August 13, 2013 at 11:57 am

Neil Young’s Pono Ecosystem Will Put a ‘Freemium’ on Sound Quality

pono storeNeil Young thinks the sound quality of most modern devices and services is garbage, and he’s not going to take it anymore. Instead, he’s searching for a sound of gold, and he’s calling it Pono, a Hawaiian word that means “righteous.”

One Device for True Pono Sound has learned new details about this promising service, which is expected to launch at some point this year, including which devices it will work with — and how its sound quality will differ depending on which one you use.

The main thing to know here is that only one device will be capable of playing Pono files at their maximum, Neil Young-approved sound quality. You guessed it — this is the Pono player, the yellow thing Neil flashed around on Letterman last year, which, to this former MP3 player reviewer, recalls similarly-triangular iRiver models of the past.

Yes, if you want a Pono file to play properly, you’ll need to play it on the Pono device — no computers, iPhones, Androids, or high-end D/A converters for you (more on that last one later).

However, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, Pono files will play on any digital audio device, just at a lower sound quality (i.e. something like what most of us listen to today). In other words, you should be able to load the songs up on your iPhone — they will just lack the amped up sound that made you go with Pono in the first place.

In that sense, Neil Young and his Pono team have figured out how to do something Spotify did for subscription music, but to sound quality: To make it “freemium.” You might be able to “borrow” a Pono file from a “friend” and play it on whatever you want — but in order to get the top-notch sound quality, you’ll need to play it on a Pono, from what we hear, and you’ll need to be the person who purchased it.

HD Audio When Possible, Enhanced Lossless for Everything Else

If Pono succeeds, it’ll be on the strength of its appeal as an artisanal, high-quality alternative to the mainstream — sort of like sparsely appointed bicycles, 180-gram vinyl, or local organic kale. As with all of that stuff, the question of “sourcing” is crucial. From whence will this artisanal music be sourced?

We have an answer, and it’s essentially both of the sources we thought it might be: high-definition music like the ones available on HD Tracks, DVD-A, or SACD, as well as regular old 16-bit/44.1 kHz — a.k.a. CD-quality — files. This bifurcated approach will give Pono the ability to sell the high-resolution version when available (the three to five thousand albums that have been digitized at a high resolution), but still offer “better than CD-quality sound” for the rest of recorded music.

Whether its source is “lossless” (in the case of most of the music that will be available on Pono) or “better than lossless” for the thousands of albums that have already been re-encoded at higher resolutions, the music will be run through a special process developed by Pono’s partner Meridian.

As mentioned, in order to hear the Pono-enhanced version, regardless of which source it came from, you’ll need to stick with the Pono player, which brings us to…

pono player

If you want to play Pono files in all their glory, you'll need something that looks like this (still frame via Late Night with David Letterman).

The Audiophile’s Conundrum

The fact that Pono will sell its own hardware means its customers will be able to play files purchased from the Pono music store, even if no other companies license Pono for integration (we’d like to see it in a nice Android phone).

However, this has a big downside for people who are audiophiles in the true sense of the word. Much of the internet is wrong about the meaning of this word. “Audiophile” doesn’t mean that you like music, or even that you like good sound. It means you’re obsessed to the point that some would call madness about everything from the number of oxygen atoms in your cables to the “cleanliness” of your power source, whereas most people just stick a plug into the wall and move on. It means you might spend ten grand on a pair of speakers, or 100 grand, and if you had a million to spare, you’d probably find a way to spend that on your stereo too.

These are not people who are going to buy a tiny, $100-$250 device (we assume) portable device and connect it to their obscenely expensive audio rigs. Unless the Pono player has a digital output, which we do not believe it to have, these audiophiles are going to stick with other formats that let them use their own D/A converter. Yes, audiophiles even buy specific hardware for turning 1s and 0s back into sound — something most of us trust whatever chip came with our laptop or phone. But if they go with Pono, they’ll have to use the D/A converter inside of it, instead.

So, Can ‘Pono by Neil’ Do for Stores and Players What ‘Beats by Dre’ Did for Headphones?

Two types of people will not be interested in Pono: high-end audiophiles with their own D/A converters, and people who just want some music they like to come out of their mediocre speakers or headphones, ideally for free.

