Neil Young's Pono. What is it?

This past Sunday's NY Times magazine featured an interview with Neil Young that focused on his new autobiography “Waging Heavy Peace”. We all know about Mr. Young's outspoken stance for better sound quality but he's taking matters into his own hands with his own technology called "Pono":
The book, like today’s drive, is a ride through Young’s many obsessions, including model trains, cars like the one we were touring in and Pono, a proprietary digital musical system that can play full master recordings and will, he hopes, restore some of the denuded sonic quality to modern music.
There's only one other mention of "Pono" in the article:
Young gets most worked up when he talks about Pono, the music system he has developed. It is beyond the hobby stage: Warner Brothers has agreed to make its catalog available on Pono, and Young and Roberts are negotiating with other record companies and investors.

We walked out of the train barn past a Hummer that runs on biodiesel and hopped in yet another car, a ’78 El Dorado, to listen to the Pono system. Right now, it needs a trunk full of gear, but Young and Roberts are working with a British manufacturer to come up with a portable version. He gave a demonstration that replicated MP3s, CDs, Blu-ray and then the full Pono sound.

“You are getting less than 5 percent of the original recording,” he said at first. He put on Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and then switched to Pono. The horns jumped and the car was filled with lush, liquid sound. He madly toggled between different outputs to make sure I was getting it.

We do know more from a Press Release for his forthcoming book:
Young is also personally spearheading the development of Pono, a revolutionary new audio music system presenting the highest digital resolution possible, the studio quality sound that artists and producers heard when they created their original recordings. Young wants consumers to be able to take full advantage of Pono's cloud-based libraries of recordings by their favorite artists and, with Pono, enjoy a convenient music listening experience that is superior in sound quality to anything ever presented.
So Pono is obviously more than a file format and it sounds like yet another proprietary delivery system that may require, argh, its own hardware platform for playback. Neil Young knew Steve Jobs and they talked about delivering better quality music and it appears as if Mr. Young has taken a big bite out of the Jobs/Apple business model.

From an article in Rolling Stone:

"We were working on it," said Young. "Steve Jobs was a pioneer of digital music. But when he went home, he listened to vinyl. And you've gotta believe that if he'd lived long enough, he would eventually have done what I'm trying to do."

Drtrey's picture

with this sort of thing! He holds several patents and knows a thing or two about business. The intriguing part of this for me is that he thinks the system is better than blu-ray, which sounds very good indeed to me!


Michael Lavorgna's picture

But with file-based playback, the last thing we need is a new proprietary format that requires new hardware. This may not be the case with Pono but the interview in the Times makes it sound like there is a hardware component.

lafish's picture

Neil Young was on the board and a major investor in Pacific Microsonics, which developed a novel encode/decode protocol to squeeze more data into the 16/44 format. They called it HDCD, for high definition compatible digital, because you didn't need the decoder chip to reap much of the benefit. Many mastering labs, including Bob Ludwig, still use their pro equipment, so many CD's would light up the HDCD light on a compatible player, even today. Eventually sold to Microsoft, but the founders now run Berkeley Audio Design, makers of a seriously great DAC. So Neil knows a thing or two about this stuff.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Thanks for that lafish.

Regor Ladan's picture

All true, however, you will not get the full benefit unless you have an HDCD compatible player, not even close...and you will not get any benefit when ripping a CD to a hard drive.

Regor Ladan's picture

We have all this before. T Bone Burnett tried to do something similar and it died a death.

Don't get me wrong, I love Neil, and he should pursue his vision.

But he has been moaning about digital sound since the 80's, yet he insisted recording, mixing, and mastering in digital. Most of his CDs from that point on have been "DDD".

He claimed that if you are going digital, it should be digital from start to finish, while some took the oppossite approach and stayed analog until the final production master.

