Inputs: Micro USB
Outputs: 1/8" (3.5mm) Headphone out/TRSS balanced output, 1/8" (3.5mm) Line Out/TRSS balanced output
Dimensions: 5 x 2 x 1 inches (13 x 5 x 2.5 cm)
Weight: 4.6 ounces (130 grams)
Availability: Online Direct
I Bought It
I bought a Pono Player directly from their Kickstarter campaign. I did so, in part, to support the project, in part because I'm a fan of Neil Young who is behind Pono, and finally because Ayre designed the digital and analog innards responsible for how the Pono Player sounds and everything I've heard from Ayre, including their QB-9 DSD DAC (see review), has been eminently musical so to get some Ayre tech for the price of a Pono Player struck me as a steal of a deal.
Because of Neil Young, there was a ton of buzz surrounding Pono. You can read my interview with Neil here, just one of many stops on the Pono campaign trail. The buzz surrounding Pono was not restricted to the player, but rather centered around high resolution audio in general. Neil was spreading the word much more effectively, imo, than the high end audio industry has ever done. But we all know about high resolution audio thanks to pioneers like HDtracks who pretty much started the whole high res download market as we know it.
Why high resolution audio? Because high res audio can and often does sound better than lower resolutions including CD-quality (16/44.1). The reason for this perceived difference is due to any number of factors including the care and quality that goes into the mastering process for some high res releases, the increased accuracy in the time domain that higher sample rates can deliver, the more natural sounding filtering allowed by higher resolutions, and a host of other real-world issues. Of course, the quality of the recording is of utmost importance but where available, a high resolution version can deliver a more natural and more musical sounding reproduction and that's what we are after, after all.
So Pono is actually a multi-faceted high resolution audio endeavor encompassing the Pono Player, the Pono Music Store, and the PonoMusic World app. Yes, Pono has bitten off what only Apple has so far been able to deliver, namely the entire ecosystem, both hardware and software, of a music delivery system while adding high res capability. They've done so with the help of Ayre Acoustics for the hardware and JRiver for the software and as we'll see, they have been more and less successful. If we look at just the Player itself as a device meant to store and play music, I'd say the Pono team has hit one out of the proverbial park.
The Pono Player
As you can see, I sprung for one of the Artist Signature Series players, signed by Patti Smith, which comes in laser engraved chrome ($400 during the Kickstarter campaign). You can buy a plain black or yellow player for $399 which has a nice rubberized body. The screen on the player is a 2.5 inch color touchscreen and it automatically orients itself to the player's physical position, horizontally and vertically (you can also lock the screen). On one of its ends there's a micro USB input for connecting the player to your computer and for charging with the included cable and wall charger. Also on this side resides the MicroSD Card slot capable of holding up to 64GB. The Player also has 64GB of flash memory for a total storage capacity of 128GB.
Around the other end are the Player's outputs including the 1/8" headphone output which also doubles as a TRSS balanced output channel and the Line Out which also doubles as the other TRSS balanced output channel. So you can, and I did, run the Pono Player in Balanced Output mode as long as your hi-fi accepts XLR inputs, mine does, or your 'phones accept balanced inputs, mine don't. The cables I used, TRSS to XLR, are from Cardas who make a line of such cables for the Pono Player. Sitting in between these outputs resides a blue LED that lights up when you play music that was downloaded from the Pono store. This light lights up even for 16/44.1 files so it is not an indication of a high res music file.
The unit's face holds the touchscreen and three big buttons; On/Off/Play/Pause/Next Track/Previous Track (different functions are determined by how long and how many times you press that circular button), and volume up and down buttons. The screen which takes some care in navigating especially if you have fat fingers, is where all of your serious functions take place. You access Settings from here including setting the Player to balanced mode, view your music by Artists, Albums, Songs, and Playlists, and play your music. Tap and hold a selection and you get the options to Play All, Add to Playlist, and Back in a small window. You can also create and save playlists. I used Firmware version 1.0.4 of the Player software which supports gapless playback. One tip—when listening to music, if you double tap on the cover art of the currently playing song, the screen will display metadata about the selection including the file's bit and sample rates.
The 24/192-capable DAC in Pono is the ESS ES9018M DAC and Ayre has employed their custom minimum phase filter as found in the QB-9. I learned at CES 2015 that the Pono will soon also support DSD playback (see report). While the Pono Player supports most common file formats including FLAC, WAV, AIFF, and ALAC, the Pono store sells its music in the losslessly compressed FLAC format. If these file formats mean nothing to you, check out our Guide to Common Music File Types and Formats.
Pono/Ayre choose not to publish certain specifications including the headphone amp output impedance because this has nothing to do with sound quality, according to Charles Hansen, Ayre's Founder and Designer (I prefer the shut up and listen approach as well). It turns out there was some misinformation that found its way to the web, stating this spec was 5 Ohms. While this was true for a prototype unit, it is not the output impedance of production units according to Ayre. Beyond that, Ayre chooses to keep silent. The battery in the Player is a "2950 mAH Li-Ion rechargeable for up to 8 hours of playback time" according to Pono.
