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Why I Love Pono (And Why You Should, Too)

Pono is still kicking the crap out of Kickstarter. Fundraising goal? Bah, who cares. Crushed! Neil Young's baby is currently cruising past $2.5M and with 30+ days left, so I feel comfortable guessing that he's gonna clear $25M or more on this outing. That is, it'll set a record for Kickstarter. And high-res audio. And the high-end industry as a whole. I could not be more thrilled.

As Neil himself has offered up to Stereophile’s Michael Lavorgna, there’s nothing new here with Pono. All of this stuff is “out there”, already. There’s already high-resolution audio download services: HD Tracks, Acoustic Sounds, High Definition Tape Transfers and about a dozen others are all taking orders and offering sweet-sounding downloads. There are already high-resolution portable audio players on the market: FiiO, HiFiMAN, Calyx, Colorfly and Astell & Kern have been capably making the case for years now that Apple’s iconic iPod is really just the starting point on your portable audio joyride.

No, Pono has nothing new here. Well, not quite nothing. It has Neil Young. And as many of us have been saying for years, this may well be enough.

I can’t say whether or not Pono or PonoMusic will be commercially viable. Pono won’t be delivered for another six months (just in time for the holiday season), so speculation at this point is pretty much based on spec sheets and interviews. Will it sound awesome? Will it offer substantially more than what the market currently offers? Will kids care? Who the hell knows. A million factors and more can impact all of this. All I know is that mainstream media are talking about high-resolution audio like it’s an interesting thing, and not a peculiar fetish enjoyed by old people who never leave their basements. And that, my friends, is awesome.

Which brings me to a couple of big-picture observations.

First, I would really, truly, wildly love it if Pono succeeds. Why? It’s cliché-simple: the rising tide will lift all boats. Unlike Beats by Dre, the Pono succeeds or fails on the quality of the music experience. Sure, there’s some cachet there as well, but the point they’re attempting to drive home (pretty much relentlessly) is that your experience of music could be more than it is, and that once you hear what you’ve been missing, you’ll need to fill that gap. This is, in a nutshell, the hi-fi message, once you strip away all the fussy, finicky, elitist and esoteric crap. For those who have ever said “it’s all about the music”, this campaign is right up that philosophical alley. Which brings me to my next point.

Second, Pono isn’t new and they’re unapologetic about it. High quality audio has fallen on hard times this last 40 years. There are plenty of directions in which to point fingers — but none of that matters. Neil & Co doesn’t care and are stripping all that stuff off the top.  But that level-reset means more than you think. Like the terms. Yes, the terms they’re using sound like terms that audio nerds have been using. But you’ve misunderstood; when they’re saying “we are going back to the original masters”, audio nerds heard “newly remastered files with no compression and clipping and a noise floor pushed out past audible hearing”. But the Pono team merely meant “high-resolution”. As in, FLAC and not MP3. Sorry about that, nerd. Get over it. Move on. This is not the end of the Loudness War. No master recordings are being resampled, re-engineered, or resampled. You already have 24bit Beatles and 192kHz Sonny Rollins. Want more? Check out the outlets. Can’t find what you want? Well, more beyond “all that” is “in the works”, and while it may be possible that new material coming from Skrillex or Mumford and Sons or Katy Perry will be available at 176kHz sampling at some point, that’s all TBD. Right now, there’s Lorde in 48kHz over at HDTracks. And that’s really all they’re talking about. Which brings me to the next point.

Third, if you’re an audiophile, Pono is not talking to you. You are welcome to play. You are invited to share. And from all the specs I’ve been looking over, you might be really happy with what’s coming. But this isn’t targeting you. Pono is trying to convert your kids. Your nieces and nephews. Your students. You know, the ones spending big on Beats headphones? Them. Pono is attempting to tell them what they’re missing. So, if it feels like they’re talking past you it’s because they are. Your job? Get one for that kid in your life you’ve been unsuccessful talking to about your hi-fi, and then pat yourself on the back for starting what you hope will be a lifelong addiction.

