Mainstreamers: get better audio gear before going Pono


If the last week has revealed one thing about Neil Young’s Pono – a high resolution audio ecosystem – is that it’s (apparently) aimed squarely at the mainstream and NOT audiophiles. I don’t doubt that both the player and the music store content combined will sound fantastic…but I’m an audiophile. I seriously dig this shit.

My biggest question today is this: If Pono’s not taking aim at audiophiles per se, do non-audiophile listeners have equipment of sufficient standard to resolve the qualitative jump from MP3 to hi-res? Will they see the value in dropping an average of $20 per Pono release when they can stream almost ANYTHING in MP3 for $15 /month? That’s not meant to sound snobbish, I want to know if people who listen to music via soundbars, TV speakers, laptop speakers and Apple earbuds will really benefit from Pono? Perhaps that’s a rhetorical question?

Screenshot 2014-03-20 14.56.23

Diving in…

Young’s status as one of contemporary music’s most accomplished and respected musicians has ensured an enormous amount of journalistic copy has been spilled in a very short space of time – no doubt star power was pivotal to the immediate runaway financial success of the PonoPlayer’s Kickstarter campaign. You only have to look at the launch video of Neil Young wowing his celebrity pals to see why it’s already tipped $4m in crowdfunding.

There are plenty who have written wholly in support of Pono. Tyll Herstens at Inner Fidelity has expressed cautious optimism in wanting Pono to succeed despite it facing an uphill battle: that Toblerone shape, the price of Pono music.

Other commentators have expressed surprise at the naysayers, describing some writers as being too eager to shoot the Pono player from the sky on its maiden voyage. Apparently audiophiles should be grateful for Young advancing their cause – that a rising tide lifts all boats. (I’ve read that same phrase countless times on numerous sites). I’m totally down with the broader message that sound quality matters but it’s the (lack of) specifics of Pono and its (lack of) potential to dent its intended mainstream market that worry me. Dissent is unavoidable when faced with a dearth of concrete reasoning and/or facts. Dissent emboldens the democratic process and it’s a pity that in some circles I’ve seen it suggested that calling Pono into question is being the audiophile equivalent of “unpatriotic”.

Are you not concerned that if Neil Young pushes too hard with Pono (and misses) it will only cement further the public perception that audiophiles are a bunch of idealistic weirdos who listen to nothing but old man music? I am.


The argument that pegs me as a naysayer is no tighter than the argument that has pro-Pono writers being mouthpieces for the promotional machine. You shouldn’t doubt my commitment to Sparkle Motion. I just want to know exactly HOW Neil Young and his team intend to bring mainstream music lovers over to Pono. Willing something to happen, no matter how much we want it or think the world deserves it, doesn’t make it so. I reckon it’ll take far more than the (audiophile) press paying forward the promotional vibes to make mainstream HRA listening a reality. An idea spread without question or substantiation is just propaganda. I also gotta ask: is 12440 backers a sign of potential mainstream appeal? To give those numbers some perspective, 2146 people backed LH Labs’ Geek Out Kickstarter raising a total of $303061. What if the Pono Kickstarter tips 50000 backers? Could Pono then be described as a crossover success? 

The language of last was week’s Pono launch in Austin was (initially at least) light on detail and HEAVY on emotive suggestion that Pono would offer a fresh take on high resolution audio (HRA). Just look at the tagline of the Kickstarter: “Where your soul rediscovers music”.

It could be that I’m just super-sensitive to promotional bullshit. When PS Audio recently announced details of their DirectStream DAC the press release claimed that it will make your existing DAC sound ‘broken’. Nonsense! I’m sure the DirectStream DAC will sound very special indeed but a technological breakthrough by one manufacturer doesn’t immediately invalidate all that has been previously made by rival manufacturers. If we apply PS Audio’s spin to Pono then Ayre’s PonoPlayer will sound ‘broken’. I hope my silly thinking here underscores my serious point: if the marketing spin turns to hyperbole, it obscures what might be a very reasonable underlying message.


I adore Neil Young (& Crazy Horse). My first year at university was soundtracked by Live Rust. This is also the guy that gave us On The Beach, Harvest Moon and Weld. However, just because I think he’s a bit of a geezer as a musician doesn’t mean I’m gonna swallow his audiophile endeavours without first looking under the hood to see how it might go down. A lack of clarity was what prompted my reluctance as an audiophile to drop $300 on a PonoPlayer, especially in light of the absence of specifics on the PonoMusic store. Does that make me a Negative Nancy? I don’t think so. I’m just saying that the devil is in the details.

Had Ayre Acoustics launched the PonoPlayer without celebrity backing they might have been more candid about what it was (and wasn’t) from the outset: that it’s a digital audio player with ESS9018 decoder, custom minimal phase filter and 64Gb of internal memory, all for $400. I might have been more interested had the promotional language been more straight down the line. But it wasn’t. The celebrity-endorsed, emotionally charged spin strongly suggested a paradigm shift was just around the corner. What would that paradigm shift look like? There was plenty of hope (and online chatter) that the PonoMusic store would provide the missing part of the puzzle.

In the numerous follow up interviews Neil Young and his team have been quizzed on those details. When interviewed by Michael Lavorgna of (the always excellent) Audiostream, Young said, “…there’s nothing new. There is no new thing. It’s just available. It’s available to everybody.” A thunderous noise being made about something that’s not in any way new is precisely why I’ve been a bit hard on the PonoPlayer.

However, Chris Connaker’s revealing interview with Mr Young suggests that the PonoStore might not actually be what we had been led to believe either: fresh masters of old favourites.

“Will there be a Pono certification or guarantee or Mastered for Pono type thing to designate tracks that are of pono quality?”, asked Connaker.

Young replied, “No. Pono is Pono. You make what you make. When we say it’s Pono that means we are bringing you the closest thing to the master, if it’s not the master, if it’s not the native resolution it’s the closet thing to it that was mastered.”

Do we take it then that PonoMusic will more similar to (than different from) the Chesky brothers’ existing HDTracks store? On this Young says, “I don’t know what the HDtracks store is like. The Pono Store will be the Pono Store. We sell stuff that is Pono. It’s the best that’s available. Period.” That doesn’t exactly clarify things does it?

Moreover, the PonoMusic store will only initially be open to residents of the US, Canada and the UK.

