Review: Pono Music Player

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Enter Pono

Well, it happened.

I got my Pono player.

For those of you not keeping track, Pono is a music service, a portable digital audio player, a lifestyle experience, and more, that’s supposed to revolutionize the entire industry. No, the entire world. Because, my friends, you have not been hearing your music. No! At least, not all of your music. And once you do, your world will change. Never mind the Loudness Wars. Or whatever travesty marked the 1980’s and 1990’s for studio mastering. Forget that stuff. Because the real problem is that bits are being left on the table, and you aren’t hearing the real deal with that iPod of yours.

That’s my caricature of the argument Neil Young laid down over a year ago in defense of his efforts around spearheading a mass-market friendly “high-resolution audio player”. Pono was billed as an iPod on steroids, and be the answer to the question “what happened to the music?” Apparently, people are asking that. I dunno. Maybe they are. The assumption is that MP3 files are somehow massively degraded and that while iTunes may well have disrupted audio as an industry, it didn’t do it any favors when it came to the sound quality of the music we all enjoy. Or, used to enjoy.

To be honest, the argument is easier to ridicule than it is the dismiss, because I think Young is right. I do think sound quality has tanked in recent years. As the average consumer uses equipment that’s ever-more-shitty, it’s really no surprise that the sound quality of the tracks mastered for such gear has slid right along with it. Which is the chicken and which the egg is irrelevant at this point — both suck, and no dishes served with either ingredient will satisfy.

Maybe it’s just me, but I do find it interesting that Young completely ignored (and to almost a fault, still does) the entire “cottage industry” that’s sprung up over the last decade, addressing this issue pretty much directly, but put that aside for the moment. The point, for audio enthusiasts (and for musicians, but perhaps a bit less directly), is that Young’s project could be seriously helpful to raise awareness for a hobby that’s been in decline for the better part of 20 years. Star power has its advantages. And to that end, I toast Mr Young’s health and success.

So, anyway, I ordered my Pono earlier this year. I opted for the “Artist Signature Series”, and picked out CSNY — mainly because I had intended to give it to my wife as a present. Yeah, she’s a huge fan. Anyway, it arrived only a couple of weeks past their October target (and way earlier than the Spring 2015 delivery dates that were rumored to be in the works).

It showed up in a nice, if flimsy bamboo box that I promptly destroyed by stepping on it. Whoops. Inside the box (prior to destruction) was a silver/bronze-ish triangular player with CSNY stamped on it, a cable, a handsome leather carrying case and a tiny microSD card with some CSNY high-res music on it.

It’s kinda hard to find specs on this player, so I have no idea what the output power rating is, but I’ll say that the first attempt I made, with the HiFiMan HE560 headphones, was met with a maxed out volume control. Note also that it’s got an almost absurdly high 5Ω impedance rating, apparently, so your low impedance IEMs are not going to be a match. I’ve been using it since with my 35Ω Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors and the 100Ω Audeze LCD-3 (Fazor) headphones and have had much better luck.

First impressions

I don’t have much experience with JRiver as a file/device management system, so the Pono-specific version I had to download to work with the Pono player was a more than a little alien. After failing to find it wildly intuitive, I decided to table it and just fiddle with the tunes already on the player first.

I have no idea if it’s common, a freebie, or if I just missed a memo, but it was fun to find the microSD card. Mine came with Déjà Vu on it, in what I presume is high-res. I don’t have another microSD card reader, so I haven’t been able to check, but whatever. It’s a nice addition, and it got me off the ground pretty much immediately.

Here’s the first thing that jumped out:

Detail retrieval is excellent, and on par with some of the very best digital audio players on the market today.

I mean that. I spent a little time A/B testing it with my reigning detail champ in the portable arena, the Astell&Kern AK240 ($2,499), and “inner detail” wasn’t what separated the players.

In fact, not much did.

All in all, I (still) find the AK240 to be the most consistent performer I’ve ever encountered in the digital audio player space — it just has this absolutely amazing top-to-bottom cohesiveness. Using it as my yard stick and comparing it to the 6x times less expensive Pono, I heard a more natural and extended top end. Cymbals lingered a bit longer in their brassy decays. Bass had more punch, more texture. The mid-range had better 3-D sound-staging.

Also, I find my Pono player a bit lean by comparison to the AK240, and by extension, that’s definitely more lean than the Calyx M ($999). On a similar note, I felt that there was a relative thinness in the mid-range that was noticeable when compared to both other players. Yes, Pono has commendable top-end air and solid bass — that’s all plusses. Decays are very satisfying, even if they simply don’t linger as long as they do on the bigger, heavier and more expensive player. Bass has impact, but doesn’t quite have the thunderousness. Tonally, the Pono just seems to present a little less meat on the bones.