There’s been a few updates to the FAQ over on the Kickstarter page, so I recommend a trip over to see the what’s what. They do address what I think is the single biggest oversight in the launch, and no, it’s not DSD. That, the FAQ says, is too niche to bother with: “While DSD is also a great format, it simply doesn’t have broad enough acceptance by consumers, studios, or labels.” Ouch. No, the oversight I’m talking about is the complete lack of headphones. No buds, no universal in-ear monitors, no on- or over-ear headphones, nothing. True, the inclusion would have dramatically increased the price, but still. Nothing? Yep. Nothing.

To those asking why we didn’t bundle headphones, it’s because many already own a pair and we wanted to offer the PonoPlayer at the best price possible. That said, we will be providing more recommendations and offering several models for sale when we launch our online store after the Kickstarter campaign.

I expect we’ll see some more on this as we get closer to the launch. Maybe we’ll even see another Kickstarter campaign, hmm? Hmm.

Get your Occasional now

21 Comments on Why I Love Pono (And Why You Should, Too)

  1. It’s All About the Music………

  2. As someone who started in a/v retail in 1993 and exited in 2008, I am hopeful that this will succeed. I witnessed firsthand the decline of 2 channel audio at the expense of mp3 devices and “home theater in a box.” Go Pono!

  3. Stephen Graham // March 14, 2014 at 1:26 PM //

    I’m totally with you on this. I really think this could be a huge step for hi-res music and I get really pissed when I read comments from some in the audiophile press who only want to find something wrong this venture. I don’t know what the Pono is going to sound like but the specs and the comments I’m hearing have me feeling optimistic. But the most important factor by far is the attention being paid to the subject from musicians, the industry, many in the press and regular folks. That is the encouraging part and leads me to hope that this is just the first step in correcting all of the wrongs that have afflicted the music industry in the last few decades. That might be a little naive but one can only hope.

  4. Excellent article. Finally, after reading dozens of articles and blog posts in the past week about Pono, yours is one of the very few who seems to really GET what Pono is about. I think that “part-time audiophiles” like yourself might be the perfect target demographic for Pono, and I’m glad to see the point made that this is just as much not for elite audiophiles as it is not for the masses. It’s for those of us in between.

    If I can, I’d like to humbly pump my own post on the subject for you and your readers.

    http://punkdavid.blogspot.com/2014/03/missing-point-about-pono.html

    Be sound.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // March 14, 2014 at 2:32 PM //

      Appreciate the kind words — and your post is hilarious, by the way.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // March 14, 2014 at 2:26 PM //

      I love that site!

      Be aware that he’s forgotten the main point about high-res audio that he made in the videos, which is noise shaping. It’s incredibly important and something you can do with high-res that’s impossible to do with CD quality roll-off filters. Given that many high-fidelity systems can produce a dynamic range way beyond what was possible when CDs first were developed, high-res is much more important.

      Does that mean you need a high-resolution player? Or that any given high-resolution player will sound better than any other given one? Or that your headphones will be able to take advantage of any such improvements? That’s all debatable.

      But be aware also that many (not all, but many) mastered-for-high-resolution files are different than their mastered-for-iTunes counterparts. As in, structurally different. Different DR. Different noise shaping. Different mix. And all of that can affect the final output quality of the system they’re played through. IMO, that’s the kind of thing the Pono Team is talking about — but glossing over, because these are technical details only nerds care about (and they’re specifically not talking to us nerds).

