Pono: Can High-Quality Audio Sell Neil Young’s Portable Music Player?

  • Share
  • Read Later
YouTube

Having conquered rock and roll, Neil Young is setting his sights on consumer electronics with Pono, a portable music player and accompanying high-quality audio service coming next year.

Young showed off a prototype Pono device on the Late Show with David Letterman. From the front, it looks somewhat like a fourth-generation iPod Nano, but with only a few face buttons instead of a scroll wheel. The rear, however, forms a right triangle that allows the device to stand propped up on its side. On the top side, there appear to be two headphone jacks.

(MORE: Neil Young: Music Piracy Is ‘The New Radio’)

So what makes Pono unique from countless failed iPod rivals? Apparently, it’s all about sound quality. A story in Rolling Stone, citing Young’s new book Waging Heavy Peace, says Young is lining up a music download service to go along with the portable players. Pono will use digital-to-analog conversion technology to make songs sound like they did during their original studio recording sessions.

Many of the specifics are still unclear. Pono is supposed to be an answer to compressed audio formats, such as MP3 and AAC, but it’s also more than just another lossless format such as FLAC. (“Lossless” means that none of the audio information is removed to reduce file sizes.) We know this because record labels will need to remaster their catalogs to be part of Pono, according to Rolling Stone. If Pono was simply a service for downloading CD-quality audio, the labels wouldn’t have to do anything.

Questions also remain about how the service itself would work. Young’s book mentions a cloud storage element, but that wouldn’t make sense for a standalone audio device unless it’s tethered to an Internet connection. And for users who’ve already amassed huge iTunes libraries, switching to Pono would be problem without an easy and affordable way to swap existing collections for higher-quality versions. Young’s book says that Pono will support other audio formats, but we know nothing about pricing or packaging for the service’s high-quality audio, nor do we know how much storage Pono’s music files will require.

As for whether record labels are willing to remaster their libraries for Pono, that’s also not set in stone. The only solid partnership so far is with Warner Music Group, though Young is negotiating with Universal Music Group and Sony Music as well.

Finally, there’s a fundamental question worth considering: How many people really care about higher audio quality? Studies conflict on whether younger listeners favor lossless audio or actually prefer a bit of degradation. And even if you have a trained ear, it doesn’t mean much if you’re rocking a cheap set of earbuds (or EarPods). The one provider I can think of that tried to offer a wide variety of lossless music downloads, HDGiants, went belly-up in 2009. Other providers, such as Magnatune and Linn, focus on classical, jazz and other niche categories.

Maybe Neil Young, with his celebrity status and industry connections, can do better. Despite the questions that remain, I’m hoping he can, because at the moment audiophiles have no viable options for downloadable music. We’ll see what happens next year, when Pono is due to launch.

MORE: Musical DNA: WhoSampled iPhone App Scours Tracks for Borrowed Riffs

12 comments
Rep4ever
Rep4ever

Is the author not aware of HDTracks.com?

zero_nzyme
zero_nzyme

@synthmeister Where people really hear the difference is listening to music on either a home theater or Hi-Fi setup.  Home theater setups are much more common place than say 10 years ago. There are 16 year old kids with home theater systems that they are using to play games and more of them are asking for high quality music.  Look around the forums you'll see them.  It's not just the audiophiles.

The Ultronz
The Ultronz

so there in lies the answer...or question...or?

So this device does not convert digital to analog.

I merely reproduces the digitized version of music at it's highest resolution.

So it is still digital and it was still converted by a conscious human being from tape to bytes.

192hz/24bit is the highest sampling rate that is common.

These are huge files so we would have to guess that they are somehow streamed to this device or that it has an immense storage capacity, possibly a solid-state drive (SSD).

Ok so then we have the best digitized version of music.

So how do you listen to it. Headphones that can handle that kind of quality are around $200 and big.

Earbuds are cheap cannot handle high quality or in fact can handle it but you could not hear the difference because of the earbuds sonic limitations

So now let's talk about the costs, apparently Neil Young can afford it. By the time you get these big record companies on-board and this music transferred we are talking major amounts of money.

It will not be free

Go listen to one of Neil Youngs vinyl records. Scratches clicks and pops all but it sounds real good in terms of the sonic quality of the capacity of vinyl.

So what happened when they transferred his tapes to CD's and his current music on CD's.

I can tell you this, any of Bob Dylan's new CD's sound pretty damn good.

Neil's...not so good, Overly compressed and lacking in comparison.

So I feel like, and I don't pretend to have the best visions, but I feel like this is all about some serious cash for the short term....for somebody.

Hey Neil, give the "Pono Player" away free and charge for the music.

