It wasn’t meant to be this way. From the outset of its Kickstarter launch I was NEVER going to buy a PonoPlayer; its marketing aspirations at launch were way of the mark. “We’re going after the mainstream”, said Neil Young. I’ve already laid out my issues with this appeal to the man in the street at at length. Go here and (especially) here for those articles. The major drift of my argument was (is!) that you’ll need a reasonably good pair of headphones or a nice little amp and speakers to really benefit from a PonoPlayer. Nothing fancy, a few hundred bucks should do it. Reaping the benefits of hi-res source material would command a bigger headphone/system spend.
Therefore, it might seem to the casual observer that my 11th hour purchase of a PonoPlayer represented an about-face, a U-turn on the Kickstarter campaign’s lofty aspirations. But no – it was simpler than that: a combination of 1) I’m not part of Young’s mainstream target market so…2) professional curiosity got the better of me and 3) the limited edition with translucent plastic casework sealed the deal. What can I say? I’m a sucker for being able to see the circuit boards.
Despite the bamboo presentation box being swapped out for a cardboard equivalent for delivery to countries with more stringent quarantine laws, PonoPlayers are being delivered in accordance with the Kickstarter campaign’s schedule. All credit to Ayre Acoustics, the Colorado tech-team behind the hardware, for meeting the expected shipping date of ‘late October’ head on.
Before we start, this isn’t a review in the traditional sense. You won’t see a detailing of specifications easily learned elsewhere. If you want to know which DAC the PonoPlayer uses (ESS Sabre 9018M) or what comprises the PonoPlayer’s output stage (all discrete) then you are directed to their official websites or to Google. Or I could just screenshot the Pono website:
Comparisons are where my head is at. Separating the hardware device from the promotional tornado that launched it clears space for comparisons with other units competing in the digital audio player space – that’s the order of the day here. Up on the table and out into the street, I took the Sony NWZ-ZX1 (AU$699), the Astell&Kern AK120 II (US$1699) and, of course, the PonoPayer which is set to land in stores sometime in Q1 2015 where it will sell for US$399.
Within strict streetwear context, I’d give the not to the Sony’s more slender, lighter form factor. The Astell&Kern wins out for in-hand solidity, its aluminium casework the most luxurious of the three. The PonoPlayer’s plastic shell just can’t compete.
PonoPlayer’s Toblerone form factor is perhaps its most controversial feature. Easily the least pocketable of the three, I still had zero issues taking it ‘round town all day in a front jeans pocket – but it IS noticeable! Its shape makes more sense once the PonoPlayer is placed on a work desk; the triangular cross-section ensures the screen is directed upwards at an angle of 45-degrees making the touch screen a cinch to use without first having to pick the PonoPlayer up off the desk.
This line-of-sight plus point is re-enforced when connecting Pono’s 3.5mm line-out socket to a two-channel system, thus aesthetically re-enforcing PonoPlayer’s intention as both desktop device and portable player. The Astell&Kern requires a separately sold docking station before it’ll look the part in your main system.
The Sony locks you into 128Gb of internal storage with no possibility of expansion whilst the AK120 II gives you a microSD slot to double up on its 128Gb internals if you want to. The PonoPlayer arrives with 64Gb on the inside – enough to meet price-point expectations – but there’s a 64Gb microSD card found inside the box. Flip the (somewhat flimsy) cover on the PonoPlayer’s microSD slot, found next to the microUSB port, and you’re immediately good to with 128Gb! A tip of the hat for including this in the asking price.
The bonus microSD card comes in doubly useful when we consider the PonoPlayer’s data transfer speeds. It’s not the fastest gun in the west. Some users might prefer to first load their tunes of choice directly onto the microSD card via an SD card reader.
Otherwise, connect the PonoPlayer via USB to a host computer and the screen asks if you wish to load music onto the device. Once confirmed, the PonoPlayer’s internal and microSD storage are auto-mounted as external storage devices in Finder – just like the Sony Walkman – after which loading music is a drag n drop affair. Files and folders can also be renamed with ease.
