I Don't Understand Pono

Maybe I'm a bit dull in the head, but I'm really having a hard time figuring out what to think about Pono. And I'm going to have to figure it out one way or the other as I've just received word that a Pono Player is on its way. Personally, I'm betting the thing sounds great for a $400 DAP—we'll see—but player aside, I'm still quite uncertain what to think about Pono with its "music ecosystem" as a whole.

Two and a half years ago, Neil Young introduced us to Pono on The Letterman Show, he talked about getting in there and re-transferring original analog masters to digital for the Pono store, and how he was going to do the righteous thing for music and get the best quality files and masters out to the public.

Then the big Kickstarter campaign happened. Pono primarily evangelized the supremacy of high-resolution files with graphics like these...

...and not quite so much was made of the mastering issue. In fact, I wrote about about that observation at the time.

Now the player is out in the wild and the audio press is having a field day. Because Neil Young's dream that hi-rez music would save the art had been so loudly proclaimed, the press has pushed back—hard—claiming the sonic improvement of hi-rez is modest at best, inaudible at worst, and Pono is an emperor with no clothes.

All of this leaves me wondering what success for Pono might look like. It seems to me there's just too much dissonance in the Pono brand I see today. And I'm left with way too many questions. So, since I'm gonna have to do a review of the Pono player, I thought I'd start a list of other questions I have for the Pono team to clarify my understanding of what kind of success it is they're after. Please feel free to add some of your own in the comments, I will be attempting to get Pono principals to have a look.

Questions

How does Pono measure its success?

Who does Pono see as their primary target market?

Who does Pono see as their competitors?

What is Pono's stance on the relative subjective improvement in sound quality between 96kbs mp3, 320kbs mp3, 16/44.1, and 96/24 files from the same master?

What is Pono's stance on the relative subjective improvement of sound quality (very generally, of course) potentially available by going back and remastering music?

How successful is Pono at doing that? I would love to here stories of specific examples and be able to hear to an old and new master.

How many new masters, exclusive or first available on PonoMusic, has Pono been instrumental in producing?

Could you describe Pono's relationship to Omniphone? I'm sure music distribution in the information age is remarkably complex, but I'm very interested in the sources of the music itself. Do you get access to the music files through Omniphone, or do you just negotiate rights and payments through them? This one is really just curiosity about how the business works in general.

How is your catalog different from, or better than, HD Tracks, for example?

What, exactly, does it take for an album to light up the Pono indicator on the player?

What percentage of the music listening public does Pono believe will be willing to regularly buy $20+ hi-rez album downloads?

Why are downloads so expensive? With no materials cost and very low distribution costs why aren't down-loadable albums less expensive the physical CDs?

Is it possible to get a breakdown of how much revenue from a down-loadable album goes to the artist/writer, lable, and Pono?

How well does Pono see their product positioned for future growth given the ever decreasing growth, and now downturn, in downloadable music sales, and the rapidly increasing consumption of music from streaming services?

What price would a download have to be to get the bulk of the population to begin to switch away from streaming and back to downloads?

How would Pono contrast the value proposition (price/pleasure) for the avid music listener (not necessarily an audiophile, but someone who really loves music) when purchasing music through Pono vs. a hi-rez streaming service like Tidal?

Here's a quote from this Verge article, "If you use Spotify you can recognize the song immediately," [Neil Young] said. "But can your soul recognize it? That's what I'm talking about. Do you feel this, or is it just wallpaper?" To some extent I actually buy this. I'd like to here to what extent Pono thinks this is true, in what ways it manifests, and why it might be so? And to what extent it has to do with a great mastering job as opposed to improvements of the same master with higher data rates and bit depths?

I'm sure I'll have more as time goes on, and I hope to start getting answers as time goes on. I hope readers will take this opportunity to expand on my list in the comments below.

COMMENTS
Dreyka's picture

Pono will never be a success with the general consumer because it isn't convenient. It's trying to get people to buy albums in an era where people want access to audio buffet libraries for a monthly subscription fee. Services like Spotify are convenient, work with smartphones and work anywhere. Everyone has a smartphone in their pocket. So why would they want a stupidly shaped media player with an awful interface.

Tidal may have some success but Spotify can easily do what Tidal is doing and most likely will. It's not hard to get some to pay more monthly for lossless 16/44.1 PCM audio. The question though is whether it will be enough people.