I do not see this as being a new format by any means but merely a way of distributing higher resolution digital versions of the music. Go buy the vinyl record record, put up with the scratches clicks and pops

Me, I would like to hear this on DVD's as they have the capacity and you have to have a fairly exotic listening device to hear this quality anyway

synthmeister
synthmeister

This thing is completely DOA. 

Yes, perhaps many people can hear the difference between iTunes trax played on mediocre speakers/headphone and Pono tracks played through good headphones or speakers. But do you remember Super Audio CDs? Or DVD Audio disks? They all sounded awesome and died a miserable death.Will people buy yet another gizmo? Will they start replacing their iTunes libraries? And will the record companies even give a flying rip? And if they do, will they sell the high quality trax for less than, say, $1.50?

Remember when iTunes music store started, everyone--and I do mean everyone--Walmart, Sony, Microsoft, McDonald's, Coke, Buy.com---thought they could start another online music store. It is a hugely difficult task. 

If you want great quality audio, the best choice right now is BluRay or even old-fashionded DVDs of great concerts. Try the The Eagles - Farewell 1 Tour - Live From Melbourne . Or the James Taylor DVD at the Beacon Theater. Or Bach BR of the St. Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic. Or Chris Botti BR Live or in Boston.

TrustMeI'mAScientist
TrustMeI'mAScientist

We have already done extensive testing on this as journalists. Dozens of audio developers have done the same.

There's one thing all the science has made clear: If Pono offers any sonic advantage, it won't be due to file resolutions.

Blind

AB listening tests confirm that even trained audio engineers and

self-professed audiophiles can not hear the difference between 256kbs

and 320bps files and the original high-resolution masters.http://trustmeimascientist.com/2012/0...

If

there is any sound advantage to be had with Pono, it might come from

improved headphones, speakers, *possibly* amplifier sections, and

*maybe* DA converters.

You can listen for yourself if you want and decide on your own! Here's a link for that:

http://trustmeimascientist.com...

AnontherReader
AnontherReader

 HDTracks is probably the most popular site for downloading Hi-Resolution rock and pop material (they do classical, jazz and other stuff, too). Much of the material is 24-bit, and there is a small but significant market for it.

 MP3 was originally designed to save space; this is no longer necessary, given the reduction in cost of storage (except  on most portable devices, but the increasing popularity of streaming music files will eventually render this factor lees important).

 There are a few portable devices  capable of playing 24-bit FLAC files, and more computer sound cards are now capable of doing so. Also, low-cost Digital-to analog converters (such as the MusicStreamer II) make it easy for most people to play hi resolution files from their computer through their sound system.

 As for labels having to remaster material, this may be the case for older recordings (which a lot of them are doing anyway), but much recent music has been recorded in the studio at 24 bit resolution--they actually have to downgrade it to render it for CDs (16-bit) or mp3/AAC files. So the labels could actually just make this material available for download at its original resolution. 

The key issue ultimately comes down to pricing; currently, people who download hi-res music (including myself) seem prepared to pay a premium for it. If Pono makes hi-res music more popular, the challenge is for labels to embrace it, while not overcharging for their recordings (which some of them already do just for mp3s).  I will usually purchase a 24-bit FLAC of a recording if it is available, but if it costs significantly more than the 16-bit version offered (or the CD), I will think twice. And ultimately, the question arises: if a piece of music is recorded in the studio at 24 bit resolution, why should one have to pay more for that version than one that has to be reprocessed down to a lower resolution? People should pay artists (and, yes, their labels) for their work; but pricing it according to how it is subsequently degraded is highly questionable. It's a bit like an art gallery charging people a lower entrance fee to look at its paintings, so long as they wear scratched sunglasses. 

Simon Vehicle!
Simon Vehicle!

This is interesting, if it's an audiophile device that's affordable I'd pick one up happily.

iTunes music can be played on non-Apple devices (really early iTunes tracks are encrypted, but they haven't been for years because of interoperability concerns).  What I'm guessing is it'll be able to play files in formats like Apple Lossless, FLAC files, and high-bitrate MP3's without losing the quality as the signal comes out.  Almost all modern music devices can "play" these same files, but it's really questionable if you're actually getting the full potential quality out of your speakers when they're played back.

borisIII
borisIII

I'm sure if it sounds as good as a new record on a good stereo it will make it, but I doubt it.  Took me 13 years to get all of my favorite 1,300 songs onto iTunes.  Wouldn't like to do that all over again, but new technology is fun.

LoudRambler
LoudRambler

I'd buy one solely because it is Canadian, but actually having a nice quality audio, in place of iPhone crap-headphones (yes, those iconic white ones) and reduced bitrate downloads would be a break from the current "distortion" music industry standard.

PS. The difference between the "default" Apple settings and something better is evident on $30 Seinheisser headphones, particularly if something like drums and bass are involved.

Please, give me a break. It does not take a $1000-system to hear the difference.