for opinions on their top 3 over-ear headphones. He included me in this poll. I’m flattered to be in such glitzy and knowledgeable company, and grateful he linked back to my blog. Thank you, Abel!

    Review: Pass Labs X250.8 power amplifier

    The equipment upgrade path in my household steepened in late December of 2014. I thought I was in shape, but I’ve been panting. A lot.

    I’d been using a Parasound A21 power amplifier for the past couple years. Before that I had a 7.1 Marantz home theater amp, the MM8003. Previous to that, a craptastic Denon AVR887 7.1 receiver. Going further back — oh yeah, there was that Adcom five-channel amp/preamp combo that I got cheap because it was pre-HDMI. The latter has outlived the Denon doorstop by about five years, by the way. It’s still seeing active duty in our conference room at work.

    ANYway…I had strayed from two-channel stereo, seduced by all those 5.1 DVD-A releases I saw on Amazon.

    The Parasound was good, at first. It drove a pair of Paradigm Studio 100 v5s more than adequately. I felt like I was getting back to my two-channel roots.

    Soon after I’d bought the A21 used on Audiogon, I began going to audio shows, and listening to systems in hotel rooms. These were settings as incongruous as they were …un-optimal. Loud music door-to-door, no soundproofing between small, boxy rooms … and over half the music I heard coming out of the doorways made me cringe. I’d walk through the floors twice: the first time, listening for some artist I could at least stomach for a song or two, and visiting those rooms — and then going into rooms that had equipment I was interested in no matter what was being played.

    I noticed that a significant number of otherwise-diverse setups had a common element — an amplifier made by Pass Labs. Sometimes those rooms weren’t even playing Diana Krall, or Stevie Ray Vaughn, or Dire Fucking Straits. I took this as a sign.

    A rather grainy iPhone shot  of the Pass labs room at CAS 2014

    A rather grainy iPhone shot of the Pass labs room at CAS 2014

    I saw lots of Pass monoblocks, like at Cookie Marenco’s 2013 California Audio Show Blue Coast live DSD recording session with Alex de Grassi. Sometimes Pass amps were driving six-figure Wilson speakers, or top-of-the-line Sonys. At CAS 2014, Pass had its own tiny room, with XA60.8 monoblocks and Tannoy coaxials in disproportionately large custom cabinets, with source material provided by a vintage Technics turntable.

    Almost every system with a Pass Labs amp sounded great, or at least interesting. Even in a hotel room, Pass easily stomped my humble home Parasound setup. I’d go home and listen to it with the highest-resolution files and the best LP pressings I had, and grumble.

    The A21 had volume, but when I cranked it above 75db or so, the music took on a hard glare that became fatiguing after fifteen minutes or so. Half of what I play is modern classical, and the violins and pianos sounded…digital, even on vinyl. On live albums, when the audience applauded, it often resembled rain on a tin roof instead of a few hundred people putting their hands together in a nice theater.

    When I first bought the Parasound, I’d sit in the dark and listen to old and new music for hours. But somewhere along the way the amp lost its allure, and the edge and grit would get to me, and I’d multitask. I’d grab my laptop. Play with the cat. Fidget. Go into the other room and watch TV.

    I’d lost the focus that used to motivate me to pull out LPs I hadn’t listened to in twenty or thirty years.

    IMG_4504I realized I had been in denial. I had a amplifier problem.

    My solution was to procure a slice of the Pass Labs amplification pie and, last October, I resolved to quit drooling on the window of the bakery and do something about it.

    At CAS 2014 — in the room with the Tannoys and the Technics — Pass Labs’ Kent English had given me the business card of Mark at Reno Hi-Fi. I contacted Mark via email and told him what I had, and what I was looking for. He was patient, friendly, responsive, accommodating and professional. I imagine he still is. Over the next three months he humored my hemming, hawing, and hedging. He encouraged me to take my time. He didn’t try to upsell me, or talk me out of my preamplification plans (which involved Zesto, not Pass). Other than my ninny-esque indecision, the process was a pleasure. As Vonnegut would say, everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.