Pono was banking on the success of audiophools. Ooops I mean audiophiles. The kind of people with enough disposable income that they would pay a $100 for a discography that is higher than 16/44.1. The audiophile industry is obviously not going to be savior of the music industry because while many have large amounts of disposable income there just aren't enough people.

The music industry has moved to "360 contracts" where they sell a personality rather than music anyway. Music is just a means to sell a personality they manufacture with a marketing blitz. Tours, merchandise, celebrity endorsements etc.

Sony's "Hi-Rez" box sticker is also worthless. People may buy expensive headphones ($100+) but that is all they are going to buy.

The new frontier is lossless audio with wireless headphones connected to smartphones and embedding technology into headphones such as head tracking. Digital signal processing, virtual surround sound coupled with accurate head tracking, virtual cinemas and good virtual room simulation are the areas of real interest. The Oculus Rift is going to be pretty exciting for what it can do for the audiophile hobby.

maelob's picture

Totally agree, better quality music need to get into peoples phones, thats the key. I owned multiple DAPs and to be honest, I still use my Iphone.

MGGWhite's picture

In business the first lesson you learn for a successful start up is "provide a product that resolves a problem people have". The BIG problem of Pono is that it is design and it is marketed to resolve a problem that doesn't exist while ignores the problems that do exist.

First problem that Pono tries to resolve, that is not a problem: I know that audiophiles will swear that high res 24/198 is heaven and CD is crap. Reality is very different. The fact is that 99.9% of the people will not notice the difference between CD vs Hig Res and more even, it is actually hard to differentiate MP3 320 kbps vs CD quality in A/B tests, albeit maybe in long term listening CD music feels less "offensive" than MP3 320 kbps (not sure about that but I may accept that possibility). BTW as a side note, I have a top quality DAC/Amp, top speakers and and mid HiFi vinyl turntable and doing A/B tests with two other people (including my none audiophile wife) it is very easy to notice the much better sound from vinyl that from CD quality music. That A/B is unquestionable and 100 fold bigger difference than MP3 320 Kbps vs CD or His Res vs CD that we can't really distinguish in a consistent manner.

Second Problem that Pono tries to resolve that is not a problem: The player. Yes Pono may sound great, but when playing CD quality using good headphones (of the type that 99.9% of people will use) a Pono will not sound better than an iPhone. I don't use Android so I can't speak for them, but the iPhones sound fantastic, they drive well the vast majority of portable headphones. Indeed I think that Pono not only doesn't resolve the problem of the player but it creates a new problem. Now you need an phone and you need a music player? This is absolutely a no-go for 99.99% of people.

Third problem that Pono tries to resolve but fails: Pono music provides access to downloads most in Cd quality. Ok, this is another web store, what is the value this adds to the marker? None, nor the music industry nor consumers need another webstore that sells the same stuff that you can get at other places. In addition, Pono doesn't permit streaming services ad this is the future of music distribution. So, no Pono does' resolve a problem in music access and distribution.

So, Pono doesn't resolve any problem at all and indeed creates more problems (inconvenience).

The real problem that Pono initially proposed to resolve, unfortunately is not being addressed by Pono. Good quality Masterings. Pono is not changing nor will ever change the current low quality of music mastering for audio quality in Hi Res formats.

So, it is just an impossibility that Pono becomes a successful product. Indeed I bet Pono will disappear within 1 year from now, both the player (they already suggested that) but also the music store. It is a failed product and a failed business because it doesn't resolve any problem for 99.99% of the consumers.

carvern's picture

I'm sure the Pono player is a fine device. Unfortunately 95% of the "Hi Res" tracks being sold are not Hi Res, as in, the source recordings were not made using 24/96 or better. Most of what is being sold are remastered recordings from tape which are not Hi Res. You can't take a CD master at 16/44.1 and reencode it at 24/96 and get anything other than a larger file size.

So, until they start making more recordings that are Hi Res from start (recording console) to finish (i.e. Hi Res editing tools and mastering) people aren't going to appreciate the differences between CD and Hi Res. The other big problem is that even though modern recordings are mostly made on HI Res capable equipment, the artists, producers and engineers don't want to use the dynamic range that it is capable of, because louder is better so everything is compressed (musically) to reduce the dynamic range.

firedog55's picture

I've got lots of "hi-res" remasters that originate from tape. Many sound great - better than the original LP in my opinion. A good hi-res transcription is the closest we will ever get to hearing the original master, IMO.

