Pono Player

Device Type: Portable Digital Audio Player/DAC
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
Price: $399
Website: ponomusic.force.com

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).

PonoMusic World
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.

Associated Equipment

Also in-use during the Pono review: my iPhone and the Sony NW-ZX2.

deckeda's picture

If they can make a habit of giving new (and presumably better) versions of music to customers, for free, that's a huge incentive for many audiophiles of course because it addresses the common gripe. Even if done at a discount that still puts the music industry on its ear, who normally expect us to pono, er pony up all over again, each time.

That said, doing so would completely back up what they've been saying all along, that they're here to provide the best file available. You could even argue that over time such a policy would go a long way towards amortizing the cost of the player.

Reed's picture

I find a portable player didn't work for me. I tried a 120g iPod and still could only get a fourth of my library on it, ripped at 44.1. Once I get into having to on load and offload songs, I find I just won't use it. I found an album at 44.1 took up roughly a 1/2 gig of space. Higher rez files take up 1 gig plus. The Pono player would be roughly half the space of my iPod and the file are twice as big.

That's why streaming has such appeal to me. I tried Tidal, but there is clearly refinements needed to sound quality and playback options. I'm sitting back and letting the dust settle for now. The effort is commendable, however.

DECA's picture

I too have the Patti Smith LE #58 of 464. As well the SD card that had here albums was corrupted when connected to my Mac. Pono's solution was to use Disc Utility to repair the volume. Once I did that the SD card work fine. I have 2 128GB SD cards which is not quite user friendly. Hopefully higher capacity cards will become available.
I was also pleasantly surprised how good it sounded playing HR material (24/96, 24/176.4 and 24/192). I am using JH13 IEM with balanced Silver Dragon cable from Moon Audio.

Wavelength's picture


Nice review I have to agree with you totally.

My take is out of the box it's a little confusing. My setup of course is not so typical and maybe worst case. The original version of Pono World Music would not install with the Pono connected. Luckily I did an update with it un-connected and got it to work... well kind of. It was able to update the Pono firmware and that was about it.

Luckily I had J River 20 (for which Pono World is based on) and was able to transfer all my files.

Headphones... first to me headphones are personal. I found a few sounded a bit light, but found my AKG K702 (64 ohms) sounded pretty good. I would test low impedance headphones before buying the combo, also low sensitivity hp as well. Well really that should be the case with any audio gear. Guys, girls go out and listen before you buy.

The good thing is that software can always be updated. I am sure knowing the team that this will be the case.


DECA's picture

One more thing. It looks like there is no access to opening it up. Just wondering if or when a battery change is needed.

bernardperu's picture

"if I gave my best friend $500,000 worth of the best equipment in the world, it would sound terrible .... setup contributes at least 50% to the overall sound of a system." —Charles Hansen, Ayre Acoustics, Inc.

So Neil Young repeatedly testing the Pono in the sound system of moving vehicles smells like a deception? Is Neil Young a liar?

Is the term "marketing" an excuse to become a legal liar?

Why is so hard to find honesty (and a straight answer) these days?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Here's Pono's response:
"The battery is replaceable by Pono. Much like Apple. Lifetime will vary how it's used but typical life is 3-4 years. The battery is very high quality made by Samsung. Replacement cost will be less than $50."
Michael Lavorgna's picture
Here's the next paragraph from Charles Hansen:
In one fell swoop, the PonoPlayer solves both issues. A good sounding pair of headphones can be had for as little as a few hundred dollars. And there is no tweaking involved; just put the headphones on, press "Play" and you are good to go. The most tweaking possible with the PonoPlayer is to replace the stock headphone cables with a pair of balanced headphone cables, because once you go balanced, there is no going back.
While I don't mind grasping at straws, pulling quotes out of context to support your nonsense is just plain silly. I'd suggest going somewhere else.
jneber's picture

Michael, have you listened extensively to the Sony NWZ-A17? How does the Pono's sound compare to it?

bernardperu's picture

It would seem to me that context is perfect and that Charles Hansen is an honest man. He implicitly suggests Neil Young is a liar.

