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Oh No, Pono: The Trouble With Neil Young's New Player
Robert Barry , March 13th, 2014 09:21

Neil Young claims that his newly-announced, 'ultra-high resolution' Pono music player is designed to help restore the "soul" to the music listening experience. What a load of crazy pony, says Robert Barry

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I have long bemoaned the mp3 and its oft-times accomplice the iPod. I buy music mostly on vinyl and listen to it on bespoke speakers that dominate my bedsit like twin sarcophagi in an Egyptian tomb. So in many ways I might be thought the ideal customer for Neil Young's newly-launched 'Pono' portable music player, with its hi-fidelity promise. Pono promises lossless audio files, up to "ultra-high resolution" 9216 kbps. A difference, the promotional website promises, that you will not only hear but "feel". Yet all I could think upon seeing the device when it was finally unveiled was: no-one wants something that shape in their pocket.

It looks rather like a Toblerone Chunky would look, had anyone thought to invent such a thing. But nobody has ever considered inventing a Toblerone Chunky, because something that bulky combined with angles that pointy is doomed to be an awkward fit, however you might wish to transport it upon your person. Like many a mis-judged project, I rather suspect Young and his design team were thinking less of practicalities and more of being 'iconic'. But as the good people of the Bauhaus school recognised many years ago, truly iconic design is a natural product of harmony between form and function.

Unfortunately, angular shape and pocketable portability are not the only things ill-matched about the puckish Pono. For all my misgivings about mp3 and iPod, one must admit that they are in many ways a perfectly suited pair. The format seemed to anticipate the player much as mass-produced orange juice once eagerly looked forward to the Tetrapak. Because the mp3 knows you are not really listening. It knew in advance that you were too busy to pay it much attention. The assumption is built into its codec.

There is an irony in Neil Young's decision to promote his PonoPlayer with the promise that it will allow the listener to hear "what we hear", as if it were a free entry pass into the mind of the grizzled old rocker (a place that I can only imagine being as craggy and uncomfortable as the device it has fostered). For the mp3 would have been impossible to develop without a detailed model of the human brain.

As McGill University professor Jonathan Sterne has detailed in his two pioneering histories of sound media (The Audible Past and MP3: The Meaning of a Format), the development of the telephone relied on a particular model of the tympanic mechanism in the human ear. The mp3, on the other hand, relies on a psychoacoustic model of the way sound is processed in the brain. "The mp3 format," he writes, "is designed for casual users". The way it compresses sound is predicated on the gaps in our hearing in a 'normal' listening environment – that is, one in which there is a bunch of other stuff going on: traffic, air conditioning, the hubbub of other people talking.

"The mp3 plays its listener," Sterne wrote in an earlier article for New Media & Society. "Built into every mp3 is an attempt to mimic and, to some degree preempt, the embodied and unconscious dimensions of human perception in the noisy, mixed-media environments of everyday life … [It] puts the body on a sonic austerity programme. It decides for its listeners what they need to hear and gives them only that."

What that means is that, under any circumstances when you might actually use a portable music player – whether it's an iPod or a Pono – the difference between formats will, to all intents and purposes, be imperceptible. If we are to complain, as Young does, of the loss of "soul" in contemporary music listening, simply upgrading to a lossless format will do little to change that. We need to look beyond the codec, to the habits and culture of portable music use.

Sociologist Michael Bull has written extensively about what he calls "iPod culture". He might just as well have called it Walkman culture – or, indeed, Pono culture. The device and its format are not the point. As Bull notes, the iPod is just one of the latest stages in "an acoustic history of increasingly mobile privatised sound." It is just that the iconic status of the iPod, its enormous popularity, have rendered it practically synecdochal for "a culture in which we increasingly use communication technologies to control and manage our experience of the urban environment."

In his 2007 book Sound Moves: iPod Culture And Urban Experience, Bull compares the rapturous "polyrhythmic" descriptions of urban life from earlier in the twentieth century by the likes of Robert Musil, Joseph Roth and Henri Lefebvre, with the responses of his own interviewees, such as 'Tracy', an enthusiastic iPod user who describes using music to filter out the intruding voices of Mexican immigrants as she does her shopping. Or 'Ivan', who says his iPod makes it "easier to avoid guilt-inducing encounters with the homeless". This kind of "auditory filtering" Bull claims, is "a central strategy of iPod users", who use the device to create what one quoted user calls his very own "privacy bubble".

Within each sonic bubble, the iPod becomes not just a music player but a kind of regulatory – even therapeutic – device. "I keep some slow music that gives me a calm, peaceful feeling when I'm in busy or chaotic settings, like on the subway," says one of Bull's interviewees. Another speaks of a a specific mix of 80s pop "that wakes me up and gets me motivated for my day." The spontaneous practice of iPod users then comes to very closely resemble the model developed by researchers working for the Muzak Corporation in the mid-twentieth century.

The wartime research of Muzak vice-president Harold Burris-Meyer recommended just that, "bright, snappy music at start of work" and the selection of music "to create a progressive mood" in order to give "the worker a gentle push". This may seem like common sense today, and the point is not really the specifics of what kind of music people use for what effect, but rather the way iPod culture instrumentalises music in the service of capitalist rationality. It becomes less a source of aesthetic pleasure and contemplation, more a kind of mood regulator to make us fit and productive workers.

If, then, this is the source of the loss of "soul" in music listening that Young is so worried about, what will the Pono do to change this? Absolutely nothing. Young talks about Pono as an "eco-system for music-lovers" but finally, it is just one more device to reduce music to a background environmental hum. In fact, after its much-touted boost in sound quality – next to irrelevant anyway, given that any such change will be unnoticeable in the context of a portable music player participating in the culture of portable music players – it seems like the major difference between an iPod and a Ponoplayer is the price, which is around four times as much. It may be worth recalling that the Hawaiian word 'pono' from which Young's device takes its name means not just 'righteousness' as the music player's publicity bumf notes, but also 'wealth', 'prosperity', 'fortune'.

