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Mainstreamers: get better audio gear before going Pono

  • If the last week has revealed one thing about Neil Young’s Pono – a high resolution audio ecosystem – is that it’s (apparently) aimed squarely at the mainstream and NOT audiophiles. I don’t doubt that both the player and the music store content combined will sound fantastic…but I’m an audiophile. I seriously dig this shit.

    My biggest question today is this: If Pono’s not taking aim at audiophiles per se, do non-audiophile listeners have equipment of sufficient standard to resolve the qualitative jump from MP3 to hi-res? Will they see the value in dropping an average of $20 per Pono release when they can stream almost ANYTHING in MP3 for $15 /month? That’s not meant to sound snobbish, I want to know if people who listen to music via soundbars, TV speakers, laptop speakers and Apple earbuds will really benefit from Pono? Perhaps that’s a rhetorical question?

    Screenshot 2014-03-20 14.56.23

    Diving in…

    Young’s status as one of contemporary music’s most accomplished and respected musicians has ensured an enormous amount of journalistic copy has been spilled in a very short space of time – no doubt star power was pivotal to the immediate runaway financial success of the PonoPlayer’s Kickstarter campaign. You only have to look at the launch video of Neil Young wowing his celebrity pals to see why it’s already tipped $4m in crowdfunding.

    There are plenty who have written wholly in support of Pono. Tyll Herstens at Inner Fidelity has expressed cautious optimism in wanting Pono to succeed despite it facing an uphill battle: that Toblerone shape, the price of Pono music.

    Other commentators have expressed surprise at the naysayers, describing some writers as being too eager to shoot the Pono player from the sky on its maiden voyage. Apparently audiophiles should be grateful for Young advancing their cause – that a rising tide lifts all boats. (I’ve read that same phrase countless times on numerous sites). I’m totally down with the broader message that sound quality matters but it’s the (lack of) specifics of Pono and its (lack of) potential to dent its intended mainstream market that worry me. Dissent is unavoidable when faced with a dearth of concrete reasoning and/or facts. Dissent emboldens the democratic process and it’s a pity that in some circles I’ve seen it suggested that calling Pono into question is being the audiophile equivalent of “unpatriotic”.

    Are you not concerned that if Neil Young pushes too hard with Pono (and misses) it will only cement further the public perception that audiophiles are a bunch of idealistic weirdos who listen to nothing but old man music? I am.

    neil

    The argument that pegs me as a naysayer is no tighter than the argument that has pro-Pono writers being mouthpieces for the promotional machine. You shouldn’t doubt my commitment to Sparkle Motion. I just want to know exactly HOW Neil Young and his team intend to bring mainstream music lovers over to Pono. Willing something to happen, no matter how much we want it or think the world deserves it, doesn’t make it so. I reckon it’ll take far more than the (audiophile) press paying forward the promotional vibes to make mainstream HRA listening a reality. An idea spread without question or substantiation is just propaganda. I also gotta ask: is 12440 backers a sign of potential mainstream appeal? To give those numbers some perspective, 2146 people backed LH Labs’ Geek Out Kickstarter raising a total of $303061. What if the Pono Kickstarter tips 50000 backers? Could Pono then be described as a crossover success? 

    The language of last was week’s Pono launch in Austin was (initially at least) light on detail and HEAVY on emotive suggestion that Pono would offer a fresh take on high resolution audio (HRA). Just look at the tagline of the Kickstarter: “Where your soul rediscovers music”.

    It could be that I’m just super-sensitive to promotional bullshit. When PS Audio recently announced details of their DirectStream DAC the press release claimed that it will make your existing DAC sound ‘broken’. Nonsense! I’m sure the DirectStream DAC will sound very special indeed but a technological breakthrough by one manufacturer doesn’t immediately invalidate all that has been previously made by rival manufacturers. If we apply PS Audio’s spin to Pono then Ayre’s PonoPlayer will sound ‘broken’. I hope my silly thinking here underscores my serious point: if the marketing spin turns to hyperbole, it obscures what might be a very reasonable underlying message.

    pono_kickstarter

    I adore Neil Young (& Crazy Horse). My first year at university was soundtracked by Live Rust. This is also the guy that gave us On The Beach, Harvest Moon and Weld. However, just because I think he’s a bit of a geezer as a musician doesn’t mean I’m gonna swallow his audiophile endeavours without first looking under the hood to see how it might go down. A lack of clarity was what prompted my reluctance as an audiophile to drop $300 on a PonoPlayer, especially in light of the absence of specifics on the PonoMusic store. Does that make me a Negative Nancy? I don’t think so. I’m just saying that the devil is in the details.