As such, this leaves one market for Pono, and nobody knows how big it is: People who care about sound quality enough to buy a new player (that’s not even also a phone!) and enough to purchase most of their music from the Pono store, rather than going with a cloud music service – but not enough to mortgage their houses in order to buy some new speakers.

One company has found something like that market so far: Beats Electronics, which convinced people to invest in high-quality-(ish) headphones based on distinctive styling, a whole lot of bass, and the power of celebrity, in that case, Dr. Dre. (Beck likes Pono, which is a start).

If the semi-audiophiles Pono should be targeting later this year are as proud of flashing around their Pono players as a signal to those around them that they appreciate the finer things in life, and have an epicurean taste in sound quality that can only be satisfied through artisanal sourcing — sort of the way people proudly wear their Beats headphones — Neil Young’s attempt to create a new music ecosystem that prizes sound quality will stand a chance, even if it means convincing people to put down their phones for a second.

  • Geoff Boyd

    It is argued in some circles that the telescope of time will show that if the trends of the last 10 to 15 years continue then the late twentieth century Information Technology Innovators may very well go down in history as a bunch of philistines who, in effect, mortally wounded the recorded music industry and deprived the musicians of their day, as well as musicians past and future, of their ability to collect just rewards for their artistic works. I should add that it is my belief that the Technology Innovators today and the Audio Engineering community in particular, has an obligation to find ways to halt and reverse this trend.

    If deployed naively it is highly probable that HD audio (24/192KHz) could complete the destruction of the recorded music industry facilitated by the digital revolution in audio reproduction! It is absolutely essential that any high value digital music content distribution is accompanied by a new paradigm in loudspeaker transducer design where decryption is buried deep in the transducers used for loudspeakers and headphones. Not unlike HDCP in HDMI connectors. This is because the current audio distribution schema allows eavesdropping to master copy resolution anywhere in the analog or digital electronics signal chain using commonly available PC soundcards with trivial signal conditioning such that the analogue signal (or digital if available) can be recorded and recoded to lossless say and redistributed by pirates. Unless Neil Young’s proposed Pono platform securely plugs this ‘analog hole’ it will surely do more harm than good.

  • Christoph Terasa

    All that can be said about Pono is that it’s totally pointless and Neil and his consorts are barking up the wrong tree:

    And before you ask, Monty is one of the developers of audio codecs like Ogg Vorbis and the next-generation codec Opus, so he knows his way around digital audio pretty well.

  • Tim Sacd

    The Ogg-camp has definately a hidden agenda, everywhere where the word Pono or Hi Res Music shows up they start trolling because they don’t have a hi res-alternative for their lossy codecs. Some hires-music sounds better, other is a wast of money (I agree). I guess it depends on the production, mastering,,… (on midrange-gear). E.g. the 24 bit Beatles-files (apple usb) sound better and crispier than the cd-version. In my opinion, the problem especially for ‘current’ music lies in the bad, loud mastering. Let people make their own opinion … Some will like it, other don’t. Same for the vinyl vs cd debate. Stop with spamming that ‘xiph’-site.

  • tim

    In 2009 Neil Young was promoting Archives 1 with bluray and BD live as the way to go. Four years later it’s forgotten just like pono will be. Don’t bet on pono especially with Neil Young pushing it.

  • theorist

    Mr. Van Buskirk writes: “Much of the internet is wrong about the meaning of this word. “Audiophile” doesn’t mean that you like music, or even that you like good sound. It means you’re obsessed to the point that some would call madness about everything from the number of oxygen atoms in your cables to the “cleanliness” of your power source….”

    While his statement is somewhat entertaining, it’s also a straw man. Characterizing audiophiles as he’s done is akin to saying all baseball fans are like Jimmy Fallon’s rabid sports fan character in Fever Pitch. The fact is, as with those involved in any passion, audiophiles come in all flavors and colors, and comprise a wide variety of approaches to music reproduction. A truer definition of audiophile is someone that cares passionately about sound quality. But this includes everyone from the college student that’s just bought a $150 DAC to upgrade the audio output from his computer, to middle-of-the road folks that have nice speakers in the $1k – $2k range, to serious (and, yes, affluent) listeners with multi-kilobuck systems. And as with any pursuit, it certainly does include a lunatic fringe that Van Buskirk, misleadingly, has taken to represent audiophiles generally. If you want a more fair knock against audiophiles, it’s that they sometimes care more about the quality of the reproduction than the quality of the music. It’s disappointing that Van Buskirk, who should know better, has written such a mis-informative statement.

    That aside, Van Buskirk’s point here seems to be that Young’s PONO will face a challenge acquiring market share because it won’t be of interest to either those at the low end, or those at the high end (read:audiophiles). But I disagree, for two reasons:

    1) This is a portable device. And when it comes to portables, audiophiles (reasonably) have lower standards than they do for their home systems. Indeed, I’d put audiophiles in three categories with respect to portable audio:

    (a) Those that don’t take it seriously at all, and thus don’t even bother to try to get upgraded portable sound — they just use their cell phone or an iPod

    (b) Those that do like and appreciate the potential of good-quality portable sound, and are willing to pay more to get upgraded single-box solutions, e.g., the Astell&Kern AK100 & AK120, HiFiMan HM901, iBasso DX100, and so on.

    (c) Those willing to carry around conjoined battery-powered portable DAC/amplifier combinations to get the best possible portable sound.

    I would say all three categories of audiophiles represent potential PONO buyers. For example, the players listed in category (b) run $600 -$1200 dollars, and preliminary reports are that PONO sounds as good or better than the best of them. If that bears out, and if PONO can also play non-PONO music files at full resolution (they’d be foolish not to give it that capability), and if, as expected, it’s priced significantly below $600, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be a hit with that crowd. Indeed, it should be a hit with the (c) crowd as well. And as for the (a) crowd, it might well draw them into upgraded portable audio.

    Need more convincing that serious audiophiles can be interested in PONO? take a look at this link, searching for “PONO”:

    2) But what about home use? You do have a point that audiophiles like to listen carefully to their equipment, and choose what they like best. And having to use just the single PONO device seems to take that away. But you miss something important here: Much of that interest can be satisfied with after-market modification. For example, consider what Red Wine Audio did with the iPod; in addition, more than one high-end audio company has built its own Blu-Ray player by taking the Oppo and upgrading everything except the transport and D/A converter — and audiophiles know and accept this. Likewise, while the D/A conversion done by the PONO will likely be a black box that can’t be tinkered with, a skilled modifier could leave that intact, while supplying it with an upgraded power supply, RF isolation, downstream analog signal path, and all the other things that audiophiles care about. They may even be able to add a digital input, so that it could be used as an outboard DAC in a home system.

    In sum, I think a more sophisticated analysis reveals that PONO has real potential within the audiophile market. They will just need to be careful to keep audiophiles in mind, which means offering the capability to also decode audiophiles’ non-PONO music at full resolution and with excellent sound quality. Ideally, this would also include native decoding of DSD (i.e., without an intermediate LPCM conversion step) — and possibly also a digital input, so that it could do dual-duty as an outboard DAC.

  • theorist

    edit: use this link instead, and search for “PONO’:

  • Hifi Bob

    “The Ogg-camp … don’t have a hi res-alternative for their lossy codecs”

    Er, yes they do, it’s called FLAC, and it’s already widely available. From Wikipedia: “It can handle any PCM bit resolution from 4 to 32 bits per sample, any sampling rate from 1 Hz to 655,350 Hz”

  • Anonymous

    And after all his years on the road with some of the loudest music behind him that any ears have endured we’re supposed to believe he can hear any particular quality differences at all. Right.

    Perhaps that’s the real problem and he has just fallen for the oldest audio “improvement” in existence, hearing with his wallet. Then, of course, he could just be scamming, thinking his name will give him the credibility he needs to milk us.

  • akshay

    This is a very useful counter point presenting the other side of the story. Many times subtle points are lost in a commentator’s broad assumptions. I personally listen to vinyl at home. I am really curious to see how good this quality really is. Also, you have it spot on regarding the potential future extensions/upgrades Neil Young has to keep in mind to ensure that it is marketed right.