Hats off to Connaker for quizzing Young on the provenance of some of his own HRA releases. Young is somewhat vague with his responses, exposing himself as an artist apparently not completely on top of his own content. This does not bode well, particularly when the central message of Pono is to deliver what the artist intended.

If the PonoPlayer is nothing new and the PonoStore will offer nothing new, why should I/we be excited at all about Pono? Kicktraq points to Pono’s Kickstarter backing looking more like a (passing) wave than a rising tide:

Some optimistically believe that Pono will likely enjoy success similar to the Iovine/Dre Beats headphone line. I don’t see it that way. Here’s why: Beats headphones are a way of ameliorating your existing listening experience – you plug them into your smartphone or computer and away you go, no more to pay. Amelioration is also the name of the game when you look at LH Labs’ Kickstarter-fuelled Geek Out and Geek Pulse devices – you connect them to your existing computer to “awesomeify” its sound. Again, no more to pay. In both cases, the consumer isn’t being asked to change his source material.

Young’s Pono argument is (for the most part) imploring the user to start over. The PonoPlayer might be seen as amelioration but only for those with existing libraries. Overall, Pono’s intent is substitution: buy your music again and listen to it via this new fandangled hardware player.  Spotify, MOG and Pandora have become central to way the mainstream listen to music but, by its very nature, Pono excludes them from its vision. This is Pono’s achilles heel.

Connaker again: “Convenience always trumps quality for the masses. Pono must deliver on both quality and convenience to succeed.” [My emphasis] Damn straight it does, Chris.

How we assess a product’s qualitative value is heavily influenced by two factors: 1) money and 2) convenience. One look at the gear scattered across my listening room shows that I put sound quality in front of convenience and money. If that weren’t the case you’d find me nearly always listening to Spotify and iTunes downloads through a pair of Usher S-520, driven by a NAD D 7050. Truth is, I don’t NEED the convenience of on-demand Spotify (so much) as I already dropped tens of thousands of dollars during my twenties and thirties amassing a 10,000 strong CD collection, now all FLAC-ripped to hard drives. That’s my convenience right there. I have the luxury of a pre-existing lossless collection to which I add gear to make it sound good/better/best.

To riff on Pono CEO John Hamm’s analogy, when it comes to wine, I’m not as obsessive. Not every occasion calls for a $100 bottle. A lot of the time I’m more than happy with a $15 bottle. The $85 difference is (more often that not) not worth it for me. It’s the same with films. I enjoy going to the movie theatre but most of the time I’m happy with Netflix on the TV. I can see the pixelation and smearing of the video compression but I don’t care because the convenience factor outweighs the loss of quality. Different priorities abound in different areas of my life. I’m sure it’s the same with you. You probably prioritise some things over others.


Whilst on the bus or walkabout around town I listen to MP3s via Spotify because of its inherent convenience. There: I said it. I listen to MP3s. The sound isn’t as good as the aforementioned FLACs piped from my Astell&Kern AK120, but it’s good enough. If the Astell&Kern device represents the idealist position in portable digital audio playback, Spotify is the pragmatist’s: sound quality takes a hit but I don’t have to carry two devices and I’m not limited to the music choices that I’ve pre-loaded onto the player. Spotify’s vast catalogue allows for greater spontaneity with album/song choices. My smartphone’s convenience outweighs the need for better sound and I certainly don’t find Spotify unlistenable because I don’t always demand audiophile-grade sound quality. Like Doug Stanhope‘s Mom blurted out on her deathbed, “There’s times to be dainty and there’s times to be a pig.”

Anyone who tells you Spotify is unlistenable is lying to you…and yet that’s what Neil Young is telling us. He’s selling Pono on the notion that MP3 playback is like listening to music underwater. He then explains that Pono will allow listeners to break the surface and breath HRA audio air. This message is as hyperbolic as it is plain silly. It’s also arse-backwards. You know who complains most about the sound quality of MP3s? Audiophiles! (I wonder if Neil Young would admit that HE is an audiophile? ) Audiophiles need something to kick against because they’re idealists chasing the ultimate in audio fidelity. The man in the street isn’t an idealist, he’s a pragmatist, comfortable with MP3’s sonic compromise. He likely knows that MP3s don’t sound as good as CDs but he also knows that their smaller file size allows him to pack thousands of songs onto this iDevice/smartphone and for web services to stream music with relative ease.

Have you actually thought about how Pono might (fail to) win over Mr and Mrs MOR? I have. Last week I wondered what my non-audiophile mates would make of Pono; music obsessives every last one of them but not all have taken the trouble to rip their CDs and those that did went with the MP3 codec. Realising that their MP3 collections have since been rendered (almost!) redundant by web-based subscription services, most have jumped to Spotify or Rdio for the majority of their listening.


When I showed them Young’s MP3-as-scuba-diving graphic they looked utterly non-plussed. MP3s streamed from Spotify are good enough for those guys because those guys aren’t chasing the ultimate in fidelity. I daren’t tell my pals that most of the modern music they dig isn’t even available as hi-res. Compared to CD releases, the hi-res glass isn’t just half empty, it’s 95% empty.

Young might be able to sway those who mostly buy their music from the iTunes store towards his new service but he’s gonna have a tougher time bringing streamers into the fold; this is where listeners are happy enough with the sound quality when it’s set against the backdrop of a HUGE catalogue for a low subscription fee. Music first, sound quality (a close) second.

The Pono team have ruled out hi-res streaming due to its unsupportable network traffic demands. Even if it were possible the catalogue size wouldn’t be anyway near large enough to get users used to Spotify/Rdio/Deezer to jump ship. To expand said catalogue, Pono effectively demands a top-to-bottom rethink and restructure of the way music is recorded, mixed, mastered and delivered. That might happen. I hope it does. But – again – willing something to happen doesn’t make it so.

Other commentators have argued that if Pono fails, it will at least encourage Apple to dispense with lossy compression in its iTunes store. If Apple does go that way, it won’t be because of Pono. The move toward CD quality audio for the mainstream is already in motion: Qobuz offer FLAC streaming and downloads for 20GBP /month – surely the biggest bargain in digital audio content provision right now? With a catalogue almost as bountiful as Spotify, I believe this French company is doing great things to advance the ‘sound quality matters’ message in the collective consumer consciousness. Qobuz have struck the right balance between sound quality, music availability and price; it’s probable that other services will follow suit either this year or next. Lossless (CD quality) streaming is the next step in improving the daily aural diet of the mainstream – not Pono.

