The Sound of Pono

Before our interviews with Neil Young, and I say "our" because there was a small army of "us", we were treated to some tunes with the PonoPlayer as source playing some PonoMusic. In a front room sat two players leashed to Sennheiser Momentum headphones while a back room housed a lovely simple system consisting of a PonoPlayer and an Ayre AX-5 integrated amp driving a pair of TAD Compact Reference CR1 loudspeakers.

I spent some time listening to both systems. Mainly Casandra Wilson on the the Momentums and Dave Brubeck on the big rig and the sound was crisp, clear, and full. There was also a very nice sense of delicacy and detail through the TAD speakers and an overall relaxed and natural sound. Nice. I find it difficult to really suss an unfamiliar system in such a short amount of listening time but what I heard certainly sounded like more would be more than welcome.

I've also seen any number of articles, Facebook posts, tweets, and comments about Pono with the expected naysayers chiming the death knell before the first PonoPlayer hits the market. Especially from audiophiles who "already can play back 24/192 files on my XXX portable player". I think the main point that people appear to have missed, is summed up by this quote from Mr. Young:

"We're bringing it to the mainstream."
Notice, he did not say we're bringing it to Audiophiles. You see, we don't mind loading drivers to get our Windows machines to play back 24/192 files, running third party media players so our various sample rates play back in their native rate, or converting our FLAC files so they will play in iTunes. We don't even mind having the choice of various file formats and sample rates for the same album and buying HD downloads from one site, Studio Masters from another, and DSD from yet another. The more [complicated and obscure] the better, could be the audiophile creed.

I'd suggest that the mainstream, i.e. the non-audiophile, is more interested in a simple solution when it comes to listening to music. No PC tweaking, no comparing different versions of the same software for sound differences, no UPnP/DLNA to wrestle with. Purchase, download, and play. What Neil Young and Pono promise is PonoMusic will be the best quality available so when you buy a Pono download, it may be 24/48, 24/96, or 24/192 but whatever it is that's the resolution it was mastered in. Is that HD? Is that a Studio Master? Its Pono. I'd also suggest that since PonoPlayers can play most file formats, it won't be long before some of those people from the mainstream branch out to other sites in search of more Pono-quality music.

Of even greater importance is the simple fact that Neil Young has more people talking about higher quality music in more places than I've ever seen. If you don't view that as a win win for audiophiles and the mainstream, I'm not sure you're ready to let the rest of world in on our little secret.

jazz and cocktails's picture

your point is well taken, but I imagine some of the carping about Pono is specifically because it was assumed, often with leading comments from NY or others affiliated with Pono, that Pono would somehow be a paradigm shift in sound quality. I have no doubt its going to be wonderful, particularly if the catalog size approaches that which can be found on iTunes or Spotify, but the only thing that's paradigm shifting here is the marketing.

which is not a bad thing.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Like Apple but for high quality music.
jazz and cocktails's picture

yes, and that's a good thing, we assume, although we haven't see the desktop app yet.

btw, how was the PonoPlayer connected to the Ayre amp?

Michael Lavorgna's picture use with the Ayre amp was a prototype but the unit has a 3.5mm analog output.
bobflood's picture

Pono should have a streaming component as soon as possible. This will become a driver to the Pono Music web store for downloads. The more people who hear high resolution music the better. Reach them through whatever channel is available. I know people say that hi-res music can't be streamed. That is completely wrong. It is the content providers who have been holding it up. We need demand for high quality music to get the industry to change the bad habits of the MP3 era.

sg60's picture

Well put. I'm glad to see a major audiophile site expressing these comments. I've seen some posts on other sites and it's as if some people in this community can't wait to find ways to criticize this endeavour. I really don't get it because I personally can't see anything other than positives coming out of this. Something that raises the profile of hi-res music and potentially opens it up to a much wider audience the way Pono already has can only be considered a good thing. When I read some of these negative articles it starts to become clear to me why there is so much worry that the audiophile community/industry is in danger of declining into irrelevancy. The answer is it's self-inflicted by a surprising number of nitwits within the community who seem incapable of seeing the bigger picture. Let's hope the Pono and all of the attention it's generating will help to change this.

