About Pono from the Crazy Horse's Mouth

In yesterday's post, I asked a bunch of questions about Pono. In an email responses from a Pono representative, I was encouraged to begin my journey into understanding Pono by learning about it from the man himself. I was encouraged to watch a one hour CES video of Neil Young being interviewed by Nathan Brackett, Rolling Stone's executive editor, on the nature of Pono, which would answer many of my questions. I hadn't seen it...and it was quite informative. I made copious notes, and many of my questions were indeed answered.

Most striking to me were comments that clearly indicated Neil's depth of belief in the power and beauty of music as an artform, and in the exquisite subtlety of perception by the whole human—meaning our mind and soul. It was clear to me he believed in a soul's connection the original and unsullied art was an important factor in appreciating that art. I have to tell you that while I'm a technician at one level with a great deal of respect for objective measures, on another level I'm a human that has experienced and appreciated the sometimes exquisite beauty of subtle things—something that is beyond the metrics of the objective domain—and I therefore must remain uncertain about the relationship between measured performance and the human experience.

Anyway, I found this video to be informative to my personal understanding of where Neil Young is coming from with Pono. I'm not sure it helps me understand Ponos position in the market and whether it's succeeding or failing, but Neil actually addresses that issue in the interview with some very wry and on-point observations about investors, business, and why Pono is going to look a little odd when viewed with eyes accustom to the 21st century commercial landscape. Enjoy!

Click here if you can't see the video.

detlev24's picture

that's a nice marketing video, but unfortunately nothing of true information.

best regards

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I'll dignify that comment with an answer, even though it seems a bit of a cheap jab there's a lot of people that will feel exactly that way, but I disagree.

First, a lot of that video, Neil was talking about the relationship of our soul to the music---which I'll observe is a type of communication intentionally filled with meaning meant for another soul. Now, do you know what the word soul means....exactly? No. I sure don't and I've though about it a lot. You will get a lot of different opinions about what Neil Young might mean when he uses the word "soul" or "art" or what he means by the difference between recognizing the music and appreciating it. To throw the video out by saying this talk is simply "marketing" is throwing away the baby of our humanity out with the bathwater of our collective subjective expressions.

As I watched the video I got the impression of someone who is deeply dedicated to the beauty and worth of music and has the wherewithal to hatch a plan to try to save music from the wretchedness of shitty reproduction. What audiophile could possibly disagree with this fundamental stance?

Regardless of the details of how he's accomplishing his mission, one valuable piece of information I got out of the interview was that Neil Young is sincerely interested in giving the art of music the best possible chance to live and breath among us. He claimed he didn't give a shit about investors or quick success or a pile of money...he's doing this for the art of music. And I believed him.

So, for me, this passes the smell test of wether he's just another big artist pimpin' his widget for a buck, or if he's legitimately trying to do something worthy. generally speaking, it now becomes a task of looking at all the pieces and seeing how they fit in with a long term goal of giving music a better chance of revealing it's full glory.

I'll add that I think the fact that Neil Young cares so much about this and has taken on such a lofty goal is maybe its greatest weakness. Poking a message of actual import into the fray of artifice and gluttony that is our consumer market these days is fraught with the risk of misinterpretation and mockery. So be it, brave guy that Neil.

Dreyka's picture

To throw the video out by saying this talk is simply "marketing" is throwing away the baby of our humanity out with the bathwater of our collective subjective expressions.

It is marketing language though and it doesn't actually mean anything. It tries to associate a PRODUCT with ideals, emotions and a political movement. Drink Coke because you LOVE having friends. Buy Apple products because you are a creative artist. All of these things are just about getting you as a person to buy products to represent who you are to other people. Pono is no different. Buy Pono because you LOVE MUSIC and want to return MUSIC to the GLORY DAYS of your past tinted by rose-colored glasses.

If Neil Young doesn't have a basic understanding of the fundamentals of digital audio then how can you say what would make it better. We all know how much impact expectation and sighted bias has. If I believe that putting a rock on my amplifier improves the sound then do you think people should challenge me on that when I start selling a rock for $400 to others. There is large amounts of money involved which is why people expect you to be able to back up your claims.