Screenshot 2014-03-20 15.25.39

For many listeners a step up to hi-res from MP3 is a step too far, too soon. Young seems to be ignoring the intermediary step of lossless Redbook. Without an ability to impact the sound quality of a millions of songs Pono lacks immediate wow factor. Remember when you first saw an iPod? I do. I absolutely HAD to own one. I enjoyed a similar feeling when I first saw Spotify and MOG in action. Perhaps this underlines how my audiophile aspirations are dwarfed by my musical fanaticism?

No doubt the PonoPlayer will be an excellent sounding device. It’s well priced at $300-400 and backed by a stellar engineering team; Ayre Acoustics has a terrific reputation for making superb digital audio products. That said, the PonoPlayer is pushing against the tide of hardware convergence. Your average Joe’s smartphone now doubles as his portable music player. Asking him to return to two devices is a big ask.

The PonoMusic store is pushing against the tide of those who see music supply like any other household utility. As cold as that may sound, it’s hard to go past $15 / month for a streaming service that lets the listener tap its entire catalogue, especially when you look at what that same $15 would buy you at the iTunes store: one album. The financial incentive to rent music (instead of owning it outright) is becoming increasingly compelling.

Perhaps the non-audiophile target of Pono is intended as a way of dodging criticism from the press? Ignoring the inverted snobbery of “Audiophiles, this isn’t for you, it’s for the mainstream”, the Pono team have made it extra hard for themselves to succeed in going after the same customer that might have bought Beats headphones to ameliorate his smartphone audio time. Pono isn’t a one time deal for a new bit of hardware. It’s asking people to buy music, album by album, at between $15 and $25 a pop. Audiophiles will likely lap it up because they already own the hardware that’ll fully realise the benefit of higher sample rates and bigger bit rates. My non-audiophile mates probably won’t spend that kind of money on it even if they hear how good HRA can sound. I didn’t wanna subject any of them to A/B listening sessions so let’s just assume my pals heard the difference and dug it immensely. That way we can side-step the debate about hi-res audio’s superiority. As John Hamm says, “This is not a hearing test”.

quality spectrum

The enthusiasm for Pono among my pub pals cooled rapidly when the thornier issue of money stepped in to say g’day. Before I get into the numbers, let us assume that the PonoPlayer is a better sounding player than the AK100, the Fiio and the iPod Classic. If you want to Pono your way through a modest collection of 100 albums you’d need $300 for the player and then $1500-$2500 for the music itself. So $1800-$2800 all up, depending on the albums purchased. This is where I lose my buddies. These guys are used to paying $15 /month (tops!) to stream (almost) any song they can think of. The quality isn’t quite there but it’s good enough given the sky high convenience factor.

For these guys, wouldn’t $2000 be better spent on improving the sound quality of their existing music collections and streaming services? Think about it: with $2k in your pocket you could snag a year’s Qobuz lossless subscription ($350), a CEntrance Hifi-M8 to strap to your smartphone ($799) and a pair of Sennheiser Momentum ($350) or V-Moda Crossfade M-100 ($350) headphones. Alternatively, that Qobuz account could deployed at home with a NAD D 3020 ($499) and a pair of Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 ($350). Better hardware applied to what’s already in the cloud or on your hard drive is more likely to awaken the audiophile within. Once your first system is sorted, then look at Pono. By which time you’ll be a bona fide audiophile – oh, the irony.

I too think it’s fantastic that Uncle Neil is spreading the good news about good sound but if I could’ve wished for one thing it would’ve been that Young had made hardware the focus. His star power would’ve made the home hi-fi setup or portable head-fi rig the crux of the conversation. Would this not have been a more effective way to move people on from listening to music through laptop speakers or white earbuds? The general public’s indifference to good playback hardware is a far more troublesome issue than MP3 source material for this audiophile. Not to mention, hardware purchases are also what keep high street hifi stores alive.

Instead, Young’s source-first approach is more likely to make inroads within the belly of the music industry itself: getting fellow artists to think about how they record in the studio, how they master – which has a BIG impact on the end result – and how they deliver the that end result world. It’ll get musicians thinking about quality and that can only be a good thing.

I sincerely hope non-audiophiles are reading this article. If you classify yourself as one such person, I’d ask you to look carefully at the gear you currently listen to music on. Do you have a ‘good’ pair of headphones or speakers driven by a ‘decent’ amplifier? No, I’m not talking mega-buck devices. If you own those, you’re likely already an audiophile to some degree. However, if you are listening through the white earbuds that shipped with your iPhone or through the speakers on your laptop (or your TV), I’d suggest that dropping $2k on hardware amelioration of your Spotify account is money better spent than starting over with buying hi-res audio releases and a digital audio player. You could even avail yourself of a one month free trial of Qobuz’s lossless streaming to see if you find value in uncompressed Redbook.

In short, mainstreamers should spend their money on a better hi-fi/head-fi rig before dropping money on hi-res source material.

“Like what?” you say.

Stay tuned – there’ll be more on entry-level hardware to come.

Further information: Pono at Computer Audiophile | Pono on Kickstarter | Pono on Kicktraq

Written by John H. Darko

John lives in the NOW + HERE = NOWHERE. He derives an income from the ad revenues of DAR. John is also an occasional staff writer for Stereophile, 6moons and TONEAudio.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
Instagram: DarkoAudio
Facebook: DAR


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  1. “Some optimistically believe that Pono will likely enjoy success similar to the Iovine/Dre Beats headphone line. I don’t see it that way. Here’s why: Beats headphones are a way of ameliorating your existing listening experience – you plug them into your smartphone or computer and away you go, no more to pay. Amelioration is also the name of the game when you look at LH Labs’ Kickstarter-fuelled Geek Out and Geek Pulse devices – you connect them to your existing computer to “awesomeify” its sound. Again, no more to pay. In both cases, the consumer isn’t being asked to change his source material.”

    You hit the play button on this one. I wish Pono would redefine the pricing structure of digital audio distribution, but it probably won’t.

