Does the Public Care About Sound Quality? Pono Community Indicates Yes!

It's a question I often ask myself. I do, and headphone enthusiasts and audiophiles do, but does the public in general...or even some reasonable fraction of the public?

I think the answer is yes, of course, but I also think most people haven't experienced really high-quality sound before, so most folks really don't know if they'd love good audio reproduction. In the market surveys I've seen people do claim that sound quality is the most important headphone characteristic, but I seriously doubt the vast majority of the public have ever heard a good pair of headphones before. Certainly buying a pair of headphone based on sound quality is very difficult—they're either in a box, or they're being demoed attached to a horrible sounding source.

Anyway, the question of whether people in general really do care about audio quality or not has always seemed like an unsolvable mystery to me. And then I got a glimpse of something interesting...The Pono Community.

As I was writing my Pono Player review, I started checking out the Pono community to get a feel for what's going on over there. It's a very different place from the other audio enthusiast forums I frequent. Obviously, you're going to find all sorts of people over there, but generally I'd characterize the vibe there as music lovers who are fairly uninformed about the technical aspects of audio.

For example, there's quite a bit of hand wringing about balanced headphone drive, what it is, and how do I get one. They've got their new favorite music player that has this cool balanced output feature but there are so few headphones that it can drive. They're confused and wondering how to get an adapter for their headphones to make it balanced—which, of course, doesn't exist. They're figuring it out slowly but surely; communal learning takes time, but it does happen.

Now to my point: It took years for the audio enthusiast hobby to fire up and self organise around audio quality. Similarly, Head-Fi wasn't built in a day, and it took a long time for a legit community to build up. It's simply a slow process for people to discover sound quality and recognize they've got an interest in the hardware. But Pono appeared very quickly.

Of course Neil Young had a lot to do with that, but the fact remains, the community is there now and talking about audio hardware, file formats, and music. The same things we talk about on our forums. Yes, the emphasis and levels of sophistication are a bit different, but it's basically the same stuff.

From what I gather, the Pono community has about 40,000 members. Head-Fi might have 10 times that, but 40,000 is a pretty respectable number. And they're all talking about audio quality and how it's getting delivered. These are people who did not go into this thing because they were audiophiles or had a pre-existing interest in audio gear, they did it because they like music and Neil Young, and just went for it. What they got was an experience in what good audio sounds like, and it excited them. So much so they're talking about swapping cables on their headphones.

Let me repeat that: People got a music player, found that it sounded great, and are now looking to re-cable their headphones. Sure, this is not quite the public in general—these folks are music enthusiasts—but "music enthusiast" is a hell of a broader brush than audiophile or headphone enthusiast.

Observing the dialog over on the Pono Community leads me to believe in a much stronger way than I have in the past that most people when confronted with really good quality audio will not only really enjoy it, they will relish in it and want it to be even better.

Neil Young has proved, to me anyway, that you can turn ordinary people—granted, who love music—into sound quality enthusiasts. Me thinks this industry needs to figure out how to reach out a little farther.

bogdanb's picture

Is audiophile a guy that pays 10.000$ on a cable and then listen the cable? if that's the case then it should listen to the cable and enjoy a great cable!
If music we want to listen to, Tyll thanks for the big hand you give us!
Is Pono a gateway audio device? was it the iPod the first one? great story to read... hats off to them!
Were Beats the one starting the avalanche in the 300+$? maybe they were.

I want to hear&enjoy great music, well mastered! how I do that?! Possibly without paying absurd amount of money and that is possible only with competition in the audio market! or me being a multimillionaire... I guess a competing market with a lot to choose from would give me (and all the guys that love to listen music) a better chance to do so.

tony's picture

Just this last weekend, I helped my 79 year old neighbor (Professor Gary Hershorn) buy a pair of PSB loudspeakers from another neighbor who demo'd these little Speakers using a Denon 7 Channel receiver and an iPhone5 playing Jimmy Buffet.

The iPhone5 made the speakers sound great to my old friend who was replacing his vintage XAM Walnut box Speakers ( which failed 5 to 10 years ago ) .

Even I was impressed with the sound quality, my old neighbor friend hadn't heard that high of quality of music in years ( if ever ). He mainly listens to PBS public radio broadcasts and stuff like Diane Rheme with some WEMU Jazz Broadcasts later in the evening.

Gary brought the little speakers home and connected them to his Sherwood Receiver but they didn't sound good anymore. So, now Gary is pondering.

I think that people will want quality if they encounter it and they'll recognize it when they hear it, even if they are old and have had stereo music for decades.

The youth ( 15-30 years old ) will immediately recognize sound quality, they realize that quality varies with products, for them it's a "no-brainer" and just a matter of cost: read Amazon reviews and buy!
They have no fear of owning Fiio or some other brand that isn't GE or Westinghouse or Maytag or Chevy for gods-sake.