    Had Ayre Acoustics launched the PonoPlayer without celebrity backing they might have been more candid about what it was (and wasn’t) from the outset: that it’s a digital audio player with ESS9018 decoder, custom minimal phase filter and 64Gb of internal memory, all for $400. I might have been more interested had the promotional language been more straight down the line. But it wasn’t. The celebrity-endorsed, emotionally charged spin strongly suggested a paradigm shift was just around the corner. What would that paradigm shift look like? There was plenty of hope (and online chatter) that the PonoMusic store would provide the missing part of the puzzle.

    In the numerous follow up interviews Neil Young and his team have been quizzed on those details. When interviewed by Michael Lavorgna of (the always excellent) Audiostream, Young said, “…there’s nothing new. There is no new thing. It’s just available. It’s available to everybody.” A thunderous noise being made about something that’s not in any way new is precisely why I’ve been a bit hard on the PonoPlayer.

    However, Chris Connaker’s revealing interview with Mr Young suggests that the PonoStore might not actually be what we had been led to believe either: fresh masters of old favourites.

    “Will there be a Pono certification or guarantee or Mastered for Pono type thing to designate tracks that are of pono quality?”, asked Connaker.

    Young replied, “No. Pono is Pono. You make what you make. When we say it’s Pono that means we are bringing you the closest thing to the master, if it’s not the master, if it’s not the native resolution it’s the closet thing to it that was mastered.”

    Do we take it then that PonoMusic will more similar to (than different from) the Chesky brothers’ existing HDTracks store? On this Young says, “I don’t know what the HDtracks store is like. The Pono Store will be the Pono Store. We sell stuff that is Pono. It’s the best that’s available. Period.” That doesn’t exactly clarify things does it?

    Moreover, the PonoMusic store will only initially be open to residents of the US, Canada and the UK.

    Hats off to Connaker for quizzing Young on the provenance of some of his own HRA releases. Young is somewhat vague with his responses, exposing himself as an artist apparently not completely on top of his own content. This does not bode well, particularly when the central message of Pono is to deliver what the artist intended.

    If the PonoPlayer is nothing new and the PonoStore will offer nothing new, why should I/we be excited at all about Pono? Kicktraq points to Pono’s Kickstarter backing looking more like a (passing) wave than a rising tide:

    Some optimistically believe that Pono will likely enjoy success similar to the Iovine/Dre Beats headphone line. I don’t see it that way. Here’s why: Beats headphones are a way of ameliorating your existing listening experience – you plug them into your smartphone or computer and away you go, no more to pay. Amelioration is also the name of the game when you look at LH Labs’ Kickstarter-fuelled Geek Out and Geek Pulse devices – you connect them to your existing computer to “awesomeify” its sound. Again, no more to pay. In both cases, the consumer isn’t being asked to change his source material.

    Young’s Pono argument is (for the most part) imploring the user to start over. The PonoPlayer might be seen as amelioration but only for those with existing libraries. Overall, Pono’s intent is substitution: buy your music again and listen to it via this new fandangled hardware player.  Spotify, MOG and Pandora have become central to way the mainstream listen to music but, by its very nature, Pono excludes them from its vision. This is Pono’s achilles heel.

    Connaker again: “Convenience always trumps quality for the masses. Pono must deliver on both quality and convenience to succeed.” [My emphasis] Damn straight it does, Chris.

    How we assess a product’s qualitative value is heavily influenced by two factors: 1) money and 2) convenience. One look at the gear scattered across my listening room shows that I put sound quality in front of convenience and money. If that weren’t the case you’d find me nearly always listening to Spotify and iTunes downloads through a pair of Usher S-520, driven by a NAD D 7050. Truth is, I don’t NEED the convenience of on-demand Spotify (so much) as I already dropped tens of thousands of dollars during my twenties and thirties amassing a 10,000 strong CD collection, now all FLAC-ripped to hard drives. That’s my convenience right there. I have the luxury of a pre-existing lossless collection to which I add gear to make it sound good/better/best.

