One Trick Pono

The ‘big’ news in audio this week is that legendary musician Neil Young has introduced a new music player to the world – the Pono. The word ‘pono’, apparently, is Hawaiian for ‘righteous’. The principal selling point of Pono is, according to Mr Young, that it presents the listener with ‘the best quality audio available’. Here he is pitching the concept (badly) to a fairly underwhelmed David Letterman:

Flea, bassist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, effusively spruiked the Pono experience to Rolling Stone:

“It’s not like some vague thing that you need dogs’ ears to hear. It’s a drastic difference.”

Rolling Stone reports that Flea discerned this ‘drastic difference’ after hearing Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ played in Mr Young’s car. Now, I suppose Neil Young has a pretty good sound system in his Cadillac, but trust me, a car is not an optimal listening environment for a phone conversation, let alone for judging music quality, so I for one am taking the audio assessment of a bass player from a rock band criticized for the egregious loudness of its recordings with a grain of scoff.

See, the problem with this kind of thing is one of perspective. Even if we accept that Pono will deliver an appreciable difference in fidelity to what is already available – and for the record, I don’t – Neil Young thinks enough people care about that to make his idea a commercial viability. He obviously doesn’t go to cinemas, have teenage daughters, listen to the radio, or pay attention in any way to how the great majority of people consume music. He’s failed comprehensively to understand the reason that compression codecs like mp3 caught on in the first place, and, worst of all, he’s possibly the only person in the world not to have learned a business lesson from the VHS/Betamax format war of the late 1970s (which, in case the point needs to be made, showed that people don’t give a flying fuck about quality when it comes down to it). As much as I admire Neil Young as a musician, I think his business acumen sucks.

Let me put it to you from my personal perspective as a prospective Pono punter: I’m a trained sound professional with a love of music – new and old – and an appreciation for the amount of work that goes into the craft of getting it to my ears. I love good quality sound. Occasionally I buy music for the fidelity of its recording. But mostly, I don’t. Mostly I buy it for its content. I buy it for the songs, or to play while I’m making dinner, or to listen to in my car when I want to be able to ignore the hum of the city. I rarely have the time to sit and just listen to a recording in the relatively superior listening environment of my sound studio. I like to take my music with me, so I have some on my phone, and some on an iPod in my car. I have re-purchased music I already owned so I can do this, and have also digitized my not-insubstantial CD collection. Now – WHY ON EARTH WOULD I BUY A PONO AND ALL MY MUSIC AGAIN? I know that, theoretically, mp3 and AAC are inferior to uncompressed digital (whether that extends to the stratospheric192kHz/24-bit sound that Pono offers is arguable…) but I don’t care. I bet the Pono music won’t be as cheap as the iTunes store, and I bet the Pono won’t interface with my car. And I already carry around music on my phone – why would I want another gadget cluttering my pocket? It’s one of the cool things about the iPhone: I have music, a phone, a diary and a camera with me at all times in one unit. What I’m trying to show you here is the vast hurdle that Neil Young is proposing to leap, on the basis that people care about superior sound quality.

An interesting aspect of the reporting of this story is that the press seems to have picked it up under variations of this leader: “Neil Young Expands Pono Digital-to-Analog Music Service”, which, aside from being an entirely inaccurate appraisal of the way the gadget works, rides on the coattails of the hoary old myth that analog recording is somehow magically ‘superior’ to digital. Analog is different to digital. That is all. You may even prefer the sound of old analog recordings over modern digital ones, but that has, these days, nothing at all to do with tehnical quality. It’s merely fashion. And it’s a fashion that can, in fact, be reproduced adequately – for the great majority of listeners – under existing digital audio codecs. Why, if you really want very high quality audio, it’s already available in iTunes (not quite the 192kHz offered by Pono, but Jesus, people – Aretha Franklin IN A CAR???)

My prediction? One year on from the official launch of Pono and you’ll be buying the things on eBay for 50c. Come back and tell me I was wrong.

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8 thoughts on “One Trick Pono

  1. Maybe Neil’s an idealist who doesn’t give a flying fuck whether people care about sound quality or not. Maybe he just wanted a player HE was happy with. You know – for his car!

    Oh – and if he wants the player to be commercially successful all he needs to do is convince the trendsetters of the moneyed hip that a Pono is a status object like a Macbook Pro or iPhone. Boom!

    • You know, it’s more than just that, though. People don’t eschew quality for the sake of it, they just make practical decisions based on what they want to do. I don’t care much for the fidelity of mp3s if I sit down and scrutinize them, but if they mean I can carry my entire song collection around with me in the car – where the experience is VASTLY superior to that we got from cassettes, say – then I’m prepared to cut a compromise. I don’t have an iPhone because it’s a status object – I have it because I’m enabled to do a bunch of things that I like doing. I am totally aware that my Hipstamatic iPhone camera is nowhere near the quality of a Leica with a great lens and film, but then if I had a Leica with a great lens I’d hardly ever have it on me. It’s a trade-off, and the trade-off for me is an increase in my ability to enjoy my life. The hangup on ‘technical excellence’ is a furphy. Technical excellence is to be desired, for sure, but it’s not the be all & end all of a creative experience.

      • There is no “hangup on technical excellence”. There is a hangup on having everything NOW. You want to carry your ENTIRE song list around with you? Goody for you. Personally, I’d rather import all my songs at the highest quality AIFF (Wavs can’t carry album artwork metadata for some reason), and CHOOSE what I might want to listen to that week. Then start again on the weekend. It makes for a more thoughtfull, and higher quality listening experience.
        Each to their own, but to call “technical excellence” a furphy is ignorant and closed minded.

        • My point is that the idea of ‘technical excellence’ in the listening environment of a car or on a pair of earbuds is an idiotic notion. If you think you’re getting a meaningful aural experience in such a way, then you’re deluding yourself. As I said in the post, if I really want to listen to something in proper fidelity, I can spend the time to do so in the superior listening environment of my studio, where it can be accurately reproduced in such a way as to actually mean something.

          I didn’t call technical excellence a furphy. I called the hangup on technical excellence a furphy. People are obsessed with it beyond its utility. In a car, AACs provide adequate – no superior – results. No car I’ve ever been in is worthy of 96k 24bit fidelity. Maybe you own such a car – I don’t know.

          But it comes down to a simple choice for me – what’s more useful: to have a few dozen tracks at a quality that is complete overkill for my motoring experience, or to have the widest choice of what I want to listen to?

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