These youth are brave, they'll even buy stuff with names like Schiit.

They didn't learn learn to do this from old-timers like me who are "Brand-Loyalists" going all the way back.
Hmm, what happened to KLH anyway, they use to be Big in Speakers?

I think the marketplace is keenly into quality, people see what others have and aren't afraid to ask.

And, today, the Apple iPhone is the gateway drug for all of the next generation of Audiophiles.

From now on it'll be little IEM stuff, active headphones and Active Loudspeakers ( like Emotiva's littlest new $200 pair ) that the marketplace will be buying from the Apple Store or the Internet Outfits.

We're not talking 40,000 or 400,000 here, we're talking 400 Million and up. I saw iPhones at Russia's 70th Anniversary WW11 Parade in Moscow (so it's very much an International thing) which includes Samsung as well.

I'm say'in: "this 21st Century is bringing big changes, better get ready for it"

Tony in Michigan

castleofargh's picture

my reading of that story is very different from yours, to me it shows that you don't need to back up any claim to convince people of paying. they got a pono because they believed Neil(why? he didn't say one meaningful stuff about the pono in 2 years of campaign!!!). now they try to get a balanced cable because some guy told them it was amazing, each time it's a process of "trust us for no reason, pay, and check for yourself after if we were telling the truth. you see a cool thing for the audio community to grow, that uninformed people come to get interested in those stuff. I see it as an opportunity for manufacturers to prey on the gullible instead of trying to actually deliver on specs.

ps: still waiting to know how the pono behaves into a 16ohm IEM. for a portable player for which the entire campaign was claiming to deliver "all the music", never providing any spec is what I expected from snake oil sellers. but of course we all know why no specs are shown. sounding nice and delivering high fidelity signal can be 2 very different things, vinyls and colored tube amps have proved it a long time ago.(just asking didn't work, so now I taunt).

tony's picture

Ayre did the electronics for the device, it is a good design.
Perhaps it isn't for beginners but it is capable of good music reproduction.

Pono's silliness begins with it's promotional campaign.

Can this minuscule outfit survive with only a small owner base?,

can they grow and prosper?

can they deliver an expected level of user interface?,

can they afford designers to advance them to competitive up-grades?,

can they deliver packaging commensurate to it's asking price?,

can they gain acceptance among reviewers who already have loyalties with competing products?

N.Young seems to be giving the finger to all the existing products, as if he alone is the "Holy" gift giver of all things music while appearing illiterate in his demeanor.

I've talked with the people at Ayre, they seem technically astute and capable. I suspect they will benefit in some way from the Pono project but it will come from their design integreties more than their relationship with the little player's promotion.

Balanced IEMs, what nonsense!, couldn't agree more. In fact, balanced on the whole is nonsense for headphones. Balanced looooooooong distance Professional runs are a necessity for a number of technical reasons (noise canceling being one of the most important ).

Pono is a momentary distraction.

Memory is advancing,

MP3 is getting darn good,

The voice coil dynamic drivers will provide 99.999999% of all music reproduction for the forseeable future,

User Interface will continue to advance and control the entire music world, we'll be giving our wristwatch verbal commands for our player to play "Jewel" "Hands" and we'll then be deciding what to do with the drawer full of little electronic do-dads we bought back in 2015 and earlier.

Tony in Michigan

bernardperu's picture

Tyll, i miss your emphasis on: it's the masters, damn it!

When it comes to sound quality, discussion of gear should not exceed 20% of space. And this comes from a guy who owns maggies 20.7 and audeze lcd-3.

Again, it is the masters, damn it!

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I'd say there is an emphasis on that in the Pono community. I didn't go into it here because that's not the subject at hand, but yes...

It's the masters, damit.

bernardperu's picture

I hope the Pono community eventually becomes something like the Steve Hoffmann community, or close to it. Glad to know they are on the right track.

By the way, I am using my Pono via balanced with HD-600s (bought both based on your reviews haha). Great sound!! I know there is better sound than this, but this combo is so good that I don't miss the better sound.

I bought the cheapest balanced cables available for the Pono and HD-600s.

Tyll, I noticed you never review cables. A person's honesty should be understood thru his omissions as well. I assume you do not believe in esoteric cables, right? Anyway, I value your honesty very much. This is a great site.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I believe that cable can make a difference, but I think it's very small. However, just like I said in my Pono article, small differences can be more beneficial than their objectively measured differences might indicate.

Never the less, while I think I've heard differences in cables, I've never been "Wowed!" by it. I have heard bad cables before though---Radio Shack crap that had high impedance due to either shitty soldering or very thin conductors. Bottom line: I wouldn't buy cheap cables, but I wouldn't buy very expensive ones either. OTOH, I see nothing wrong with people buying any cables they like and enjoying the pride of ownership of a customized headphone.

bernardperu's picture

I fully agree with you regarding cables. Differences are VERY subtle.