    To riff on Pono CEO John Hamm’s analogy, when it comes to wine, I’m not as obsessive. Not every occasion calls for a $100 bottle. A lot of the time I’m more than happy with a $15 bottle. The $85 difference is (more often that not) not worth it for me. It’s the same with films. I enjoy going to the movie theatre but most of the time I’m happy with Netflix on the TV. I can see the pixelation and smearing of the video compression but I don’t care because the convenience factor outweighs the loss of quality. Different priorities abound in different areas of my life. I’m sure it’s the same with you. You probably prioritise some things over others.

    liverust

    Whilst on the bus or walkabout around town I listen to MP3s via Spotify because of its inherent convenience. There: I said it. I listen to MP3s. The sound isn’t as good as the aforementioned FLACs piped from my Astell&Kern AK120, but it’s good enough. If the Astell&Kern device represents the idealist position in portable digital audio playback, Spotify is the pragmatist’s: sound quality takes a hit but I don’t have to carry two devices and I’m not limited to the music choices that I’ve pre-loaded onto the player. Spotify’s vast catalogue allows for greater spontaneity with album/song choices. My smartphone’s convenience outweighs the need for better sound and I certainly don’t find Spotify unlistenable because I don’t always demand audiophile-grade sound quality. Like Doug Stanhope‘s Mom blurted out on her deathbed, “There’s times to be dainty and there’s times to be a pig.”

    Anyone who tells you Spotify is unlistenable is lying to you…and yet that’s what Neil Young is telling us. He’s selling Pono on the notion that MP3 playback is like listening to music underwater. He then explains that Pono will allow listeners to break the surface and breath HRA audio air. This message is as hyperbolic as it is plain silly. It’s also arse-backwards. You know who complains most about the sound quality of MP3s? Audiophiles! (I wonder if Neil Young would admit that HE is an audiophile? ) Audiophiles need something to kick against because they’re idealists chasing the ultimate in audio fidelity. The man in the street isn’t an idealist, he’s a pragmatist, comfortable with MP3’s sonic compromise. He likely knows that MP3s don’t sound as good as CDs but he also knows that their smaller file size allows him to pack thousands of songs onto this iDevice/smartphone and for web services to stream music with relative ease.

    Have you actually thought about how Pono might (fail to) win over Mr and Mrs MOR? I have. Last week I wondered what my non-audiophile mates would make of Pono; music obsessives every last one of them but not all have taken the trouble to rip their CDs and those that did went with the MP3 codec. Realising that their MP3 collections have since been rendered (almost!) redundant by web-based subscription services, most have jumped to Spotify or Rdio for the majority of their listening.

    underwater

    When I showed them Young’s MP3-as-scuba-diving graphic they looked utterly non-plussed. MP3s streamed from Spotify are good enough for those guys because those guys aren’t chasing the ultimate in fidelity. I daren’t tell my pals that most of the modern music they dig isn’t even available as hi-res. Compared to CD releases, the hi-res glass isn’t just half empty, it’s 95% empty.

    Young might be able to sway those who mostly buy their music from the iTunes store towards his new service but he’s gonna have a tougher time bringing streamers into the fold; this is where listeners are happy enough with the sound quality when it’s set against the backdrop of a HUGE catalogue for a low subscription fee. Music first, sound quality (a close) second.

    The Pono team have ruled out hi-res streaming due to its unsupportable network traffic demands. Even if it were possible the catalogue size wouldn’t be anyway near large enough to get users used to Spotify/Rdio/Deezer to jump ship. To expand said catalogue, Pono effectively demands a top-to-bottom rethink and restructure of the way music is recorded, mixed, mastered and delivered. That might happen. I hope it does. But – again – willing something to happen doesn’t make it so.

    Other commentators have argued that if Pono fails, it will at least encourage Apple to dispense with lossy compression in its iTunes store. If Apple does go that way, it won’t be because of Pono. The move toward CD quality audio for the mainstream is already in motion: Qobuz offer FLAC streaming and downloads for 20GBP /month – surely the biggest bargain in digital audio content provision right now? With a catalogue almost as bountiful as Spotify, I believe this French company is doing great things to advance the ‘sound quality matters’ message in the collective consumer consciousness. Qobuz have struck the right balance between sound quality, music availability and price; it’s probable that other services will follow suit either this year or next. Lossless (CD quality) streaming is the next step in improving the daily aural diet of the mainstream – not Pono.

    Screenshot 2014-03-20 15.25.39

    For many listeners a step up to hi-res from MP3 is a step too far, too soon. Young seems to be ignoring the intermediary step of lossless Redbook. Without an ability to impact the sound quality of a millions of songs Pono lacks immediate wow factor. Remember when you first saw an iPod? I do. I absolutely HAD to own one. I enjoyed a similar feeling when I first saw Spotify and MOG in action. Perhaps this underlines how my audiophile aspirations are dwarfed by my musical fanaticism?

