by Paul Ashby
After being wooed with the Pono headphone experience, the organizers herd a group of nine of us into a darker, un-airconditioned room. It’s unfinished, the concrete floor covered with a rug, with wall treatments and bass traps. Seven chairs are set up opposite an Ayre AX-5-based system with some not-shabby Sony speakers (I’ve asked Pono’s press rep to confirm a model number, but no answers were forthcoming by press time). Our host downplays the quality of the setup, terming it a “basic home system.” It’s probably worth around $15 or 20,000, including cabling, and, I assume, a better rig than the ones owned by over half the attendees. But tacitly I pretend it’s a more akin to a Harmon-Kardon receiver with Bose 901s, and we move along.
A Pono unit is plugged into the Ayre and we’re played some tunes: Neil Young’s “Heart Of Gold”, Elton John’s “Sixty Years On,” and Adele’s “Skyfall” theme.
On “Heart of Gold”, Pono sounds like a good DAC. The snare snaps sweetly, the harp has no more (or less) than the appropriate amount of grit, and the vocals are staged just right.
Does Pono sound like a $400 DAC? Probably better. For all the room treatments, though, the acoustics in the space are still below par; this really comes across on the Elton John track. From the center chair in the first row, the bass is boomy, most likely because the speakers are too close to the wall. Sadly, the Adele selection is the closest thing to classical of all the available tracks, but the instrumental backing is mere orchestral bombast. What I’d really like to hear is solo grand piano, or a string quartet, something with cello and violin. My knowledge of classical music is less than intermediate, but a basic selection would more adequately demonstrate Pono’s ability to handle the tonal range of acoustic instruments.
During the final two tracks I retreat to the back of the room and my mind wanders. There’s some rough flowcharts scrawled on a whiteboard in a shadowy corner. I make out “JRiver” but can’t quite determine a context for the reference. It reminds me that the Pono desktop software is most likely still in development, because its existence hasn’t been mentioned tonight; nor has the Pono high-resolution music store, for the most part.
Before being taken back to the party, we’re asked our opinions of both the headphone and non-headphone portions of the event. This part is filmed, and everyone has nothing but good things to say. I mention the quality of the resolution during headphone listening, especially the different rates of reverb decay on vocals. It was very clean, and especially evident on the Led Zeppelin and CS&N tracks — and considering those were recorded from 40 to 45 years ago, that’s a good thing. I also comment that Pono made me want to buy better headphones…but I withstand the temptation to mention how much I’d like to test them with Pono and a good headphone amp.
I bite my tongue regarding the song selection, too, but I mention it later to a couple Pono personnel when we’re back in the lobby, suggesting they offer…I dunno, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, or Pachelbel’s Canon, or something? Make it a brunch, bring in some ferns, that sort of thing. I also tell whoever will listen to me (and probably a couple people who won’t) that Pono needs a digital output in addition to this analog miniplug-out stuff. I am appropriately humored, as folks begin to edge away towards the wine and food.
Undaunted, I again bring up my intention to write about the event to yet another employee, and she seems delighted at the idea, and encourages me, “especially if you’re going to write something good about us.”
So there’s that.
What else? Shall we recap the Pono bullet points from its FAQ?:
- The dimensions of the PonoPlayer are 5″ (H) x 2″ (W) x 1″ (D)
- It is powered by a built-in Li-Ion rechargeable battery for all-day listening (about 8 hours).
- It is available in yellow or black with a soft touch finish.
- It weighs 4.5 ounces (128 grams) and comes in a box with:
- A 120/240VAC adapter/charger
- A micro USB cable for charging and syncing files from a Mac or PC
- 64GB of internal memory and a removable 64GB microSD card included (128GB total)
- Free downloadable desktop software (for Mac and PC) with a built-in music store to browse, purchase, manage and sync Pono certified tracks as well as others
- A user guide
Could Pono be perceived as little other than a Neil Young vanity project, sell out of its initial limited-edition run of hardware, fail as a service, and end up (with lots of company) in the startup dustbin? Or will it constitute a technological breakthrough, a game-changer that’ll provoke a significant number folks to ditch the use of earbuds and cellphones for music? Will the wake of its launch resemble the significant lifestyle and entertainment-business shift that followed the invention of the iPod and the iTunes Music Store?
I think I see most audiophiles (and even normal, well-adjusted people) shaking their heads ‘no’ to those latter questions.
From what I was told by staff, it seems that Neil Young isn’t interested in cornering the market. Or courting the cynical. He’d be satisfied if a few tens of thousands of music fans finally realized that MP3s — or, perhaps more accurately, 96kbps Spotify streams — sound like, well, ass. Currently $6,225,354 worth of crowd funding seems to speak pretty loudly to the possibility that enough people are willing to take a chance on the learning experience that Pono can provide.
How might that lesson be best taught?
Pono has to be cool. Young folk (especially women!) have to like it. Pono needs to do wider marketing outreach and not concern itself with preaching to the hi-fi choir. If Ayre and Pono could further miniaturize the hardware and license the technology to phone handset manufacturers, possibilities would bloom. If the masterminds behind Pono can mass produce and mass market the device and hi-res download service to an audience outside the fusty ol’ white-guy audiophile market (sorry, had to get that in) Pono will have legs.
I didn’t walk away from the Pono listening party feeling as lightheaded and goofy-stupid as I did after that iTunes event eleven years ago. I’d had a couple glasses of wine on an empty stomach, sure, but I didn’t sense I’d witnessed something mysterious, magical or revelatory. Or scary.
Encouraging? Yes. Very.
Envelope-nudging? Paradigm-elbowing? We’ll see.
If all goes well with the prototypes, Kickstarter backers should have their finished players in October. I look forward to getting my hands on Pono outside of the conference room and putting it through its real-world paces.
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.