There is a great deal in Pono's promotional literature about realism and nature. Pono, we are told by its founder multimillionaire Neil Young, is a "grassroots movement", it is about bringing music "back to life", re-imbuing its lost "ambiance" and "texture". It sounds like it should be on sale at The Body Shop or one of Alex James's cheese and twats festivals. And check out the line-up of artists who are backing it: Mumford and Sons, Arcade Fire, Sting. With its prohibitive price tag and promise of even greater control, even more extensive filtering, the Pono, essentially, is the gated community of music players, a miniature Poundbury in your pocket.

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Post-Punk Monk
Mar 13, 2014 2:53pm

This article hits the exact problem I've always had with portable music. Namely, that I do not want to be in a protective sonic bubble. This is not how I "use" music. It is more important to me than that. When the portable cassette player was released, I bought one and swiftly found that not only would I be shunting money better spent on records to purchase [endless] batteries, but that the sense of isolation that it engendered was unappealing to even a lone wolf like me.

Similarly, when the iPod was released, I was a music fanatic whose life had literally been changed by Macintosh computers in 1984 - one would think that I was the target audience for such a device. And one couldn't have been more wrong. At the very least these devices isolate me. Make me wear headphones [which I dislike]. Cost money that would be better off buying more music. Force me to spend valuable time maintaining its ecosystem by ripping [my thousands of] CDs and building playlists. And finally, this activity would require many TB of storage for these files when ripped at full quality.

And then the whole conceit of the laughably poor design was something that I never even got around to noticing since the very market segment was such a non-starter for me, but your points are exceptionally well made. One would think that a portable music layer shaped like a hip flask would be ergonomically ideal, with the added frisson that the product that it contains functions in much the same fashion as liquor. At least when portable.
For further rumination on the Fresh New Sound of Yesterday®

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Mar 13, 2014 3:04pm

Can't say I'm adverse to the iPod for listening to music when out and about for whatever reason. Any fool should be aware that it's not a substitute for listening on good speakers. It's an extension, not a replacement for anything.
As for Pono (which looks far too similar to Bono for my liking), apart from the drawbacks mentioned on this very good article, is the fact that beyond 24bit/96kHz, any perceptible improvement in sound is absolutely negligible - even negatively affected - at the 'cost' of huge file sizes (google 'why 24/192 makes no sense' to get you to the relevant info).
No, I guess the only mildly interesting aspect to this will be to see how quickly it crashes and burns.

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ad hominem
Mar 13, 2014 3:32pm

serious question - and apologies if it is mighty stupid - but does Pono essentially require a new library of music - like when CDs first came out - you could only listen to what was available on CD at that point - does Pono not play MP3, and vice versa, or can you convert, or what?

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Post-Punk Monk
Mar 13, 2014 3:52pm

In reply to caonai:

canonai - You make a strong point. I am 50 years of age and have striven to protect my hearing [no headphones, earplugs at concerts]. Even so, when I remaster my vinyl, I have discovered that 24/44 is as high of a resolution as I can perceive the difference in quality. Even my coddled ears can't hear what 24/96 offers - other than 2.17 x the file size. I have always found it specious in the extreme that Neil Young, who has played rock guitar in front of Marshall stacks for longer than I've been alive, could be any sort of authority on audio fidelity. I would maintain that his best area of expertise is in writing and performing, and leave it at that.

ad hominem - You are correct. If you purchase, you are trapped in Neil's walled garden if you want music optimized for the device. There is no way to obtain these resolutions elsewhere, though other stores have 24/96 and other high-res formats available. We don't know of the Pono is able to play any files other than their native format.
For further rumination in the Fresh New Sound of Yesterday®

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Mar 13, 2014 5:07pm

The Kickstarter project for the Pono was announced on March 10th, and sought to raise $800,000 in 30 days; they've already raised $2,500,000 in less than three days. That's all you can snark about is the shape of the Pono and that people can't tell the difference between mp3s and high-quality flac files? First of all, It's pretty small--watch the video on the Kickstarter page, the overall size of each face is close in size to the first iPad nano. It won't add much bulk to any pocket. Secondly, there IS a significant difference *on good headphones* (that's an important factor) between a 320kbps mp3 and a 24/96 resolution flac. Whether you dbelieve it doesn't make a difference, Robert, isn't how the backers and others who want a better portable listening experience see it. It looks already to be a big hit.

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Mar 13, 2014 6:29pm

Listen to me, wealthy elder rock statesman who peaked in the 1970s: You’ve been bitching about digital recording since the advent of the compact disc player. And you’re essentially correct: a properly engineered analog master tape boasts specs that would be the envy of any high-end digital master.

But only the very wealthy and connected get to listen to the master tape at home. For most of us, the closest we will get is a compact disc or vinyl LP played back through a decent amplifier and speakers. Once you get to the consumer market, the digital vs. analog debate becomes a matter of personal taste. And once you get to the portable player market, the argument is simply a posh display of wealth.

I had hoped that you were working on a new form of digital reproduction that mimics or surpasses the magic math that enables magnetic tape to do its thing. But instead, you’re simply offering high resolution digital. That’s nice. Why, again, do we need a whole new player and marketplace to purchase and enjoy high resolution digital? Sure, the amp stage in an iPod sucks, but really?

You could have offered your own albums in a high-resolution format. You could have instructed music lovers to simply hook a goddam amp and speakers up their computers (everyone who reads Quietus, please do this – go to a flea market like I did, if you’re not rich). You could have put your name on some headphones that actually sound as good as they look. Instead, you made a looky-what-I-bought toy that screams “I care more about money than hi-fidelity -- look upon me and despair.”

