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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



    Written by John

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

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

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