PONO CEO’s High-Res Lowdown

As if an impressive array of products, great seminars, and lots of other goodies were not enough, AXPONA capped its first day with an hour-long presentation by PONO CEO and confirmed audiophile, John Hamm (above). Even before the talk began, John walked through the audience, giving sneak peak, hi-resolution listens to attendees via Sennheiser HD650 headphones.

The word “pono,” you may know, is Hawaiian for “righteous.” The player was created by Neil Young, who wants to “rescue an art form” from the throes of sonically degrading MP3 and the limitations of Red Book CD sound.

John framed his talk by saying, “The big picture is better music for the masses.” He also noted that all the advance auditions of PONO have only given us a taste of the final product, because “30% more engineering is going into it before it’s released in July or August.” That engineering, as you may know from other interviews with Hamm, includes contributions from Ayre’s Charlie Hansen.

John explained that Neil first approached record labels 2½ years ago, when everything was in transition, streaming was emerging, and no one was clear as to what their new business model would be. It was then that he proposed a high-resolution antidote to MP3, and a portable player that would bring the music to them.

“This is an artist-driven movement,” said John. “Neil created PONO to communicate the emotion the artist meant for you to feel. We intend to sell the player for the least possible price we can for now.”

John Hamm called PONO’s recently closed, remarkably successful Kickstarter campaign “a very democratic outreach to get the word out.” With 18,000 backers, $6.2 million raised (half of which will go toward manufacturing PONO players, and the other half toward “bringing up the quality of the PONO site,” and 15,000 units pre-sold, PONO now has 15,000 evangelists spreading the word. “The bottom line is getting quality music to the people,” he said.

After word of PONO and its Kickstarter campaign first got out, one thing that threw John for a loop was the volume and intensity of the naysayers. For several weeks, he attempted to engage them, until he realized that all the arguing in the world would not make a bit of difference. Instead, he concentrated on spreading the word among people who understand that hi-resolution recording and playback make a difference.

John sees 24/48 as a baseline starting point for hi-resolution. Warner, which began started archiving its projects in 24/192 five years ago, currently offers the most hi-res content of any label. PONO is now giving other labels a reason to follow suit. The PONO player is completely open; it will play music from multiple sources, including personal collections, in all different formats. You will not have to buy music exclusively from the PONO store in order to be able to play it on PONO.

Even as John gave ample credit to the Chesky brothers’ HDTracks venture, he also made clear, both during the talk and in a private chat afterwards, that PONO’s own store is poised to offer some of the same material and much more in multiple genres, including classical, sourced from masters. “We think our 44.1 content will sound better than that ripped from CDs,” he said. “We will not remaster or remix. All content will be signed off by the artists. We plan to deliver the finest digital sound you can get. We care about provenance and the chain of custody.

“A lot of independent artists have come to us, including Fleetwood Mac, asking how they can be part of the PONO hi-resolution movement. We plan to tell them, if you want to play on PONO, here’s how you should record and how you should master.”

By the time John Hamm’s AXPONA talk had ended, I came away hungry for the finished product. I know that a lot of people have greeted PONO with a mixture of anticipation and skepticism. While an open-minded critical approach is always a healthy thing, I see every reason for optimism, and no cause for outright dismissal.

It’s clear from everything Neil Young and John Hamm have said and done so far that they truly see PONO as a collective movement of artists to get better, emotionally truthful sound to those who love music and want to hear it as its creators wish it to be heard. Unless you hate Neil Young and his music, and resent his financial success, or wish the player would retail for $199 rather than the projected $399, what’s there to complain about?

As to how PONO’s sound will compare with units from Astell&Kern and other companies, stay tuned.

Bill B's picture

"While an open-minded critical approach is always a healthy thing, I see every reason for optimism, and no cause for outright dismissal."


junker's picture

Absolutely! ;)

LS35A's picture

So when he says 'We will not remaster or remix.' ... what's left?  Just upsampling?   I'm not a big '24 bits is better than 16' kinda guy so I'm really wondering just how they're going to get these files sounding better.   If they aren't remastering or remixing. 


drblank's picture

24/88.2 or higher, but 24/44.1 isn't as drastic of an improvement for some types of recordings.  Recordings originally done at 16 bit probably won't benefit if up sampled unless they run them through some decent filters.  But I'm not sure how they will benefit.  It would be nice to have this discussion covered.




Jason Victor Serinus's picture

From the spirit of John Hamm's presentation, I do not have any sense that the PONO folks intend to upsample redbook quality masters. Perhaps someone who has read every interview with John and Neil can point to a discussion of this point.

michaelavorgna's picture

I've been following this story (and interviewed Neil Young at SXSW). Pono will deliver the best quality available. For digital source material that means what ever the original master was recorded in (24/44.1, 24/48, 24/96, etc. ). For analog sources, I believe they've settled on 24/192 as the distribution format.

Michael Lavorgna
Editor, AudioStream.com

DetroitVinylRob's picture

Perhaps the single most positive aspect to the high-res download paradigm is like that of high-res video. The consumer review will force the industry to do a better job of the recording of artists "up front" and process the data more carefully "down stream". And as a result, create a higher quality product than they have given us before, for our hard earned dollar. Because, the sheer fact that if they don't, it will be more than obvious, to a far greater volume of the music buying consumer public.

I'll bet you, Neil wishes all of this was possible back in the Buffalo Springfield days... I sure do.

Happy Listening!

Steve Eddy's picture

I'm afraid I don't see any analogy at all to high resolution video. Increasing the resolution on a screen of a given size is readily visibly apparent, even to an average person. At least up until you get to the point that the pixel density is such that individual pixels can't be distinguished by the naked eye as with the Retina display on the iPad I'm using to write this.

I guess if there's any analogy to high resolution video here, it would be that it seems 16/44 has already reached the "Retina display" level seeing as no one has shown conclusively that human beings can reliably tell the difference between 16/44 and 24/96 let alone 24/192.

For that matter, I doubt the average person would be able to tell the difference between say 256k MP3 and 24/96. And it's the "average person" that Pono is aiming at.


Patrick Butler's picture

Rearchers at McGill University were able to show that people can reliably tell the difference between various sample rates, either natively recorded or sample converted.

Here is a summary of the study:

This study aims at investigating whether listeners can perceive differences between musical files recorded at 44.1kHz and 88.2kHz with the same analog chain and type of AD-converter. Sixteen expert listeners were asked to compare 3 versions (44.1kHz, 88.2kHz and the 88.2kHz version down-sampled to 44.1kHz) of 5 musical excerpts in a blind ABX task. Overall, participants were able to discriminate between files recorded at 88.2kHz and their 44.1kHz down-sampled version. Furthermore, for the orchestral excerpt, they were able to discriminate between files recorded at 88.2kHz and files recorded at 44.1kHz


Archimago's picture

Nice discussion and summary of the paper by Krabapple here:


One could certainly find fault with a number of uncontrolled variables in this paper.

Patrick Butler's picture

I've already read most of the posts related to that thread.  Sadly, most of the posts are of little substance.  To date I'm not aware of another study with better controlled variables, although I'd love to read one if you have any links. 

Pro-Audio-Tech's picture

How many times do we have to buy the same music?

This is all BS, now I have to buy all my music again? I will stick with the vinyl I bought in the 1960's and 1970's it still sounds the best!