I find the Pono Player's triangular form factor to be a big plus when using it to play music on my hi-fi. The player sits nicely and the screen, which changes its orientation as you move the player around from vertical to horizontal, is both easy to see and use on its 45 degree angle. It is much better situated than most portable players and smartphones that lie flat like a dead fish. For portability, the Pono Player's size and shape are not the most pocket-friendly but it certainly fits in any and all of my pockets (...or are you just happy to see me).
I suppose the name is intended to imply more of an experience than an app but it always makes me smile and think, Elmo's World. PonoMusic World can act as your computer's media player (you can think of it as a version of JRiver Media Center), CD ripper, your interface to the Pono Music Store, and your Pono Player device manager. Firmware updates, for example, are handled automatically through the app.
When you first open the app, it scans your computer's media folders for your music library which then shows up in the app's Music Library window. You can play your music from the app to your computer audio system or copy music to your Player. Music purchased from the PonoMusic Store will also show up in the Music Library window. If you want to quickly copy an album from your library to your Pono Player, first connect your player to your computer and power the Player on. You will be asked by the Player if you want to enter Music Transfer Mode (Yes/No select Yes). You can then just drag and drop the selection from the main app window to the player window on the bottom left of the app screen or right-click on the album cover and select Send To...Pono Player.
Once you are done copying music to your player, eject the player and disconnect it from your computer. The Player will then re-scan its internal library and list all of your music. If there is an available firmware update, the Player will ask you if want to upgrade when you disconnect it from your computer. You can also create and save Playlists in the app and copy them to your Player.
What should also happen, but did not work for me on either of my Macs or my PC, is the removable SD Card should also show up in the app as an available drive to copy music to. The included 64GB exFat-formatted card, which houses two Patti Smith albums, did not show up in the app or in Finder/Explorer so I was unable to access it. I was however, able to play the music pre-loaded on it in the Player. I spoke to Pono's EVP of Technology, Pedram Abrari, about this issue and here's his response, "There was a manufacturing process issue that resulted in a batch microSD that had a bad boot sector. We're replaced the card for anyone who reported this issue." My replacement microSD is on its way.
I also ripped a few CDs with PonoMusic World and only had one disc fail initially but a re-try solved this problem. I also experienced a glitch where an older firmware version somehow got loaded onto the Player, v.1.0.3, even though I was running v1.0.4. When disconnecting the Player from my computer, the Player would ask me if wanted to upgrade to v.1.0.3 and if I said Yes, it would just hang up the Player. The remedy for this issue was to simply delete the v1.0.3 file from the Player. I also experienced a few instances where the Player was not recognized by the PonoWorld software but disconnecting and re-connecting fixed it. I have not experienced this problem since running the latest firmware and the non-beta version of PonoWorld.
Overall, I found the PonoMusic World app to be relatively easy to use, fairly bug free (v.20.0.50), but I could see how a first-time user could be a bit overwhelmed with all of the available options which I will not get into here. Is PonoWorld as easy to use as iTunes? I don't think so but I also don't think it's a disaster as some people have suggested online. Frankly I preferred just dragging and dropping files in Finder from my computer to the Player's Music folder which struck me as taking less time than copying files through the PonoWorld app.
The Sound of Pono
One of the things the Pono Player gets so right, and it's something I noticed right away, is tone. Everything just sounds right, natural, and real. There's also a very nice solidity to the sound image which is, through my main system, laid out in a very broad and deep space. Overall, music sounds just right which led to many hours of pure listening enjoyment.
The Pono Player was also not at all embarrassed by comparisons to much more costly separates. While it does not offer as much sparkle and ultimate resolution as the Auralic Vega, I was not bothered by this difference when listening to the Pono Player. Let's also keep in mind that the Vega was connected to my MacBook Pro as server which in turn was connected to a Synology NAS as storage, a combination of components costing thousands of dollars. Of course my Synology NAS has oodles more storage capacity as compared to the Pono Player, and it, as can the MacBook, perform lots of other duties. But for simply playing music, which is what we're here to talk about, the Pono Player proved itself to be very adept at getting the important stuff right.
The majority of my listening time with the Pono Player through my main system, which includes the Pass INT-30A and the DeVore Fidelity The Nines, was spent listening in balanced mode using a pair of specially terminated Cardas Parsec interconnect cables ($360/1m). While this may seem like a strange pairing given their relative cost, I found balanced mode to sound much smoother, richer, and more natural as compared to running single-ended. According to Cardas, "any Cardas interconnects can be terminated as balanced Pono interconnects but the most popular is Microtwin 1m pair $225, and Parsec 1m pair $360." While I did not try any of the others, all's I can say is the Parsec cable from Cardas paired to Pono delivered some very natural sound and if you intend to connect your Pono Player to a revealing Hi-Fi, an investment in cables makes perfect sense. In my opinion of course. If you get rankled by the notion of cables making a difference, feel free to use whatever you like, and there are certainly inexpensive 1/8" TRSS to male XLR cables out there.