That said, the gaps between these more expensive players were most notable in how much not bigger they were. Honestly, I expected the Pono player to get smoked. But … well. Playback is another thing. And here, the actual sound I was getting showed that whatever is in the player has what it needs to get the job done. And then some. For $400, I’m having a very hard time serious finding fault with what I’m hearing here.

So, here’s my first conclusion: if the goal was to “introduce the world to better sound”, the Pono could win an Academy Award. Likewise, if I were to gift Pono to someone — someone I cared about but who isn’t deep into high-fidelity gear — I’d feel really good about the experience that I know they’d be getting out of it.

It’s very much looking like Ayre, the design team behind the Pono’s digital bits, took the pitch from Pono and smacked it out of the park.

Usability, on the other hand … well, lets just say at this point that my first impressions found the sound quality to be “very accomplished.”

I’ll leave it there.

PTA Contributor Paul Ashby, however, has been working through his own Pono experience over at Anything But MP3. His comprehensive review can be found below:

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47 comments

  • I found the Pono to sound good, but not at the level reported above. I spent time comparing the Pono to a Parasound Zdac ($550). The Zdac was a big winner. I will give you that the Pono does more, but the sound is lacking for placement in an audio system. My listening test used the same files, Kimber cables on both, and a main system using the KEF Ref 3, Parasound JC2, A21. Customers have agreed with my take.

    • My experience was similar. Pono sounds good, but my 500$ DAC sounds better, atleast for use in a hifi system. Additionally I found the touchscreen to be quite aggrevating to interact with, and the battery life of about 5 hours is just disappointing. But it at least has Pearl Jam signatures on the back:)

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  • I always get the feeling that audiophiles, particularly those with great knowledge of technology, are just rooting hard for this stuff to be really good and therefore not objective in their assessments. I received my Grateful Dead ltd edition of the PONO player loaded with a Neil Young song and a microSD card with Workingman’s Dead and Terrapin Station. I listened first with a fairly good set of earbuds and then I connected to a set of BOSE speakers. On my earbuds, the sound was very clear on the high end but had little definition on the low end. I thought it sounded a bit shrill. Using the BOSE system I could compare the same songs I had in my MAC’s iTunes library with the HiRes versions on the PONO. To be honest, I couldn’t tell the difference. Full disclosure. Some of the iTunes versions were remastered, but if that reduces the gap between HiRes and Regular MP3, so what? I think there is some misconception here that the average listener just doesn’t know what he’s missing because he doesn’t hear music produced live in a studio. But I play electric and acoustic guitar in places that have good acoustics. I’ve heard live music in various venues and studios in Nashville that are supposed to have the best acoustics anywhere. So this “Matrix” like argument that we only hear the representation of music reality is a bit overblown.

    What I would love to read is a review of PONO based on a blindfold comparison of listeners exposed to both MP3 and HiRes through PONO. So far, I don’t hear a reason to walk around with a PONO in my pocket next to my iPhone 6. (I don’t work for any computer/software/music company).

    • Bose equipment should never be used for HiRes audio, and this is why:

      Paper cones, ‘secret’ frequency response, and wide gaps in the crossover dynamics make for muddy and empty sound with high distortion in the upper ranges coupled with limited bass response from the ‘bass module,’ which is little more than 3 small drivers arranged in a sequence.

      No highs, no lows, must be Bose!

      • If that is the case then what percentage of PONO buyers are wasting their time because they have Bose or some other paper cone-based speakers? In any event, I only tested using Bose speakers because I couldn’t hear the greatness of this hiRes music using my high-end earbuds.

  • Thanks for the review, Scot! I tested with Shure 535 IEM’s and Grado PS 500’s via the Pono headphone jack and the sound was quite good. Line-out to a headphone amp fills out the bottom and low-mids better (unsurprisingly.) But once you add an amp, the portability suffers. Could you work it into your home system? Sure, but there are better alternatives. If I’m traveling lean, it’s probably still the Shure’s, an Iphone and the jet noise. If I’m hiding in the attic (read: ‘doghouse’) or swinging in a hammock, it’s the Pono, the Grado’s and a portable amp.

    For what it’s worth, I manage music with MediaMonkey (paid version) and hang iTunes and PonoMusic World software off that same central music repository. Both iTunes and PonoMusicWorld software are utilities to support their respective hardware and for buying music, Both are razor blade businesses. The exFAT MicroSD card has been an annoyance. I, too, got the CSNY version and haven’t figured out how to get those files (2 albums worth) from the exFAT into my music server. If any of you gentle folk figure it out, please do share! You’re a savvy bunch and a privilege post with!