    No doubt the PonoPlayer will be an excellent sounding device. It’s well priced at $300-400 and backed by a stellar engineering team; Ayre Acoustics has a terrific reputation for making superb digital audio products. That said, the PonoPlayer is pushing against the tide of hardware convergence. Your average Joe’s smartphone now doubles as his portable music player. Asking him to return to two devices is a big ask.

    The PonoMusic store is pushing against the tide of those who see music supply like any other household utility. As cold as that may sound, it’s hard to go past $15 / month for a streaming service that lets the listener tap its entire catalogue, especially when you look at what that same $15 would buy you at the iTunes store: one album. The financial incentive to rent music (instead of owning it outright) is becoming increasingly compelling.

    Perhaps the non-audiophile target of Pono is intended as a way of dodging criticism from the press? Ignoring the inverted snobbery of “Audiophiles, this isn’t for you, it’s for the mainstream”, the Pono team have made it extra hard for themselves to succeed in going after the same customer that might have bought Beats headphones to ameliorate his smartphone audio time. Pono isn’t a one time deal for a new bit of hardware. It’s asking people to buy music, album by album, at between $15 and $25 a pop. Audiophiles will likely lap it up because they already own the hardware that’ll fully realise the benefit of higher sample rates and bigger bit rates. My non-audiophile mates probably won’t spend that kind of money on it even if they hear how good HRA can sound. I didn’t wanna subject any of them to A/B listening sessions so let’s just assume my pals heard the difference and dug it immensely. That way we can side-step the debate about hi-res audio’s superiority. As John Hamm says, “This is not a hearing test”.

    quality spectrum

    The enthusiasm for Pono among my pub pals cooled rapidly when the thornier issue of money stepped in to say g’day. Before I get into the numbers, let us assume that the PonoPlayer is a better sounding player than the AK100, the Fiio and the iPod Classic. If you want to Pono your way through a modest collection of 100 albums you’d need $300 for the player and then $1500-$2500 for the music itself. So $1800-$2800 all up, depending on the albums purchased. This is where I lose my buddies. These guys are used to paying $15 /month (tops!) to stream (almost) any song they can think of. The quality isn’t quite there but it’s good enough given the sky high convenience factor.

    For these guys, wouldn’t $2000 be better spent on improving the sound quality of their existing music collections and streaming services? Think about it: with $2k in your pocket you could snag a year’s Qobuz lossless subscription ($350), a CEntrance Hifi-M8 to strap to your smartphone ($799) and a pair of Sennheiser Momentum ($350) or V-Moda Crossfade M-100 ($350) headphones. Alternatively, that Qobuz account could deployed at home with a NAD D 3020 ($499) and a pair of Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 ($350). Better hardware applied to what’s already in the cloud or on your hard drive is more likely to awaken the audiophile within. Once your first system is sorted, then look at Pono. By which time you’ll be a bona fide audiophile – oh, the irony.

    I too think it’s fantastic that Uncle Neil is spreading the good news about good sound but if I could’ve wished for one thing it would’ve been that Young had made hardware the focus. His star power would’ve made the home hi-fi setup or portable head-fi rig the crux of the conversation. Would this not have been a more effective way to move people on from listening to music through laptop speakers or white earbuds? The general public’s indifference to good playback hardware is a far more troublesome issue than MP3 source material for this audiophile. Not to mention, hardware purchases are also what keep high street hifi stores alive.

    Instead, Young’s source-first approach is more likely to make inroads within the belly of the music industry itself: getting fellow artists to think about how they record in the studio, how they master – which has a BIG impact on the end result – and how they deliver the that end result world. It’ll get musicians thinking about quality and that can only be a good thing.

    I sincerely hope non-audiophiles are reading this article. If you classify yourself as one such person, I’d ask you to look carefully at the gear you currently listen to music on. Do you have a ‘good’ pair of headphones or speakers driven by a ‘decent’ amplifier? No, I’m not talking mega-buck devices. If you own those, you’re likely already an audiophile to some degree. However, if you are listening through the white earbuds that shipped with your iPhone or through the speakers on your laptop (or your TV), I’d suggest that dropping $2k on hardware amelioration of your Spotify account is money better spent than starting over with buying hi-res audio releases and a digital audio player. You could even avail yourself of a one month free trial of Qobuz’s lossless streaming to see if you find value in uncompressed Redbook.

    In short, mainstreamers should spend their money on a better hi-fi/head-fi rig before dropping money on hi-res source material.

    “Like what?” you say.

    Stay tuned – there’ll be more on entry-level hardware to come.

    Further information: Pono at Computer Audiophile | Pono on Kickstarter | Pono on Kicktraq

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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