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Neil Young’s Pono: #yolo or #ohno?

  • “I heard a perfect echo die into an anonymous wall of digital sound.” – ‘Natural Beauty’ (Harvest Moon, 1992)

    There’s little doubting that Neil Young is one heck of an awesome dude and his intentions to push better sound quality to a wider audience are to be applauded. It takes someone with Young’s reach to spread the ‘sound quality matters’ message beyond the niche of audiophilia.

    The story of his Pono music player and accompanying music store has thus far been shrouded in secrecy vagueness. Some have (perhaps uncharitably) proclaimed it vapourware! The first whiff of Pono came when Young appeared on the Letterman Show way back in September 2012. There he showed off a prototype of the Pono hardware player – a yellow, triangular prism-shaped device. And that was that – no further information spilled forth.


    In June of 2013, Young’s visit to Meridian HQ made some noise. The British manufacturer was then thought to be the brains behind the hardware side of the Pono system. Presumably the prototype that Young touted [on Letterman] as having wowed his rock n roll buddies was developed by Meridian?

    So far, so good.

    …but on 24th December 2013 Computer Audiophile’s Chris Connaker stepped forward with less than stellar news: “@pono is crippled with DRM. They know it’s DOA already if they don’t change plans”, he tweeted. And then on 10th January of this year another tweet, “RIP @pono”. Oh dear.


    Since then a lot has happened with Pono behind the scenes. Over the weekend came news of Pono’s resuscitation: Connaker ‘leaked’ (with permission) the press release that’s set to underline Neil Young’s Pono announcement at this week’s SXSW. You can read it here.

    In the forum discussion that followed, Connaker revealed that Meridian is no longer involved and that DRM is very much off the table. Boudler’s Ayre Acoustics have stepped in – presumably as recently as January – to helm Pono’s hardware development and boy do things look promising: ESS Sabre 9018 decoder chip, LCD touchscreen, 128Gb internal storage (+ memory card expansion slot), custom minimum phase digital filter (to side-step pre-ringing), no feedback circuitry and fully discrete, “very low” output impedance headphone stage (to broaden headphone compatibility)…

    …RRP US$399. From an audiophile perspective, pricing is keen for a portable hi-res audio player. Astell&Kern’s AK100 sells for US$599 and Calyx’s forthcoming M player will retail for around a grand. Four hundred bucks for a hardware player capable of 24/96 and/or 24/192 audio seems like a good deal to me if it sounds better than an iPod.


    Then, another wrinkle: the PonoPlayer will formally launch this coming Saturday via Kickstarter for a discounted price. Does this mean Young and Ayre are uncertain about the breadth of the PonoPlayer’s appeal? The man in the street will likely find four hundred bucks for a piece of hardware that only plays music a tough pill to swallow. Or perhaps Young and Ayre are trying to ride the zeitgeist (after Light Harmonic’s runaway success with their Geek Out and Geek Pulse)? Remember: Kickstarter = pre-order. No word yet on when the PonoPlayer will actually begin shipping.

    MP3 has swiftly become the boogeyman of the audiophile world. I guess everyone needs something to push against but is it really the delivery format that matters most? I’d contend that a nicely made/mastered recording delivered in MP3 format will still trump a poor recording/master served up in lossless FLAC or ALAC. There’s little use for 24/192 if the recording or master sucks.

    Hardware players and file formats are only one side of the Pono equation. Neil Young is also set to announce the Pono music store this week which is rumoured to open up a fresh catalogue of high resolution masters. Young has been a passionate supporter of good sound for many years and, like many audiophiles, he knows that good sound isn’t just about higher sample rates. Good sound hinges on the quality of an album’s master. Anyone who followed the recent HDTracks/Beck debacle will know that provenance is a BIG issue. If Young’s industry reach has enabled him to commission fresh masters of old classics then I might be persuaded to pony up $25 for a fresh hi-res copy of Harvest or Highway 61 Revisited. Therefore, ya gotta wonder how many of the big record labels are on board?

    And there’s the rub: the slow trickle of Pono info brings with it more questions than answers: will Pono be a walled garden, only able to play music from the Pono music store? Will it play your existing PCM collection? Will it use an open file format (like FLAC)? If ‘yes’ to the latter two questions, I’m sure I won’t be the only music nerd to jump on board solely to give my existing Redbook collection a run around town.