    • On my Mac the MicroSD card mounted as a standard directory on the desktop when I attached the Pono and selected file transfer mode; I then just copied the files (the Foo Fighters in my case) off onto the Mac and then added to my music library. Once they were in my standard file structure (which I pointed the PonoMusic app at) the PonoMusic software picked it back up and all was sorted. I can’t imagine it is that much harder on a PC if you have one of those …

  • I received my Pono last week. Great sound on the few tracks. Useless website with tutorials that assume you comprehend & memorize at the speed of light. Snarky Help Desk. Can one copy from existing CD’s? Does one have to download CD’s from Pono at $15.00 a pop? I’ll give it another week to figure out but right now I’m thinking eBay.

  • All I hear people talking about is listening on headphones. That’s not the way I listen to music. How does it work on home audio and real speakers?

    • I tried both and couldn’t tell the difference. I plugged it into the Bose speakers I use with my Mac then I reconnected the speakers to The Mac and listened to same songs that I had in my iTunes. I struggled to try and hear the difference.

      • Try with a good pair of headphone.Your Bose perhaps is multimedia speakers and have limitation on frequency range and bass impact. I have bose c20,very good but it have some addtional sound processing there and masked the detail on hi res file on pono.

    • Well, I won’t get into all of the semantics here, however, I’ve been meaning to sell my two network streaming devices ($2800 retail all told). I’ve hesitated because I didn’t want to be without high resolution music while listing the players, waiting for payment, and finding another player. I ran the PONO out of the line out through an Audioquest Everest into my amplifier and quickly found that I could live with the PONO as my only High-res device for a few months if not more. I have a very unforgiving setup (Yamaha A-S3000 to NS-1000’s) and it sounds great. I even tried it on a friends Linn system and he was very impressed too. I compared it directly to the Calyx M and Astell & Kern AK120 and those products both offer a better user interface and more powerful amplification–not better sound IMO.

  • Thanks for a great review, been looking forward to hearing about this device for a while now. Do you think there would be a big difference in sound in comparison to an ipod classic that is loaded up with 320Kbps mp3 files? (Oh, and I’m using audio technica M50 headphones with my classic)

    My classic is dying a slow death, so am considering taking a step up as opposed to getting another ipod classic.

    • I used a Classic for many years, and recently upgraded to a ClipZip with NX1 – the improvement was audible from the first track. Sad to say, the Classic just isn’t that good, though some claim more recent versions have got better. There are lots of players that will improve on your Classic. The Pono’s 5Ω output impedance is worrying, but your AT M50s should be OK.

  • Scott, Great mini review. Thanks. I always find it hard to understand why most HI-res player reviews do not compare entrants with the Sony NWZ ZX1. Sony is putting a lot of effort in the Hires audio players category and surely its one to watch. If there is a mega brand that has gone after the Hi Res format its been Sony.The NWZ-ZX1 is retailed at around USD600 (i think) and it gets stonking reviews and seems a very capable player. I’d like to know your views on how the PONO stacks up aginst the NWZ-ZX1.

    • Part-Time Audiophile

      Harry — AFAIK, the ZX1 isn’t available in the US.

  • Thanks for the review, Correct me if I missed something but in summery for someone who is not a techie audiophile but who appreciates high quality sound. The Pono fits the profile but the reccommendation is to hold of purchase until user interface and quality head phone use is improved.

    • I think the software is a little kludgey. But as was pointed out, you can load music onto the player without it. I’ve loaded a couple of files this way — works. But as another commenter has noted, some caution may be warranted.

      As for quality headphone use, my recommendation is to simply have a care with the headphones you choose to pair with it. With the “right” headphones, the Pono is really quite good.

  • I’m happy the sound quality is as good as you say it is. As was discussed in facebook, the design is very obtuse but hell if it sounds good that’s harder part to nail down. We all know software can be improved much easier so here’s to the interface and Mac drivers getting better.

    • I probably wouldn’t have designed it this way, either. But it’s not too awful … and it sits really nicely on my desk.

  • Thanks for your great review!
    So would you say that the Calyx M (as well as the AK240) is a better player than Pono? Which has the better headphone amp – Calyx or Pono?

    It would be interesting to see a review of Pono’s balanced mode and also after further break-in. Apparently the balanced mode is unique on the Pono and I would be interested in seeing a comparison between this mode on the Pono vs. AK240 (does the Calyx M do balanced mode?)

    • The Calyx is $999.
    • The AK240 is $2500.
    • The Pono is $300.
    • I think it’s a pretty good competitor!

      I prefer the software on the Calyx, and the sound of the AK240, though the Calyx does a better job with bright or lean headphones.