Neil Young's PonoMusic Launches at SXSW 2014

Referring to his former partner and his shall we say distinctive personality, Graham Nash once used the term, “Neilness” in front of me. That quality has been on public display in rarely seen quantities at South by Southwest 2014, the annual monster music fest in Austin, Texas where Young has launched his new high-resolution player and music store collectively known as PonoMusic. A Hawaiian word meaning “all one,” Pono is Young’s latest business concern to attack the problem of declining sound quality in recorded music. Many music fans and Young–O–philes will remember he was an early and enthusiastic supporter of DVD–A. “DVD–A was a bad plan. They should’ve left it stereo. When they went to the 5.1, bad idea. It’s too complicated… but most of all, the missus. You’re taking the living room and changing it into a pile of boxes. You can’t do that. They didn’t take into consideration the lady of the house. She wants things a certain way. It’s not all about having the big sound and all those boxes. Furniture derailed DVD-A, end of case.”

The actual Pono player is a triangular audio player, built in partnership with Ayre Acoustics (after an earlier partnership with Meridian Audio fell through), that will play all file formats including MP3. Between its board and micro sound card it will feature 128 Gigs of memory, will store between 1000 and 2000 high resolution albums and will retail for $399.00. A special silver Pono player, with an artists name etched in it, and with that artists two favorite albums from their catalog pre–loaded in the player will come later at a premium. The music store hopes to launch in October where it will be a competitor for HDtracks. I briefly listened to several tracks on a prototype player—"The Doobie Brothers,"China Grove, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, "Here Comes My Girl," and Dave Brucbeck's "Take Five"—and I liked what I heard but I was outside with a breeze blowing and folks conversing around me.

Young has been demonstrating Pono in his car, a white 1978 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz. This experience has been documented in a promotional film for Pono that features scores of musicians rhapsodizing about the players sound, and even a visit to the caddy by music legend and former Warner Bros, chairman, Mo Ostin, who speaking about why Pono will work, intones the film’s scariest line: “I know how Neil’s mind works.”

To Young, a longtime foe of compromised sound and a general in the loudness wars, Pono comes down to standing up for artists.

“Our machine is maximized by Ayre Acoustics to be the best it can be for what it is. And it’s sized appropriately to hold a couple of key components. We do one thing and we do one thing well and that’s make a great sounding player, and supply the best sounding files possible of the record, exactly the way the artist made it.”

“A lot of musicians who care are already making high resolution recordings. So that’s not really a big problem. But now everybody’s gonna know because our player’s gonna tell them. You go on the player, on the back pages of a song, past the metadata, you’ll find out what it is. The technical notes explain what people are listening to. So the decisions that are made in the studio, either by the record companies making the transfers from the analogue or whoever, those decisions, that’s honest, it’s all there.”

Asked about how we, those on the right side of the loudness wars, convince average folks, the MP3 crowd, and especially kids that better sound is worth listening to and paying for, Young has a quick answer.

“All they have to do is hear it once. A kid who can hear and they all can…there’s not one kid out there who’s not 100 percent interested in something new. Kids don’t live in the yesterday, they want to live in today, they want to live in tomorrow, so when they hear something better, every kid recognizes it.

“We are making a video in New York City of high school age kids who all brought their earphones in that they use with their phones and we video’d each kid listening on their phones to Pono. All we have is the look on their faces. They’re all knocked out. They’re going crazy. New face, new phones, over and over. They all get it. There are none who don’t get it. Every one of them gets it because they’re alive. They’re systems are all Go! They’re at their peaks. How could they miss it?

“When you feed the body everything, and you give the body all the nuances, then they will look and listen again because that felt good. It’s still feeling good so they keep listening. You want to keep listening over and over again because you’ve got the other 95 percent of the sound. MP3’s are less than 5 percent of the sound. MP3’s are for the dial up modem. They were very clever for the dial up modem, but not too clever for modern society.”

Asked about his hearing, Young smiles.

“My ears are okay. It’s like being the captain of a destroyer for 50 years. There were a lot of gun shots, so there’s been damage but I know that damage doesn’t matter. You have what you have. Garbage in, garbage out. If I’m listening to a piece of crap, I can recognize it. If I’m listening to 192/24, I can tell if it’s as good as it can be or if it isn’t. Even if I went deaf at this point, because I know for everyone who can hear really well, this is the right thing for music, I’d still do Pono.