As I watched the video I got the impression of someone who is deeply dedicated to the beauty and worth of music and has the wherewithal to hatch a plan to try to save music from the wretchedness of shitty reproduction. What audiophile could possibly disagree with this fundamental stance?

If he thinks cable lifters bring back the soul of music would you be supporting him?

You've said it before. Masters are what matter. How passionate he is doesn't really matter. The end results of better masters are all that matters but that requires the music industry to change. The general consumer doesn't understand mastering and never will do. They can't demand better mastering because they don't even know it exists. The Pono business model will never be a success with the general consumer. People want streaming services and they don't want to buy albums.

Regardless of the details of how he's accomplishing his mission,

The details are what matters. The albums are expensive. The benefits are not proven.

He claimed he didn't give a shit about investors or quick success or a pile of money...he's doing this for the art of music. And I believed him.

Why does it matter. You think he is a cool person. Ok. I'm not going to buy your stuff just because you are a cool person. Not when that stuff is so expensive. People who have a lot of disposable income may think otherwise but not questioning the claims made just ends up hurting those who don't have much disposable income. A college student buying a $100 album because of unproven claims is not something that I want to support. This doesn't help consumers when there is so much quackery in this hobby already.

Poking a message of actual import into the fray of artifice and gluttony that is our consumer market these days is fraught with the risk of misinterpretation and mockery.

Audiophiles calling consumers gluttons is the pot calling the kettle black. We all know how much rubbish gets peddled in the audiophile market on flimsy claims.

Maybe's picture

I have some questions- what makes a song well mastered? High dynamic range? No clipping? No big bass notes?

Could it be, that the engineers and artist want something to sound compressed and loud?

Aren't songs already well mastered that actually need to be well mastered?

Does something like Dubstep, electronic or Hip Hop need "soul"? Or should listening to music be fun and turning up the bass and making guitars sound loud, letting the vocals stand out isn't to bad?

I think some people are taking this a little to seriously. Like you said, 90% of the listeners don't even know, that theres a problem that needs to be fixed by making noisy songs sound quieter.

Dreyka's picture

Some genres of music, such as metal, do sound better with some dynamic range compression. It is a tool in the toolbox that can be used appropriately.

Here is an interesting article on the reasons for the loudness wars.

The truth is that artists and engineers make their music loud because they want to. And the desire to do so usually correlates more with trends in technology than with commercial concerns. From gramophones to electric playback of records and digital technology, a series of short-lived fads have sprung up wherein musicians abuse new listening mediums to make their songs as loud as possible to the detriment of fidelity.

Rillion's picture

If a dumb college student would spend $100 on an album then he would probably just as easily waste his money on something else. In college I only had a cassette-radio and was perfectly content with that. I even got complements on my taste in music.

Still, I do wish more personal music gear was sold on a try-before-you buy basis. I wonder how many companies obtain the majority of their income based solely on hype.

SleepModezZ's picture

I can agree that Neil Young is serious. And I agree that music is an amazing, truly amazing. But it does not have any bearing on the real issue with the Pono player. Reality does not match the claims. The difference should be obvious for practically everyone, but it is not. False advertising. It just is worse when the blame is put on the listeners who can not hear the difference. Or their headphones.

It is just like the Emperor's new clothes. Admitting that you don't hear any difference will get people accusing you and your ears - you are lacking in discernment to hear the difference. In that case, if you can't hear a difference, your opinion about the Pono player has the same worth as pigs opinions about pearls. If you can hear a difference, you show that you have the discernment needed and you opinion is valid.

I have shed tears when listening music. The surprising thing is that the quality of the listening equipment does not matter much. Really, I don't think that any music have given any more or deeper emotions - or wonder and awe - than my cheap cassette radio gave my when I was about 12 and found the Beatles. (Enjoyed through terrible headphones.) Later in life I have also shed tears listening to mp3s with a portable game console using Koss Sparkplugs (or something similar). Now I have something much better, but in term of emotions or enjoyment, it does not make much difference.

Here is a secret how to enjoy music more deeply: Don't listen to music continually and daily.

Don't listen to any music, if possible, for a week or so, and then listen to some old favorite. The receptivity of the listener and the quality of the music matters. The quality of the audio reproduction does not matter much if it is decent enough to not distract the listener.