    Let’s put it another way: the PonoPlayer might not be a ‘natural beauty’ but I really hope its accompanying music store offers superior masters to those served up by the hit-and-miss HDTracks. If not, compatibility with y/our existing digital audio collections (hi-res or not) will be pivotal to Pono’s success.

    More information to follow after Neil Young’s speech in Austin this Tuesday.  The PonoPlayer has been officially launched at SXSW 2014 – you can read my thoughts here.

    Further information: Pono press release at Computer Audiophile | PonoMusic | Ayre Acoustics



    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


    1. Best of luck to them, but as of right now it’s still in #milkingusalloveragain territory for me. Make it and open standard and sell albums by my favourite electronica and post-rock artists, and I might show them at least one of my lactating tits.

    2. I’ve never gave up on Pono, despite some negative opinions surfacing here and there on the Internet throughout the past year or so. I had faith in Neil Young’s commitment to Pono and if the Kickstarter campaign will indeed turn out to be a reality, I will jump in and contribute my money – even if only to show support for the cause (but I’m sure this particular product will be well worth my money, anyway).

      I think that the crowd-funding is an excellent idea (as proven by the Light Harmonic’s campaigns at Kickstarter and Indiegogo). However, today (Sunday evening) I searched the Kickstarter’s site for “Pono” and I found nothing.

      • If you check out the thread on Computer Audiophile you’ll see an abundance of skepticism. Not atypical for a hifi forum.

    3. Yet another device. I picked up a Cowon last year since my iPhone was really more of a family picture taking device, and Spotify streamer. Been eyeing an AK unit in recent months, but the addition of portable units like the Herus you reviewed make me pause. I’m unclear what my future-proof portable setup will be…thoughts? iPad + camera kit and the Onkyo player + Herus may be the one…

      • I agree – DAC appendages to phones offer a divergent path from the traditional DAP market. I got another post coming soon about running a Herus via Android phone(s).

        • Thanks John. That will be a good read. I was just thinking about the new Samsung. I won’t give up JRemote and my iPad though, ever.

    4. One of the biggest problems of iPhone + Herus is quickly running out of storage (or none free in the first place!). So a 128GB player with built in Sabre DAC could be welcome. But so much has happened in the high-res world in the last 12 months Pono doesn’t seem so stellar.

      I’m interested to see what the store offers. One of my biggest gripes in recent years about iTunes, etc. is not just the quality of the AACs but the quality of the info provided on the store. One thing I miss with CDs is the inserts which gave you a fair bit of info about the recording, like when it was recorded, where it was recorded, sometimes the lyrics, other interesting info about songs, who played on the song, what instruments they used, etc. In the digital world we could take this even further with what mixing gear they used, mics, ADCs, compression levels, etc, etc.

      I know that when I find a piece of music a really like, I want to find out as much as I can about it, possibly in the aim to find more like it. For me this is perhaps single biggest thing missing from ‘digital’ music as is the bits themselves.

      • Exactly right!
        And what I would like to see is that (small) record-labels that have recently released music in 24bit, be more clear about that on their own websites on where to buy.
        (for Europe…) You can buy some of it actually on the website of the artists, but mostly from the likes of Boomkat and Qobuz.
        I do not really like to buy HiRes songs/albums from artists, I known for years already, allover again.
        Just let me have the new stuff I now like in 24bit FLAC. (without that Loudnesswar thingy, please)

      • The quality of the AAC’s? I have bought a lot of jazz (particularly on the ECM label) from iTunes, in standard 256Kbps AAC format and find the quality to be excellent whether played through my Shures or Ety’s (straight from phone or pod) or through my little system. Eicher Manfred’s production standards are legendary and this can be heard in these faultless albums. Darko hit the nail on the head when he alluded to mastering quality in another article. I find the same with orchestral music; a good recording sounds great on any format.

        • Yeah, I’m really keen for Young to make the conversation more about mastering quality than hi-res delivery.

          • 100% agree, let Young and colleagues launch an initiative that gets the mastering right.