  2. Great article JD, and you’re damn right – for the mainstream, convenience and price trumps quality. It’ll never fly.

  3. “Anyone who tells you Spotify is unlistenable is lying to you”. Hey, I get it. You dig Spotify. Guess what? It’s listenable. But it’s not good and no amount of amelioration is going to change that. I can’t even imagine how people will react when they chew through their data limits trying to stream a FLAC service through their phones when they’re on the go. Here’s the thing though: most people don’t consume as much music as you do. They can buy five CDs a year, rip them to FLAC, store them on Pono, and then listen to their CDs through headphones or send it through a car stereo or anything with a line input. Your *favorite* music collection is suddenly portable again, not *every* song in the universe. Users can also rip their existing CDs into FLAC and load them without ever going to the Pono Store or, if we’re being totally honest, simply download FLAC files in a torrent. So here’s the question: is the Pono hardware going to sound different enough when hooked up to a $200 pair of headphones, through a line input into powered speakers, or a twenty-five year old receiver to make people take notice? My guess is yes, since most people’s audio files are MP3s. It’s a pipe dream to think people are going to drop thousands on the equipment you name. People already own music they can rip and put on Pono, while your whole argument depends on them buying music *again* to reach that $2000 threshold. And let’s face it: even $1000 spent to improve a Spotify stream is ludicrous, especially when you haven’t accounted for how the Spotify stream actually gets to that stereo rig. Headphone line out so you’re tethered to your stereo when you’re trying to use your laptop? Running Spotify through your phone using WiFi? It’s not a pipe dream to think that Pono might be the highest price point people are willing to pay for storing 100 CDs in FLAC and play them back without needing a computer and being able to move them from house to car to backpack. The iPod Classic is $249US. Pono is $399US. Which would you rather have?

    • @CCFK

      1) Data limits for FLAC streaming needn’t be so much of an issue if the user downloads the FLAC album(s) over their home network first *before* venturing out. Streaming is still available in the street for the moments of compulsive spontaneity.

      2) Most people don’t listen to as much music as I do? A lot of music nerd pals would beg to differ. They’re obsessive about music and want access to a lot of new releases; NEW music is big for them.

      3) I can see Pono might appeal to people who only buy only a few albums a year – but hi-res content is thin on the ground when stacked next to the global content. My Dad might dig HRA on Pono.

      4) $1000 to improve Spotify is ludicrous? I disagree. Especially if there’s a big name behind it. Oh yeah, it already happened with Beats headphones. 😉 No reason why that couldn’t happen with a $500 pair of powered speakers. Hello Vanatoo! I don’t think it’s a pipe dream at all.

      5) Yes, Pono content is likely to sound fundamentally more ‘nourishing’. And that’s the sharp end of Young’s angle. But so will a jump to Redbook streaming from MP3 and you don’t have to surrender 95% of the world’s music output to get there. I’m not saying EVERYTHING is on Qobuz – it isn’t – but it maybe has 80%. Perhaps a lossless iTunes store will fill in the blanks? Perhaps Spotify/MOG will move to lossless in trying to compete with Qobuz? I *really* hope it does!

      6) Which would I rather own between PonoPlayer and iPod? PonoPlayer! I have no issue with it’s toblerone shape or carrying a second device. Neither would my Dad.

  4. Wow, great article John. It’s funny, you’re making obvious points that, nobody else is making. I’m one of those streamers like your buds. I gave up on CDs and files long ago. They were all spread out – some on old desktops, thumb drives, MP3s burned to CDs in the car, on my old iPod I no longer listen to, etc. I’m not going to corral all those up and place them on a $5000 device that will be obsolete 2 years hence. Streaming is not just the future, it’s now. Sure, some will want to maintain collections of HRA files and that’s great, especially if you have gone to the trouble of creating your collection over many years. It stands to reason that streaming services will get better and improve their resolution, and you’ve noted that is already happening. What I want is a device that makes streamed music to my stereo and headphones sound its best (a DAC that enhances Spotify?), and for artists to be better compensated for their efforts from streaming services, even if it means paying a little more each month.

  5. Phew, quite a read but very informative. (next to the Audiostream sites)
    And yes, the prices of those 24bit Pono-albums are a crucial factor.
    Personally I don’t care for the player.
    Also… “Young seems to be ignoring the intermediary step of lossless Redbook.”
    That’s exactly why Qobuz should be a upcoming succes (in the EU), but their catalogue is still a little slim but steadily growing.
    Altough I like buying lossless ‘Redbook’ music-files in FLAC (albums or single songs) even better.

  6. Whew! You’ve written a F’***’n novel here John, and with many good points indeed. The mass market for portable music devices are young unemployed people who live in their parent’s basement with their cats…only a few old farts who enjoy hi rez players. Don’t look at me!

    PONO’s friend is low cost. The player is a bargain in the realm of hi rez players with displays – maybe only the iPod is comparable? It’s Nemesis is the music store. Young people living in their parents basement may not be able to afford a hit for each album they don’t need to replace because they either have the MP3 they stole, or they can stream Pandora for substantially less. These are the two salient points, not the shape or audiophile creds.

    The PONO will miss on major audiophile creds out of the gate….it won’t have the drive the best portables like CEntrance’s M8, or balanced out that audiophiles (should) want for top flight headsets. Audiophiles also want cache, exclusivity, a higher level of construction quality than a device that might likely be sold in bubble wrap.

    Lastly, the latest players will support DS, PONO at this stage does not.

    It might be taken up by the mainstream if a large enough propaganda campaign is waged to make it desirable enough for a large number of people to spring for it and then the keeping up with the Joneses’ principle takes over…my friend has it, I must have it. People are after all springing for junk like Dre and other similar kind at $200US, so a run on the PONO is not that far fetched.

    The lifestyle magazines looking for content will go gaga over it; they are unaware that there’s nothing new there. What’s new are the “players” hawking the product, it’s unusual look (that, is different), and the music store which’ll make newbies fearless – they’ll have a ready source.

    What can kill the PONO idea is ennui and boredom. The average listener may or may not hear differences large enough to keep buying content, or may just get bored with carrying an extra audio device when their current iPhone is “good enough,” especially not worthwhile after the novelty has worn off.

    One more thing: While I own a good portable DAC/amp, I am at home more often than I travel, and when I travel I am busy traveling, looking at sights and taking pictures…or paying attention to driving. I also believe in the “travel lightly” principle which makes carrying an Audeze headset tied to a M8 not particularly attractive. An iPhone with an earbud is all any sensible man needs at the gym or traveling.

    Thinking about it all, I am, and will likely use my portable DAC for desktop use and little use on the road – if at all. I have the option and that’s about it.