The listener is changing in receptivity through the day, and weeks and months - but the 'audiophool' thinks that the varying enjoyment is all about the equipment and music reproduction. "These headphones sounded so good yesterday, why not now. Is the problem with the headphones or maybe the amp, or the dac". Maybe the most obvious example was when a distinguished audio engineer claimed that he can hear the degradation in quality when copying a CD: The copy won't ever sound as good as the original CD.

collateral's picture

I just want to say that there have been instances where a song or an album I've listened to hundreds of times in poor quality without realizing it became new to me when I listened to it in a higher fidelity format or through better equipment and I was just as moved as if I was listening to it for the first time, without even knowing what was making the difference at the time. Sound quality does matter to a lot of people. But I agree that music is best appreciated when it is treated like a delicacy, something you savor one a while. It's something I realized once my schedule no longer permitted me to listen to music for hours on end, every day. You really take the time to sit back and give your full, undivided attention to it as opposed to using it as background noise. Now even when I have the opportunity to listen to music for a few hours, I use that time to do other things and only use an hour of it for music.

Limp's picture

I've had that same experience, only to subsequently find out through more controlled listening tests that the new and old equipment sounded absolutely identical.
Expectation bias, it's a powerful thing.

Dreyka's picture


"You get sharp lines in the music..."


You don't get "sharp lines" with digital audio. Another 45 minutes of this to go with a person who doesn't even understand the basics of digital audio.

The video is just painful to watch and a representative of all that is wrong with audiophool world. Romanticized language and nothing of substance.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Though I think his comment may be objectively...well indeterminant really, I understand the gist of his point. And in the context of the times he was talking about, his subjective descriptions resonate with the types of technical faults the gear had at the time.

BTW have you read about this? Pretty clear there's something going on that allows our hearing to be far more sensitive in the time domain than we've been lead to believe by tradition audio theories. I think it's always very important to remember that there's a LOT we might not know. A feeling of uncertainty is the first step to learning...an open mind listening without bias for interesting things might make the next 45 minutes of the video much more interesting.

Dreyka's picture

BTW have you read about this? Pretty clear there's something going on that allows our hearing to be far more sensitive in the time domain than we've been lead to believe by tradition audio theories. I think it's always very important to remember that there's a LOT we might not know.

So perhaps we move it to hypothetically possible. Do you think that is enough justification to recommend people to buy expensive 24/192Khz albums. If this hobby was cheap then it wouldn't matter so much but because everything is so expensive it matters. I don't think that something being hypothetically possible is enough justification that people should spend this much money on something.

an open mind listening without bias for interesting things might make the next 45 minutes of the video much more interesting.

How can you have an open mind when there is nothing being said other than his personal experiences of how analog gear is superior and anecdotal evidence of "high-rez" being better. These are appeals to emotion and not arguments of reason.

Willakan's picture


There are two issues here:

a) That article does not mean that. My go-to pyschoacoustic authority (James Johnston) on what this discovery meant:

"It does show, again, the value of extensive training. It settles what had been claimed anecdotally, which I suppose is some new understanding. It does not break the Gabor bound or do anything astounding, however it does confirm something that has been pretty much taken at face value."

Once the discovery has been editorialized through a couple of news websites, it becomes downright silly. The human ear "beats" the Gabor limit because it makes assumptions about the signals it is going to be processing: if we do that mathematically, suddenly we'e beaten the Gabor limit too! Has science gone too far? Has maths been disproved?

OK, I'm being a little grumpy, but I observed at the time this came out that it was being twisted by the audiophile press into absolute gibberish. The idea that it represents a shift in the ear's assumed capabilities is nonsense; the idea that this somehow makes the assumptions around which digital audio is built look silly is FUD-y.

Hell, returning to the original HA thread in which this was discussed, there's even a citation from 1946:

"Actually, as noted by Dennis Gabor (best known for his invention of holography, but who also worked in audio) back in 1946, the ears actually analyse the frequency content of sounds in time faster than suggested by the uncertainty principle by a factor of about 7. The seeming logical contradiction with the fundamental theoretical limit of time/frequency resolution is avoided by the ear’s use of a-priori or previously assumed knowledge of the nature of typical sounds but at the expense of getting the analysis ‘wrong’ when sounds not of the assumed form occur."