Pono is being financed so far with an on–line Kickstarter campaign which made its goal of $1.6 millon in 7 hours yesterday. What are the chances that it will survive and prosper?

“As a business, Pono will probably succeed,” Young says. “But if Pono fails, it’s still good for music. It’s good for audio. It’s good for the world. It’s a win win. Nobody loses.

“The one thing we stand for: quality audio. The human body craves good input period. It loves good food. It loves to look at good movies. It loves a beautiful day. It loves great music. The ears are the window to the soul. You put it all in there and you’re going to have a happy soul. Or a sad soul if it’s a sad song, but they’re gonna feel the whole thing and that’s what we want to do.”

In classic Young fashion, while he is promoting Pono he has also cut a new record of “my favorite songs in the world,” on a 1940’s vintage disc cutter. He describes the end product as “beyond Lo-fi. It’s so gone. But it has a certain quality.” While I waited for my turn to speak to Young, scarfing free cookies if the truth must be told, I overheard a conversation about Young thinking audiophiles were “weirdos.” Needless to say, when I got my chance, it was my first question. He chuckled heartily.

“No, they’re geeky. I understand. I’m not an audiophile but I’m very geeky about other things. And I’m nerdy. My daughter, when she was like 9 years old, busted me for being nerdy. She recognized it, you know. No, I appreciate it. Being geeky and nerdy about certain things is really an attribute it’s not a problem.

So sayeth the Neilness.

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COMMENTS
Jeff Joseph's picture

1. Artists are talking about better sound quality!! It's been a long time since we've heard that. 

2. If they are sucessful in creating an aura of coolness around Pono, artists will want to produce better sounding projects that can take full advantage of the format.  Maybe they'll even let Pono issue previous projects without the crazy dynamic compression!

3. I love the idea of "hearing the sound they heard in the studio" I've heard flat transfers of some Motown tracks that really sound amazing without the reverb and eq they applied in the 60's. That's a rich field for Pono to mine.

4. If younger listeners get a taste of truly great sound that they can emotionally connect to, it could be the formative experience that primes them for better equipment. That's something that we also haven't seen for quite some time. 

 

 

 

Steve Eddy's picture

Younger listeners have been getting a taste of truly great sound they can emotionally connect to for a while now. It's called the high end headphone market. Which leads me to wonder just what Pono has to offer over a fair number of other high end portable audio devices that are already on the market.

Spend some time over at head-fi.org and you'll see what I mean.

se

Jeff Joseph's picture

It's not just about the 'phones or the device itself.  Look at where it's coming from. Some might dismiss the rock star endorsments as "marketing fluff", but if the music industry takes notice, and creates a compelling listening experience to suit this device, we all benefit.  If more listeners are compelled by this to embrace high end home equipment we all win too. In order for Pono to have a chance, it needs to get people talking and thinking about sound quality.  

We've all been disappointed by the production choices geared to the lowest common denominator. Here's something that could really raise the bar. 

Many audiophiles already have the equipment to experience this, but Pono is trying to reach normal people.  That's an exciting prospect. 

TreAdidas's picture

Can I get an amen!?  Yes sir you can.  AMEN!  Jeff, you are right on here!  Pono's real value is hype/excitement around hi-res.  Here's hoping it sticks. 

Steve Eddy's picture

I see where it's coming from. It's coming from someone who says incredibly stupid things like "MP3's are less than 5 percent of the sound." That's well beyond hype. That's industrial grade "Obama was born in Kenya" stupid.

As for raising the bar, the bar has already been raised by a number of companies who offer high quality, high resolution portable players (and even separate high resolution portable DACs) who have been marketing to a large, youthful, and growing market of "normal people" for some time now. And how many high res titles does Pono have available right now compared to say, HD Tracks?

se

BRuggles's picture

The 5% comment isn't completely wrong. It is exaggerated, but not that far off. Even a 24/192 file isn't the whole story, even if vinyl is, at its best, roughly equivalent. But mp3s are based on some assumptions that humans can't hear things, or won't notice, and those assumptions are wrong. All that masking and dynamic compression is hiding the truth to the music.

I am really interested to see where Pono goes because HDTracks frustrates me. Sure, if I want high-rez versions of the geriatric set back in their glory days, or weird pop stuff I don't care about, they have me covered. But I want my music that I buy now on vinyl to be available. My friends keep being staggered that I listen to new music on vinyl because they assume that my vinyl obsession must be a hipster thing. I assure them that there are mathematical justifications for at least this weird hobby of mine.