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The Joy of Audio
Mar 13, 2014 6:54pm

Everyone is debating how good (or bad) 24bit/192kHz sounds. I believe this is irrelevant to the Pono product. As a 30 year Engineer of digital audio products, I believe Pono is doing DSP audio processing and tweaking/enhancing the L/R output - and this is causing celebrity listeners to "think" 192 is better. Has anyone confirmed that Pono is not altering the audio via DSP?

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Mar 13, 2014 7:20pm

I am not convinced the main target for this device is for mobile people listening to music via $40 earbuds(or even $300). I think that capability is there, but I really think that the target is to connect this digital device to your stereo(either at home or in your car) and listen to better sound quality than what you get even on CD. I do agree that the design could have been better adapted for mobile use as well, but I think the design idea was to have something that could rest in your stereo cabinet or on your dash that would be visible to your eye. I could be wrong, but that's my impression.
ps. mp3s can be played on the Pono device

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Mar 13, 2014 7:43pm

In reply to bird:

i would love to get my hands on a 24 bit (sampling rate makes less of a diff in my experience) version of "rumors" "aja" "etc" to play on my relatively kick-ass home stereo. i can play flacs via cog or clementine > benchmark d>a and realize the subtle advantages of hi res audio. from the line out of this ponogizmo? i'd have to hear it. i'm not optimistic.

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Johnny Fontaine
Mar 13, 2014 9:15pm

I miss the 4 track and Betamax.

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Mar 13, 2014 9:33pm

what utter shit..the mp3 and its player is portable yeah so what still sounds bad.also ..we are such cool uber modern busy beings that we deserve a crappy sound that reflects the modern dazzling hubbub .modern life is rubbish mate.

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Mar 13, 2014 10:21pm

In reply to Homer:

While I'm not going to begrudge ol' Neil for overshooting his Kickstarter campaign in mighty fashion, he no doubt still has considerable love from the baby boomer generation who have the cash to throw at this thing. Whether this translates in sustainable sales of Pono remains to be seen. My subjective instinct says this initial interest will rapidly taper off fairly quickly. (Maybe tQ can pencil in a 'Pono-one year on' article in March 2015 and prove us right or wrong?)
Not sure I could read Robert Parry snarking that no-one can tell the difference between mp3 and FLAC/WAV/AIFF. Most could, but music has been consumed on cheap crappy dansettes, tape recorders and mp3 players for (in the relevant cases) for decades. In other words many people just don't really care too much how they listen to their music (or are not willing to stump up for a boss setup). joe's comment I assume is ironic - crappy sounding gear have been around since the phonograph. Deserving doesn't come into the equation.

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Mar 13, 2014 10:49pm

i'm with bird and others: i don't think the pono is intended to be a music-for-earbuds pocket player, which would partially explain its idiotic shape. (on the other hand, if it's portable anyway, why not make it conveniently so?) in the video pitch, neil young is driving people around in his pono-outfitted caddy, and i think cars and home systems are probably the target here. (and i'd be curious to know if there are digital hookups for that purpose.) the snake oil, as others have pointed out, may be in the claims being made for the files it's capable of playing natively (i.e., 24/192k). those claims have been made for other formats, too, specifically SACD and the high-resolution audio files sold by download sites like HD tracks. my guess is that this device will do nothing to shift the landscape of that debate and that, if it survives, it will do so only among a familiar demographic partial to boutique audio appliances. all of which is to say that i'm at least and far more curious to hear and compare the files being encoded for this device than i am about the device itself, to say nothing of its "ecosystem."

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Mar 13, 2014 10:52pm

People complain about mp3's and iPods. The fact is that iPods sound fantastic, and that is a scientific fact. People also complain about mp3's. But a good quality mp3 is indistinguishable from CD quality or from the 192khz/24bit FLAC files this Pono thing plays for 99.9999% of listeners. Portable music players are usually played through headphones, and there are many headphones less than several grand that could make use of this format.
The whole talk about 'breathing life into music' is just nonsense. I could frankly don't care how many great musicians endorse this product. Musicians are not necessarily audio engineers. I seriously doubt Neil Young knows what Nyquist theorem is.

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Mar 14, 2014 12:16am

Maybe Neil Young believes all he is saying - and I hope so, because it makes it ethically more reasonable to swallow. Aside from that, and irrelevant to it, it's a business decision - bringing out a product that he felt there was a market for. Evidently there is, so kudos to him. I don't see this any different than the saps who cum in their pants at the touch of vinyl believing that buying up limited edition ___ gram vinyl editions of albums are tangibly better sound-wise than a CD.

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Mar 14, 2014 12:42am

Bitchy snobbery at work here. Has this Hack been paid for this Hatchet Job ?

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Mar 14, 2014 12:50am

In reply to caonai:

I can only wish the same to you.

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Mar 14, 2014 1:15am

I personally ignored the technical talk and enjoyed the hell out of the phrase 'cheese and twats festivals'.

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Mar 14, 2014 1:23am

why does this article make me feel bad that i listen to music predominately through an iPod? Ripped at 128kbps at that, so i can fit more on!
I respect audiophiles etc but c'mon - this is like telling people how to vote. just listen the way you listen and whatevs to everyone else

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Mar 14, 2014 3:10am

really nasty piece. are spotify paying your bills or what?