I also think it was quite a stretch to claim you are getting only "5%" of the original recording. 

jazz and cocktails's picture

and one record company- probably pretty easy to guess which.


thought i'd read some info here previously, but if not, it shouldn't be too difficult to find online.  also, i have my doubts as to whether it ever sees the light of day.  essentially, it's hi-res, lossless (albeit compressed, like FLAC) mult-channel sound.  not sure if it's PCM based, but bandwidth permitting, shouldn't be that difficult to pull off.

jazz and cocktails's picture
Michael Lavorgna's picture

Thanks for pointing us to it. This sheds some light on the question:

...a high-res audio download format designed to his own specifications that will deliver via the Internet a 192 kHz/24-bit stereo audio file to consumers.


And there is also something new going on in the mastering process used to prepare these files. It is called adaptive coding, the idea being that based on the mastering engineer’s intimate knowledge of the music he is working with and the entire process from encoding to electronic delivery, he prepares (adapts) the finished products (files) in such a way that they are best able to survive uploading, downloading and decoding, and thus deliver the best possible quality to the consumer, that quality being as close a match as possible to the audio characteristics of the master.

Regor Ladan's picture

It IS an excellent article. Really ties together many important topics in a really coherent way.

labjr's picture

Seems it's basically high resolution, but with accountibility. It's about time someone thought of it.

I guess he actually wants to give the customer what they are willing to pay for. Instead of the nonsense that's been served up so far.

I'd say that's better for business. Go for it Neil !

firedog55's picture

...he prepares (adapts) the finished products (files) in such a way that they are best able to survive uploading, downloading and decoding, and thus deliver the best possible quality to the consumer, that quality being as close a match as possible to the audio characteristics of the master.


Computer downloads really are "bits as bits" - it's just like copying anyother data file; there isn't any issue of "surviving"  -  either your download comes out corrupted or it doesn't. Network protocols mean the download is bit perfect, or it doesn't work.

hotsoup's picture

My reaction too, I laughed out loud.

Wavelength's picture


I am still under NDA about this as they asked me to look at what they are doing. I was primarily asked about the hardware solution and how it would work in real life.

They had little meet and greet at NAMM last January. Afterwards they had to lay off a bunch of people becuase of money. The people I was working with are all at Intel now.


I think the big problem for High Res is this. How do we get it down fast enough that people will enjoy it. Even with my work internet which is really fast. It takes hours and hours to download from HD tracks a 24/192 album and this is wired Ethernet. If I do it WIFI, foget it leave it on all night and it will die and I will have to restart it in the morning.

What ever it is, it needs to be faster.



Regor Ladan's picture

Mr Rankin: What are you talking about when you say it takes you "hours and hours" download to an HDTracks 192 album? This is NONSENSE.

It takes me 12-15 minutes MAX on Ethernet.

You are spreading bad information.

Gregor Samsa's picture

As the proud owner of both a Proton and a QB-9, I consider Mr. Rankin the most important person in computer audio.

This post, however, makes me think that you're either on dialup or an impostor.  If you're talking about your home network, my pathetically underpowered, Atom-based server streams 24/192 without a hiccup - wired or wifi - through a $50 Buffalo router and/or $15 worth of Monoprice Cat5.

Listening to 24/192 HDTracks-purchased Wayne Shorter through my QB-9 right now.  Downloaded, as Mr. Ladan suggests, in about 15 minutes. Streaming from my server downstairs through Foobar.  Sounds sweet.

Regor Ladan's picture

Gordon is obviously brilliant. His Streamlength code has taken the industry by storm. 

But he has floated some strange boats. In a famous RMAF video he proclaimed everyone only listens to the "same 20 albums".

He proclaimed Ethernet was not capable of high fidelity. How did that predicion work out???

But look...uh...gang..lots of reviewes have bought his products, so I have no doubt they are sonically excellent.

Gregor Samsa's picture

If you were really J. Gordon Rankin, wouldn't we be "gang", instead of "guys".

I think that something is past its sell date in the sovereign entity of Denmark.

rtrt's picture

Sounds a bit like hi res version of mastered for itunes. Will try to read some of the background info others have posted later.

jrubenstein's picture

You can sign up to keep informed about it, as the information is released, at

Esprit's picture

Adaptive? There was, centuries ago, Philips with DCC.

Only a failure.