Neil Young Is About to Launch His Pono Audio Player -- But Will Anyone Care?

Categories: Tech

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After years of scolding the digital music world for tolerating the miserable sound of MP3s and promising to introduce a high-fidelity alternative, Neil Young is about to launch his Pono music player. He'll unveil the thing at South By Southwest tomorrow, March 12, but a press release already gives the essential details: Pono will cost $399, will hold 100-500 "high-resolution digital albums" in 128GB of memory, and will come with software to manage all the hi-res music on your computer. Presumably, it will also sound amazing.

But all that of course leaves the most important question unanswered: Will anyone care?

Young's pitch for the Pono so far is based on the idea that compressing music into an MP3 format removes something essential about the music itself -- that if you aren't listening to songs at the highest quality, you aren't really listening to them at all. Implicit in Young's view, it seems, is a notion that consumers today don't really know what they're missing. Their ears are so accustomed to MP3s that they haven't realized the drastic difference between a compressed digital file and, say, a studio master played on control room monitors, or a heavy slab of vinyl run through a really high-end audio system. Young thinks that once we hear what we're missing, we'll never be able to go back to the old MP3s.

But is that really true? I think most serious music fans are keenly aware of the advantages of (let's call it) real sound -- audiophile-quality components, high-grade vinyl, etc. They probably enjoy it, to some degree, at home. And the people who aren't aware of what they're missing probably don't care enough about music to bother hearing it as well as possible anyway.

If many listeners really do believe that the sound coming through their white earbuds is as good as music gets, audiophiles are often guilty of the opposite delusion. Getting bitten by bug of great sound can be an expensive proposition: audiophiles are notorious for spending ludicrous sums on not just amplifiers and speakers but cables, racks, power supplies. (A family member of ours tells the story of an audiophile friend who had his entire basement filled in with concrete -- the whole thing -- to get better response from his living room stereo system.) So at some point, this obsession with really good sound goes too far for most of us. And in 2014, a $400 digital music player looks pretty far out there.

Granted, the Pono seems likely to become essential equipment for the audiophiles, for the kind of people who tote headphone amps around with their iPods, or spend $900 on a pair of headphones or $10,000 on a home amplifier. And maybe that's successful enough. But as we've noted sadly, the era of the digital music player -- where you bought files, stored them on your computer, and transferred them to a portable machine to listen to -- is coming to an end. The convenience of web-enabled streaming rules in 2014. While 100 or 500 albums once have seemed like a lot, we've now got most of the world of recorded music available at the tap of an icon.

How can Pono fight that? Great sound is lovely, and Young is right that it's a completely different experience than shitty MP3s. But it would be a true feat for the Pono to become anything more than a specialty gadget for audio nerds.

[Computer Audiophile]

-- @iPORT



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11 comments
Nate Payne
Nate Payne

now if it has the apple logo, u will have all kinds of suckers paying triple the retail price!

Kevin Kirby
Kevin Kirby

If it comes loaded with some top two-hundred song selections, maybe.

David Wallace
David Wallace

Maybe me ~ I have been looking for something that exceeds the capabilities of the music players currently available, for a long time.

Christ Carrington
Christ Carrington

I assume that folks in the audio industry will buy these. I have actually been waiting for this. I always thought mp3s were horrible due to the loss of musical data and the harsh shimmer. On the other hand, not too many people can hear a difference from aiff/wav/flac and mp3

dub
dub

People spend $400 on a pair of Beats headphones to listen to crappy 128mp3's, so why not?


John W Rouse III
John W Rouse III

Sure it's always cool to see tech advance but not sure if it will click

booyaka
booyaka

I challenge all who doubt pono's relevancy to put a CD up against the same album purchased through itunes or amazonmp3. Besides the heinous production value of most modern music releases the format matters to most everyone to some level hence CD's overwhelming Cassette Tapes. Don't  knock it till you try it.

Rob Cotton
Rob Cotton

probably the same people who are excited about the new david crosby phone

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