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Mar 14, 2014 5:07am

ipods sound like shit and that is scientific fact... "Mastered for iTunes" is a complete joke, and the best 24 bit files I've heard are in the pirate world... god bless blurays and bittorrent

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Mar 14, 2014 9:49am

Its really interesting to see how much cynicism has been churned up by this launch. Without having used the device or the music library / store people are pronouncing this as DOA, despite a really strong kickstarter performance. The shape of the player doesn't lend itself to fitting in your jeans pocket. It could fit in your coat pocket or in your bag though, so it seems portable enough. When I'm out for a run i use an ipod nano, they are great for that, I don't see any need to be listening to high-def audio while I'm focused on running either. It seems to me that Pono is in no way meant to compete with the ipod and all the 'taking on apple' headlines are just missing the point. This looks like something people would buy who already have an ipod or phone for mobile listening, in order to listen to some really full beautiful sounding copies of their favourite albums. When people do use it, that will be the true test of the design people are so ready to dismiss and the device's usability. It seems as others have pointed out here that it is well suited to sitting on a desk or dashboard - my ipod gets a lot of playing time sat on my desk while I'm working so this doesn't seem so bad to me. You're not going to get the same audio experience from your laptop running flac files as you are from a dedicated player, the fact that you could buy a stand alone hifi separate for hi-def audio is true, but you cant carry that about with you, that really would be an awkward design. I take the science on-board about cd quality etc. but really we need some people to hear it and review it before we declare that the human ear can't tell the difference. If Pono makes high quality audio available via its store and accessible to more people who love music, that seems good to me, commercial success is another thing, it seems like a pretty niche product, but then so is vinyl and that hasn't gone away, people are still making it, buying it and enjoying it today.

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Mar 14, 2014 11:39am

'I buy music mostly on vinyl and listen to it on bespoke speakers that dominate my bedsit like twin sarcophagi in an Egyptian tomb'

Is this meant to be serious?

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Mar 14, 2014 11:42am

Well i ballsed that up and put the email in the wrong dab. Ha!

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Andrew Thomas
Mar 14, 2014 12:29pm

No mention of the electronics involved. I assume this thing has a considerably better power amp than an iPod and can drive a decent pair of cans rather than poxy earbuds.

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Rich M
Mar 14, 2014 2:44pm

More than anything it reminds me of the Ouya, the cheapo Android games console that promised much, got a load of cash (in people terms, not a load of cash in "making a viable commercial product" terms) and then died a slow, painful death when it turned out that even kickstarter millions really aren't enough for these kind of projects. Looking forward to reading about how broken and pointless it is when they finally poop out a few semi-functioning prototype units to get their loudest complainants off their back for a few weeks.

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John Thomas
Mar 14, 2014 6:10pm

"it seems like the major difference between an iPod and a Ponoplayer is the price, which is around four times as much."

Pono 128GB $399
iPod 160GB £199 (around $330)

Research much?

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Mar 14, 2014 8:03pm

Really nasty piece indeed. Plenty of musicians are part of it, yet the write choose to mention the most un-Quietus of them all. Also the use of quotations it´s libelous, "soul", "nature", trying to imply that this is somehow un-cientific magical jumbo bumbo coming from an old hippie millonaire like Young. Also trying to ridiculize Young puting "multimillonaire" close to "grassroots movement" when it´s clear that Young could be very rich to our standards, but to a corporation like Apple he´s less than an insect, a nobody. The whole point of the article is that the audio quality doesn´t matter because we listen to ipods or the like only in super noisy places. Wich is false, you can walk a silent street, you can go to the park, or the beach, or whatever. And what about cars? They are all over the promotional video yet the writer choose to ignore the fact that ipods and the like are widely used on cars, offices, houses and pretty much everywhere. And the thing about the price is simply a lie. Pono would only 20% more expensive that the Ipod, yet he said almost four times, wich would be 400%. So he exagerates the price difference in around TWENTY TIMES.

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Mar 15, 2014 3:58pm

Why diss Neil for actually developing an alternative product instead of merely bitching about the sound of existing ones? He cares enough and has the resources to do it. So what if it's slightly more expensive and holds fewer songs - the whole point is quality over quantity. A double blind listening comparison will be a more useful critique. Not everyone cares so much about audio quality but the kickstarter funding indicates enough people do to proceed with manufacture. Sorry if it offends your aesthetic and tech beliefs (any beats headphones opinions?) but the main pono issue is what does it sound like?  

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Julian Bond
Mar 15, 2014 5:52pm

I'm all for a personal audio player with a high quality output stage that will play FLACs. But what I really want in my PMP is more storage. Where's my 1Tb iPod Classic, dammit! It should have been here by now and we should be well on the way to the 2Tb iPod.

With 320 Mp3s, the biggest iPod apple sell (160GB) is no longer enough. Replace those 320s with Flac and it definitely isn't enough.

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Mar 15, 2014 5:55pm

There are plenty of ways that someone who loves the detail and full sound of a music file can find ways to focus more on the music. There are ear buds that require a mold of the ear to be taken by an audiologist - that once complete, block out most other noise and put as many as 8 drivers per ear and when properly fitted a -26db sound isolation. So this is one music lover who is giving Pono a try. Furthermore, the record companies can make a lot more money from a Pono subscriber than through a company like iTunes. Pono FLAC files of a complete album will be between $18.00 - $24.00 dollars. If the Pono system sounds as good as promised, it can be used as either a mobile device (the early buyers got free leather holsters) or at home in a Class A audio system. I'm looking forward to hearing the system through my JH Audio in-ear monitors. Plus my wife can't complain when I want to sit still, lose myself in the music the way it was supposed to be heard, and not bother anyone else in the house.

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Mar 15, 2014 6:01pm

One other point, there is no discussion in any of this about the fatigue of listening to digital audio files. Most people under the age of 45 don't know what fully analog sound is like - unless they hear live un-amplified music often. I used to sit and listen to music for hours on end. I simply can not do that with the typical digital file. CDs introduce all sorts of garbage that your ear picks up whether you hear it or not. Yes - as a listener, I want to hear the space in which music is made - i want to hear the air around a voice and the real placement of instruments so that I can follow the bass line of a song if that is what i want to focus on. Music is something special when it is played back as an analog file. It has a far less agreeable affect as digital material.