Right, I think I'm done with beating that decidedly aged horse.

Continuing on to your second implicit claim:

b) The sampling rate does not affect temporal resolution! I don't know where this idea came from, but I'm going to speculate it involved a bunch of very silly people pissing around with impulse responses then clutching their pearls at the result:

"My God, John! We bandlimited this impulse and it came out BANDLIMITED! THE END IS NIGH!"

To reiterate, your sampling rate does not impose some kind of temporal limit. As long as you keep below half of Nyquist frequency-wise, the wave can start and end wherever the hell it wants.

So, in short, the first conclusion from the article is wrong, and the implicit conclusion drawn from that and applied to digital audio is also wrong. Once we get to the appeal to ignorance and the "open mind" my face looks kinda like this: :(

To draw this in to the whole matter of Neil Young, I find it extremely plausible that the man is in earnest. His engineers quite possibly think he's full of it (http://nypost.com/2015/01/11/do-consumers-really-care-about-digital-qual...), but then they know their demographics and just how important certain magic concepts are.

I have a great deal of trouble reconciling your enormous knowledge (obviously a damn sight more than me) and intellectual honesty when it comes to headphone measurements, only to be accompanied by frenzied genuflections to uncertainty every time certain very silly audiophile holy cows hove into view. I mean, needless to say, 'this is your party,' but it still puzzles me.

TheAudioGuild's picture

Thank you, Willakan, especially for providing jj's input on the Fourier article Tyll referenced.

Far as I'm concerned, Pono is nothing more than a cult, with a charismatic leader in the form of Neil Young.

I began getting this feeling when I watched their first video, with the celebrities giving these orgasmic responses to a Pono demonstration given on a car audio system. I found it very... creepy.

I wonder how Scientology will react to having some competition? ;-)


Argyris's picture

There's some great discussion in these comments. I'll touch on some of the same points in my response.

First of all, concerning emotion, I absolutely agree that an emotional connection with music is one of the most magnificent feelings in the world. In fact, just about an hour ago, I was listening to one of my favorite recordings on repeat, with a string choir that sounds like the aural equivalent of thick, rich maple syrup, or maybe a nice strawberry milkshake; and it was like I was in another place entirely.

Thing is, I've had this recording for over 15 years, and back then I remember being just as enamored with it as I am now. I would wander around with my Discman and the cheapo headphones that came with it and just let my imagination run wild. It was like I was flying, and the sensation never faded no matter how many times I listened to that recording, or any of my other favorites from the time.

What I'm getting at is that in both instances, with vastly different levels of equipment, I was able to dig deep into the music. Emotion is important. Emotion is everything. But it's the music that creates the emotion, not the gear, and I would argue that getting emotional about gear actually gets in the way of the emotional connection to the music.

Unfortunately, once we enter the infamously subjective areas of audiophiledom, far too often that's exactly what happens. People start listening to gear, not music, and that's where they place their emotion. They get involved in never-ending, circular debates about burn in or cables or amps, or they obsess over imperfections in their gear they didn't even hear until somebody pointed it out in a forum post, and then they spend time, energy, and often far too much money trying to "solve" these "issues." They convince themselves they can hear the difference between cables or digital formats, and this becomes vitally important to them, to the point that they become mortally offended when somebody just comes right out and asserts that all these things are BS*. Eventually, the whole thing becomes fundamental to their listening. On the Ars Technica review of the Pono, I recently read a comment that asserted that cables, amps, DACs, and stuff like the Pono were like a ritual, and that because it was an emotional thing, that person was loathe to verify it with things like double blind testing or measurements because emotions shouldn't be questioned. I decided I'd read enough at that point.

I fully believe that Mr. Young is passionate and emotional about music. Unfortunately, that emotion has nothing to do with gear, and appealing to it to try to sell an expensive personal audio player is just another example of what I'm talking about.

Remember: Discman. Plastic pack-in phones. Flying. Maple syrup. Bliss. I was eleven years old at the time, and while I know a lot more about audio now and have gear that's orders of magnitude better than what I had back then, I can't truthfully say I've ever enjoyed music more than I did back then. And if you told me I could go back there again and relive that magical time, I'd trade you my DT880, my amp, and every other piece of audio equipment I currently own for the opportunity. I wonder how many other audiophiles could honestly make the same trade.

