Last Tuesday at SXSW, Music legend and one of my personal hero’s, Neil Young took the stage of a crowded Austin Convention Center auditorium to unveil Pono––a high-quality digital music service and portable audio player that aims to rescue an art-form. Pono, which is an Hawaiian word for “righteous,” offers a pure, uncompressed, unfiltered listening experience, delivering music exactly as the artist intended in all of it’s shimmery, hi-res glory (192kHz/24 bit).
Young pointed out that most Mp3’s contain only 5% of the information from the original master sources, which he likens to listening ‘underwater.‘ Not only is this aesthetically displeasing, it can have adverse physical effects––resulting in headaches, ear fatigue and muscle tension.
Even CD’s have limited compression standards (44kHz/16bit), which can tend to sound harsh and shrill. To make matters worse, record companies have been cashing in on the ‘nostaligia’ of vinyl records by releasing new LP’s, pressed from compressed CD copies, as opposed to the original masters. The result is a vastly inferior product that tricks the consumer. In short, we’re getting a fraction of what the artist put in. As Young says, it’s like we’re “making xerox copies of The Mona Lisa.”
Pono wants to fix all of this by bringing the heart and soul back to your music. It’s designed to make you feel good. Young claims that, “Hearing Pono for the first time is like that first blast of daylight when you leave a movie theatre on a sun-filled day.”
So how does it work? Pono music will be sold via the Pono Music store in the form of FLAC files. FLAC files, or Full Lossless Audio Codec, plays on both Mac and PC and is capable of supporting high-res files up to 192kHz/24-bit depth. These files contain up to 30 times more information than typical mp3 and AAC files sold on iTunes and Amazon.
The super-high-sampling rate provides a complete, dynamic and accurate representation of the original recording.
Another secret ingredient in the sauce lies in the hardware of The PonoPlayer, which has been engineered for optimum sound quality.
They’ve utilized the odd-triangular shape to install premium circuitry–including top-notch DAC chips and headphone drivers. These internal components produce much better sound than iPods and other portable players.
The design itself, seems pretty simple. The triangular shape sits nicely on any shelf or flat surface. All of the features and functions are accessible via 3 simple buttons and a touch-screen interface. You drag files on your computer via the USB cable. it’s non-proprietary and therefore capable of playing any files, should you want to drag music over from your existing library. Since it’s intended to play large FLAC files, the internal storage is limited to 64gb but has an expansion slot for micro SD cards.
So Pono hopes to revolutionize the way we listen to music. They’ve attempted to make an audiophile-grade product accessible, simple and more affordable for the average consumer. Neil Young and the folks at Pono are convinced that once you hear PONO, you won’t want to go back.
It’s strange to think that we’ve adopted HD video in our homes and even our smartphones. As gamers, we embrace next-gen features and technological advancements. We’ve set a certain standard for high-res, digital photography. So why have we been so content to sacrifice quality for quantity when it comes to enjoying the music we love?
Not only have we been slow to adapt, we’re moving backwards.
As an avid record collector, I can tell you that listening to a good vinyl record can elicit a transportive and euphoric experience. I’m such a nerd about this stuff, that I even keep an iPod classic loaded with lossless audio files. So as far as I’m concerned, Neil Young is preaching to the converted.
In spite of all of this, I’m skeptical that PONO will catch on with the masses. For better or worse, we live in an age of immediacy. There is something to be said for accessibility and control. Streaming services like Spotify and Beats boast huge libraries of albums and singles, which stream at 320kbps (near CD quality). They even integrate with social media platforms, all at a low monthly fee.
Unfortunately, Ponos claims that bandwidth limitations prohibit them from providing a high-quality streaming service. So will people be willing to re-tether themselves to their computers, not to mention shell out cash for a new format and music player? I’m not so sure.
Instead Ponos, wants to meet us half way, but are they too late to the game?
Nevertheless, Neil Young makes a convincing argument. He’s also banded together a long list of industry reps, respected artists and musicians, including Beck, Jack White, Arcade Fire, Dave Grohl and many more. All of whom are singing Pono’s praises.
So far, the artist-driven movement has caught on like wildfire. After just one week, ponos has raised a staggering $4 million and it still has 28 days left to go.
In the Keynote, Young said that even if Ponos fails, it will hopefully make enough noise to get the attention of the record industry…if a bigger corporation offers a better product that meets the demands of higher audio quality, then he’s succeeded.
Maybe one-day, we’ll live in a world where accessibility and pure audio quality live in harmony––so we can all bask in warm, radiant glow of high fidelity. Hopefully sooner, than later.
The PonoPlayer is set to debut in October, but you can pre-order yours for $399 via Kickstarter. For more information, check out ponomusic.com.
Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Hit me up @cthomasaurus.