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Mar 15, 2014 8:53pm

The player? Don't know if it'll succeed or not. A music service using FLAC? Seems like a fair enough idea to me. To me a 192kbps MP3 sounds fine. The problem is, most of these services do NOT prove 192kbps+ rates, they use 128kbps MP3 or AAC, both of which just do not sound that good. And for those who claim they can hear artifacts in a 192kbps MP3, should they have to just put up with it? FLACs are quite a bit bigger than an MP3, but they really are not that big.

As for the article writer... a) Too poor an MP3 or AAC sounds bad no matter what you're playing it on. b) You might only use music on crapy earbuds (I can't stand them, I have crappy headphones...) while running through traffic or whatever, but I sometimes do play my music through actual speakers.

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Robert McDougall
Mar 15, 2014 8:57pm

What a specious argument on the part of Robert Barry. Indeed, I find astonishing the lengths to which he goes to circumnavigate and obfuscate the simple fact that Young's technology is superior. I suspect he is a shill.

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Mar 16, 2014 8:21pm

In reply to ad hominem:

From what I read elsewhere (I think on the Pono site, I forget now), it will play your existing mp3s, and FLACs and other formats too, and claims those will sound better than an iPod. How it can do this, I have no idea, and am admittedly skeptical. It also has no storage built in -- files are stored on memory cards, which means you are not limited in terms of GB the way you are on an iPod. For that latter point alone, if it comes down to replacing an old failing iPod with a new one vs. a Pono player, I'm going to at least be looking at Pono, whether or not it sounds any better.

Really, if Neil can manage to take even a small bite out of Apple's near-total domination of this market, more power to him.

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Neil Gaydon
Mar 16, 2014 11:27pm

Picture quality has been steadily and dramatically improving…standard def…to hi def and now 4k, while compressed audio has been taking music backwards…anyone can hear the difference between MP3 and FLAC! Quantity over quality has been the sales pitch from consumer companies like Apple for too long, music needs the same attention we give to picture quality. 24 bit music is the 4k of audio…roll on master tape quality to hear how our music should sound. Robert and other MP3 people, embrace progress and stop being SO defensive...

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Mar 17, 2014 5:07am

In reply to Julian Bond:

Sorry to tell you but the general consensus is that the iPod Classic is at the end of its life. No new versions with expanded storage on the cards as the market is happy, for the most part, to use their iPhones as iPods.

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Mar 17, 2014 5:13am

In reply to FlamingTelepath:

It does actually have onboard storage - 64gb with the memory card enabling another 64gb. Basically with extra cards you can continue to grow your Pono collection of music. The improved sound that Pono will give your existing music is due to the DAC and electronics. I run my iPhone/iPad/iPod through an external DAC and the sound quality is vastly improved.

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Mar 17, 2014 5:57am

In reply to :

Ah, got it. Still, I think it's cool that you're not limited by whatever the onboard storage is. As for the DAC, just read a little about them and will have to look into getting one, probably a good investment. Any recommendations among the ones at lower price points, or is it something you really need to spend a lot on to get something decent?

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Graeme Hind
Mar 17, 2014 9:56am

maybe Robert Barry out to rent a really great recording studio for an afternoon and recite his article into high-end analogue recording equipment onto 2" tape and then listen to it back through his 'bespoke speakers that dominate his bedsit like twin sarcophagi in an Egyptian tomb'. Maybe that way he will hear all the acoustic nuances of his pompous, patronizing, pseudo, masturbatory opinions. He talks of entering 'into the mind of the grizzled old rocker (a place that (he) can only imagine being as craggy and uncomfortable as the device it has fostered.'
He should be so lucky as to be able to enter the mind of an artist - maybe ten minutes tuned into such a mind would tune him into a place where he didn't feel the need to sneer at a person who is 'grizzled and old'. Christ, what does that have to do with anything?
Maybe attacking Young personally and adding quotes from Sterne and Bull are necessary to support his inane premise.
MP3 and iTunes might have started out as marketable solutions for what he refers to as casual music listeners but they were never marketed that way. They were marketed for their convenience and their 'fit' into a lifestyle but Barry completely misses the point of Pono. After MP3/iTunes dominated the market, the next generation of marketeers who brought out so-called 'hi-fi' products built them with MP3 or iPod/iPhone docking ports. This meant that MP3 became the music source not only when they were 'casually' listening to their choice of music whilst carry on with their other diversions but also when they were at home alone or with friends and wanted to sit quietly and properly listen. What were they hearing? MP3!! A generation grew up not knowing anything else.
My own daughters were shocked when I took to them to a concert and they 'heard' the voices and the real sound of real instruments. We are analogue beings. We have a central nervous system which takes what we hear and feel and creates an experience of it in our minds. Digital technology will never reproduce that analogue experience but if the sampling speed is fast enough it can come very close and the difference is what takes the listening experience to a place close to where the artist lives.
MP3! After all, why go to the Louvre when you can see the pictures on your i-Pad? Why walk around a beautiful lake when you can watch a movie of someone else walking around it?
I don't know Mr Barry any more than he knows Neil Young but I believe that if he learns and masters a musical instrument and then abandons his natural cynicism and writes some beautiful songs that are so great that he is moved to share them with kindred spirits he probably wouldn't want those kindred spirits to listen to them on MP3 nor would he likely be moved to write articles like this one.