    In December I purchased a demo unit under full transferable warranty; Mark told me it’d had about a month of use. It was a Pass Labs X250.8 stereo power amp. Why not monoblocks? In addition to, um, budgetary considerations, I didn’t think I had the necessary air conditioning for them — and I was going to my hands full fitting the one chassis in or near the rack, as it was.

    A very large box arrived on January 2nd. Timmyhead, our 9-month old Bengal adolescent, donned his customary mantle of Box Inspector.

    I’d been told to have another person handy just to extract the 250.8 from its substantial packaging. Nobody was around or available, however (“hey, good buddy, want to come over on the day after New Year’s and help me lift an amp out of a box?”), so I decided to go solo. In the specs we’re told the boxed weight of this particular Pass is around 120 lbs. My physique is not exactly what you’d consider … burly. So you figure out how I got the amp out of the carton, the plastic wrap off, and the beast onto the dolly I’d so cleverly placed in front of the rack. Or you can just ask the disc material between my L4 and L5 vertebrae (you don’t want to sit down next to my vertebrae in a bar, let me tell you. They’ll bore you for hours. You’ve been warned).

    Backing up

    The steel posts on the Mapleshade rack are maybe 3/8ths of an inch wider than 19″. Guess how wide the 250.8 is? This is whatcha’d call your basic close tolerances. I had to gradually slide the amp off the dolly and onto a 2″ maple plinth suspended on IsoBlocks. So I was scrambling to the front of the rack and pushing the 100+ lb. amp onto a wobbly wooden platform, then stumbling back behind the rack to pull the thing through an impossibly small horizontal space without scratching the handsome black anodized heat sinks. Without the handles placed so thoughtfully in the back panel, this would have been impossible. As it was, it took about 10 minutes to gently wrestle the amp into place, then reposition the groaning IsoBlocks (soon to be replaced with Stillpoints Ultra SSs).

    It is easier to pass a Pass Amp through the eye of a needle...

    Then I went outside and cooled down. Changed my sweaty t-shirt. Fed the cats. Grabbed some water. Caught my breath.

    Hooking up speakers was almost easy (as easy as hooking up speakers ever is. I only cussed three or five times). I love the ratchet binding posts that prevent over-tightening spades. Spades, not bananas. Those handy handles conveniently doubled as torque-relievers for my new, thick, stiff and somewhat… disobedient Acoustic Zen Absolute speaker cables.

    I made sure everything was secure, plugged the amp into the wall (no power conditioning), and pushed the oversized beveled metal button on the front panel.

    The meter glowed in its very Pass-like fashion.

    There was music.

    The amp went through some interesting changes over the next two weeks. I wasn’t certain if the previous owner had really broken it in. The audiophile cliché invoked for the sound during that break-in interval is often polite. I understand the concept. The X250.8 sounded like it didn’t want to piss anybody off, especially at high volume. That said, it sounded reasonably good out of the box.

    IMG_4532Then some weird stuff happened.

    After about four days, following the addition of some new XLR interconnects and the swapping of certain source component power cords, the sound coming out of my new amplifier suddenly resembled that of a chrome-dioxide cassette being played through a Kenwood receiver and a pair of circa-’78, hand-me-down Utah 3-ways (my particular pair had candle wax dripped down on the all three drivers on the right speaker. What, yours didn’t?).

    Inoffensive? Un-dynamic? I’m talking peevish.

    “Who are you and what have you done with my X250.8?” I asked the glowering blue-meter’d ogre at the bottom of my rack.

    My speakers, then about 12 days old, are Acoustic Zen Crescendo Mk IIs. They were still breaking in, too. I realized that it wasn’t just the new-ish amp.

    I’d also changed interconnects, power cords, preamps, speakers…pretty much all over the same two weeks.

    My system was a newborn baby with an upset stomach, and was taking it out on my ears like a colicky infant on a packed 737.

    A couple days later, though, the amp really settled in and made itself at home.

    It knew where the coffee and cereal and vodka and good towels were. It might have filled the bird feeders in the backyard and watered the orchids if I’d asked it nicely. I’d left it powered up for a week straight, as suggested (can’t wait for my electric bill next month) and the sound began to resemble what I’d heard at various CAS hotel rooms — only better.

    It’s now been almost a month since its arrival, and everything that was new then is now broken in. How is it sounding?