    5. Neil Young has been a bit of a twerp and a fool on the topic of “music sound quality” for decades now. How long has he been sprouting the line that CD sound quality is no good? That he loved the sound of music on vinyl but CD is not adequate? That with bluray audio, for the first time, he likes the sound of digital playback?

      And audiophiles slurped it up like manna from heaven, especially given NY’s god-like status as a musician. Trouble is, NY has clearly been taking bad advice on matters technical, then ‘hearing’ what has been suggested. Just like any mortal would.

      As an aside, I would love, LOVE, to see the results of a hearing test on NY’s ears. Even in 1980!

      So, where are we today with this pono initiative? We have digital formats that do NOT have sound quality problems, so the LAST thing we need is another one. We have a major mixing and mastering issue that has spoiled a lot of music for 20+ years now, and NY, instead of getting that sorted, decides the FORMAT is the problem??? Why on earth hasn’t he from the start completely prohibited the release of his music on any format with any of the terrible studio production issues that so many of his albums suffer from on CD and download?? Like I say, someone has been getting onto his ear with shocking advice on sound quality matters, and he hasn’t been savvy enough to make the right decisions on this topic.

      Pono should be stillborn. I’m certainly cheering for that outcome. What the heavyweight musicians like Young should be doing on the sound quality front, is getting together into a cartel and point-blank banning any of their music from being released with ANY clipping, and any dynamic compression or loudness boosting other than artistically-approved compression that is part of the sound they are after. How about applying the new Recommendation 128 broadcast standard from BS1770 to their digital music products? That would be a fantastic outcome.

      The disaster continues.

      • The PonoPlayer *will* play your existing FLAC collection but the real meat will be what’s in the PonoMusic store. If it’s just the same old HDTracks-esque content then yes, I agree, it’ll have a tough time surviving / meeting its lofty mandate.

        From the Kickstarter FAQ:

        “Is PonoMusic a new audio format? What about PonoMusic quality?

        No. We want to be very clear that PonoMusic is not a new audio file format or standard. It is an end-to-end ecosystem for music lovers to get access to and enjoy their favorite music in the highest resolution possible for that song or album. The music in the Store is sold and downloaded in industry standard audio file formats.

        The Store uses FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) audio format as its standard, for compatibility, although the PonoPlayer can play most popular high-resolution music formats from other sources. PonoMusic has a quality spectrum, ranging from really good to really great, depending on the quality of the available master recordings:

        • CD lossless quality recordings: 1411 kbps (44.1 kHz/16 bit) FLAC files
        • High-resolution recordings: 2304 kbps (48 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files
        • Higher-resolution recordings: 4608 kbps (96 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files
        • Ultra-high resolution recordings: 9216 kbps (192 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files”

      • Good points, Grant.
        Further compulsory reading on so-called ‘hi-res’ music, should include Monty’s piece on titled ‘Why 24-192 downloads are very silly indeed’ (or summat like that…)
        The debate will rage on and on…

    6. I’ve read that article at Xiph some time ago. I would agree with it, if it was assumed that all hi-rez downloads are prepared from bad mastering recordings. But if the mastering is decent or better, I, for one, can hear the positive difference in hi-rez download. I have a couple dozens of albums in resolutions ranging from 24/44.1 to DSD and I do prefer them over Redbook CDs. And I don’t even own a super-high-quality-mega-bucks-system. Just the Oppo BDP-105 player, a NAD receiver and Athena speakers. I imagine that with better equipment I could hear still bigger difference.

      The Pono campaign is already underway, so I went to the Kickstarter website and pledged my support. My belief is that the more choice we have in hi-rez audio (both hardware and software), the more all music lovers will benefit. And if someone’s ears prefer MP3s, vinyl, or CDs, they are free to ignore hi-rez movement. Just don’t get in the way… 😉

      • The key that’ll open the door to sonic bliss rests closer to mastering quality than it does to file delivery formats, sample rates and bit depths.

    7. Look – I love Neil Young, his music his persona his vibe etc, etc. This idea is sooo not happening for any audiophile who has been keeping up with the current trends, or any young person who cant imagine why you would even want to own music, let alone pay $25 for an ‘album’ that you wouldnt pay $5 for on CD. This idea is going to crash and burn. I feel bad saying that, but Neil can handle it, he’s got some cash stashed away.

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