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Mar 17, 2014 9:58am

I've just printed out this article on 250gsm bonded paper using the highest quality inks. It reads so much better than in the digital format. If only I could get the authors original handwritten notes

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Sam Lench
Mar 17, 2014 3:30pm

Because no one else has mentioned this I thought I should.. The vast majority of music isn't even recorded at anything close to 24bit/192khz. The highest quality that 99% of music is recorded at is 24bit/48k. So even if you can buy music that is labelled as 24/192, if it wasn't recorded at that quality then it will never be that quality. Watch out for the hype!
That being said I've long bemoaned the quality of cds, so pushing towards a time when 24bit is the norm is something I've long hoped for. It's ridiculous that music has been recorded at 24bit for decades and always has to be stepped down at the end for CDs. If you've never been involved in making a record, you might not realise the difference, but I for one can always hear the degradation of quality going from 24bit to 16bit.
Of course, you can play pretty much any quality of music file on an ipod nowadays anyway (even if the preamp/DAC isn't brilliant, it's gotten a lot better than it used to be). The real importance of the Pono is in reaching towards a higher standard where there is a viable commercial vehicle for truly making available high quality audio to the masses.

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Mar 19, 2014 5:03am

I think this article misses the point in what Neil is trying to do. I think the model for PONO is this; OK we realize uncompressed digital files can sound pretty damn good and Apple and their iPod does not offer this, that is the thrust behind this project.
As an audiophile I can attest to the fact that uncompressed music played on the right equipment is a helluva lot better than compressed.

I would say a better analogy with what PONO is trying to do is not different than how the digital camera market started to produce better sensors, better pocket cameras and now even iPhones that can produce some pretty amazing images.
The music industry unlike the film industry is far far behind id developing this technology and even worse at marketing it to the common man (woman).
The fact that PONO will sell FLAC files that one owns over Apples rental system is a step forward. HD Tracks seems to operate in the same manner and those files will likely be able to play directly on a PONO, (I will assume).
I will bet there will be a marked distinguishable difference in sound quality over even uncompressed files M4A though an iPod vs PONO based on the Ayre specs for PONO. I would even venture to say this will rival pretty decent modest priced DACS on the market that are far less flexible than the PONO.
Having Ayre as a part of their design team is a pretty impressive business arrangement. For that reason alone I will state the PONO will blow away an iPod for sound quality playback - not to mention one cannot even use an iPod to play FLAC files so that is a good thing as well. For that matter, Apple has effectively killed their own iPod sales due to their "eco system" as Neil refers to his set up, as the iPhone has replaced this, but has not replaced the dismal sound quality issue.
Yes there are pocket systems that do what a PONO does today, but not at the $400 price point.
My problem with this article is that it assumes a lot and since there is actually no PONO to physically review yet, it's all conjecture at this point.
Even since this has been written there has been more information come out on the player itself, the format of the files and how it should work which dispels a lot of what this article talks about.
As an audiophile, I hope this system gains traction. What is wrong with paying for something as satisfying as really well recorded music - it is what we used to get when we played "records" - an entire generation has missed that, and that is what Neil wants to try and replicate or at least regenerate!

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Vaughan Woolsey
Mar 20, 2014 7:56pm

In reply to caonai:

People are fooling themselves into thinking any spectral content over 16/44.1 is audible and beneficial. The sample rate is essentially double the frequency content. 1/2 of 44.1 is 22.05 kHz which is 2kHz over the theoretical range of human hearing. And practical range of most humans is about 16-18kHz on a GOOD day. So people claiming to "hear" the difference are experiencing confirmation bias and placebo. There has never been anyone who can ACTUALLY hear the difference. Test it yourself. Double blind ABX test and you'll see. You won't consistently hear a difference. Forcing higher and lower frequencies into your ear drums with earbuds or headphones can actually harm your ears more than hurt them.

24-bit/192kHz ratios are only beneficial in the recording phase. The real difference here is 16/44.1 mp3 vs 16/44.1 WAV (or any lossless codec). Stop buying into the hype. Nobody can really tell.

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Mar 21, 2014 9:51am

Tired, snarky and bitchy article. I'm not up on the fine details of audio quality but it seems that Young has just decided to come up with a digital music player that will recreate as closely as possible the audio quality of listening to vinyl records etc. that he experienced in his younger days. In his autobiography he says as much and he wants to give the current generation the same experience his generation had in this regard. Also it's not just designed to be played as a personal walkman, it's also meant to be listened to in a car and other environments.

The whole debate about "privatised sound" is just rather ridiculous. Sound has been "privatised" ever since people started putting music on wax cylinders, all that's happened is the technology has become more advanced over the decades. I don't really see the problem with being able to listen to music anywhere you go. You could have been in just as much of a 'bubble' prior to MP3 players, smartphones etc. if you simply got a good book and read that, or if you spent time doing a lot of crossword puzzles. OK technology has made it easier for us to do this. It was logically going to happen at some point given the increasing advances made in the last century or so.

At the end of the day, at least Young is trying to contribute something to the world by giving people a portable music device that [supposedly] is better sounding than the other ones out there. This article doesn't contribute much - it points out the perceived problems and then predictably comes up with no actual solutions for them. "Privatised sound" "gated sonic community" "a bubble" - alright, thanks for drawing our attention to these issues, now can you think of a way round them, or how they might be dealt with effectively? Do you have a possible idea or strategy - if so, say it. If you don't, then stop wasting time writing articles that just repeat the same old thing.

Poundbury isn't a gated community by the way.

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Atomic Shadow
Mar 23, 2014 5:16pm

This article seems to make the arguement that the most important aspect of a music player is how it looks and it's portability. The most important thing should be how it sounds.

I do not care how this thing will fit in a pocket, because it will never be in my pocket. It will sit on a table or desk at the end of a long, noisy day. There I will listen to music in full fidelity through my studio monitors or some really good headphones. I will tranport it in a bag with an iPad, Zoom h4n and other devices of the trade. When I work out, I work out. When I drive a car I drive a car. When I listen to music, I do really listen. Actively, with my full attention.

Turning music in to a distracting background noise has helped to devaule it as a commodity. I don't expect people who's main concern is being able to pack a thousand, brittle sounding, albums around in their shirt pocket to be the intended market for this product.