    Accordingly, my next DAC will not likely be a portable one.

    I wish PONO luck if only they expand the audiophile idea to some of the masses. And if they make significant inroads, all the better for all of us.

    • @ AGB – Yeah, 3000 words! Took a full two days to write. 🙂 Your sentiments echo my own, especially your point about ennui.

  7. When NY says he doesn’t know what HDtracks is…. that is alarming. He wants to change digital distribution but he doesn’t know what it is now?


  8. Great article John, very good points – it would be interesting to see what Pono world will look like…

  9. Most people who listen only to rap, hip hop, and the vast majority of simple commercial contemporary pop music don’t need audiophile ANYTHING. Those genres certainly take up a big part of the mainstream. The quality requirements for most of those listeners are that it sounds good to their tin ears and has a bias to unnatural bass. Some of them don’t know or care about the distortion and damage over-driving creates. Lower bit rate MP3s and iTunes equivalents are good enough and they can cram thousands of songs in cell phones and cheaper media players with relatively small storage capacities.

    They may give Pono some consideration when it has a smart phone integrated. Or Pono is licensed by a phone manufacturer and is integrated into phones.

    • “Most people who listen only to rap, hip hop, and the vast majority of simple commercial contemporary pop music don’t need audiophile ANYTHING.” <--- Your comment reinforces the stereotype that audiophiles are snobs and I don't buy it - sorry. Anyone can experience good/better sound, no matter what their musical taste. Anyone can be an audiophile, even with $500 to spend. An inclusive attitude is what's needed. I like your idea of smart phone integration although that'd require a hardware/software lift from the likes of Samsung, HTC and Apple. Likely? I'm not so sure. Not yet anyway.

  10. Genius level movie reference! —> “You shouldn’t doubt my commitment to Sparkle Motion!”

    Question: Where is all of the high-res electronic music?!? My acid test for taking the high-res plunge consists of Moon Safari by Air and Tokyo by Marconi Union. Wake me up when either of those become available. DSD, PCM…whatever, I’ll take what I can get!

    • Sadly, it doesn’t really exist beyond the darknet needle drops. Some of Oliver Lieb’s reissues have 24bit editions but IIRC but I’m only aware of a VERY few electronic artists that care for their catalogue to that extent.

  11. Reasons I WOULD Buy a PONO
    I see PONO as a relatively affordable DAP and a way to get better sound in my car.

    My assumption is PONO will allow playback of existing 24/192 or any other FLAC files that I (we) already own, so for those of us who already have FLAC libraries, it’s a winner.

    Although I own a Calyx DAC and should know more about the M, based on initial articles, these other competing players are a fair bit more costly than PONO, or it is possible I am unaware of the options out there. I do not imagine they would be less expensive.

    If this thing sounds better than my iPod/iPhone/iPad in my car, I will forgo the integration convenience of changing songs from my steering-wheel and viewing titles on my dash over using a PONO with a 3.5mm jack – I am betting it will sound a fair far bit better than an iPod or iPhone for that purpose.

    So for me at $300-400 that is a pretty decent proposition even in the audiophile world.

    If the byproduct of Neil’s PONO venture offers a better sounding music store, more options for people to get hi res music, then that is a bonus.

    • Yes, for those with existing libraries the PonoPlayer is a sound proposition. The PonoMusic store will likely slot in next to HDTracks, Acoustic Sounds and Bandcamp as a niche outlet for hi-res releases.

  12. In PONO’s defense, PONO *is* the hardware you’re talking about. It can play CD-quality FLACs, so people don’t necessarily need to replace their music libraries, and I get the strong impression (though I can’t tell you why) that it has a pretty solid DAC and amp set up in that little Toblerone box, and thus will provide a great environment for people getting into high-end audio.

    However, I totally agree with you on the convenience issue; really I don’t think anything could pull me away from using Spotify on the go, and besides, sound quality is never really important unless you can sit down without anything distracting you from the music. PONO really isn’t necessary for anyone listening at home either, if they have a good system already. I’m not sure PONO will have much of a role in the audiophile world besides a “call to arms” for better sound quality.

  13. The question is can the Pono provide the same sound quality as Astell & Kern, but at a lower price? Not sure why everyone is getting wound up about this…

    • The real question is how many “NON-audiophiles” are going to buy a Pono? Probably not enough to make a dent in the overall media player market.

      I use my computer as my source and I just started collecting 24 bit albums from HD Tracks, B&W, etc. and I have less than 25 24 bit albums, but I have about 10,000 standard CDs, and then a bunch of 320kbps MP3 downloads from Wolfgang’s Vault and then a handful of albums from iTunes, but 99% of what I have is 24 bit. I think the record labels have to start spitting out more 24 bit content FIRST. Sony, on the other hand seems to be more interested in spitting out DSD files starting this year.

      I would probably buy the AK instead if I used a media player, but since I don’t, I just use my computer for any serious listening.

      If I wanted to use my iPhone/iPad/iPod in a car and want 24 bit capability, then I might just use a iFi Audio iDSD and connect it and use that instead. It’s only $189 and works with my existing iDevices which give more functionality than the Pono which doesn’t do much else other than playing music. It doesn’t play videos, it doesn’t do email, internet, etc. like an iPod Touch, etc.

  14. It might be able to play 24 bit files, but there aren’t that many on the market, so between the higher price of content and the lack of it, the masses won’t see 24 bit as a big enough reason. As far as it playing 16 bit files? And? Apple owns the majority of this space and anyone trying to capture much market away from Apple is delusional. I also think that some of these newer “mastered for iTunes” seems to be an improvement and certainly “good enough” for the casual user.

    The “audiophiles” are always going to be more interested in paying more for the better quality, but that market segment is puny. Out of the “audiophiles” that would even consider a Pono over something like an Astell Kern is even smaller.

    Any time there is a new product on the market , there is a increase in interest, but it drops off significantly unless the masses keep the momentum going. Obviouisly, Apple, being the King of the media player is seeing a drop off because that type of product has matured and more and more people are using iPhones and IPads instead. I can see some time down the road Apple putting out a 24 bit iPod/iPhone/iPad, but it may be another year or two and the record labels have to be spitting out a LOT more 24 bit content and charge only a small premium over the price of 16 bit for it to make sense

  15. I’m an audiophile.
    I’m a music junkie with eclectic tastes.

    Your article, which goes way beyond just Pono, most eloquently describes the various streams (no puns intended) of music listening today.