1) Neil Young is caught repeatedly on video testing the Pono in a moving vehicle. (no sweet spot, noise, etc). Do you test equipment on moving vehicles, Michael? Do so and watch your credibility go down the drain. Stand up for someone who does the same, and you may experience the same.

2) Those joining Neil Young in the moving vehicles are sound experts (musicians, producers). They get off the car and say: "Wow! This is awesome!" Of course they know music quality is not to be tested on the sound system of a moving vehicle.

3) Charles Hensen claims set up is 50% of the overall sound for gear costing half a million dollars. I imagine set up is even more important for inexpensive equipment. Noise, no sweet-spot is a part of the set up.

Would you care to explain me, Michael, why I am out of context?

PS: Wherever Neil goes to talk about Pono, he has a manager and an agent with him at all times. Are we really listening to Neil or he is just the voice of a carefully crafted business model?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...I've only heard the NWZ-A17 at RMAF for a very brief listen so I cannot offer a comparison.
Michael Lavorgna's picture
I reviewed the Pono Player in my listening room, where I listen to everything I review, and found it to be an exceptional sounding device, especially given its price.

So what the hell are you talking about?

jneber's picture

Thanks Michael. Are you planning to review of the NWZ-A17 any time soon?

bernardperu's picture

I am talking about Neil Young repeatedly testing the Pono in the sound system on a moving vehicles joined by celebrities with great listening skills and posting it on official Pono videos.

That is what I am talking about.

Pono is great. Ayre did it. But I am talking about "Neil", just like Pedram Abrari is....

Michael: Would you care to answer what you think about testing equipment on moving vehicles? Would the credibility of a reviewer go down the drain? At least once, can you address my main point?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
But that little Sony player interests me so ya never know.
Michael Lavorgna's picture
So do lots of people. Some people even spend money on their car's sound system to improve their listening experience while driving. Some people even use their Pono Player to listen to music in their car.

So what the hell are you talking about?

deckeda's picture

Michael, the Manufacturer's Response page isn't a "page 2" here. Got posted as it's own story, so there are comments orphaned there that belong here. Or has it already been done that way on these sites?

bernardperu's picture

Man, you are really trying hard to go nowhere here...

I am talking about TESTING equipment in a moving vehicle. I am talking about determining the quality of a sound device and Hi-Rez music on a moving vehicle.

I have Focal Utopia stereo speakers in my vehicle (the hell most pono user will be able to afford that! In the best case scenario, they will have a nice stereo system of 2K)

There is absolutely NO WAY that the Pono can sound better than my car CD player sending the digital signal to my car's DAC via coax.

Pono player was connected unbalanced via an analog 3.5mm output to a car stereo system, then, TESTED, and then, determined by the driver and passenger (both expert listeners) that it sounded great.

I am talking about TESTING and concluding that it is a great sounding device and that Hi-Rez is THE shit. I am talking about TESTING and CONCLUDING and SETUP.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Good catch. That's a known bug that we're (not me but you know what I mean) working on.
Michael Lavorgna's picture
...because I think it's silly.
Pono player was connected unbalanced via an analog 3.5mm output to a car stereo system, then, TESTED, and then, determined by the driver and passenger (both expert listeners) that it sounded great.
Yes, that's what the Pono videos showed.

So, you don't like their marketing? You feel that the people in the Pono videos are lying and that Neil Young is lying? I don't.

bwspot's picture

As cool as device might be it will be pointless as today's young generation is loosing hearing due to exposure to loud sounds.
People cannot hear up to 13000-14000hz and the true is all the beauty is beyond 14000hz. All those cool new devices produce sounds that are out of reach!!!

bernardperu's picture

My original intent was to hear from charles hansen. Would be nice to her from him.

Neil tells big truths and big lies. Does that make him a liar? If a persons steals once every month and he is honest all other days, is he a crook?