*I'm not personally making this claim, but if before reading this you were all set to reply and tell me how wrong I am, maybe you need to read what I'm saying a little more closely.

Journeyman's picture

...but I had to make an account to say I agree with you in all points.
I would go back also.
Best Wishes.

zobel's picture

I think the most positive result of this push for better sound through better recordings will not be wasted on the recording industry, but only if there is a big enough market for it.

Crucial to this is portability and affordability, especially affordability. If it is "just" a music player, it has to be cheap.

Vinyl; Not portable. Fussy. End of story.

Cassettes; fairly portable, fairly affordable, somewhat inconvenient in operation but recordable. limited sonically, storage and longevity issues. End of story.

CD; fairly portable, affordable, especially if entire 79:55 minutes of CD capacity was used for music (which it very rarely is), great sound and playback ergonomics, like the cassette, recordable, huge catalog of music, stores more compactly than previous media, great longevity without any degradation of quality associated with use or storage, an analog form of a digital file played with light, and ideal album sized format that for over three decades still offers reproduction that has yet to be decisively bettered. Not the end of story, and I'm glad. Used CDs are a great deal now.

MP3 / lossy files; very portable (best feature), affordable. but features degraded sound quality, a huge library of music accessible as downloads or streamed, end of story? not yet. Higher data rates have improved sound somewhat. Memory has become much less of an issue, so storage on portable devices allows for larger, better files. Ultimately, too low quality to survive much longer if improved recordings and players become available and affordable.

So the billion dollar question is.... "Will there be enough demand for the best sound?" Or as you may have read here on Tyll's forum on the question "Is high fidelity necessary for the appreciation of music?"
Tyll's remark; "The moral of the story.
While it can be good fun researching and tweaking the perfect chair (listening system) for your listening comfort, there comes a time to place whatever chair you have before the altar of that holy thing called music. At that point, you should sit down; completely forget about the chair (because it's not the important thing); and become one with the art of music."

Tyll had a moving musical experience with a cheap boombox, and was explaining that the blues music moved him, in spite of the lousy sound reproduction. That, I suspect doesn't happen very often, or he wouldn't be interested in what he does for a living. I'm glad he does what he does, and I'm glad Neil Young does what he does, both for the sake of enjoying music. I like what Tyll has maintained about mastering and recording quality being the number one concern for improvement in the quality of audio reproduction. I respect him for not getting on anyone's bandwagon. I agree with those who point out flagrant un-truths that some spout, about subjects they only have limited knowledge of. I agree with Tyll that there is always more we don't know than what we do know. We are human, which is something else we are constantly learning about.

Hope the music in your life moves you!

Hifihedgehog's picture

You know, I was also skeptical about the claims of sample rate conversion being an important factor in sound reproduction for the longest until I stumbled on this collection of charts not too long ago and I started listening and comparing. Double blind, in many cases, I can confidently tell a difference between converters and I can verify the suggested claims the graphs make. Sample rate conversion does matter. Personally, I have been using WASAPI and Foobar with SoX and my current listening experience is smoother, more realistic and digitally cleaner than anything I have tried yet!

detlev24's picture

i cannot reproduce your listening experience 1:1, but i certainly can recommend you to read chapter 8 (digital audio basics) of ethan winer's "the audio expert" book. that hopefully will answer a lot of questions. of course there are other trustworthy sources around but this is one of my favorites (even for audio professionals).

if you want to play around (ABX test, e.g., on foobar2000) with some big files, look at http://www.2l.no/hires/ (free samples). those are great recordings but i'm not aware of which processing procedures 2l use. should be easy to convert them to 16bit/44.1khz and to mp3 (use V0 or 320kbps). foobar2000 can do this if you have the codecs installed.

best regards

Realsoundisgood's picture

I've been following the whole "high definition" debate for a while now, and while I can't claim a degree in mathematics or a degree in audio engineering/design, I think I have pretty good layman's understanding of the key points.