I listened to all manner of music through the Pono Player including some old high res favorites including Jimmy Scott's All The Way, Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run, and more, as well as some new favorites including D'Angelo's Black Messiah and Caribou's Our Love along with some acoustic music, some classical, and some more. The two albums that were included with my player from Patti Smith, Horses and Banga, both in 16/44.1, sounded just lovely as well. The Player really does deliver a goodly amount of the musical message and familiar voices sound refreshingly familiar and nicely present.
Of course the main use for the Pono Player will be as a portable headphone device so I leashed the NAD Viso HP50s to the Player and took the combo for a spin. I was greeted and treated with a nice, big, fat sound. Meaty. That same natural sense, that same easy to listen to and easy to like presentation that I heard through the Hi-Fi made for an enjoyable time. I also had an opportunity, at CES 2015, to compare the Pono Player in balanced and single-ended mode with a pair of Sennheiser HD650s and balanced mode simply crushed single-ended. There was just more of everything you'd want including tone color, weight, scale, and vibrancy. As with running your Pono Player into your hi-fi, if you want to hear it at its best, run balanced.
Compared to my iPhone 5S, the Pono Player delivers music while the iPhone delivers a reasonable facsimile thereof. Missing with the iPhone is the wonderful tone, the resolution or ability to hear into the recording, and that natural sounding presentation. Instead, you get a thinner, flatter, more anemic sound. The result being a less engaging experience, the ultimate sound quality of the output is limited by the iPhone's innards.
I also happen to have the Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman here and this made for a more interesting A/B. The Sony retails for $1200 and it can do some very cool things like connect to your Wi-Fi network and access music from your network including NAS-based libraries. It is also much sturdier in terms of build quality as compared to the Pono Player and its relatively flat form factor is much more pocket friendly. Purely on a sound quality basis, the Sony is more concerned with detail and dynamic snap, the Pono Player sounds richer and more full-bodied in comparison. I can certainly see someone preferring the Sony's more resolute sound but to my ears the Pono Player is more fun, more fulfilling.
I reviewed the Astel & Kern AK240 for Stereophile (see review) and this $2500 chunk of luxurious goodness clearly outweighs the Pono Player in terms of design and build quality. It ought to. While a direct comparison was not possible, I sent the A&K player back months ago, I will say that the Pono Player is not obviously outclassed by the more expensive player sonically. The AK240, like the Sony player, offers the ability to play music from your network-attached storage which may or may not be of importance to you.
Further Thoughts on Pono
Due to the nature of the Pono enterprise, I think its appropriate to share some non-sound related concerns. Since delivering an end-to-end music delivery solution including hardware is such a huge undertaking, I have some concerns over Pono's long term viability. I'm not questioning what they've accomplished so far as I must admit to being impressed by their more-or-less on-time delivery of the Player and the associated app and music store which are certainly livable even in their current stage. My concern is over how much ongoing revenue Pono will generate and will this be enough for continued operation.
In the very worst case, if Pono folded some time in the future, the Pono Player remains a great-sounding player and one that can function just fine without the music store. But for those people buying into and relying on the Pono ecosystem, the ongoing health of the enterprise should be a cause for some concern, again because Pono has bitten off such a big chunk of responsibility that only Apple has successfully pulled off over time.
All that said, I wish Pono well.
Is Pono perfect? What is? From a hardware and sound quality perspective, especially when run in balanced mode with your hi-fi or headphones, the Pono Player is to my ears a huge success that belies its $399 asking price. Ayre has done their part of the job exceedingly well and with the recent announcement that the Player will also support DSD, the cherry is now firmly on top. That said, on the software/app level, the Pono ecosystem needs some work. Thankfully such problems can be taken care of with future updates but we'll just have to wait and see how well Pono deals with these over time. When I began this review, the PonoWorld app was still in Beta which is no longer the case. Most of my time was spent using the production version which is reportedly much better than the Beta version.
Another gripe that's circulating in the hi-fi world, is the current lack of high res music available from the Pono Store and the fact that a lot of their selections are CD-quality, like my two Patti Smith albums that came with my Player. My take on this is give them some time. Rome, and HDtracks, Qobuz, etc., weren't built in a day. Since you can play any high res file on the Pono Player from any source including HDtracks, I don't see what all the fuss is about. Also keep in mind Pono has stated that they are constantly looking for the best available version and if they uncover a higher res version of something that's already in the Pono music store and you already purchased, they will provide a free upgrade for all Kickstarter backers who have a PonoPlayer. The company is also looking into a possible paid upgrade option for non-Kickstarter backers but no word yet on when/if this will happen.
Would I buy, or recommend, the Pono Player knowing what I now know? Yup. If you are looking for a portable high res player that can do double duty in your hi-fi and deliver a very musical signal, especially when run in balanced mode, then absolutely consider the Pono Player. For $399, it strikes me as a steal of a deal. If, on the other hand, you are looking to buy into a complete ecosystem that makes the transition from hardware to software to music download store a seamless and relatively brainless operation, I'd say it's worth growing with Pono as they iron out their issues. Otherwise the only company I know of that has really pulled off this triple-threat treat is Apple but they left out the sound quality piece that Pono delivers.
Also in-use during the Pono review: my iPhone and the Sony NW-ZX2.