All the greatest equipment in the world playing a redux of the 60s and 70s will not sell young people on even buying the technology, or much of the music. We need stuff that is actually relevant now. It does strike me as funny when the older set acts like it is different when they push their music on me compared to an older generation pushing their music on them. I want Anciients and Skeletonwitch and The Sword and Torche and Baroness in high definition. In the meantime, I will buy their rather good recordings (well, some. Some are crap recordings of good songs) the best way available - on vinyl.

ActorCam's picture

Isn't this just losslessly compressed music on a portable player? Pono seems to be just a push into higher resolution digital music, an attempt at making people more aware of it. But HDTracks and other vendors have been offering Hi-Def downloads for years. The Pono player is new, but other portable devices can play high resolution audio. So what exactly is new and different about Pono? Is it all just about the marketing?

DH's picture

Audiophile level playback and hi-res capability unavailable before now at this price point. Unlike many portable devices it will play FLAC.

HDT and others - clearly aimed at the non-mobile market and have no cache for younger users. Pono is setup for the mobile market (it's a complete mobile "ecosystem") and is branding itself as something younger and cooler. So it has a chance to reach a younger, larger audience.

Archimago's picture

So... You're saying they're trying to achieve what would be the equivalent of "Beats" of audio players versus iPod?

Hmmm. Good luck with that.

I wonder what kind of headphones / ear buds these things will come packaged with!

Pieter's picture

1000 to 2000 high resolution (24/192?) audio files on 128gb? I can understand why the press release puts this forward as a believable number. All is fair in marketing, right? But if you put that straight into a new article on a renowned website, wouldn't it be proper to put this forward as something that they claim instead of just repeating it as a fact about the Pono player?

obviously we don't know if Pono has some incredible improved way of storing files, but at least show your amazement at this amazing feat of compressing audio so brilliantly that it has the file size of low resolution mp3's while in fact being high resolution audio?

spencerlholbert's picture

1000-2000 songs on the Pono seems accurate. Assuming an average file size of 50MB for a FLAC song, that'd be roughly 2500 songs. Even at 100MB each, that'd be 1280 songs. Quite a lot of high-res music in your pocket.

Pieter's picture

Oops my mistake. I guess my mind translated the marketing speak of 2000 ALBUMS into something more realistic: 2000 SONGS.

audiolab's picture

Close but not close enough, it is indeed a great thing. However I would love a portable music player, but I use them so infrequently that the rechargable batteries die long before they should. I have about six of them that now just serve as oversized memory sticks. In view of this units size and claimed battery size, any chance of a non rechargable battery version. This would then be indeed heaven sent.

Just how long before the video version the "Porno" is released !

Joe Pittman's picture

The Pono website will initially sell FLAC files in resolutions upto 24/192. The most important thing in my opinion is how well the music was recorded and the subsequent mastering. Pono can help raise the bar for internet downloads by clarifying the provenance of the music file for sale. For example, it would be nice to know the download you are buying was made from the master tapes, say in 2014, remixed/mastered by such and such to 24/192 studio master. Then you would be confident that you in fact have a true studio master...

Archimago's picture

Indeed the potential is there for it to work. The problem is if it does not offer new mastering and just ends up being another vendor of the same-old-same-old like what HDTracks is doing, then this will kill high-res as expensive, unnecessary hype in the eyes of mainstream consumers.

Even without the ability for people to analyze the mix like today, there were some really good releases on DVD-A and SACD a decade ago. Yet high-res in the first incarnation certainly did not take the world by storm by selling many more albums - probably because most people just didn't notice. What will make people notice these days? Perhaps more importantly, how much discernable difference is there really especially with a portable player like this?

drblank's picture

Astell & Kern already have had 24 bit portable players and there are now battery powered DACs (like iFi's iDSD) that you can connect to an existing iDevice or Android device.

 

HD Tracks and other high res stores already exist.

 

The problem with high res are three things.

1.  Price.  $25 for an album vs $9.99 to $11.99 is what iTunes and others currently charge for a 16 bit album download, and then a little more for Redbook CDs in physical form.

2.  Available content. In the grand scheme of things, there are literally tons and tons of content already in 16 bit Redbook and MP3 form and only a couple of hundred in 24 bit form.

