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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Steve and Neil: The vinyl showdown

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

Neil Young
Neil Young at D: Dive Into Media in 2012. Photo courtesy WSJ/AllThingsD.

Fast Company keeps spooling out excerpts from “Becoming Steve Jobs,” the book (out tomorrow) by technology reporter Brent Schlender and Fast Company’s Rick Tetzeli that’s being touted as the less disappointing alternative to Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs.”1

The latest excerpt to catch my eye is about Neil Young:

I knew that Steve enjoyed listening to records on vinyl from time to time, so I agreed to call him to see if he’d like to get the LPs2. Steve answered the phone on the second ring, and I explained what I was calling about. We had talked about Neil’s criticisms a year or so before, and I thought this might soften his grudge.


Fat chance. “F— Neil Young,” he snapped, “and f— his records. You keep them.” End of conversation.

This anecdote made me laugh, because I was at the D: Dive Into Media conference in 2012 when Young bemoaned the state of compressed music and told his version of this same story.

“I was talking to Steve about it,” Young said. “We were working on it.”


That Young interview is also amusing because it really seems to be the genesis of the Pono Player, Young’s weird lossless music player project. As I wrote in 2012:

Young doesn’t have a company to plug or a solution to the problem. In fact, he turned to the largely well-heeled audience at the conference as said he needed “a rich guy, someone out there” to lead the charge for better music quality. But he did say he had been talking to one particular rich guy: Steve Jobs.

I don’t know anything about how Pono was founded, but was that rich guy in the audience that day?

In any event, I’m with Steve Jobs on this one. Most people can’t tell the difference between audio compressed using today’s high-bit-rate encoding methods, especially considering where people listen to music and the equipment they use. I’m skeptical that high-resolution lossless audio files like those used by Pono can really be differentiated from lower-resolution lossless files, and even high-bit-rate lossy files.

I’m open to the idea that trained listeners in controlled environments with the very best audio equipment may be able to tell the difference… but at that point we’re talking about the most esoteric use case possible.

As for Young’s claims that compression takes away 95 percent of music’s “nutritional value” and that, somehow, you can just feel the difference between vinyl and an MP3, well, it all strikes me as pseudo-scientific hogwash.

  1. I haven’t read the book yet. I’ve pre-ordered it and plan on reading it on my train journey to Scotland later this week. 
  2. Interestingly, Schlender is the first-person narrator of “Becoming Steve Jobs.” 

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