So I have no problem with a transcription from tape to 24/96 or DSD being called "hi-res".

I have about 7 versions of "Kind of Blue" in all formats. IMO, the best sounding version is the 2013 24/192 that was transcripted from the original tape master. Since it's the best sounding version I've come across, and I don't think there will be a better sounding version (Sony apparently isn't going to use the original tapes any more as they are getting too old) - I'm happy with my "hi-res" version and have no problem with it being called that.

carvern's picture

I agree that a 24/96 or 24/192 encoding of remastered tapes will sound better than a CD and, most likely, vinyl, but that doesn't make it High Resolution. It will be better, and yes, it will be the best version of that music, but that does not make it High Resolution.

The whole reason all these articles are appearing (David Pogue, etc) saying one can't hear the difference between Hi Res and MP3s is because they aren't listening to true Hi Res recordings. So, as long as the industry is trying to pass off music that was originally recorded using Low Res equipment in a Hi Res wrapper as Hi Res, its not going to take off. Pogue was right for the wrong reasons; he couldn't hear the difference because there probably wasn't any. If, on the other hand, he had listened to a true Hi Res recording (i.e. at least 24/96 from start to finish without compression) and then THE VERY SAME TRACK downconverted to CD quality, I think he'd hear the difference. What we need is not more Pono Players, but more true Hi Res music recordings.

jjgr's picture

I'd be most interested in hearing your thoughts on the straight-up merits of the Pono player itself: its strengths/weaknesses as a player of music via headphones, what do you think of the balanced mode operation (is that design feature useful, in what context), and which of your WOF headphones did you find most/least compatible and/or enjoyable with the player?
There seem to be enough articles out there already on whether Pono will change the world, or is a scam. Why get embroiled in that? Does Sony get the same scrutiny every time it releases this year's model?
As a matter of fact - when i saw this tonight - i had just sat down for a listen to my own Pono player (Crazy Horse Limited Edition No. 71 - "More Barn!!!"), having just re-wired a new set of Creative Aurvana Live! headphones with balanced cable from Surf Cables. Sounds damn fine to me!
Looking forward to your impressions of the sound.
Cheers,

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I've already made up my mind to do just that. I'll review the player as I'm able to fit it in, but I'll also be gathering as much info as I can in order to try to get as clear a "read" as possible of what Pono's self-described measures of success would be. And do a piece on that after the Pono Player review.
jjgr's picture

to treat the Pono Player and the Pono business model as two separate, and worthwhile, topics. I'm looking forward to your thoughts on both!

Cami's picture

And how does it compare to the Astell & Kern AK240 or a portable Headphone DAC/Amp like the Centrance hifiM8 or a Leckerton UHA-6SMkII, etc?

You are going to measure the PONO, right Tyll?

What happened to the promise of real HRA downloads. Why are you selling CDs in 24bit buckets for almost the double of the cost of original CD?

detlev24's picture

...because most people (unfortunately) are easy to excite and lack of knowledge. so they believe in things without questioning and considering the facts. and in the end it sounds logical that more bits and more khz = more/better sound quality, right? and what's more expensive inevitably needs to be better, right?

well, that's not entirely true, not for music REPRODUCTION. find some trustworthy sources (e.g., ethan winer's "the audio expert" book), read into the topic and you may at least understand that there's a lot of confusion going on. certainly everything in audio can be measured but that does not mean that you can hear every change that a measurement reveals. to be able to hear the difference of an mp3 V0/or 320kbps to cd-quality (of the same master) you need to be trained very well. try an ABX test (e.g., on foobar2000 and do at least 11 tries) and you will hear how difficult that is. then try to compare cd-quality to whatever "high resolution" files you have.

so maybe, even the PONO guys lack of knowledge and really thought that they could solve problems as mentioned in tyll's article? wouldn't be the first time "professionals" mistake physics.

and @cami, regarding astell&kern: those certainly are good players but look at the price tag...