Michael, i am not trying to pick up a fight. I value honesty and make my remarks in that context.

fantgolf's picture

Remember that Hi-rez means that you hear more resolution at whatever frequencies you can hear. People seem to think hi-rez is about frequency response.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
But the Pono Player sounds great, high res played through it sounds great, so what is Neil Young lying about?
bwspot's picture

HI res is great but you cannot hear details below 14000 that are above 14000 no matter what hi res you have.

Beetlemania's picture

I can distinguish 16 from 24 bit but not 44 kHz from 96 or 192 kHz. But if someone else can hear the benefits of >44 kHz, more power to 'em!

fantgolf's picture

That's what I'm saying. If I can't hear above 14000 but enjoy listening to music, I can still benefit and hear the higher definition of hi-rez in the frequencies I can hear.

ashutoshp's picture

Hi Michael. Great review. three questions if you wouldnt mind:
1) Is there any difference in SQ between albums/songs downloaded from HDtracks and Pono Music or even TiDAL?
2) Since JRiver makes the software, which is great BTW, do I have to renew my membership every year as I have to with my non-Pono JRMC?
3) Can i use the PonoWorld JRiver MC with my other non-Pono audio gear?
3) I am not an engineer but I am very imaginative as you'll see ;)
To get around the fact that Pono does not have Wi-Fi, if I were to buy one of them wireless microSD cards (if available) that are used to download data, can I use that with the Pono Player to stream music from my computer or NAS wirelessly?

bernardperu's picture


1: to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive
2: to create a false or misleading impression

Neil's lies:

1) To lead us to believe that it is possible to make an accurate assessment of sound quality on the sound system of a moving vintage vehicle.

2) To lead us to believe that a poorly mastered (with lots of dynamic compression) hi-rez track can sound better than a low quality master of a very good recording. He puts the weight of sound quality on file size instead of the quality of the recording. As you already know and have claimed in the past: the quality of recording matters the most by far and an MP3 of a good recording will sound far better than a hi-rez file of a poor recording (please see definition #2 of lie).

3) To present a carefully crafted business as a grassroots movement. His business model is the same as any well crafted start up and, most likely, they are aiming to sell it to a large and wealthy corporation. Wherever Neil goes, he has an agent and a manager to keep him in line.

4) Pono aims on making lots of $$ on the eco-system that sells the music and that is why the player is so cheap. This is a business. DR will not be posted. No warnings on dynamic range compression (loudness wars) will be given. The real cancer of the quality of the music will be there just in fine print (anyone said HDTracks?).

5) To lead us to believe that set up and a controlled environment is irrelevant to the testing of sound quality. Other than the moving vehicle, the Pono player was demonstrated in the middle of the street without the minimum requirements of silence and comfort leading to an appropiate state of mind to digest music.

6) Not to reveal the methodology to demonstrate the better quality of Pono player as shown on the Pono videos. It is easy to persuade an individual that sound is awesome if a great recording is used with appropriate volume. Sharing methodology is a must for any kind of research. Neil lies by not admiting to the fact that great recordings were used in order to ignite smiles from listeners. He is purposedly leading us to a wrong impression, as most people will remain ignorant to the greatest factor: quality of recording is paramount. (Bose uses great recordings that match their gear features in order to sell plenty of $$. Apparently, most people only pay full attention to music quality when buying equipment).

7) Not to reveal that Pono is only great if used in balanced mode. My guess is that only this balanced mode can truly reveal the superior quality of Hi-Rez (am I wrong, Michael?). Only audiophiles such as us will use this balanced mode. You will find this funny, but I have purchased a Pono and the accesory gear to listen in balanced mode. It is funny, but if I stopped buying from liars, I wouldn't even be able to purchase medicine or medical assistance. (something I love about the subjective hi-fi media is that they lie the least, and Hi-Fi manufacturers embody the best of capitalism -seriously!)

There you go. Neil's lies.

