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.