A consumer is fully entitled to toying around with the placebo effect. Placebo effect is part of being human and the pharmaceutical industry has endless evidence about it.

A reviewer is a whole different story. Subtle differences should be subjected to long and comfortable blind tests, as not doing so is pretty much like saying: I am a computer. And if a really expensive cable makes less difference than upgrading a DAC or any other gear, there should be a strong mention about it by the reviewer.

Some highly regarded reviewers, such as Robert Harley, make me feel that cable wise and several other esoteric gadgets wise, I am 100s of incremental steps from musical nirvana. I believe that is BS and it is just a result of a business model that is advertisement-based.

So back to the PONO, most Pono users will probably have just this: Pono + unbalanced headphone. That is excellent as that is the right path to realizing that recordings are king.

Jazz Casual's picture

I bought a Bose on-ear to plug into my laptop and came across Head-Fi shortly afterwards where I soon discovered that my new purchase was regarded as pos. It was at that point I ceased to be a member of the general public.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

I hate to generalize but for the sake of discussion i'll say that the general public, or, moreso, a substantial percentage of the music listening masses dont care at all about sound quality...stay with me....because they dont really need to.
Here's why:

Gear: The reason is that the primary delivery system for music these days, smart phones, are really quite good. I read ALOT of amp/dac reviews on this site, HeadFi, and the web. ALOT. I regularly see reviewers give decent props to the output of smartphones in comparison reviews. Thats not to say the aftermarket amps or dacs dont fare better...of course they often do...but the phones are still given reasonable thumbs ups.
As for stock headphones or buds..they arent bad...obviously we in this community love and explore all the amazing options for upgrade, however the stock 'phones are far better than they've been in recent years.

Music: I'll not dare getting into the debate of mp3 (including bit rate) vs cd vs lossless vs vinyl vs high freq/bit rate. However i will say this, most downloaded music from itunes or amazon at a reasonable bitrate sounds pretty darn good.

Personal Connection With Music: This ones a biggie. I think that most everyone has a connection with music. However i think that the individuals personal connection with music varies to a large degree, and that the "masses" (again, substantial percentage of music listeners) enjoy music just fine but dont necessarily invest a lot of thought into how they listen to it. conclusion...we live in a time where folks have access to a huge amount of music though relatively decent hardware. Yes, yes, yes the inevitable debate will arise on quantity over quality (ie: streaming or compressed), but for the most part its all pretty good.

The difference between the masses and those of us here is that we've taken a bigger interest in the quest for sound quality. This is NOT to be taken as an elitist or "we're better" statement, rather its just something we have a unique interest in. Does the music we play though our gear sound better than the standard phone/buds delivery systems. You bet it does! Is the money, time, money, research, money, and escalation of gear we go though worth it for the sound quality difference. You bet it is....for us....not for the general public. And i dont think it needs to be.

Because at the end of the day, its the music that matters. Its the emotional connection with it. Its the feelings it evokes. Its the good times that it brings.

Peace .n. "If music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it" . Shakespeare's 12th Night.


ulogin's picture

Yeah, last time I was there they were talking about the necessity to "burn in" the PonoPlayer. I learned that it has to be done once per day, for five minutes, with a specific track approved by Charles Hansen. The last point is important, because "burn in" with the wrong track will make it sound worse.

I was laughing out loud.

bogdanb's picture


ulogin's picture

I don't know what do you objectivist skeptics think, but I actually appreciate Charles Hansen's input. According to Mr. Hanses himself, he has been informed that:

'using the "glide tone" from the Ayre disc on repeat makes one's stereo sound not that great... It will actually need time to "recover" again.'

Awesome! No wonder my PonoPlayers sounds exactly like my iPod! It's because I did not include burn in as a daily routine~

And what's the Ayre disc Mr. Hanses was talking about? It's a CD, just for $19.99, and he said that the tracks will be available in high-res (because "greater high frequency response would be even more beneficial" lol).

Mr.TAD91's picture

I picked up some 4 dollar headphones a few weeks ago from a convenience store. The midrange is clear enough to render vocals and most instrumentals so they are perfectly intelligible. I converted most of my wav.s to 128 Kbps mp3s and use my Sony ZL as the source. I brought them on the plane with me to Fiji and they served me well: I was listening to the music by understanding the lyrics and appreciating the talented abilities of the artists - I was enjoying music as a form of art. Now thinking way back to my 8 year old self, I had a Panasonic portable CD player and used to listen to my CDs with the stock supra-aural headphones that came with it. I admittedly enjoyed listening to music as it was. I believe the average consumer or non-audiophile is in many ways like my 8 year old self.