I could go on and on (I am an audiophile, business man, online marketing specialist). I could quote your own colleagues from Stereophile, but don't want to go there.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
To your questions:

1. I have not compared the same album downloaded from different sources but my guess is, with the high res releases, we are looking at the same source files regardless of the download site.

2. No, the software that comes with the Pono device will not require paid upgrades.

3. I don't think so. The Pono player is not a UPnP/DLNA device so even with a wi-fi card, it would not be able to recognize network-attached storage.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Your list strikes me as being repetitive, trivial, and you appear to take issue with the notion that Pono is a business that is out to make money. At least that's my take on it. But I'm happy that we got to the point where you explained your position in detail.

Do I think Neil Young over-promised on Pono? Yes, I do for a number of reasons the least of which being the fact that we all have different preferences when it comes to listening to music on the hi-fi so no one device, no matter how good or bad it is, is going to make everyone happy. Some people may in fact prefer listening to MP3s on their iPhone to high res on Pono. That's just the way these things work.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
To your questions:

1. I have not compared the same album downloaded from different sources but my guess is, with the high res releases, we are looking at the same source files regardless of the download site.

2. No, the software that comes with the Pono device will not require paid upgrades.

3. I don't think so. The Pono player is not a UPnP/DLNA device so even with a wi-fi card, it would not be able to recognize network-attached storage.

Beetlemania's picture

I think it's very interesting that you mostly listened to this as a DAC in your big rig. How cumbersome was it to listen to your digital collection which must be far larger than the Pono can hold? I hope Pono succeeds; I've bought two albums so far. The DLing process went smoothly other than a funky interaction btw JRMC and PMW. One was a 24/44 album for $12.29. Hopefully, we see more competitive pricing going forward (Pono, if you're reading this please make it easier to browse your catalog, eg by genre and, especially, by resolution).

bernardperu's picture

After a quick look at Pono, I partially deconstructed Neil's business model for you and tried to expose all lies that I could think of. I did it in a professional manner, just like if I had been hired to do so.

I forgot about one huge lie: He has led people to believe that Hi-Rez devices did not exist before Pono, and neither did the possibility to purchase hi-rez files online. This lie upset the audiophile community.

I am not opposed to making money, but I am highly opposed to dishonesty. Ethics come before everything else.

Last night, I spent hours reading Rob Watts' posts on Hed-Fi.org (the creator of Chord's Hugo, which I own). Man! He is really a guy who deserves to be admired! Nothing wrong with having firms who are owned by idealistic capitalists (like Magnepan). Those are the business models to be looked up to.

Here a good book recommendation (by the author of Flow):


Michael Lavorgna's picture
I listen to albums at a time, not tracks, so I just loaded a bunch of albums onto the player. If there was something else I wanted to hear that wasn't on the Player, I just copied it over.

I hope Pono succeeds as well. So far, so good.

Frank's picture

My preference for this device would be FLAC + DSD for the car. Thanks Michael. You are one of the few honest ones out there. So many negative reviews from people who don't seem to understand the purpose.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I don't understand all of negativity related to Pono. One guess is a negative article on Pono tends to attract a lot of attention.
Frank's picture

Michael you are in my opinion one of the best reviewers in the biz. You get to the point and say it like it is. Plus anyone who praises the new digital version of Springsteen's Born To Run cannot be all that bad.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Time for some "Born to Run" in high res.


Frank's picture

Bob Ludwig's treatment of The River is a worthy listen as well. Even Born in the USA sounds better. Far more instrument separation than before. He did a good job. The vinyl versions could be interesting, but I have gone 100% digital and tragically sold all LPs. Ironic digital to analogue vinyl. Welcome to the 21st century!

