Neil Young's PonoMusic Launches at SXSW 2014
“DVDA 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 preloaded 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 online 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.