    Really, we’re all right.

    Thanks, John.
    This was a great piece.
    Its themes echo loudly.

    Dave, who has deeply loved or sometimes only liked or sometimes been annoyed by Neil Young’s music since freshman year in college in 1968

  16. “Young seems to be ignoring the intermediary step of lossless Redbook.”

    Hm, no it doesn’t appear this is so, as the Pono FAQ says “PonoMusic has a quality spectrum, ranging from … CD lossless quality recordings: 1411 kbps (44.1 kHz/16 bit) FLAC files”

    “most of the modern music they dig isn’t even available as hi-res. Compared to CD releases, the hi-res glass isn’t just half empty, it’s 95% empty”

    I thought that was a large part of the point of Pono – to make it less empty. No? To show the record companies and producers that there IS interest in high res content, from the “mainstream.”

    The kicktraq graphs of the first few days of Pono look very similar to the Geek:

    Thanks for an interesting read 🙂

    • Thanks for posting the Geek’s kicktraq. VERY interesting. 🙂

      The PonoPlayer kinda has to support existing formats for it to sell but that doesn’t mean NY and co. are behind Redbook. One look at that silly underwater graphic shows you that! Young is kicking against MP3 to push HRA; a bit like complaining that your pet cat isn’t a puma.

  17. EXCELLENT post John. I agree whole heartedly. The entire premise behind Pono is all marketing fluff and nonsense. There is not “30x” more musical information in HR files than MP3s. High-res DOES NOT automatically equal great sound. That’s like saying that the best digital camera you can buy is that Nokia phone that has 41 megapixels. A Nikon D4S has only 16 megapixels. What a joke! The Nokia has almost 3X more megapixels, therefore its pictures will look 3X better than the Nikon! Bigger numbers mean better than smaller numbers!

    This is insane, and the fact that some audiophiles and industry writers are defending it is pathetic. The Pono store is not a reissue label like Analogue Productions or Music Matters that have done the brilliant sounding Blue Note reissues. The Pono store, exactly like HDTracks, will get whatever the record companies choose to give them. Which is very likely to be terribly mastered, dynamically compromised garbage.

    The quality of the recording and the engineering behind it are EVERYTHING. That’s essentially ALL that matters. Audiophiles may not like to admit it, but whether the format is CD, SACD, HR PCM, or even vinyl, is basically irrelevant. Well engineered recordings sound good. Badly engineered recordings sound bad. Period. There is plenty of “audiophile 24/96” on HDTracks that sounds like crap. They also have some recordings that sound phenomenal. The high res packaging has NOTHING to do with it.

    Is 16/44 “good enough?” Some audiophiles think it’s the devil, I would just say it’s less than ideal, an anachronism of 1970s digital and recording technology. It would be silly to stick with it forever, especially considering it causes problems in the audible band that have to be dealt with by things like apodising filters. HR is not some kind of magic potion though that will make a recording like Metallica’s Death Magnetic sound good. That album was ruined by its engineers, and 32/384 DXD or DSD256 would not save it. Nor would vinyl. It’s the same with most other popular music albums.

    I understand what Young is trying to do, but what he and most other musicians of his era completely fail to understand is that its not the CD or the MP3 that have ruined the sound of music. BAD MASTERING has ruined the sound of music. The vast majority of today’s popular releases are mastered at around DR5, with every track smashing into 0dBFS and loads of clipping. When every second of a song has to be AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE, you lose the kick drum, you lose the bass guitar, you lose the cymbals. All you’re left with is punishingly loud vocals and guitars. After ten minutes you want to turn it off.

    If you want good sounding music, forget 24/192. End the loudness war. THAT is the magic potion.

  18. John, very interesting commentary. I think it is too early to tell whether Pono will be a success, failure, or something in between.

    Obviously streaming’s become huge. It still makes the record labels substantially less money than CD sales or downloads:

    In 2013, 1.26 billion digital tracks were sold, and 165.4 million CDs. Using 70 cents per download and 10 dollars per CD as rough guides, that would be about $882 million in revenue from downloads and $1.65 billion from disks. To get something of that order of revenue from streaming would require 1000 billion tracks streamed. There were 118 billion tracks streamed in 2013, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that we’d see a tenfold increase in coming years.

    Based on the above, Pono music pricing may incline the record labels to want it to do well, and thus help out by making desirable/more/newer content available, and perhaps even devoting a portion of new release marketing budgets to availability on the Pono store.

    Regarding music “rental” vs. “ownership” – The labels years ago thought rental would easily beat out ownership, until iTunes came along and ate their lunch. What beat both expensive album downloads and monthly rental was cheap downloads of *individual tracks*. Availability of individual hit tracks will be critical if Pono is to be a success. (Even that may not make it successful, but if it does become successful, I think that will be a necessary piece of the strategy.)

    I don’t think I’m alone in being very tired of never being able to finish paying for much of what I consume, whether it’s connectivity for my computer and smart phone, “owning” a smart phone, watching TV…. I recently purchased a box that provides my home phone service. It wasn’t dirt cheap, though not what I’d consider terribly expensive either, but the relief of not having to pay any monthly fee was huge. Not to have to think about yet another monthly bill – how wonderful. In that context, the idea of paying Qobuz more than $30 US per month doesn’t thrill me at all, even if I might wind up buying several $25 downloads in the next couple of months. ‘Cause I’m done paying for them, finished, no monthly charge forever and ever amen to worry about. That idea seems pretty attractive to me, especially if I can pick and choose individual tracks at a reasonable price.

  19. It’s funny, music means something different to every listener. I’m in my 60’s and learned some time ago that a couple of little ear buds is right for some people because the music is background noise, rhythm, a beat, nothing more.

    But I also know that over the last 40+ years that I’ll play something or show someone what an LP will sound like and I’ve had people ask how they can get something like that and tell me their budget. I personally doubt that Pono will go mainstream but for those of us that love to hear more detail, gain some access to the spatial quality that’s missing in those little ear buds….well I for one am glad that there are others who still care enough to try.

    So maybe it’ll just be a few of us who listen, then again I’m not sure why you would care so much about the hype. Take up the challenge and come up with something better!

    We know there are at least 14,000 or so who are waiting.