Why not wait and see how the thing sounds before getting the torches and pitchforks?

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Jim Carter
Mar 24, 2014 4:28pm

"it seems like the major difference between an iPod and a Ponoplayer is the price, which is around four times as much"
An iPod Touch with less memory than a Pono (64 vs 128) sells for the same price as a Pono. Please get your facts straight before making comments like this. The only iPod cheaper with similar memory is the iPod Classic and it sells for $249 but doesn't have a touch screen like the Pono.

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Mar 24, 2014 7:54pm

I call BS. #1 Rule of Audio - Garbage In = Garbage Out. All of your arguments for a compressed, noisy, lossy, DIAL-UP format that is MP3 is circular garbage.

Watch your HD TV, look at your digital cameras - see the increase in resolution from 10 years ago? Why do we abuse our ears this way, they are the most sensitive of all of our senses.

We need maximum digital resolution allowable. Go outside and listen - that's unlimited resolution.

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Mar 24, 2014 8:44pm

Aside from various ideas and commentaries about background noise mucking up 'super high resolution' files, people chiding the author here seem unaware that much of the difference between 256k for a higher-than-usual mp3 resolution and the 9216k offered by the Pono is, scientifically speaking, imperceptible to human hearing. Not all of it, but most. Better to get a larger storage capacity ipod and fill with as high-res as possible tracks than to be a silly person lugging around a cumbersome chunk of equipment whose sole purpose is bragging rights about high fidelity without even knowing what one is actually bragging about. "hearing" the benefits of pono is pretty much akin to claiming to have in-utero memories...

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Mar 28, 2014 8:49pm

Well the author turned what should have been an informed opinion on whether the Pono could provide a better sound over the iPod (et al) into a put down of people who choose to listen to music portably.

The examples he gives of what they are used for - allowing racists to block out minorities and making it easier to avoid those who are less fortunate than us are frankly ridiculous.

This author is the worst kind of smug snob, AND he offers no informed opinion because he has not tested the Pono.

This is the guy at Kitty Hawk who heard two brothers were attempting to build a machine that could fly. His only comment was it looked stupid and it would never get off the ground.

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Apr 4, 2014 4:34pm

FlamingTelepath, You are correct, it will play all existing formate, but you are incorrect on your information regarding the Pono player. It has 64GB of internal memory with the availability of another 64BG with external SD card.
As for the Pono sounding better than an ipod with lower-res mp3s from one's exisitng collection, there are 2 reason - better DACs and most likely the improved amp section for the headphones.

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Nivek Marshall
Apr 16, 2014 12:07am

Ok, everyone is missing the real elephant in the room here. Vinyl, 8 Track, Cassette, Compact Disk and Digital Files. Where the Hell am I going to get my fans to pay for my music one more time. How many of you have bought the same artist, the same album from each of these formats? It's another money grab for the same old tired music. Not only did he get you to invest into it, your going to buy his shitty music one more time to hear the stuff you could never hear on anyone of these platforms. Finally I can hear Neil the way Neil wants me to hear him LMAO. All's I hear is a cash register making that sale one more time...

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Apr 21, 2014 9:17am

Robert Barry I think you need to take a deep breathe look around, take in your surroundings and experience reality for a moment.
There is a huge difference between intellectually arriving at conclusions through a myriad of complex concepts compared to just having a simple experience such as listening to high quality music.
Have you ever heard high quality digital source material such as high bit rate flac files or SACD? (i.e. Not mp3 or CD). No part of your article seems to come from any direct experience yet you don't hesitate to voice your opinions as fact.
Just listen to a high quality file with decent phones / hifi then listen to an MP3. I don't care if it's in your living room, at a busy market or in a subway. If the sound quality is imperceptible go see an ear nose throat specialist.
The ponoplayer is an attempt to bring hi fidelity music to the masses The jury is still out as to how good it actually sounds but having listened to a number of different high bit rate players I would be shocked if the sound experience doesn't greatly surpass the mp3 / iPod experience.
Just a suggestion for you Robert. Write about what you know or if you have no personal experience write a more balanced article.

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May 6, 2014 2:04pm

I bet everyone trashing this article is just pissed they bought a pono for $400

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Bob Cross
Jun 11, 2014 8:11am

In reply to Nivek Marshall:

@NivekMarshall, nice to see that I'm not the only cynic about Pono. Also don't forget that there's quite a few projects in Kick' & Indie' that are promising "better" reproduction of your existing lossless rips, like GeekPlayer for example. Amd those obviously aren't aiming to tie you down to a single store like Pono seems to want. Pono's a device for either poseurs or the "gotta buy that $250 gold interconnect" audio extremists. Me, I'm happy with my clunky ole 5th gen iPod Video playing alac's through an external dac.

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Jul 7, 2014 7:53am

The truth is that there are many similar and maybe better designed products in the market. Sony's new as an example is a great device at an affordable price plays all formats of loss less including DSD HD Track already offers a vast although still limited menu of High resolution track. My only interest is in the PONO music shop could it could offers wider range go Lossless and HI res music. The device itself is just a way to get consumers to start buying music from the pono music store. Its like the Nespresso coffee machine. Subsidized to get you hooked to buying the coffee pods. Thats the business model. The divide is just a red herring. Also note that human capacity to enjoy the difference between 16bit and 24 bit files is not the point here. The growing interest and popularity of 24bit/96KHZ format forces musicians and labels to provide better production and reproduction of music files.

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Jul 7, 2014 7:58am

In reply to Harry:

In my previous comment i was referring to Sony"s new NWZ-ZX1 High Rs walkman.

