Review: Pono Music Player

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: