Neil Young is a timeless singer songwriter that is looking to improve the quality of the music that we listen to on a daily basis. He is looking to start a revolution with the invention of the Pono Music Player. Its set to be the highest resolution digital music available. This means that typical MP3s or CDs will be “a thing of the past once you hear music the way it was meant to be heard” according to the folk singer. Young has already have launched a very successful Kickstarter campaign and Pono has gotten a lot of media coverage over the past few weeks. But would the promise of high-fidelity hold you off from low quality leaks?
The word Pono is Hawaiian for righteous or goodness and is the most ideal way to describe this inventive music player. Neil Young has been creating the Pono Music Player for almost 3 years now and is finally ready for people to hear the difference. The whole premise behind the Pono Music Player is to let people listen to studio quality sound wherever they are. Almost all portable music players do not offer the level of sound quality that these songs were recorded using. This means that you are not hearing “the true sound that the musician had in mind”. Many prominent musicians from Foo Fighters to Jack White are huge proponents of his new invention, as seen in the ten minute Kickstarter endorsement video.
The actual look and style of the Pono Music Player is very old school, or a Toblerone – Whichever you prefer. But obviously the goal of the Pono Music Player is to allow you the ability to hear every song the same way it was recorded, not to be a replacement for your iPhone or Android device. However, the player is not format specific, so both MP3s and other digital files will play on the Pono. The player is set to be released in October this year, priced at $399. Albums will be priced between $14.99 and $24.99, set to be released via a Pono dedicated store.
Young recently let his voice be heard on the topic of the Pono Music Player at the SXSW festival.
“I’m a fan of listening loud. I love to listen loud. That’s what it’s all about, really, for me. I love to hear rock ‘n’ roll really loud, and I love to hear even acoustic music really loud. Loud for whatever it is it’s being played on. I like to take whatever it is to the limit, and then listen to it right there. When I started doing that with these machines, it started to hurt, and I couldn’t do it for very long, so the part of the record-making experience that I used to enjoy became painful. That was a sign to me that something was wrong. I complained a little, and I might have bitched and moaned a little about that, too. Then time went by, and I got some better machines, but they weren’t really that much better — it didn’t change it. But I noticed when I listened to CDs in my car, the same thing happened — it hurt my ears a little bit. And then the MP3 came along, and that’s when the recording industry really went into duress.”
Above you have Young explaining the miracle of being able to listen to high quality audio – Listening to an MP3 or CD is like being underwater. And who wants to be underwater when listening to music? Not Neil.
But is high-fidelity important to you? A lot of the leaked albums reported on Has it Leaked are often transcoded, even lesser versions of the retail MP3. Ripped streams, badly converted files and even worse, unmastered or unfinished demos. A lot of you will argue that if the album turns out to be what you wished for, you’ll end up buying it. But would high-fidelity, high quality Pono versions of your albums put a stop to you downloading leaks?
Would you rather wait if you knew the quality and thus the experience would be vastly different?
Written by Staffan Ulmert. Published 2014/04/17. More articles
I love how this was posted here. im very excited for this thing. it clearly wont change things overnight, but it is a start. at least somewhere, someone is doing something to bring the quality of portable music to an exceptional level. i like to think that eventually, technology and demand will catch up to make it affordable and widely available, and more importantly i hope the general public realizes that their iTunes downloads arent doing their favorite songs justice in the least bit. In regards to the HasitLeaked question, I listened to a 128kbps leak of Random Access Memories after months (years, really) of impatient waiting, and it is one of my biggest regrets (only half joking). It sounded so bad and my first experience of the album was tainted. Since then, I only listen to albums for the first time in at least 320kbps if its an album i really care about. As with anything, first impressions are a bigger deal in your mind than you think, and i feel like if you are truly an avid fan of music and a particular artist, you will make sure your first listen of new music will be of good quality.
I feel like the online standard has been upped to 320kbps the last few years. And services like google play and Spotify offer hq (I think 320) streaming. I’ve always ripped my music at 320, except when I had a RazR flip phone and would downgrade to 160 or so to fit 2 or 3 GB or whatever it held.
yes, 320 kbps is the highest or you can convert to FLAC for 700+ kbps.
I don’t have a problem with another format or playback option hitting the market, I think it’s healthy that Apple, Samsung and other smart device producers stay on their toes. I don’t think Pono is the one though.
First off, let’s go back to when it was announced. Neil Young made the audacious statement that compressed digital music sounded terrible and he had a solution. No argument about compressed digital music sounding awful, at least sometimes, but what was this solution? A new format for which we were only supplied a name and a visual, a rather ugly visual to boot.
Neil goes on to reiterate his rather unbelievable statement throughout the media, doing television appearances and releasing a book, but no specs, bar a mention of an incredible DAC (digital-to-analog converter) and “specially prepared” 24 bit, 192khz masters created from the original master tapes. What would be special about the masters? Who knows. Furthermore, he sends his car with a complete custom sound system on a tour throughout the country so people can hear for themselves how good Pono sounds. Great promotion, sure, but doesn’t it seem peculiar that the listener can’t hear this for themselves via a standard sound system?
Months go by and nothing is said until recently when the Pono Kickstarter is launched. We find out that a different company is now producing the hardware, that we the people are paying for it, and that it’s supposedly so wonderful that we have no idea what we’ve been missing. Sounds great, but it doesn’t ring of truth, at least not to me.
Watch the video on the Kickstarter page with all the celebrity musicians talking about how great Pono is. Did you notice the text at the bottom of the screen telling you what they’re talking about? A little weird, isn’t it, that these general statements are being recontextualized in favor of the product? Most of the celebs don’t say anything directly noting the differences in sound quality that Pono brings, they just say how nice it sounds. When Bruce Springsteen says that Pono does something to the music, even digitally sourced music, to make it sound fuller and more dynamic, the concerns me. What would that “something” be? Is it EQing the sound? Is it that custom system Neil’s been touring? Is it a bait and switch?
Finally, we start to hear more details, though they’re almost as vague as everything we’ve heard before. Pono won’t have it’s own custom lossless compression format, it’s going to use FLAC, which anyone can use. It’s unrealistic to assume the masters will be individually tweaked for all albums so they’ll probably be the same high resolution recordings that labels are already distributing to sites like HDtracks and Qobuz, but do we know these tracks will be of higher quality? How many times have albums been purchased from either of those sites only to find upon further investigation that the music was up-converted to a higher resolution, also known as transcoding, or just plain made to look like something it isn’t? A 128kbps MP3 won’t sound any better if turned into a lossless FLAC file, and there has been a lot of similar things going on with those sites, so what will Pono do to guarantee that doesn’t happen? We have no idea, since that apparently isn’t a concern of the manufacturers.
On a quick side note, if you want a quick example of what I’m talking about, check out Stevie Wonder’s Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I from HDtracks. It’s available in a resolution of 24/192, but if you examine it’s spectral data, the information that shows how much signal information fills the recording, you’ll find that it cuts off just below 44.1khz, the standard frequency cut-off for a Compact Disc. You end up paying $39.98 for an album that is, at best, the quality of a standard CD you could purchase new through Amazon for $23.86, and you could probably pay even less if you look a little further.
Getting back on track, Neil Young may be persistent, but you can’t say that his statements are clear or perfectly formed. Anyone who would compare listening to a 128kbps MP3 to being 1000 feet underwater sounds like someone who has never listened to music in their life, let alone an iPod or FM radio. Furthermore, the human ear can generally hear frequencies up to 20khz at best, making the 22.05khz in each channel of a properly mastered CD sufficient for a good listening experience. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be able to have higher quality audio files, but why do we need 24 bit, 192khz files? One of the records Neil was playing as part of his demonstrations was Aretha Franklin’s Respect, a song available as a 24/192 FLAC via HDtracks, though the spectral data in that song falls below 48khz, so what is the rest of that space and data for if nothing is there? On top of that, the often stated argument that better mastering is the answer shouldn’t be ignored and, in my opinion, is the real answer. I recently listened to a good quality vinyl rip of the original MFSL pressing of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon. I received it in 24/96, but I couldn’t play that on a CD, my iPod or iPhone, so I converted it to 16/44 and encoded it to iTunes Plus settings (AAC 256vbr). It was easily the best sounding copy I’ve heard of the album, far richer and more detailed than any version issued since, including both digital and vinyl issues. Doesn’t sound like an issue with the resolution or compression, so why do I need a newly created 24/192 version if it doesn’t match up to the quality of previous versions?
Lossless is great, and I prefer all albums in my collection to be properly mastered originals, or if purchased digitally, the highest quality version possible, with lossless being my ultimate goal, but I can’t play those lossless files on most of my devices without using an incredible amount of space. But with audio compression getting better, we may not need portable devices that can play massive, lossless files. iTunes Plus, again, makes a file that features very minimal compression, covers the full frequency range of the original recording, and it smaller than a 320kbps MP3. In a decade an iTunes Plus AAC file may be as ubiquitous as the MP3, or there may be something better, but why do we need lossless everywhere? FM radio sounds worse than a 128kbps MP3 and no one complained back in the day, and there is a huge difference between a 128kbps MP3 and a 320 MP3 or 256 AAC. DVDs never used lossless audio, and most home entertainment setups aren’t powerful enough to make the difference clear on a Blu-Ray audio or video disc.
So, in conclusion, I don’t blame anyone who saw the size of my comment and said tl;dr, but maybe you should go back and read it. Then, if you really care about lossless audio, high resolution audio or Pono, you should do your own investigation. I’ll leave you with one more thought though. If Pono is such a great and wonderful idea, why did Neil Young have to do a Kickstarter to fund it? Was he really unable to convince a corporate parent to sell it? Were his potential benefactors that convinced it would be a failure? Listening to music is different for everyone, though I’m pretty sure I don’t have to be Neil Young to know what good music is.
Interesting @unheard78 David,
Some of your arguments are valid but like you say – Few have actually gotten to use and review the device. And you’re assuming that the store will supply fake 24/192 releases, while it might be true in some cases – Audiophiles and third-party review sites will create a huge backlash if they’ll discover transcodes. Media coverage on this thing has been astonishing, reviews will get mainstream attention for sure.
You’re taking your own Pink Floyd rip as a good example where you liked your “downgraded” ACC a lot. Sound is obviously very subjective and I’m sure some albums would even sound worse if we got the hear the 24/192 version. But needless to say, if we get the full frequency range – Odds are on our side we’ll get what the artist intended, to quote Neil. If I like an iTunes rip instead, I’ll just convert it. Obviously doing it the other way around is impossible.
And you haven’t mentioned that with some awesome headphones, a strict 24/192 quality mastered album and the Pono’s chip technology (the makers of that thing do have a great track record) it could be, if not as incredible as Neil makes it out to be, a low priced high-fidelity device you can take on the road.
I wouldn’t take the Kickstarter campaign as something negative either. It’s great way to test the market, and see if there’s interest in this. He’ll obviously need help from other companies even with the KS success.
But yeah. It’s all speculation imo – Like you mention, Neil traveling around with the greatest car audio system in the world, blasting high quality masters for his friends – Doesn’t really prove anything. But it’s still very interesting nonetheless.
Personally, I love physical media. I’ll stick to vinyl anyway ;)
I think the key is to understand that hard disk memory won’t be a problem in few years. Taking this into account, obviously all music-lover on earth would agree to download/purchase the music in the less transformed form as the original. The problem is not mp3 or AAC, the problem is the millions of bad conversions on the internet.If the same master at 192kHz or whatever could be comercialized directly, without transform it or burn into a physical format, in a way that everyone could listen to it even on their phones, it will lead to a new generation of music listeners that will not have to expend 40$ for an album or millions of dolars in a player that supports it. It’s great viewing that that generation is coming, even though it’s probably early for that.
Hey Mojib, it’s the same thing with me, I love physical media and prefer it whenever possible, though I do realize it’s not always an option in this day and age.
Anyway, regarding the concern over fake 24/192 files, I’m not saying HDtracks is intentionally misleading anyone (though there is some concern Qobuz might be doing so at times) or that Pono will be doing so either. For all I know, the Pono store might have a stringent quality control policy. My issue is that, like many other things related to Pono, we don’t know.
All said, I’d be lying if I claimed I didn’t want a Pono player too, though I doubt it will replace my current playback mediums, specifically my 160gb iPod Classic. It’s smaller and has more space, and I already have my collection on it, but I definitely want to play with a Pono device at the very least.
You make a lot of good points too. If Pono comes out and it’s awesome, I’ll be the first to announce I was wrong, but at this point I think we all just want to know more. It’s always good to get different perspectives so thanks for your response.
I am really excited about Pono. I also am really into getting leaks before they come out. I also buy all albums I love on vinyl. Now I think this would be a device I would definitely buy if the industry started giving free PONO tracks with a vinyl record purchase, or even if I had to pay an additional $5 for the PONO tracks along with the vinyl I would do it no doubt. One issue I see is that many lovers of high quality audio LOVE vinyl, Neil loves vinyl too. Sure its great to have high quality audio on the go and I do desire this but I am not willing to buy an album twice; buy the vinyl at ~$25 and then buy the Pono tracks at ~$14-25, thats just too much to spend. I will still consider buying the device in hopes that I’ll be able to torrent or download pono quality files online. But I think the really killer business move would be to partner up with vinyl sales to give the customer a high quality portable music along with their record.
Have you guys seen the “HearDrive” concept? Seems like a better idea
Seems like a good idea but the pricing is a little off-putting especially when people already have convenient devices such as phones that can hold your entire music library. Is the average consumer/music listener really that concerned about sound quality?
That “underwater listening” thing is the most ridiculous thing i’ve heard about HD music!!!!!! I don’t think that any person of the world can notice the difference between the 384k song and the same song converted into 96k or even 44,1k with the best f**king sound system in the world!!!
It is clearly that an original 384k master would sound amazing, no doubt, but i think like i said in another comment that we´re confusing different things, because you can find in the internet a FLAC CD rip that sounds horrible and then listen to the iTunes version and notice that sounds so much better due to a horrible CD rip. The key is to transform the original recording the less as possible, and you’ll get a great sounding file even if it’s been recorder in 44,1/16.