    IMG_4535The 250.8 is a stern taskmaster or, at least, some variety of benevolent dictator — with the right source material. Today I played a 16/44 CD rip of Bill Nelson’s 1981 album, Quit Dreaming and Get on the Beam (Cocteau JCCD16). The songs were and are wonderful, but the CD was from that mid-eighties era when, I believe, compact disk mastering meant shoveling the LP two-track to aluminum and plastic as quickly as possible. The sound was just plain bad. I kept turning it louder, for some reason. Shrill, strident, high-midrange-y… yuck. The 250.8 shook its head, rolled its eyes, and played what JRiver and PS Audio’s DirectStream DAC threw at it. No sugarcoating.

    Then I played the 24/96 .wav of A Winged Victory For the Sullen’s Atomos. On my old system, it breathed. Well…at higher volumes, it sometimes wheezed.

    Audiophiles like to talk about the quality of “air” in an amp’s sound. It’s shorthand for a sense of space within the soundstage where high frequencies dwell. The 250.8 possesses air. Maybe that’s not the word. It caresses air, and the giddy feeling that results from a serious listening session actually makes me believe that the air might be a little thinner in my living room since I coaxed the thing beneath my rack.

    Sitting in the dark, listening to AWVFTS’s Atomos in high-res via the Pass was like hearing the band play live at 15,000 feet.

    Due to some in-progress turntable/preamp upgrades (phasing out a Clearaudio Concept MC and awaiting delivery of the new VPI Classic Signature, plus a cranky tube or two in the Zesto Andros 1.2 phono preamp), I haven’t spun as much vinyl as I’d like through the Pass. The dozen or so things I did play during the break-in period showed more than mere promise, even on a 2-year old Concept turntable. I’ll go into the amp’s relationship with analog in a review of the Zesto Leto/Andros combination and Acoustic Zen Crescendos sometime soon.

    I could parrot a bunch of stuff I’ve read online about class A/B amplification and bias and distortion and feedback and harmonics and try to convince you I really know what I’m talking about. I could raid the audiophile glossary for terms like “fast transients” and “warmth” and “transparence.” I’m not gonna bother. I reserve the right to do so in the future, mind you, but all that stuff just sounds dumb when trying to describe what Pass amplification does. One term I might parse is “detail.” With the X250.8 there’s detail, but there’s also texture, which trumps the bejesus out of detail every time, sorry.

    There’s no tubes in the massive chassis, but the sound coming out of it is…tube. Without tubes. Tube mids and highs without the startup/shutdown thump, or microphonics, or hum. Tubes without the wear-out factor.

    (I’d like to say it’s like tubes without the tubes heat, but I have a feeling this summer may have me sweating those words).

    IMG_4519I’ve been sick with the flu for the past week so I’ve had lots of time to contemplate and philosophize and listen to music. Do I have a developing ethos about music amplification in the personal space? Sounds kind of exhausting, this personal-ethos development regime, but the old saw about iron fists and velvet gloves comes to mind. I used to think amplifiers just needed to make noise, be loud, not trash your speakers… y’know, that sort of thing. Over the past couple years I’ve really began to value how quiet an amplifier can (and should) be. Pass’s grasp of the solid state platform yields the blackest, most starless silences — and masterful bass control that renders such lazy adjectives as “taut” as so much faint praise.

    I always wanted to get to the point where I could close my eyes and not really tell (or care) where the speakers were. I can’t be certain I’ve arrived at that point just yet, but the Pass Labs 250.8 is making the high-altitude journey very alluring.

    It’s good, this compulsion to just sit and listen to music again.

    ——————————————
    Other music used in this review:

    Bernard Szajner Visions of Dune LP (inFine iF1029LP)
    Harold Budd The Serpent (In Quicksilver) LP (All Saints, Cantil WAST039LP/181)
    Brian Eno The Shutov Assembly LP (All Saints WAST032LP)
    Interior Interior LP (Yen Records YLR22002)
    Arcangelo Corelli Opus 1 & 3: Church Sonatas The Avison Ensemble SACD (Linn Records CKD414)
    Mark Mothersbaugh ‎”Chechi” from Muzik For Insomniaks Volume 1 CD (Enigma 7 73365-2)
    Neil Young On The Beach DVD-A (Reprise 9 73945)
    Arvo Pärt Da Pacem Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Paul Hillier 24/88 .AIFF (Harmonia Mundi, via HDtracks)
    Various Artists Look Again To The Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited 24/44 .AIFF (Masterworks, via HDtracks)

    Goodbye, Edgar Froese

    Thanks for all the albums throughout the years.