    • Indeed it has – I’m fully across the DirectStream tech and Ted Smith’s innovative approach. It’s the associated marketing verbiage that I struggle with.

  20. John, I would rather see you supporting Pono with advice to Neil to get over all or some of the flaws you see. I had to shake my body 5 times to get rid of all the depression your article put on me!

    I see (again after a lot of shaking) a great chance for a better sound material in the future.

    Take the player. It plays all formats with a (hopefully) great DAC hardware for a affordable price. The player alone can be a success. I’ll buy one regardless of the available music downloads.

    Take the shop. It will be another source for good sampled music. Maybe it will put a little more pressure on the industry to provide more such quality.

    Will it be the next I-something-success? Probably not. Do it has to? Not at all!

    Both has to be as successful as to justify its production and maintenance – not more.

    We as music lovers will win whatever happens to Pono.

    Place a warning to the people not to buy the player blindly rather then listen first to the quality and, done.

    Now, after shaking my body several time again again, I’m looking forward to hear the sound and read the coming reviews.

    Regards from Germany


    • Sorry to hear my comments made you shake wildly Wolf. My articles were mainly written as a slight push back against an awful lot of positive mainstream coverage. Some of audiophile press seem bemused as to why each and everyone of their peers aren’t getting behind this and yet their pro-Pono arguments all seem to revolve around this being good for the industry, to starting a conversation to raising awareness. But for how long? Will that conversation be ongoing or will it die like a digital echo? I wanted to say: hang on a minute? Have you guys thought about what Pono is up against if it’s aim is mainstream appeal? I am concerned that if it doesn’t play out as Young hopes, it’ll have a *negative* effect on future conversations that try to advance the reach of hi-res audio. People might adopt the attitude that if it didn’t work for Neil Young, what hope does it have? That attitude will be particularly prevalent amongst the money men who bankroll these kinds of ventures. Once bitten, twice shy (and all that).

      Pono’s flaws don’t really exist in the player or the store per se. At least no more than exist already when buying from HDTracks and listening on an Astell&Kern or Fioo. Pono’s problems stem from its marketing angle and its overall aspirations. That is, the man in the street is being called upon to embrace hi-res audio. Nothing wrong with setting high expectations but, as I pointed out in the article, that call up is gonna cost him big, money that might be better spent on new hardware first…especially if he’s starting with Apple earbuds and a Bluetooth speaker. And if the mainstream see the cost of hi-res purchases for what they are – relatively expensive compared to streaming Redbook at Qobuz – they’ll be extra wary next time someone tries to spark a conversation with them about the benefits of hi-res. They’ll be doubly resistant. This is how I can see Young’s plans backfiring.

      I’m also worried that Young will besmirch the name of audiophiles. In his interview with NPR Young near-as-dammit showed that his attitude towards audiophiles borders on the contemptuous. If we care about good sound and Neil Young cares about good sound then audiophiles should be embraced as ambassadors for good sound and not as whack jobs best avoided.

      Some of this is already moot. According to kicktracq only 127 people backed the Pono Kickstarter yesterday. Young should talk to a well-known maker of a thumb-sized USB DAC. I won’t name the company but they (apparently) sold 50,000 units last year – impressive by audiophile standards but one still wouldn’t class their market penetration as ‘mainstream’. An iDevice is mainstream. So is a Samsung Galaxy S3/4/5. They all sell in the millions – THAT’s mainstream numbers. We need to get hi-res audio onto those devices.

      Tell me: how do you see better sound coming to fruition in the future? Perhaps when one can stream hi-res it might. But first the issue of mastering quality needs to be addressed. And that’s not really my field. THAT’s where Neil Young could better exert his influence – to get artists to pay attention to what sample rates are used in the studio AND what happens with the recording at the mastering stage.

      • John, thanks for your detailed reply – I get your points!

        I stopped listening to music (when quality really really mattered to me, great expensive equipment and more) short time after the LP died – Well, actually at the same time as I broke up with my ex and she broke my LP-collection and my +50.000$ equipment. I started to rebuild my set-up and collection based on cds instead, but was never ever happy again – most because I couldn’t get my hand on high-quality cds. Yes, some were available, but never enough and most not my taste of music.

        I stopped paying attention to good recordings more and more and more – actually a couple of day ago (when I found pono) I realized that I stop listening to music at a long time ago. I haven’t bought a single song for years. Only listening to radio and tv – so embarrassing.

        Maybe streaming hi-res to mobile will be a solution some day – bandwidth will be a problem (at least in Germany) for the next 10 years – LTE has to much restrictions and limitations because of the sharing of bandwidth. We have a speed of 150 mbit but mobile is and will be limited to ~2-3 GB traffic per month and there is no technical solution expand the traffic in the near future.

        So, a “thumb-NAIL-sized DAC” integrated in to the I-phone X or galaxy Y will not make a difference on its own – it will not solve the streaming issues.

        The only way I see is the Neil-way. A player, a distribution canal (without streaming) and the music industry backing it up (well, that will be the surprise we have to wait for). I’m full of hope, cause it doesn’t cost the industry much. Nothing to develop – only copying the master source, if its of appropriate quality – peace of cake, isn’t it – an a easy new market available.

        The distribution canal (web-shop to pc to usb to player) will not reach all and isn’t that fancy, but will reach hopefully enough people so that everybody out there will run from time to time into someone who owns a pono-player and can listen to and experiences the difference – that will maybe make it live or die.

        Sorry, for the really bad English.



  21. For what it’s worth folks, great listening is already here!
    Just source WELL MASTERED material and buy good aftermarket ‘phones; IEM’s make a lot of sense with Pods and Phones.
    I rip all my CDs into iTunes with ALE and CAREFULLY select music from their catalogue, using reviews and reputations to help decide (ECM jazz label is excellent). All my classical comes from The Classical Shop in WMA lossless format and is easily converted to ALAC.
    I do not have a fancy little amp (yet… AK10, I’m looking at you) and simply cannot fault the listening experience.
    I feel very lucky to be living in this wonderful technological age.
    Thanks Darko; keep it real!