(Side note: I’m a Mac user but I can’t imagine it’d play out too differently on a PC. Don’t Windows guys swear by J River?).
For loading music over USB, PonoPlayer is the slowest of the three with the Sony taking the number two spot. The AK120 II is the fastest – an advantage that comes with a catch for Mac users. For their second generation players Astell&Kern require the use of the Android File Transfer app whose transfer protocol doesn’t allow for file/folder restructuring without first bringing the file/folder back to the host PC.
Screen and interface
The Walkman sports a 4” (854 x 480px) touchscreen whilst the AK120 II’s comes in at 3.31” (480 x 800px). At 2.5”, PonoPlayer easily comes off as the weakest of the three. This makes it less of a joy to use than its costlier rivals but the screen gets the job done – chalk one up for pragmatists. Screen orientation can be locked to portrait or landscape or left to self-adjust like according to device orientation, just like your average smartphone.
I’ve seen the odd bit forum chatter about PonoPlayer interface lag but even with 100Gb+ of music loaded onto the device, I’ve thus far noted nothing of the sort. That said, be prepared to wait for the PonoPlayer to rescan library contents after loading in new music. Like the Sony, everything must be indexed before it can be played but unlike the Sony and AK120 II, there’s no ability to browse by folder structure. One can select from “Artists”, “Albums”, “Songs” or “Playlists” categories. Fans of DJ mixes split into separate tracks, as most official mix CDs tend to be, will find this a little more frustrating than most. Which brings us to…
Here comes my first major complaint about the PonoPlayer: it doesn’t yet do gapless playback. The Sony does. The Astell&Kern does. This feature should be standard on any digital audio transport nowadays but you’d be amazed at the number of devices that can’t do it properly, even with innately gapless codecs like FLAC.
Ayre Acoustic’s mainman Charlie Hansen confessed that his software engineers couldn’t quite ready gapless playback in time to meet the first units’ shipping date. Like the NWZ-ZX1 and AK120 II, the PonoPlayer is firmware upgradeable. I’m currently using firmware v1.0.1 and note tiny gaps between continuously mixed tracks.
Gapless functionality is slated for Q1 2015 but promises of forthcoming features make me nervous. Anyone who owns a PS Audio Network Bridge will know why; Paul McGowan battled for well over a year on gapless before finally throwing in the towel. And remember, it took several years before iPods were fully equipped with gapless playback.
UPDATE 26th Dec: It’s been brought to my attention that gapless playback is now possible with firmware v1.0.4, released last week.
The Sony walks away with the gong here. With native Android, it’s easily the best connected player of the three. Anything you can pull from the Google Play Store can happen on this particular Walkman: Tidal, WiMP, Spotify, Pandora.
Astell&Kern’s MQS Streaming option allows for connection to media shared out on the local network by its companion server software. Qobuz downloads are also possible is some regions and I have little doubt we’ll see some form of Tidal collaboration down the line. But none of this will ever best what the Sony can do.
Here our PonoPlayer fails to cut a check. No wifi means that if the song isn’t loaded onto the player it doesn’t get played. Simple, limiting but all up, reasonable in the context of the asking price.
In this area there’s little to separate our three contenders. Despite spec sheet promises of X or Y hours, each player delivers around 7-8 hours of Redbook playback between charges. Slightly less when loading in hi-res content.
The meat of this discussion is where many skimming eyes will eventually land. If you’ve followed my coverage of the NWZ-ZX1 (reviewed here, here and here) and AK120 II (reviewed here) you’ll already know that the South Korean is a richer, more refined sounding DAP than its Japanese competitor. That the Sony’s treble, although better extended, sometimes gets a little carried away. That the new generation Walkman can’t match the all-round acoustic mass of the Astell&Kern’s heftier presentation, whose rich mid-bass sometimes bleeds a little too much into the lower midrange for my tastes.