    2014 List Noise

    COAPTA screesnhotTis the season for best-of-2014 lists.

    In the din and clamor of indulgently long staff-list best-ofs on Pitchfork, artist lists on Boomkat, and self-important blogger bloviating, I thought I’d get in on some of the latter action and add to the noise with my own little rundown of stuff I liked.

    You can find further ramblings concerning some of the titles below in my latest Confessions of a Part-Time Audiophile post. Again, I’d like to thank Scot at COAPTA for making space for my writing, and for his continued, gracious, linking-back to this blog.

    Happy holidays and thanks for reading. Here’s to a peaceful, productive, kinder and gentler 2015.

    FAVORITES OF 2014

    Christina Vantzou No2 (Kranky) LP
    Slint Spiderland box set reissue (Touch & Go) DVD/LP/FLAC
    A Winged Victory For The Sullen Atomos (LP) and Atomos VII (EP) (Kranky/Erased Tapes) LP/WAV
    Loscil Sea Island (Kranky) LP
    K. Leimer A Period Of Review (RVNG Intl) LP
    Janet Feder and Paul Fowler Leavings (self-released) FLAC
    Daniel Bachman Orange Co. Serenade (Bathetic) LP
    Inventions s/t (Temporary Residence) LP
    Hildur Guðnadóttir Saman (Touch) LP
    Bryce and Aaron Dessner/Jonny Greenwood St Carolyn By the Sea; Suite from There Will Be Blood (Deutsche Grammophon) FLAC
    Steve Gunn Way Out Weather (Paradise of Bachelors) LP

    PonoMusic World Software Update

    Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 5.27.50 PMThere’s been an update of the PonoMusic World application, the software that’s necessary if you want to download music from the Pono Store.

    The update takes the PMW desktop application from its initial 20.0.35 build to v20.00.42, then .44, and then (I assume this is a recent, non-stable build?) 20.00.45.

    What does this mean? Here’s two threads on the JRiver Pono forum (see top two sticky posts; the change logs below refer to the Mac version):

      20.0.45 (12/8/2014)

      1. Changed: More informative message in the case of download failures.
      2. Fixed: File transfers to PonoPlayer were much slower than doing it via Finder.

      20.0.44 (12/5/2014)

      1. Fixed: Automatic recognition of PonoPlayer was not always reliable, especially if there was a long delay before user clicked the ‘transfer files’ button on it.
      2. Changed: More informative status text in the firmware download action window.

      20.0.42 (12/4/2104):

      1. Changed: Check for orders at program startup will only occur if PMW already has username and password stored.
       2. Fixed: If download process was canceled by user and then restarted later in the same program run, the list would still show the canceled tracks above the currently downloading ones.
       3. Changed: Improved store login flow and messaging.
       4. Fixed: Converting an audio file would carry the Pono authenticated status with it.
       5. Changed: Only formats supported by Pono will be listed in the encoder choices.
       6. Fixed: The program could become quite slow and unresponsive during file transfers to the PonoPlayer device.
       7. NEW: The “Eject” button in the handheld transfer action window blinks for up to 30 seconds following file transfer completion.
       8. Changed: Cmd-Q now works properly for exiting the application.
       9. Changed: Holding the Control key while clicking the left mouse button now works correctly for bringing up the context menu (right-click menu).
       10. Changed: We now use the “login.salesforce.com” call to get the sessionid and the soap web service url.  Removes need for hard coded web service endpoint.
       11. Fixed: A couple of retina display issues.

    The mount and unmount process now seems more stable and reliable. There’s still a rather rigid order by which the processes should be initiated, but I’m not getting the long Finder hangs as often.

    Next time: I attempt to buy music from the Pono Store and transfer it to my Player.

    Pono Innards – EXPOSED!

    Mike Beauchamp has posted the first (so far as I know) teardown analysis of the Pono Player. This SFMH thread brings it all home.

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