  • Chesterfield

    Well, speaking as an audiophile (who doesn’t in the least match Van Buskirk’s reductive and ill-informed description), I’m very much looking forward to Pono. I hope, if it doesn’t have digital out capabilities, that an after-market solution, like the marvelous Pure I-20 for the iPod/iPad/iPhone, will emerge that lets me bypass the Pono’s DAC and amp and feed it to my own.

  • Anonymous

    (this is a bit dated, but …)

    …before you tell,
    Monty @ Xiph also believes that 44.1/16 is good enough too ?

    Unfortunately, Monty is just his own “lobbyist” for the existing (crappy) Music industry.

    -you need to get your facts straight:

    1st off, Monty did NOT invent or create FLAC codec. – that was initially created “freely” by: “Josh Coalson”.
    Same can be said for ogg/vorbis/… they have been around a lot longer. Xiph is more of a standard/referencing/thinktanks than technical genius’s.
    Summarily “Xiph” is just an umbrella of legal-mumbo-jumbo, for the “opensourcess” of flac, ogg, ….

    There’s a world of difference between the limited now (35-year-old)
    CD-”44.1/16-bit” standard, and the “96/24-bit”, or even “96/32-bit” audio water-markers.
    Thankfully, Flac can upscale to any audio resolution.

    I agree with you, to a certain extent, regarding Pono though.
    I don’t really care about PONO / SCHMONO, anymore than I care about my iPOD ;)
    but I DO care about the option / choice, to listen to the highest possible audio recoding quality.
    If that means upgrading my audio-receiver, and/or CD-Player to get that, then fine.

  • Anonymous

    PONO may be a hardware gimmick, but the main thing here is,

    because the “storage-mediums” of today, be they on “blanks”, hard-drives, clouds,…, are so potetially huge and cheap, there’s absolutely NO reason why we have to put up with, or stay with crappy CD-”44.1kHz/16-bit”. – aka (44/16).

    Many Sound Cards in PC’s have been able to handle 96/24, or 192/24 for over 10 years now.

    Unfortunately it’s those same old dinosaurs running the Music industry today, that don’t want to change anything,

    …but of course, and luckily for all of us, it just so happens that “free” FLAC can give us all that today..

  • Anonymous

    Dude, what do you think everyone was doing with ALL those “Tape-Decks” back in the day ???
    It has nothing to do with “piracy”. The same manufacturers that made the playable-storage-mediums, be they tape, disc,.., are also the same ones who manufacture the “recordable”-storage-mediums, devices,…, be they tape, disc,…
    …so you can NOT call that piracy.
    The new medium is already the “Internet”. No one is going back to the fifties, with the Juke-Boxes.

    with the low-cost of advanced digital-audio-technology available today,
    anyone, with an inkling for audio-production, can be their own
    recording-industry, …

    It’s the “greed” of the old-style recording industry that has kept it behind. It’s their own fault, NOT the audio-consumer.
    …and, if they refuse to offer, on a massive-scale, and at a a cheap price,
    “”24/96kHz”, or better yet, “32/96kHz” HQ-Audio, then they will be
    replaced, and deservedly so.

    It’s as simple as that.

    right about the speakers/transducers,…, but what’s new, they have
    always been the weakest link in any audio chain, no matter when, but
    given time and technology, they will always improve in quality.

  • edward lynch

    I love neil but he doesn’t understand that the average guy doesn’t really care what the music they listens to sounds like……..mp3′s are just fine for most people and people are no going to spend more money for music they already own…I know I won’t

  • TC

    True, if I can’t put it through my tube based DAC, I have no use for it at home (It won’t be as good) and if it is not pocket friendly (which it looks like it isn’t) I have no use for it on the road. It is intriguing and star backed and all of that, It is marketed well by going Kickstart (totally unnecessary with Young’s money), and it may become a “status” thing, but in reality, unless it has a digital out and replaces my computer as input to my DAC, it is just for showiness. BUT, if it gets some people listening to better sounding music, it has my blessing for them.

  • lordkoos

    Hmm why all the hating on Neil? He is trying to raise the standard of audio for the average consumer. He doesn’t even care if his device ends up being the winner, the point is people are having the discussion about audio quality. Some of those people are record companies and famous artists… and now consumers as well. What could be wrong with that? And it is not that dificult to hear the difference between 16 and 24 bits.