Yes, I have a hyper accurate rig that can render all of the details, air, microphones, recording errors, and mastering mistakes etc. but what good is it if I'm not listening to the music? Mr.TAD91 is retiring as an audiophile for now.


Bob Katz's picture

I'm very skeptical it provides any advantage except headroom. And headroom is very important to me, so maybe it has an advantage, for the same power supply. And in a battery-operated device like the pono, where power is a premium, a balanced headphone drive would provide more poost with less distortion for the same output level. But being "balanced" per se, in a battery environment where there is no ground reference and what's driving the phones is always floating anyway... and the phones themselves are just a floating load, then the term "balanced" is on shaky ground. Would you call a loudspeaker sitting in free air with no connection to ground or any power to be "balanced"? At the most I'd call the Pono output to be "push pull". Yes, let's call the Pono's special output "push pull". That's much more accurate. When switching to that output you're going to get 6 dB more level, too, so try to compare the sound quality at equal loudness. And if the Pono's push-pull output does sound better, it will be because it has more headroom, not because it's in the least bit "balanced", in my opinion.

TheAudioGuild's picture

Actually the more accurate term would be "bridged" rather than "push-pull." And yeah, bridging can give you a greater output swing when when your supply rails are limited. But even when using batteries, you're not limited by battery voltage. You can use a DC to DC converter to get whatever voltage you need.


achristilaw's picture

Not every member of head-fi is and audiophile or even an enthusiast. Many levels of experience come with membership, I bet few Ponoites probably are head-fi members. The problem with the press has been to poo-poo Pono, that's a mistake. It's not a bad, transportable unit at a fair price.

Theriverlethe's picture

How is it a fair price when you can get a fully-featured smartphone with the same amount of storage for a similar or even lower price?

Bob Katz's picture

I think when (if???) Smart phone manufacturers put a driver/amplifier circuit in that equals or beats the Pono then the issue would be valid. But I haven't heard a Smartphone that sounds as good. Apple has the best headroom and the best-sounding Smartphone, but perhaps because they aren't yet driving high res. playback the iPhone doesn't come close to the sound quality of the Pono in my opinion.

Theriverlethe's picture

Have you done a volume-matched comparison? Any idea what the specs are on the Pono headphone output?

crazykiwi's picture

I actually get met with hostility from my extended family about audio quality and headphones. In their eyes it is a ridiculous novelty like buying a pair of binged out Beats, a TV over 50 inches or the latest 3D glasses. One likes to say how he enjoys indie video games and movies because it's not about the graphics/effects but rather about the story. I agree somewhat about this one part but Hi-Fi to me is nothing like that. Hi-Fi to me is about revealing the details of music that were painstakingly recorded and can be completely omitted on poor equipment. These details are every bit as important as the story/lyrics and if missing you cannot get the entire story as intended. Allow me to explain. I have heard the recording 'waltz for Debbie' many times on my car stereo. It wasn't until I heard it on my HD650's that I even realised that it is recorded live and in a restaurant. A rather important detail in visualising the performance. Another example... I'm on the younger side and had never appreciated The Dark Side Of The Moon until I heard it on the ATH-M50's and the background vocals surrounded me. I never even noticed the background before since they were so distant sounding yet this layering is where most of the interest lies in that music. The beauty of this recording brought me near tears. I think that some people will need to be convinced that good audio is worth it and not the same as silly gimmicks. Headphones topping out at $5000 a pair probably aren’t helping this image even though I have personally heard things like STAX level 3 system and well amped HD800's that I think are probably worth every penny if you can afford it.

Theriverlethe's picture

I agree that people would appreciate good sound quality if they heard it, but an equally techonlogically naive Neil Young won't achieve that. He's barking up completely the wrong tree in trying to improve electronics that moved beyond the threshold of human perception years (or decades) ago. The only way to achieve better sound is through better headphones/speakers and room acoustics. Most of the rest is nonsense.

Bob Katz's picture

I was quite impressed by the Pono sound. I did not buy one because of budgetary reasons and the ergonomics of carrying yet another portable device, but I have done a thorough listen and I think there is "there there". It does sound better than your typical portable device as far as I'm concerned.

Bob Katz's picture

No, I did not do a loudness-matched comparison. But I played the Pono using material which I have mastered and know like the back of my hand and with headphones which I know very well. We imported into the Pono several of my best 24-bit masters. I was mostly impressed with its robust (I know I've used that word before in conjunction with the Bryston) quality and effortless, musical delivery. But I would have to have it here for an A/B comparison to be certain.

I just wouldn't buy a "portable" device that's bigger than my pocket :-(. A better alternative to look into is a DAC adapter I've seen that can be battery powered and surrounds an iPhone using a 24-bit-capable driver/player. All these are workarounds.

Theriverlethe's picture

Giving you the benefit of the doubt, I wonder if the Pono's "apodizing filter" could be audibly coloring the sound in some way.