When matching headphones, I’d recommend the meaty, more closed in presentation of Master&Dynamic’s MH40 over-ears for the Sony. The slightly warmish, slightly more forgiving nature of the Xiaomi Piston 2 IEM match well too. The AK120 favours the more ebullient KEF M500 and (more emphatically) Ultimate Ears’ UE7 custom IEMs. The latter were the first to expose the Sony’s occasional metallic glare with cymbals and hi-hats.
How does the PonoPlayer fold into this scene?
Let’s get the bad news out of the way. An output impedance of 5 Ohms on the PonoPlayer won’t impress some. Visit your nearest headphone forum to see the issue already thrashed to death. The aforementioned Ultimate Ears customs run with an input impedance 17.5 Ohms and sound – frankly – odd with the Toblerone-shaped device. Matt Johnson’s vocal sounds hollowed out and empty on The The’s “The Beat(en) Generation”. Something weird’s going on with the lower midrange. Perhaps that’s to be expected with those numbers? Perhaps it’s something else at play? Whatever it is, Pono cares not for your cries of output impedance injustice.
To quote nwavguy: “All you really need to know is most headphones work best when the output impedance is less than 1/8th the headphone impedance. So, for example, with 32 ohm Grados the output impedance can be, at most, 32/8 = 4 ohms. The Etymotic HF5s are 16 ohms so the max output impedance is 16/8 = 2 ohms.”
You might think from reading the above that more standard, portable-friendly 32 Ohm headphones might suffer some degradation at the hands of the PonoPlayer. In practice, no such problems present. A delightfully lively but delicate delivery sees the PonoPlayer favouring neither the KEF nor the Master&Dynamic. I used both to arrive at what follows.
How does the PonoPlayer sound?
If you want the short answer: I prefer it to both the AK120 II and NWZ-ZX1.
The longer answer is that it’s the most evenly balanced tonally of the three. Nothing juts out or screams for attention. Duelling guitars dominate The Blue Aeroplanes’ mighty Swagger – they lean towards glassy etch on the Sony but not on the PonoPlayer, where they shimmer and shake just so nicely. Similarly, Neil Young’s device makes the AK120 II’s midrange sound slightly recessed in comparison; that’s not something I’d noticed previously. What this means is a greater sense of immediacy and intimacy for the smouldering songs found on Bill Callahan’s Dream River.
The PonoPlayer isn’t as forgiving as the Astell&Kern when it comes to poorer source material but – turning that viewpoint upside down – it REALLY rewards the good stuff. Walking a 24bit/192kHz HDTracks version of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures around the streets of Melbourne last week saw me stop to take smartphone Evernotes on some super-wide staging and outstanding separation. Separation that never once robs each song of coherence. That’s a feat usually reserved for much more expensive DAPs like the Ast…..oh, wait. Almost as good is separation from Redbook material. Playing the opening track from the original CD master of The The’s Mind Bomb really shows you what the little PonoPlayer is capable of.
The PonoPlayer is airier than the AK120 II, uncovering more textural information and, in doing so, affording more finesse to the delivery of said textures and recording-space characteristics. It also shows more rhythmic poise. Wanna hear the drummer cough off-mic just prior to thwacking skins to life? The PonoPlayer is your guy.
So all this leaves us in a rather confusing place. The Sony NWZ-ZX1 is the DAP I want to take everywhere for its ability to pull anything from the cloud at a moment’s notice.
The Astell&Kern is the best show-pony, the most well-built and (probably) the most durable; I don’t see the PonoPlayer’s plastic case withstanding too many in-bag knocks. It would also be remiss of me not to point out that Astell&Kern are the only manufacturer here to supply a carry case for their device that allows for access to playback control buttons and volume rotary. Theirs is also the only player whose 3.5mm headphone output doubles as an optical digital output and whose microUSB input adds standalone USB DAC functionality for PCM datastreams. And I still need the AK120 II to haul the best out of my UE 7 CIEMs.
And yet, despite its lofty marketing aspirations, its lack of network connectivity, its unusually high output impedance, its small screen, its dated GUI, it’s the player whose sound I prefer. Neil Young and Ayre Acoustics came through with the sonic goods. No need to visit Colorado in person when you can put that in your pipe and smoke it!
Further information: Pono