(a) There are benefits to *recording* at greater bit depth. 24bit (v 16bit) provides a greater signal-to-noise ratio, which permits lower recording levels, which means greater dynamic range and headroom, and less chance of clipping distortion when converting the source analog sound to digital.

(b) There are benefits to *recording* at higher sampling frequencies than 44.1kHz, most having to do with the internal ADC/DAC anti-aliasing process in the recording, mixing, and mastering chain.

(c) 16bit on *playback* provides more than enough signal-to-noise ratio/dynamic range to accurately and completely reproduce the original recording. A very quiet recording studio has a noise level of maybe 20dB. The very loudest music, perhaps 110dB. That's an available dynamic range of 90dB, 6dB less than the dynamic range afforded by 16bit, and more than enough to reproduce on *playback* the likely actual dynamic range of the recorded music.

(d) A sampling rate of 44.1kHz is more than sufficient to accurately and completely *play back* the original analog sound. The highest sound humans with perfect hearing can detect is 20kHz. A 20kHz sine wave is 20 thousand cycles per second. In an over-simplification of the sampling process, a 20kHz tone is less than one-half of the 44.1kHz sampling frequency of forty-four thousand cycles per second. This means that a sampling frequency of 44.1kHz will completely and accurately *reproduce* the 20kHz analog sound. It's counter-intuitive, but in *playback*, sampling rates greater than 44.1kHz will not yield a more accurate representation of the original analog music. This is grounded in the well established mathematics of sampling.

So it seems to me, a layman, that while recording studios have legitimate technical justifications for using ADC/DAC processes that exceed 16bit/44.1kHz, the resulting studio masters can be reduced to 16bit/44.1kHz for *playback* with absolutely no loss of audio quality; and therefore there's is no added benefit in distributing music at higher resolutions than 16bit/44.1kHz to the consumer.

Of course, the biggest unknown is whether or not current and future cadres of artists and producers will have any interest in producing high fidelity music with realistic dynamics and a natural audio spectrum. Some of us are old enough to remember a time when the words "high fidelity stereo" were new and important to record companies and music fans, and actually meant something of quality. I can only hope that Neil Young's efforts trigger a re-birth of true "high fidelity".

p.s. If any of the above points are inaccurate, please help by improving my understanding.

zobel's picture

good informative post, thanks.

detlev24's picture

+1. ;)

tony's picture

This guy's reputation is so low, who would want to work with him?
I remember Lee Iacoco joining Chrysler and making the pitch to the American public which saved Chrysler and yielded the MiniVan. Lee is a man of Integrety, does anyone think of the Pono guy as a man of integrity?
People still refer to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young as CSN.

Passion for music?, so what! . Everyone reading this site has a Passion for music, every single one , 100.0000% of your readers.

I'm a nay-sayer, I'm not about to be some aging Rock&Roller's groupie or $400 supporter.

George Forman sells tons of his electric frying pans, I love George Forman. Can we have George Forman & Evil Kanivel out there promoting the little Pono Player or something like it?, $39 down and four payments of $39, we'll sell tons of em and we won't have say how we're so passionate about music.

Tony in Michigan

ps. saw you on TWIT , nice work!

thelostMIDrange's picture

I don't think he's saying he's the only one who cares about sound. He is saying he cares about the old sound and is more of a historian and curator of a certain

sound and time. god love him for trying to document that era circa 1948-1982. For those who believe some people have souls, He wants to hear the artists' via analog recording on to tape. but not everyone values that era the way he does, so like other ventures, this one may not find a receptive audience or be affordable for mere commoners . So we just use vinyl and burn it onto digital with a good ADC and it sounds darn near the real thing. though it wouldn't be proprietary technology and with no profit to be made, it ends up being a simple and perfect DIY solution. And that was his only mistake, taking it to sony. Neil is from the past and the future because things do have a tendency to come back around and if you are at the tail of one era and the beak of another, it can seem you are in both states because of the memory from the last time around, it was almost faded and then it's back, and truly improved through seasoning. that's the golden era he's trying to save/savour/marinate in and also provide an avenue for modern musicians who tend to vibe in that sound. It's like a big pot of grandmas home made stew on the stovetop 3/4's the day wafting out past the laundry on the clothsline while friends and family play a game of horseshoes