Thursday, March 20, 2014

Neil Young's Pono Player, and Why You Should Consider Purchasing It



I remember my first stereo system. My dad bought it for me at Sam's in Springfield, Illinois, and it came with a 6-disc changer and two tower speakers. I busted those cheap things while playing Pearl Jam's "Alive," because it could never be loud enough, and I had a lot of built-up energy back then. My friend Matt and I used to sing to Pink Floyd and Nirvana ("Heart-Shaped Box was our favorite) in my basement, playing Mike Tyson's Punchout, eating Fruit Loops, caring about very little. When we got tired of that, we would go outside and throw pine cones at each other. How I still have both of my eyes, well, I really haven't a clue.

When we wanted to bring the music outdoors, all we had was a crappy boombox that played cassettes, and when we cranked that sucker up, it sounded awful, especially when we opted for something with more bass, like Bobby Brown or Too Short. I don't think it was the cassette quality, but rather the speakers just couldn't handle what we wanted them to. We were always searching for quality, though, even at a young age. Portable quality, even if it didn't exist back then.

If my friend Matt were still alive, I believe he would be excited about Neil Young's Pono player, which is due for release around October. Pono is a device that will play files that, as we're told, will sound, at the very least, as good as CD-level quality. Of course, the goal is to sound much better than CDs, but from the details on their Kickstarter page, the low end is 44.1 kHz/16 bit (CD quality) and the high end is 192 kHz/24 bit ("ultra-high resolution"). They make it very clear that this isn't a new type of file -- it's just that they're finally offering a device that will play a 192 kHz/24 bit file, which an iPod cannot. Young and his Pono team are achieving this quality because they have taken the time to find the master recordings of albums you and I love, and then extracting the best possible bit rate from those sources.

Young talked a lot about Pono last week in Austin about SXSW. Let's watch a video of him discussing it.



I've talked to many people about their thoughts on the Pono device. Let me run through a few of the common questions, and then give you my thoughts on them. (Note: I am NOT an audiophile.)

Will you need expensive headphones to hear the difference in quality?

John Hamm's (CEO of Pono) video on their Kickstarter page mentions "the better the headphones, the better the sound" but that "the Pono player sounds good with all headphones." Thanks, John, for...not answering the question? Or maybe he did, we'll just have to see. I would be shocked if the Pono player sounded just fine with headphones you could buy at a gas station, because, well, come on now. My guess is that you're going to want to spend $100+ on a nice pair of headphones after spending $300-400 on a Pono player. And this is without even purchasing the music, which I will get to in just a second.

Will Pono still play low-quality MP3s?

Yes. Which I believe is smart, because it gives the player flexibility. But I also wonder if that will confuse the issue for consumers and ultimately defeat the purpose, which Young ultimately explains here:

"If we fail, and we come out and we try to do this," he explained toward the end of his address, "we've made enough noise so people know something's wrong. If some big huge company comes along and kicks our ass with millions and millions of dollars, that's great for music."

Why do I need another device that plays music? And wait, it's not a phone and I can't browse the Internet with it?

No, it's not a phone. No, you can't use it to get on Facebook. This is part of a problem that we've been sold: that the only way to live is to do too many things at once. Pono does one thing: it plays the best digital file possible. That's it. There is nothing competing or interfering with that goal. You can't get that on an Anroid or iPhone because there are too many other things taking up space/memory/etc. The focus here is on quality of sound and nothing else.

Does sound really matter?

Probably not to everyone, no. But if you hear a difference, it might suddenly mean something to you. It's like drinking the watered-down coffee and then finding the real thing. It's like taking in a concert from the lawn and then ending up in the front row. You will not want to go back. Such is life.

Can you use it for streaming? Does it sound better than Spotify?

You cannot stream music on Pono. The files you will download will be very large, which in turn will require you to have needed hard drive space (which, yes, will probably cost more money for you -- go get those Terabytes, people). And big files don't necessarily translate to streaming, not in 2014 anyway.

Here's the thing, too. According to this article, the sound on Spotify isn't bad, but Pono "does sound different."

If I don't want to listen to Pono via headphones, will I need a nice stereo to tell the difference?

I haven't been fortunate enough to listen to music played on a Pono, so I'll just guess that, yes, you will need a nice stereo to make it worthwhile. And that, like everything else, will cost money. But let's strike that from the equation and say you want Pono for convenience and that's it. Fine. You're still going to need some nice headphones. The bill is adding up. Which brings me to...

You're telling me I'm going to have to purchase all my music again?

Yes. You are absolutely going to have to do that. If you don't want to do that, here's my suggestion: rip all your CDs to WAV files and load those onto your iPod (yes, you can do that). The quality won't, in theory, be what Pono will be able to offer, but it will be better than Fisher Price.

OK. Fine. I'll buy these albums/songs again. How much are they going to cost?

From what I've read/seen, albums will be around $15 to $24, and individual songs will be around $1.99.

Why can't I just listen to my vinyl at home?

You can, but the whole point of Pono is to offer a mobile device that focuses on quality. And unless you want to be the dude at Starbucks who happened to think it was a good idea to bring along his turntable...well...yeah.

New vinyl purchases now often come with cards to download MP3s of the album. Will I soon be able to download high-quality files with the purchase of a vinyl record?

Neil....are you listening?

In closing, I'll be clear: I love Neil Young's music, but this really has nothing to do with that. It has everything to do with giving you a choice about quality when it comes to being mobile. If you're a photographer or videographer, you already have that. My gut says this is just the beginning, and that we'll find many spin-off devices preaching they're doing the same thing. That's fine. But now, thanks to Neil Young, sound quality has a voice, and I'm not sure how that can be seen as a bad thing.