  5. Let is be known that:
    While I do genuinely understand and appreciate your enthusiasm as I too am an audiophile, please do not tell me (or anyone else) ever again what you think I (or anyone else) should love. That should be taken out of the article’s title as it is completely out of line and smugly arrogant as to presume that you know what I (or anyone else) should love. Loving something, or someone, is a choice. That choice, and the God given freedom that it is, is totally up to me (or anyone else) and is not to be influenced (or even suggested at) by anyone else, including you. While it is fair and valid for you to point out the benefits and value of a component’s features and render a recommendation for it being an item to consider on a “short list”, that is where your input and opinions need to end; lest you trample the rights of the readers. With all due respect, you are a well qualified audio component reviewer; so please, and as would therefore be appropriate, keep your opinions (such as this one) to yourself if they fall completely out of line with what you are here to do; such as this one does, and by a wide margin at that. What you are not here to do is tell all readers (via the title and the article) that you think we should love it too, or anything for that matter. That, sir, is not for you to decide or assess or come to the conclusion of; let lone instruct us to do so as you if you make our decisions for us.

    • Dude, it’s rhetoric. Turn on the right side of your brain.

      • The right side of my brain is on. It is from the clear and concise functioning of my “right” side (Bible believing Christian and political and social conservative person) that I stated what I did. It’s odd how long it took me to realize that there are far more than merely the 10 commandments as they are not listed or identified in the way that those 10 are. Yet, when read, as I read the portion of this article’s title in parenthesis, it clearly says what it does; which is, “and why you should too”. While that is not a command, it is a strong suggestion to do something that is purely for me and every individual reader to decide for and by ourselves. Rhetoric is not always innocent or without unbeknownst intent. If I wrote a similar audio component review and suggested that the reader should also like or love or dislike or go gaga over or loathe the item because I do, would that be appropriate ? No. Getting someone to do something, or even to start to consider doing something, is often times done via very subtle ways such as a simple, yet intently focused suggestion. When the suggestion walks on my God given rights and freedoms as such by attempting to guide or lead or instruct me to think or make a decision or take action in keeping with that suggestion, then the suggestion must either be eliminated or dismissed, or I must remove myself from the one making it. It is not for anyone to tell anyone else what should be loved or liked or loathed or so on. Leave that to each person as is each person’s right.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // March 14, 2014 at 2:16 PM //

      Tom, thanks for your detailed reply. I am appreciative of your perspective, though I will submit that I view things a bit … differently. If I am, as you say, a “well qualified … reviewer” (which is entirely debatable), then as an “expert”, my only job is to pass such judgments. Whether you choose to agree with my conclusions, take issue with the argument, ignore me completely … or … take what I have to say as a “data point”, follow my guidance, agree with me and more, all I can offer is my “professional” opinion. Or, if I’m trying to be more specific about it, my aesthetic judgment. This isn’t journalism. I’m not reporting. I’m telling you what I think and why. Don’t like it? Okay. Don’t agree with me? So be it. Want to argue? Now, we’re talking — let’s engage.

      But I do want to say this: we all have opinions and everyone makes judgments. The question we, as consumers, need to keep asking ourselves is whether or not those beliefs we hold near and dear are in need of serious re-evaluation. You are not entitled to your opinions simply because they’re yours. There is no “privilege” status, there. Better still, you have no right to be wrong. None of us do. So, keep calling me out. If you think I’ve run amok, tell me. I may not agree with you, but thems the breaks. Happily, we are both permitted to adopt our stances, make our arguments, and let them stand or fall on their merits.

      About Pono, and why “the average audiophile” should be thrilled beyond measure by what is happening “over there”, well, I’ve made my case. I can pile on but I’ll save that for now — there are plenty of pundits out there barfing already. Whether that criticism is justified, or merely a blatant attempt at self-aggrandizement or reputation-building, is moot … and another topic I’d be happy to entertain.

      • Thank you for your reply.

        Talking is good. Arguing can be good if it produces a valid and beneficial change. I do not desire or intend to argue as I simply wish to make my points whether we agree or not.

        As for me, I have neither need nor desire for such a device such as this one.