so in the end what does really matter? of course, as already mentioned by others, most songs are poorly recorded and destroyed further by common mastering techniques (which often lead to, e.g., a loss of dynamic range). so the first and most effective improvement has to be set here! and regarding the consumer, room acoustical improvements do the biggest change (as they do for recording purposes). "room acoustics" also do apply to headphone design. usually we, the consumers, cannot change the ear cup's design so we need to choose our headphones wisely. but sometimes we can as the "hifiman regrilling mod", "jergpad mod", "he560 enhancement mod", "hifiman fuzzor mod" and others show (see head-fi).

as for me, sometimes i purchase up to 24bit/192khz music files as sometimes they are re-mastered thoroughly and thus sound better than the old cd that i may have lying around. and HDDs are cheap these days. ;) but again, if available also in 16bit/44.1khz (the same re-master) for half the price there's usually no need to spend more money.

just my 2 cents.

best regards

bludragon's picture

This whole topic is frustrating to me as I think they missed a great opportunity to deal with the whole issue of dynamic range compression. That is that via a new file format and ecosystem they could have multiple DR versions into the audio tracks, allowing different playback modes:

1. "loud" This sounds good in your car, out of a small radio with background noise, etc
2. "normal" Generally sounds good with low background noise
3. "hifi" Optimal for playback at higher sound level with low background noise
4. "binaural" Possibility to combine with each of the above - the stereo separation is mixed for headphone rather than loudspeaker playback.

As it is, I think they are simply going to become another choice in the space of uncompressed, hi-res, music downloads. This is a good thing, as the more choice the better and it will help drive demand for better audio encoding and mastering.
I expect that they will introduce an iphone and android app in time, or offer a way to transfer files to any device, otherwise they will not be able to compete. Hopefully the player and the headphones they market will be high quality and will drive competition in this area.

ednaz's picture

I've played in recording studios (only a tiny bit) and have photographed a lot of musicians during recording sessions and mix sessions. I've always been amused by the relatively small size and poor sound quality of the speakers used to make critical decisions. I remember some music being mixed and played back on small car radio speakers to check that it would sound great on FM on middling car radios.

Has that kind of practice stopped now with popular music? Is there some equally questionable replacement - like downsampling the mix to 128 and listening through earbuds, before signing off on a mix? The awful sound quality of some pop music has me convinced that something like that is being done - huge swathes of hip hop, country, and pop sound no better at 24/96 than at 256.

Pono's competition - I've got a Fiio X5, and I have it because I listened to one that a friend owned, along with his Astell&Kern, and that convinced me to get the Fiio. For the high def files I have, no DSD, and very few over 24/96, there just wasn't a big difference. I'd like to see the Pono compared to both some other high def players in the price range (Sony and Fiio?) along with an iPod playing 16/44.

Are the Pono versions any different than the HDTracks versions?

And finally - which players make the overly boosted, and sometimes compressed, pop or country sound better than the others? I think they sound better on an iPod, which really fascinates me. If they don't sound better on Pono than on iPod, whatever the bit depth, what's the value proposition for lovers of pop, country, and hip hop?

detlev24's picture

@bludragon: binaural is more about the recording technique, using

Quote:

a "dummy" human head with specially calibrated microphones where the ears would be

(see chesky records). and with binaural+ those tracks are said to sound equally good on headphones and loudspeakers. btw, chesky records claim to exclusively produce

Quote:

recordings free of compression, peak limiting, equalization, digital
reverberation, auto-tune, or any studio processing tricks

(copied from an album booklet). but that's enough about them; i don't want to end up advertising.^^

as important as competition is, we don't need one more party that sells just the same things for the same prices or higher ones. we need excellently produced audio files (a lot of them!) and there are some recording studios, besides the above mentioned, that do a great job. and we need to get audio files for a price that's adequate regarding "copy and paste music", how i like to call it (since you are no longer paying for a nicely designed piece of hardware, the cd or vinyl record).

nevertheless, my best wishes for the success of the pono player.

best regards

burnspbesq's picture

With a few reservations, I really like it.

I've taken to calling it the "Ayre Player," in order to detach it from the Pono ecosystem, which IMO is going to be an ignominious failure for a variety of reasons. I hope that when Pono disappears, Ayre will arrange to continue manufacturing and supporing the player, including working to eliminate some of the annoying glitches that still remain in the firmware, supporting larger-capacity micro SD cards as they become available, and maybe even offering to upgrade the internal memory for those willing to bear the additional cost.