Headphone Nut's picture

As if I needed another piece of audio gear (!), but having lurked around the various sites and reading your great review I took the plunge and picked up the Pono Player at a local Frys this weekend. I have the same DAC chip in my Burson Conductor SL so I sort of knew what to expect, but really, the Pono is much better than I had anticipated. I won't be messing with the Pono PC software as it is so simple to just copy my FLAC files onto the Pono using drag and drop from Windows. Sonics-wise, the Pono delivers in spades. Super natural sound with great soundstaging. Not sure I need my server and the Burson anymore. Seriously.

macaronian's picture

My early entry into the Kickstarter campaign produced a Pono Player for only $200, leaving extra dollars to replacing my Sennheiser HD595's purchased 20 years ago for $240. Which still sound very satisfying with the Pono, even better with the Ray Samuels The Hornet amp.

I'll be watching to see how the marketplace for HD music is moved forward by the Pono effect.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
While I'm not surprised that not everyone will enjoy the sound quality of the Pono Player or high res audio, I think Mr. Pogue got a little carried away with his conclusions. There's that emotional response at work again ;-)
ktracho's picture

I have a few questions:

1) Can the Pono Player be used as a D/A converter, e.g., your MacBook serving music from your NAS or an internet radio station to your Pono Player, or do you have to copy music to the Pono Player first before you can listen to it?

2) Can you download and use the PonoWorld Music app to listen to music on your PC even if you don't have a Pono Player, e.g., as a replacement for iTunes?

3) On an unrelated subject, do you have a pointer to an article on what's the best directory structure to use when storing music files on your NAS? I want to be able to access my music from iTunes as well as other music player software, depending on what computer or device I'm using.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...you cannot use the Pono Player as a DAC. You can only play music from its internal storage or microSD card.

2. I actually don't know but you can give it a try for free - Pono.

3. I do not have a pointer article on directory structures for NAS but if you plan to use iTunes, you can certainly let it handle that task. Other player software can then use this same structure.

ktracho's picture

Thanks for your reply. If they could add this functionality (using it as a DAC), whether as an update or a new model, it might be a winner for me. As it is, I have two DACs, but they cannot handle sample rates higher than 48K. As you can see, I'm in need of an upgrade, but at this point in time, I don't want to have to buy two devices, though I suppose I could continue using my old DACs for streaming and internet radio, and the Pono Player for high res music. Still, that's two devices, when it should be easy to design one device that handles both functions. So close.

At the time they announced it, it couldn't handle DSD, so that was another strike against it. Now it's twice the price, but it still wouldn't be a full replacement for my DAC. The more I wait, the more things come down in price. At least I have a nice Steinway grand for those times when I want to enjoy high res music. One of these days, I'll get around to hooking up my Rega P25 and Stax headphones.

I just downloaded and installed the PonoMusic World player. Somehow it found some high res tracks I got from HDtracks a while back, which is the only music I have on my work computer. I have no idea where the files are on my drive, but I'm listening to them through my ancient DAC. Unfortunately, this will only work until the end of March, which is when the Pono app expires. If I can figure out how to make it work indefinitely, I might be able to still participate in their ecosystem.

Thanks for the tip on storing files.

drblank's picture

A company called Coppertino has a new product that's going to be out soon for the iPhone called VOX. If you look at the photo on their website of an iPhone 6, they have a song being played and it says at the top of the phone FLAC 96/24. So, what does indicate? That the new iPhones can play 24 Bit files and these guys are going to take advantage of that ability, plus adding FLAC support. CMMMMMMMMMMMMM...... Imagine that.

Here's the link

http://coppertino.com/vox/iphone They only have a wait list because Vox for IPhone hasn't been released yet.

stevebythebay's picture


Have to agree that a better set of phones are needed to reveal what's the good, the bad, or the ugly in "hirez" devices. But the source is paramount.

stevebythebay's picture

previos pointer is to article "Neil Young’s “HD Audio” PonoPlayer put up against iPhone, results fall flat" at the 9to5Mac site.

DECA's picture

Latest firmware now supports DSD. Also fixes issues I was having with HD Track aiff files.

audiobill's picture

So is this dreaded thing dead?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Mine still works like a charm.