3.  File size.  24/192 files are HUGE in comparison to 16 bit AAC/MP3 files and for portable players with limited storage, the difference is that you can't put as many 24 bit files on a portable device.

Sure, I love 24 remasters that are coming out of HD Tracks, etc., but out of my 1,000+ CD collection, so far, I have only a small handful that I can get in 24 bit format and it's going to take YEARS (if they even bother in the first place) before they start pumping out 24 bit versions since they only go for the better selling product so they can recoup the re-mastering/conversion costs.

I think Pono is VERY overhyped and it's already been done by Astell & Kern, etc.

I think Pono will eventually shut down for lack of interest.  They got 7,800 people to sign up in 24 hours?  Heck, Apple sold that many iDevices in about a minute.

I think the record labels need to start posting 24 bit AAC versions on iTunes and then Apple just needs to put 24 bit DACs inside all of their products and then the masses might start to change over, but they have to keep the price of the song and album down so people will more likely pay for the content.  The masses can't afford $25 an album for a download.

BRuggles's picture

If they don't focus on new music, it doesn't stand much chance. Young people tire quickly of listening to that sweet toe-tapping hard bop of yesteryear. It may be cool to like Rolling Stones, but if it isn't a person's generation of music, they aren't likely to listen to much. It needs to be bands' NEXT releases, not NEW REMASTERS of old releases to actually get it to work.

I hope the Pono has a line-level out so a stereo setup can take advantage of it. A digital S/PDIF out would be nice so as to use it as just a transport, but the ability to get something near an optimized connection to an existing stereo or headphone amp would be fantastic, and I would consider getting one (despite my having set up my old turntable in my cube at work).

The loudness war needs to be fought on the new music front, not in more remasters. New music needs to be recorded in good quality, or the whole idea is stillborn, and the concept of good quality audio will be lost with the passing of the last generation to record to tape. 

jswansong's picture

I mean, I intuitively agree with the idea of 24 bit audio.  16.7 million discrete steps is a lot more than 65536 steps, so 24 bits certainly looks better and closer to exact than 16 bits.  But when your quantized values miss the target, you don't hear an incorrectly recorded signal, you hear the exact, perfectly recorded signal with some extra noise.  When you use a simple rectangular dither to randomize that quantization error (noise), that error noise is randomized throughout the frequency range and sits at about -120 dB.  As far as I know, people don't complain about the hiss on CDs.  It's the loudness wars and bad mastering that's the problem.  In the real world, switching to 24 bits only serves to lower the quantization error, which only lowers the noise floor.  Producers and engineers do tend to treat the 24 bit master with more care, but it's not the technology that makes 24 bit audio sound better, it's the people using it.

The sampling rates I don't understand at all.  You can perfectly record all frequencies at or below a sampling rate's the Nyquist frequency (half the sampling frequency).  So if you are listening to a 24/192 file, you're listening to a recording that contains perfectly reproduced information up to 96 KHz.  Your ears can't hear it and your equipment can't reproduce it.  Why bother?  There's literally no way it sounds better than a 24/96 file from the same master.

I think the biggest thing Pono could do is get people interested in well-mastered recordings.  I think the worst thing it could do is convince people that 24/192 sounds meaningfully different than 16/44.1 when proper attention is paid to both versions.

John Atkinson's picture

jswansong wrote:
if you are listening to a 24/192 file, you're listening to a recording that contains perfectly reproduced information up to 96 KHz. Your ears can't hear it and your equipment can't reproduce it. Why bother? There's literally no way it sounds better than a 24/96 file from the same master.

I've also studied information theory, but my conclusions are different from yours. See my thoughts on why sampling at a higher frequency and with greater bit depth matters - "the ears as detective," in Peter Craven's words - in the relevant section of my 2011 Audio Engineering Society Richard Heyser Memorial Lecture at www.stereophile.com/content/2011-richard-c-heyser-memorial-lecture-where-did-negative-frequencies-go-measuring-sound-qua.

tmsorosk's picture

Can't wait to get my hands on one .

Pro-Audio-Tech's picture

Just a new Ipod and another way to get us to buy the same music we have on...

Original LP

Casset tape

CD

DVD-Audio

SACD

Dolby Digital

High Res

Latest issue LP, 45rpm LP.

Blue Ray

Whatever, I am off this new format bandwagon, I AM DONE! 

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