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

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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.

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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.

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