        I was deliberately choosing to be respectful to say that “you are a well qualified audio component reviewer”. As far as I am concerned, you are. After all, who am I to contest the validity of your qualifications ? Some of mine are having a few years of retail sales of 78 brands of car and home audio and home theater systems along with being a test technician and speaker designer for Cary Audio along with auditioning 126 other brands of high end home audio gear in 22 categories from dozens of manufacturers along with touring Apogee Acoustics in 1996 to see how ribbon speakers are made along with reading the numerous audio and acoustics text books that I have, and so on. Robert Harley said to me in an Email in the fall of 2007, “You have an extensive background suited for reviewing.” Now, who am I to question his qualifications, or yours ?

        I agree with you when you said, “as an “expert”, my only job is to pass such judgments.”
        That is correct. Judgments or assessments or evaluations about the component or item under your review are valid. What is not valid is your suggesting or down right instructing anyone that he or she or they should also love it, or like or dislike it for that matter, as that judgment or assessment or evaluation about the component or item under your review is strictly / exclusively for each person to render for and by his or her self after reviewing / auditioning it as is befitting such a purchase in the way(s) that each person needs to.

        As I said, “point out the benefits and value of a component’s features and render a recommendation for it being an item to consider on a “short list”, … that is valid, but do not attempt to “speak or think or decide for us or determine what any of us should think about something” as that is outside of your realm of authority and the intended scope of reviewing; be it by you or Robert Harley or John Atkinson, or numerous others. It is like me saying to you, “I like chocolate ice cream, and you should like it too.” That is not my place to make such a statement as it would be presumptuous and terribly arrogant for me to project my likes and preferences and desires onto you as if you should also have them.

        You said, “This isn’t journalism. I’m not reporting. I’m telling you what I think and why.”
        I disagree on the first and second points. This is journalism; albeit on line and in a fairly casual format in an article form with at least a decent command of the language and grammatical structure so as to present a validly written composition. You are indeed reporting as you are listing or citing or stating or making known your findings, observations, experiences, and understanding of a given audio component or item to someone else. As for your statement of, “I’m telling you what I think and why.” That is your job or intent, and is fine, so long as it does not cross the line of what my primary objection is as stated in my original post and in the early stage of this reply to you. I want to know what you think about it, and the reasons why as that can enlighten or educate me in a beneficial way to either consider or not consider (where I am making the choice as is my right) a component or item for purchase. That effort of yours is appreciated. Just don’t tell me that I too should love or like (or dislike) it. Leave that fully to me at all times please.

        You said, “The question we, as consumers, need to keep asking ourselves is whether or not those beliefs we hold near and dear are in need of serious re-evaluation.”
        My “near and dear” beliefs are mine just as yours are yours as is our right to not only have, but also to apply as each of us deems necessary or as they apply themselves as second nature to any given situation. I see no need and willingness whatsoever to re-evaluate any of them as long as they are valid to what is truly my ultimate reference standard; the Word of God in the Bible. As for my tastes and preferences, they have changed as I have learned more, experienced more, and simply gotten older (45). That being said though, they are also for me alone to apply and render assessments with. That is the right of every person, and is a wonderful gift from God.

        You said, “You are not entitled to your opinions simply because they’re yours. There is no “privilege” status, there. Better still, you have no right to be wrong. None of us do.”
        Last I checked, I do have the right to be entitled to my opinions simply because they are mine. You are wrong, and way out of line to tell me that. However, if I misunderstood that, I do realize that just because we all have the right to have our opinions does not mean that we have the right to express or act upon them in a harmful or illegal or illegitimate way. Additionally, last I checked, I do have the right to be wrong just as you and every person does … as it is simply a fundamental part of being human. If I have no right to be wrong as you said, then I therefore inherently must always be correct and must always function perfectly in all manners at all times; which is simply not humanly possible. The God given right to be wrong was granted to every person at the same time the God given right to free will was granted. That free will not only allows every person the God given right to make choices, but in doing so, by definition also allows every person the God given right to make wrong choices, or to simply be wrong as you said. To address the other portion of your response, you are correct in stating that there is no “privilege status”; for privileges are by definition not necessary or valid where God given rights exist.