  22. I wouldn’t call myself an audiophile per se, although I recently purchased some decent gear when I got back in to “listening” to music, something I have not done in over a decade. To that end, I am excited (with reservations) for October to roll around and a nice, shiny, artist-engraved Pono player to show up on my doorstep.
    I don’t think Pono will be a game changer like the iPod was. What I am hoping though is that it becomes a conversation starter, and John said as much. Specifically with a re-dedication to mastering. When I started purchasing vinyl again, I was both ecstatic and let down. For every awesome sounding album like Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me, it seemed it was inevitable there would be a dud – not because of the music, but because of the crappy mastering. MP3s have, unfortunately, become a scourge to mastering.
    And that will really be the drawback of the Pono player, the quality of music coming out is dependent on three things: the Pono player, the existing audio equipment or headphones, and the quality of the master. That’s two of the three that Pono cannot control.
    I think the hype, whether it is warranted or not, can be beneficial, especially if Mr. Young is to be believed about the artists and the music companies that are on board. If the music companies see a rising demand for higher quality music, hopefully they will get on the train (although with the music industry’s history one should not hold their breath).
    Further, because of the hype, when the Pono player does come out, people will want to hear it. Every time that happens, it is an opportunity (especially if the person doing the demo has decent audio equipment) to enlighten or convert someone. Obviously, the percentage of converts will be small, but every small gain is worth it in my book.
    Finally, if you think about it in the macro sense, the music industry needs something like the Pono. It will not have the effect of the iPod because I doubt there will ever be anything that has such a profound change on the way we consume music. But the music industry is in the midst of a downturn and it needs something that will help change its current model. The Pono may never be a million seller, but it could be a catalyst.

    • Neil Young has made a BIG noise about Pono and he should be applauded for starting the conversation. Will that conversation catch fire among more mainstream listeners? I’m not so sure – especially if those listeners are playing music through Apple earbuds, laptop speakers and Bluetooth doo-hickeys. I reckon the real infection would come from talking about (better) hardware…that’s been proven by Beats headphones. The PonoPlayer is (most likely) better hardware than the iPod or the average smartphone but consumers then have to overcome the mental and physical hurdle of carrying two devices again. Likely? I have my doubts. Audiophiles see the value in that. My non-audiophile pals don’t. However, some see the value in better headphones for their *existing* smartphone.

  23. John, I think you missed a (the?) point – Pono IS convenient. Pono doesn’t require you to shell out $2k to listen to the music you already own – nothing is preventing you from FLACing the hell out of your CDs and using them on Pono. Pono just gives (or promises to give) you the chance to get those few songs you really really like in the best format currently available, and anything NEW you buy is going to be the best it can be. Convenient, no?

    • You’re making the assumption that mainstream listeners (Pono’s target market) have a) CDs to rip and b) the inclination and know-how to rip those CDs to FLAC. I’d content that mainstream listeners are far more likely to buy lossy releases from iTunes and/or stream from the likes of Spotify and Deezer.

    • Well there is recent rumors that Apple is getting ready to release 24 AAC tracks on iTunes. Since Apple didn’t release updated iPods last Christmas like they normally do, it wouldn’t surprise me that Apple is going to release the next gen iPods, etc. and get 24 Bit files to the masses. With the latest 16 Bit AAC Mastered for iTunes s/w, they now have a VERY comparable lossy compression to CDs ripped to AIFF. I have some files I ripped from CD to AIFF and compared them to Mastered for iTunes versions and I couldn’t tell the difference. Now, if they can do the same thing with 24 Bit AAC compared to HD Tracks FLAC or AIFF versions, and they can sell the content for less since AAC files would be considerably smaller and sonically as close to identical as possible, then Pono is not only worthless, but they’ll be out of business in less than 2 years. Apple already has hundreds of millions of users and they could easily replace their 16 bit DAC with a 24 bit DAC on their iPod Touch, and other iPods and completely make Pono look completely old fashioned. What Pono sold in their first 24 hours, Apple would sell in the first minute. There is NO comparison to the power of Apple’s iTunes existing install base for iPods, but for iPhones, iPads, laptops and desktops because they would eventually have to update all of their products for bringing 24 Bit iTunes content to the masses. Here’s a chart of the number of active iTunes accounts. Sorry, but Pono isn’t even the size of a gnat compared to iTunes. Apple sells more iPods in a minute than Pono sold on opening day and the sales figure for Pono isn’t increasing. I’m sure Apple will put 24 bit chips in upcoming iPhones, iPads, etc. and Pono just won’t be a consideration at that point. Right now, I can spend $189 on an iFi iDSDnano and connect it to my iDevices or Android device and do whatever Pono can, and then some. Pono is a dead proposition.

        • Pono did $5 to $6Mil in about 30+ days? HAHAHAHA. To Apple, sales of iDevices (since Apple would update most of their models around the same time), they would do that in a couple of minutes.

          How many units has Pono sold in total? As of the time of posting for Wikipedia’s numbers, they’ve sold $5Mill of crowd funding, which means they sold over 12 Thousand units in about 30 days. When Apple released the new iPhones, they did 9 Million units in a freakin weekend. Now, OBVIOUSLY the iPod market has been dwindling primality since most people are using their iPhones and/or iPads since they have the same functionality and more, plus iPods haven’t been updated in 2 years, so Apple has to do some major product update, which is 24 bit. But I would suspect that if Apple releases 24 bit versions of most models of their iPods this year, they’ll easily sell more units in an hour than Pono. If Apple did that many sales of their first mobile device, they would be embarrassed and think it was MORE than a failure. Heck, Microsoft sold 1 Million Zune’s in a year and that’s about 83,000 units a month on average, and that’s considered so bad, they took down the product line after a couple of years. At the rate Pono is going, 12,000 units in a month is around 144,000 units a year. But if you look at the sales trend, it only spiked the first day and it’s on a downward trend. They hype only lasted about 2 to 3 days. If Google, Microsoft, Apple had Pono’s sales, it would be the biggest embarrassment in their life for a $399 product. Sorry. Pono’s product doesn’t have enough sales, or profit margin on their product to make this a long term success. My bet is that Pono will close their doors before the end of 2015. Apple gets more exclusive content and people want a little more functionality than just a player. They want access to the internet, ability to play games, text messaging, etc., etc. Simple player functionality isn’t that big of a deal, unless it’s small like a iPod Nano or shuffle. The Pono doesn’t fit in your pocket very well. It bulges due to the shape. Sorry but the Astell & Kern isn’t that big of a seller, but they are a small niche product that is the type of product that will be on the market, but just OK sales to the wealthy Audiophiles that buy them, but they are more expensive and higher profit margin.