LS35A's picture

Did you ask to compare them to 16/44 cd rips?

NO MORE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES FOR ME. They can't just talk up a good story and say 'trust me, it's better'.

HDtracks got a huge break from the audiophile press who took years to start doing compares to cd rips. NOT AGAIN, PLEASE.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
But they didn't have any available ;-) Pono is not an ultimatum, it's an option. If you feel you'd be happier with CD rips, no one's stopping you from ripping till the cows come home.
cdxskier's picture

Michael, it's so good to see an audiophile be positive about the Pono player. I was especially discouraged after reading the plethora of negative posts on Audiogon about the product. Anyone who truly espouses audiophilia should be thrilled about the Pono player and its mission. At the end of the day, music is a business, and it will respond to market demands. Moving the mainstream away from convenience and toward quality ensures the longevity of our passion. Those who pooh-pooh the Pono are "audiophiles" because of a desire for exclusivity, rather than a true love of music and its associated technology.

junker's picture

Good job Michael! Pono is the only product / platform that I see mainstreaming with buy in from artists and studios. Naysayers and killjoys are a dime a dozen - it really takes something special to have vision. It could be another Zune, but regardless it is good for music and high-end audio. There are already so many trends showing a latent market for higher quality (Phono, headphones, DSD, etc.) I'm very happy Neil Young has seen this market opportunity and invested as much energy in this project. Thanks Neil!

weirdo12's picture

If they are bringing it to the mainstream - which I agree they are - why demo it with a $10,000 amp and $37,000 speakers? I am really glad Neil went the kickstarter route. I'd hate to see him going into debt trying to convince the mainstream that they need to move away from lossy digital audio. They have done well and must be extremely gratified by the support the project has received.

Frank's picture

Michael I would suggest your review is relatively positive given the rate of your colleagues have dissed the Pono ecosystem, as Neil likes to call it, without even one listening. I effectively called out Señor Darko who posted Why He Would Not Buy Pono and my retort was exactly as you have deduced, if Neil's project can bring this to a greater portion of the masses it is only going to make it better for us so-called Audiophiles. I mean the fact that the thing is even connected to an AX-5 is sexy enough for me to have interest.

Wavelength's picture


Just a few thoughts....

I think people have to realize that the two pieces are not hard tied together. You can still play your FLAC files on any DAC that you like. Of course this will require a player that supports FLAC which iTunes does not.

Now in defense of Apple on all this, is that all the files they have compiled over the years are stored in the native format for which they were provided by the artist. That means they have a boat load of 24 bit material already on their servers. The minimum acceptable format for material now is 24/48K so hopefully the Pono store will light the fuse for a new iTunes store.

Look for us this is all good. The Pono group has huge support from the record labels on this. I for one can't wait for this to hit.


labjr's picture

From what I've read, The Stones ABKCO material has only been transferred to DSD for SACD release and everything available in PCM is transcoded from DSD. Was Neil able to pry the master tapes away from Jody Klein, or is this resampled? Wouldn't that be a no-no for Pono?

paulg's picture

Computer audio is scary, even for audiophiles. I've awoken to the joy of a NAS scramble. Anything that makes it easier and user friendly is welcomed. Zuma in H D would be welcomed too!

newby11's picture

This CNET article re "science-says-hirez=irrelevant" fairly begs for a professional response: . I think it is incumbent on the good folks at Stereophile to be educators and public advocates for excellence among the broader mass market rather than just us audionerds. Unchallenged pronouncements such as these destroy potential audiophiles in the proverbial crib....

Archimago's picture

Good CNET article.

