You’ve got to love Neil Young. He has matured nicely into the music business’ finest curmudgeon, and he has become one of the most visible and outspoken champions of good sound quality at a time of poor sounding recordings. All of which makes him in hindsight an obvious proponent of high-resolution audio. So, when less than 18 months ago, Young announced he was going to make a high-resolution audio system called Pono, perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised.
Details were, at first, sketchy. In late 2012, Young appeared on Letterman clutching a five-inch long, bright yellow triangular device with a screen and a few keys last year. More followed. Pono is a system, comprising the device itself (PonoPlayer) and a music store (PonoMusic). PonoPlayer is a portable audio player, designed to bring high-resolution audio to a new audience (it’s intended to be $399 at launch). Specs confirmed at this time are that PonoPlayer will support files up to 24bit, 192kHz in FLAC format, it has a line and headphone output, the analogue stages are zero-feedback designs, it comes with 64GB of on-board memory and a further 64GB of microSD storage, uses an ESS 9018 ‘Sabre’ DAC and minimium-phase apodizing filter. We guessed as much when Neil Young went to visit Meridian Audio last year, but it was fellow apodizing filter-supporting Ayre Acoustics that was involved in the design of the player proper.
More information springs up almost hourly. We learned at SXSW about the Ayre connection, and that PonoPlayer will not be locked into PonoMusic content, but can play high-res material from other sources. Whether a shrewd marketing scheme or a need to raise further capital remains unclear, but Young announced a Kickstarter campaign (complete with testimonials from a host of big name musos Young, young and old) to raise an additional $800,000 in order to bring the player to market in the third quarter of this year. At one point earning $700 per minute, Pono has currently raised more than $2.65m at the time of writing.
There have been some slip-ups along the way. In the audiophile world, the first was a swipe by Linn Products CEO Gilad Tiefenbrun, calling the device ‘misguided’ (http://blogs.linn.co.uk/giladt/2012/10/neil-youngs-misguided-solo-project.php), although in fairness, Gilad later retracted this comment and is now quite the Ponophile (now that’s a word that needs to be put out there, even if typos might prove problematic). Then, Pono was slated to be a 2013 project, but suffered some slippage. There was also the question of who would design the hardware; despite a well-publicised visit to Meridian’s factory in Cambridge, UK, the actual design was kept under wraps. Also, when it comes to the promo Kickstarter video, it’s hard to take Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers seriously when he praises Pono’s sound quality, given the band’s Californication album could be considered a war crime in the Loudness Wars… but maybe it’s not his fault. Then Pono CEO John Hamm (no, not the ‘Mad Men’ star) was caught out by the words, “What’s your cut?” shouted from the audience during the SXSW presentation. But these are just minor bumps along the road (an interview with both Neil Young and John Hamm has been published on our sister site: https://www.theabsolutesound.com/articles/an-interview-with-neil-young-and-pono-ceo-john-hamm/
Naturally, this being the Internet, there are detractors too. Fairly predictably, there’s the cries of, “it all sounds the same” and, “it’s made for audiophools”. There’s also the “it’s too expensive” argument (neatly forgetting that Apple’s first generation iPod and its latest 64GB iPod Touch also cost $399). And then there’s the similarity of the name to websites and literature that encourages, “vigorous relaxation in a gentleman’s way” (Pono actually means ‘righteousness’ in Hawaiian). But, curiously some of the most vociferous ‘anti’ arguments come from those most likely to welcome such a device – audiophiles themselves.
Pono’s detractors expose some of the differences in the state of high-resolution across the planet. In the US, its lack of DSD support has been criticised and Pono has been dismissed because those who want a high-resolution portable player already have a more up-market model. Whereas, in the UK, many of those who dismiss the idea do so because they feel high-resolution offers no tangible improvement over CD quality (possibly due to the continued availability of CD in the troubled HMV store chain), and a smartphone is good enough for portable use. It appears to have been well received across the rest of Europe, where 24/192 is upheld as a digital goal worth aiming for. Time will tell whether the detractors are just the usual
There seems to be animosity aimed at Pono, as if Neil Young is muscling in on our safe little game. This is extremely myopic. This is an affordable player (one that doesn’t need the “… by audiophile standards” qualifier), with an as-yet-undisclosed quality-oriented music site that is fronted by someone with enough of a profile to take on the big players like iTunes. Moreover, if PonoMusic delivers content with some form of studio provenance, it will make those who pass off upsampled 16/44.1 PCM or even MP3 files as ‘high-res’ all the more exposed to the criticism they so richly deserve.
If I come across as a Pono apologist or swivel-eyed Pono supporter, that’s not the case at all. Personally, I have misgivings about the form factor, that Pono takes on the iPod as sales of iPods decline in favour of music apps on smartphones, and the simple fact that to date few formats based on sound quality alone have proved successful beyond a few passionate audiophile collectors. Also, the specifications ask as many questions as they answer at this time. But, I’m willing to suspend disbelief. I’m also prepared to give great credit where it is due: in the process of making Pono happen, Neil Young has put sound quality back on the map for music lovers, not just audiophiles. For the first time in years, people have been discussing sound quality without fear of being branded an audiophool or a music nerd. Even if Pono fails to thrive, if it signals a ceasefire in the Loudness Wars, that’s good enough for me.