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Functionality and Capacity Is where Apple fails, and hopefully where Pono comes in
Jul 11, 2014 5:30am

May I suggest that many if not most of the people who care about high fidelity audio would not be putting the Pono in their pocket? Perhaps more likely they will use it in their car or elsewhere. Actually a pretty low portion of the population walks around as an ipod zombie. I have never walked the streets with an ipod in my pocket and headphones on, and I have had them for years. Now I did use a walkman when I was a kid trapped on a school bus. But, not being stuck in such situations any longer, and not liking having headphones on, I listen open air, the old fashioned way, in my office or in my car, or in my home, or on my boombox at the beach.

My main interest in the Pono is the higher capacity they will allow for. Ipods don't give a crap about what the consumer wants, they only care about how they can bend the consumer to their will, and this is why they have such low capacity: they want you to buy the cloud. The cloud which will inevitably let you down when you are out of range of a cell tower. The cloud that will let you down for many other reasons, and eventually when no one owns anything anymore, they will just say "Pay up" (again) to get your music that had an "error".

I also hope, unrelated, but still related to Apple's form over function mantra: that the Pono will have a queue up next track function which ipods somehow still lack. Yeah, that's right I might want to pick the next song right this second and then go make drinks for my party attendees. And no, I might not want to fiddle with the clumsy and crappy playlists that Apple offers in place of such a basic and obvious queue up feature.

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Aug 8, 2014 4:05am

I agree with the author that the player's goal is above all to increase the "pono" of its inventor. a premium product will come at a premium price. let's wait for the release. then we may judge wether there is an increase in sound quality which is worth paying for. the triangular shape really doesn't look that useful.

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Oct 5, 2014 7:14am

It's so disappointing that articles as lacking in substance as this one is actually get published. And it's disturbing that this author actually takes himself seriously. One should really sort out their confusion and ignorance about a subject before writing about it. This fellow has confused his own peevishness with a product, and then proceeds as if he actually has something of value to offer about that product. What a sad commentary.

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Oct 15, 2014 5:55am

In reply to Mondo:

Don't worry - just turn away from media - they ALL take themselves serious. Take your life and family / friends serious and this illusion will be disposable as it should be. Experience is the helm and for you to decide.

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Mark Sprague
Mar 16, 2015 2:34am

My days of getting loaded and laying between my speakers to listen to "Won't Get Fooled Again" are long over. It now sits on my iPad, you know, the one with the earbuds. What I find is that I have pretty good recall of my favourites, be they the Stones or Beethoven, so fidelity isn't a big, defining feature anymore. That I can listen to this music while bicycling through the bush, hiking up a mountain, or riding on a bus heading downtown is one of the miracles of the digital age for me. No longer dealing with scratched discs or carrying CDs or tapes and having to change them regularly are just added bonuses. Hojotoyo!

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Mar 18, 2015 3:17pm

I thought the article was very funny and a fair judgment of the masses lack of discernment.

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Mar 18, 2015 3:17pm

I thought the article was very funny and a fair judgment of the masses lack of discernment.

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Mar 18, 2015 3:17pm

I thought the article was very funny and a fair judgment of the masses lack of discernment.

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Mar 18, 2015 3:45pm

I thought the article was very funny and a fair appraisal of the masses lack of discernment. I have been so happy to get all my compact discs and much vinyl ripped to my computer. J River Media Center, an affordable DAC, and great speakers have given me back my music. The biggest advantage to 96khz 24bit FLAC is there is less listening fatigue. I also believe the quality is better, if the production values support it. I ordered the Pono Player so I can have a portable music source again. Time on planes and trains should be more entertaining. I will still be watching out for the dangerous and oblivious earbud people, who don't care about the music or their surroundings. I'm optimistic that even if the consumer base doesn't reach critical mass, I'll still have the portability and audio quality I want at less expense than currently available products.

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Oct 31, 2015 1:51pm

In reply to Vaughan Woolsey:

This comment shows ignorance of digital audio and the reasons for choosing high sample rates.

Hardly anyone champions higher sample rates because of the higher frequencies it might play, hardly anyone at all! Yet again and again the ignorant shout this out to make them feel better to counter the feeling someone is trying to pull the wool over their eyes.

It is all about the required filters used before the A/D process and then again after the D/A process. If the sample rate is close to our hearing range (like 44.1 is) then those filters imapact on the hearing range itself and cause problems. Digital theory works on the basis of perfect filters, practical reality is that perfect filters do not exist. There have been work arounds for this (over-sampling) but again they are sonic compromises to counter the non-perfect nature of the real world.

Over-sampling which has been done for decades is actually the very SAME in effect as recording in high resolutions except that there are larger benefits at the recording stage in the use of A/D filters.

With gentler filters you also improve the "impulse response" of the electronics and digitisation process. In terms of the listener, this means a more vibrant, immediate sound and I'd argue that it is this element which marks a sound out to be "real" by the brain more than anything else!

So, stop spouting a load of parroted common myths about digital audio and investigate the practical reality of it all.

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Oct 31, 2015 2:03pm

In reply to Harry:

The Pono is just a portable audio player but much better designed sonically than say the iPod and with much better specification.

I don't remember there being all this attitude over the iPod and all its incarnations up to the final Classic.

I have just bought a Pono secondhand and I have to say that my CD quality .Wav files have never sounded so good on a portable player! I'm even starting to think I can hear the difference between wav and flac (with wav causing a "sense" that it sounds more real in vibrancy, directness - only a sense becuase it's too subtle a feeling for the concious brain to analyse and when it does I wonder if I'm fooling myself..).

Look at the actual electronics design in the Pono and design philosophy by its designer and you will see that the REAL point of the Pono player is the quality of electronic design and sound.

The high-res part of the player is standard, it is nothing new at all! The only crazy thing is that these high-resolutions have bypassed the mainstream because no-one feels they are ready for it having been more and more sold on convenience before sound quality. Sadly the backlash for trying to introduce even the concept of higher sound quality to the masses appears to have caused a witch-hunt by luddites.

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