        I commend you for the effort involved in auditioning the component and reporting your findings as a contributing journalist in the field of audio component reviewing.

    • Gavin Hadley // March 14, 2014 at 2:47 PM //

      From which side of the bed did you arise today?..take a deep breath man your rant was borderline comical…sheesh

      • Borderline? Reading his rants makes me feel like a juror in Inherit the Wind

    • Stephen Graham // March 14, 2014 at 4:19 PM //

      Boy, you must be fun at parties. Talk about completely missing the point.

      • On the contrary, I clearly realized and understood the points. I simply just do not agree with one of them; which is that I should love it too. High resolution audio is great for many reasons. Then again, Krell and Martin Logan were two of the highest resolution audio brands for years and yet so many people sold their gear for something that actually sounded musical instead of being so highly detailed, resolving, clinical, cold, sterile, etched, grainy, informational, etc. It’s like having a robot play a violin. While it may play all aspects of all notes technically correctly, there will never be any true “soul” or emotional content to the playing as it cannot do that. I would rather hear low or lesser than high resolution that sounds like music (to me) and lets and causes my mind relax and my emotions to connect (deeply and easily) than to hear the highest resolution system reproducing the electrical signals comprising the music but with a harsh, dry, or otherwise unpleasant nature (to me). As for me, I like good solid state and good tubed gear or a mix of the two if the end result sounds musical and not merely like some latest technological breakthrough’s resolution on steroids. As so many of us know, it is not so much the technology, but the way it is implemented as electronic engineering is a discipline inherently filled with choices and compromises due to laws of physics and inherent limitations of the device for a plethora of reasons and so on. All that I am saying is that if a source is so high resolution that it overloads the auditory senses or simply does not sound musical (to me), then I will not listen to it or care for it no matter how in vogue it may be or how cool it may be or how portable it may be or what have you. If I do not like it, then I do not like it, and that is for me to decide without having someone suggest or instruct me to the contrary. Period. The nice thing is that it usually offers trickle down versions to eventually get more affordable for most users to be able to benefit from it in some form. Remember the CD when it was brand new in the 80’s ? That was the high(est) resolution of the time, and it sounded awful. it was touted by Sony and Philips (its creators) as “perfect sound forever”. Right. Even Mark Levinson said, “Perfection is impossible, but uncommon levels of excellence are not, and that is what we strive for.” High res … let’s see where it goes by how it sounds via a high end home or head phone system that is capable of doing it justice by being able to reproduce and reveal if it is of merit to listen to and purchase or if it is just the industry’s latest and greatest advancement or achievement.

  6. Pono is trying to convert kids…how? With an audio device that looks like its from 2002? With customized Ponos featuring bands who’s last meaningful work was done decades ago? With a file service featuring almost no current music? If Neil Young cared about the future of portable music AND marketing that to a younger generation, he should have launched a hi-def streaming service. They might sell a lot of these to casual, aging audiophiles with lots of disposable income, but anyone under the age of 30 will laugh at this.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // March 14, 2014 at 2:36 PM //

      Jury is still out. I’m betting Neil is going to be more successful than that. In fact, I sure hope so.

      Could he have done better? Maybe by offering a prettier widget? With different features? Maybe marketed it better? I’m shrugging my shoulders because while all that may or may not be true, he sure has sold a boat load of them already. So, if he “missed” his target demographic, I think this is the kind of miss all of us would like to enjoy.

  7. Great content, but poorly written and choppy.

  8. Bromo Ivory // March 14, 2014 at 7:20 AM //

    I couldn’t agree more – this is EXACTLY the audience that PONO is trying to reach. But to hear Neil Young speak, he’d have everything in 24/192, though at this point, horseshoes and hand grenades, that Lorde 24/48 is far and away better than the 192kbps on iTunes.

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