You know why Stereophile doesn't "challenge" the "pronouncements"? Because it's true. I think it would be very foolish to go out on record speaking against the science! Educate with facts, not opinion.

Unless Stereophile has evidence otherwise, arguing from a purely subjective "because I can hear it!" perspective would destroy credibility.

Yes, as perfectionist audiophiles, we may want to collect higher-than-16-bit-44kHz music. Objectively, we can point to higher accuracy and improved potential dynamic range. But in the real world, within the limits of hearing, the transducer equipment (speakers, headphones) we have, the rooms we listen in... Don't be so sure going above 14-bits even makes a significant difference with real music.

Shoshin's picture

It would be a rather difficult position for Stereophile to take. However, not because the CNET article is “good” or “the science” is particularly convincing. Stereophile would find it a difficult challenge because, scientifically, there is no real hypothesis - alternative or null - to prove. There exists merely vague competing theories based on nearly-science, "expert" advice, personal experience, belief-systems and opinions. Even should hypotheses exist, anecdotal evidence – the currency of audio magazines - would not be considered, most especially when they are perceived to have competing interests.

As a once clinical research director, the CNET article appears to cobble together and present "facts" and arguments according to the author's personal biases and objectives. Personally, I found the article unconvincing: there is simply insufficient information included or referenced to draw an informed conclusion. That said, I also am unconvinced of the superiority of hi-res formats per se and am yet to read of a study(ies) that are convincing me either way; simple DB ABX testing is not suitable. Even the data from my sensory system is equivocal!.. but then I rarely listen to music with critical appraisal an objective.

Your point regarding the external validity/ practical relevance of objective measurement is well taken. I agree in principle that there is often a dubious relationship between relatively impressive figures and musical enjoyment. Considering your stated preference to make informed decisions based on facts, I look forward to you directing us to such that clearly proves there is no benefit to the re-production of music by "going above 14-bits".

islandman2020's picture
I think the name "Pono" in of itself makes for a better possibility of successful marketing and "branding". The name is brilliant! Inevitably, "Pono" will get crossed up with "Porno" in conversations about it which will have the side effect of people talking even more about it....driving the brand into our consciousness even deeper! Brilliant I say!!! Schitt's name is somewhat similar in this effect. The name "Pono" will have much more of a chance to become a household name than its competitors with names such as Hifiman, or Astell & Kern, etc. Those other names are not the kinds of names that will make the general public talk as much.

First, for the public to quickly catch on to a new item in the marketplace the name has to be catchy, and easy to remember, with one or two syllables in the name being best. E.g., Corvette, Mustang, Strat, Les Paul, Beats, Ipod....brands we will forever recognize. Putting an alpha numeric name such as "X10" as a product's recognizable I.D. is usually not as successful. We humans do not bond with those types of names. It is not how we are wired. So, I think the name "Pono" is going to be easy to market, and brand. I predict it will be successful.

(Now, all Neil has to do is create some custom "stick on" decals for all the “Ponoites” so that it becomes even more trendy, and add an A/B repeat function for singers and musicians learning music by ear, and this thing will be an unstoppable Jedi Force, lol!)

One last point. Pono, with Neil Young as it's visible fearless leader, parallels what seems to have been a successful business mantra of sorts for other companies, e.g., Lee Iacocca (Chrysler), Dave Thomas (Wendy's), and Steve Jobs (Apple) to name a few Each of these successful companies had leaders with high profile images constantly visible to the public eye. One commonality between these men was that they were very vocal in expressing what their passions were about, and in doing so, multitudes caught their "fire"! This is another "plus up" for Pono over it's competitors who do not have this kind of vocal, and visible leadership. So preach it loud, and clear Rev. Young. Your followers await you! Until then.......getty up silver! I'm going to ride the Pono! Or, is Pony? See what this name is already doing to people!

weirdo12's picture

When will we see the USB Stick-Size Digital-Audio Converter PonoStick launched?