Judge the player on its own merits.

jeckyll's picture

I had a chance at the end of last year to do some limited comparative testing. On the one hand, my phone with MP3 (ripped at 320 from CD) on the other, Pono. Same headphone, same song.

At first, Pono sounded much better. It's got a lot of juice and was much louder. Once I tried to get the volumes the same, I could not tell the difference. Lots of caveats: some background noise, only had about 10 minutes, only had my standard travel headphones (Shure 215's).

Still, I didn't rush out and buy a Pono player after.

Tyll: I like your question about how Pono will judge their own success. I think having a clear statement on that may change a lot of the discussion.

brcmrgn's picture

If/when you do review the Pono player, please try the balanced mode. It is significantly more powerful than single-ended and sound better too. I was able to drive many of my full-sized headphones (LCDX, HD800, ...) reasonably with balanced mode. While the world didn't need yet another balanced connector, at least Sony and Pono picked the same new one (2x3.5mm).

brause's picture

I'd like to see Pono blind tested against the Astell & Kern player or similar . The latter should be the real competition to the Pono.

I'd like to see Neil Young blind testing an ipod with Apple lossless [you can convert the pono remasters to this format] vs. Pono. There will be no difference whatsoever.

What must set the Pono apart from other players is its DAC and possibly its amp. Which dac does it sport?

A good headphone amp should make a bigger difference than the file format.

In my home I use ipod classics connected to a Marantz 8005 SACD player via USB. The ipod bypasses its own dac and uses the Marantz's cirrus chip. Fabulous! I predict there would be no difference to the pono player in this setup if lossless film format is used.

There is a difference between aac iTunes store files and lossless, albeit subtle. It has a cumulative effect on your ears on a stereo system and the difference is pointless to the casual listener. The difference via headphones may be next to zero.

I compared 16 bit and 24 bit files on the Marantz. No difference found.

Interestingly, the digital cable ipod 30 pin should not but does make an audible difference: using the $65 audioquest cinnamon cable produces a much better soundstage than the Apple stock cable (again subtle in the moment, but cumulative pleasure increase over longer listening periods). I blind tested two skeptics who confirmed this. This does make no sense in terms of physics.

Same with good quality optical cable vs. Apple Store Belkin cable (2003 airport express via optical into Marantz SACD; the current airport express model does not work as it causes horrible jitter and therefore constant crackling).

detlev24's picture

it uses an ESS ES9018M dac. i found that information yesterday on their homepage but today it seems to be gone. nevertheless, use your favorite search engine and type in:

Quote:

site:https://ponomusic.force.com/ ESS ES9018M dac

my experience regarding your cable curiosity is that it may be due to low quality (internal) components and/or low build quality, so the digital signal is audibly altered. regarding usb, in case of usb-powered devices, also the cable length is an issue, since power behind usb is limited.

best regards

detlev24's picture

ps: if you have high-level wiring, as loudspeaker cables/AC cords near your audio input cables and if those audio input cables are not or poorly shielded, that may also induce noise and hum into your system. :)

ab_ba's picture

If Pono downloads were priced to compete with iTunes, people might pay attention. I can't tell if the music industry is throttling Neil's vision, or if $18 for the fifty shades of gray soundtrack is actually part of his vision. Unless the prices come waay down, he's going to sell a few Ponos to the people already reading Innerfidelity, and everybody else will just keep plugging their earbuds into their Androids.

I really like the sound of my Pono player. I hope the Pono business model succeeds, at least because I want to make sure the device is always supported. The recent software updates have helped a lot.

Paul Engel's picture

I feel like I'm the perfect demographic for the Pono player. I love that feeling of hearing music crisp and fresh. But I'm not an audiophile who, like a lot of you here, have invested time and energy into learning about it. I don't have time to become an expert and I have a bit of disposable income to where, yeah, if I read that the Pono was AMAZING, sure, I'd buy it and re-purchase my favorite albums. Because it would make me happy. I *want* to like the Pono but all the reviews and A/B tests make me weary. I don't have money for that $1,000+ unit recently reviewed. But the $400 price-point is attractive if I can hear the difference. Awaiting the review ...

Dolly's picture
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