Pono Backers Listening Party in San Francisco, 8/1/14: Part One

Photo by Michael Mercer

by Paul Ashby

Flashback to Summer 2003

Apple’s iTunes Music Store had been up and running for awhile, but its only content was music from major labels. I was working at an independent music distributor in San Francisco, and managed to wangle an invitation to an Apple event in Cupertino. Indie labels were finally being courted for inclusion on iTunes.

I arrived, printed invitation in hand, and stood in line to get in. When I reached the gatekeeper, I was told I…wasn’t on the list. I flashed the invitation, showed my ID, and offered to sign something in blood testifying to the authenticity of my credentials.

There was a brief consultation among clipboard-toting, headset-bedecked personnel, and, evidently, they took pity on me. The gates parted and I was ushered into Apple’s Town Hall theater.

The people in the crowd were excited, but you could sense a vibe of skepticism. Best Buy, Borders, Barnes and Noble and Amazon were in the process of putting a significant number of independent (and chain) record stores out of business; my former employer, Tower Records, was already punch-drunk and on the ropes. Distributors and labels were having more than the usual difficulty in getting paid as the wholesale market became less diverse and control moved up the limited supply chain. The market for CDs was flat, and the vinyl resurgence was still eight years off. Indie label types feared that a cathartic transition was nigh.

Steve Jobs took the stage and thanked the hushed crowd for attending.

An hour or so later, blinking, I walked out into the hot South Bay sun, excited (and more than a little freaked out ) by the possibilities. What was I getting into? Would my boss go for it? If so, how was I going to explain the deal to our labels and artists and actually sell them on the concept of wholesaling digital music?

And, assuming I succeeded, how was I going to digitally encode hundreds of masters, with metadata and tagging to spec, and get them uploaded?

Eleven years later

iTunes has altered the way the music business operates. But it has dozens of competitors, some of them serious. I still have the same job; only now I split my energy among physical CD and LP sales, working with digital providers to make sure our titles are taken care of, and marveling at the volatile manner in which the music market has fragmented over the past ten years. And that 2003 crash course in bit rates, resolution, transcoding and lossy/lossless formats has become not only a vocation, but an avocation.

Earlier this year I quaffed deep of the Shakey Kool-Aid and became a Kickstarter backer of Neil Young’s Pono player. During the last week of July I received an email from Pono; the first 50 backers to respond would be invited to a San Francisco listening party with the latest Pono prototype. Would I be interested?

I immediately hit “reply”, and typed “I believe I’m free that evening.”

An hour or so later, I got the confirmation. I was one of the 50.

Alright then.

A few days later, about 25 or 30 people show up a well-appointed office complex in Potrero Hill. We are shepherded by a staff of ten or so yellow-t-shirted Pono people. There’s the inevitable deli platters, accompanied by insanely good wine — much better than usual for this type of event. A sweet view of San Francisco beckons out the windows. The hosts are gracious, circulating about the crowd, shaking hands, answering questions. The vibe is relaxed but professional. It’s not too crowded.

I ask one of our minders if I can write about the event for a blog, maybe two? He seems surprised, and somewhat doubtful, but doesn’t say ‘no’ outright. It seems this isn’t a press event, so I decide not to, um, press the matter. I don’t take photos, and the only notes I take are mental.

Mine is the first of three rotating groups taken to an adjacent office/conference area and shown a custom-made welcome video by Neil Young. Neil quickly apologizes for not being there in person. The video is less than five minutes long, and as homespun and ramshackle as you might expect. At least three attendees pull out their phones and videotape the video. I feel somewhat silly for not doing so, but only for a moment.

There are five Pono prototypes mounted on stands on the table, each with two headphones attached. That makes eight pairs of Sennheiser Momentums….not including the last station, which sports two sets of Audeze LCD-XCs. There’s another separate Pono unit to be used with headphones supplied by the visitors. Two or three attendees take advantage of this, including me and my ancient, backpack-scarred HD-280 Pros. There’s also a banged-up pair of Sennheiser HD 650s lying on the table.

Each station has a large poster taped to the table; it lists the 30 songs pre-loaded on the Ponos. The poster also implores us not to unplug the headphones. There’s an illustrated primer on how to work Pono’s interface; anyone who’s touched an iPod or iPhone (read: everyone) finds the learning curve appreciably non-steep.

We are asked to circulate through the Pono stations, with each visitor getting a shot at the LCD-XCs which are, incidentally, repeatedly described as “odd-eezes” by our hosts.

The song selection is a tad vanilla for my taste. There’s Metallica, Daft Punk, CS&N, Neil (natch) Young, Adele, Herbie Hancock, Dave Brubeck (guess which song?), The Cars, Elton John, Led Zeppelin…there are no classical selections, which I find a bit odd. Mostly male artists, other than Adele. I look around and all of my fellow listeners are white males. I don’t see many people under 35. Classic rock seems the order of the day. I would prefer to play some of my favored reference music, and finger the thumb drive in my pocket, considering asking if I can upload some songs? But…nah. I sense that this is a controlled environment. Render unto Pono what is Pono’s.

And how does this Pono thing sound? Good. A double tap on the album art displays the resolution, and everything seems at least 24/96. Ayre’s done a predictably good job with the DAC, and the Momentums display the Pono’s audible charms exemplarily. When my turn comes for the Audeze station, however, I’m a bit underwhelmed, a victim of my expectations. The LCD-XCs sound wonderful, but I can’t help but desire an external headphone amp to drive them. The Pono amp section is adequate; I just want more volume. More. Louder. I don’t want “Ramble On” at a safe decibel level. This is Led Zeppelin; I want something indecent. I assume that Pono’s volume limitations are borne of liability. Further deafening young listeners raised on earbuds and relatively shitty phone/tablet DACs is likely not a good business model. But isn’t there some waiver I can sign?

I’d also like actually to hold this til-now-mythical Pono object in my hot little hands…and scroll, and press, and fondle. Such tactile-ness was not meant to be, however (at least, not until the promised October delivery date). With five thousand dollars worth of Sennheiser and Audeze product and (presumably) six semi-priceless Pono prototypes — and a couple dozen strangers — in the house, the Ponos remained safely and sensibly clamped to their stands.

As for the Pono player’s physical form: I was expecting something…well, longer? perhaps because of the Toblerone comparisons? But the unit’s five inches tall, about the height of a larger cellphone. It remains to be seen (or felt) if Pono’s triangular profile fits comfortably in a jeans pocket. Or clutched in the hand for all to see — might it become a high-profile badge of hip, like the early incarnations of the iPod, before the ubiquity of the cellphone-as-music-player? Pono can only hope.

Next: we’re led from the conference room, through a hall, and seated in a large, rectangular, mostly-concrete room in front of a decent stereo system where Pono shall be the source.

To be continued…


About the Author


Paul Ashby spends his days maintaining digital content management, sales and social media at Revolver USA, an independent music distributor. He intermittently dotes upon his blog, Anything But MP3, and has contributed to PS Audio’s PS Tracks site and Tower Records’PULSE! magazine.

You can read more about Paul over at our Contributors page.