Enough with the Pono Already

So much anger. So much bullying. Over something that’s basically an iPod.

Look, if you don't want to buy it, don't buy it. If you do, do.

But why has this thing lit off such fervor on both sides of the debate?

Personally, for me, I think it's a ridiculous product. The Toblerone design is asinine, and paying $25 for the same dynamically compressed audio as iTunes is borderline bonkers. The idea of a better headphone amp in portable gear is great, but even then... meh. Any headphone considered portable should be powered just fine from an iPod (which, surprisingly, have pretty decent headphone amps inside for what they are).

It goes to how you’ll use it. I own an iPod because I like carrying around my rather huge music library, the original selling point. Apple Lossless, ripped from CDs, does me nicely, and the occasional high-bitrate MP3s are tolerable. Once there's a 128GB phone (that is worth buying for other reasons too), then I'll probably ditch my iPod. I travel a lot, and combining gear is gold.

But like I said, that's me. The Pono is not for me. It's not designed for me, marketed to me, and never attempts to be something I'd be interested it. Which is why I don't care. The absolute barest of a frak I "care" about the Pono is as a piece of electronics gear covered in publications I write for.

But this isn’t about the Pono. This is about everything around it.

Because what I don't understand is... why does anyone else care? I’m not talking about the people that do want this. Of course they care, and good on them.

I suppose this is a grander question, but seriously, why do people, who have no interest in the Pono, care at all about it? This isn't rhetorical. I've seen dozens of articles angrily deriding the Pono, by people who very obviously had no intention of ever buying one (even if it were perfect).

Let me be clear, if I were reviewing the Pono, I’d have a radically different take on it. It still wouldn’t be for “me” but I’d try to put myself in the shoes of someone who does want one.

On one hand, that’s largely not happening with a lot of these “reviews”. With glee, the mainstream tech press leapt to massacre something easily made fun of (i.e. something liked by someone nerdier than them). This isn’t shoddy journalism, per se, at least not in the context of what they do (i.e. generate page hits). It is, however, shoddy reviewing. But that’s a rant for another time.

If it ended there, that’d be one thing. Certainly not the first time this has happened.

But turns out, certain members of the audiophile press decided to out troll the trolls. These responses ranged from some exceptionally ill-advised comments and emails to whole articles decrying the idiocy of the plebes that “didn’t understand”. Standard angry nerd stuff. I should know, I’ve written a lot of that in my career.

Only… this time it wasn’t just attacks on the quality of work (though that was there too), but of the people doing the writing. Annnnnd that’s where you lose me. As the recipient of countless angry vitriol aimed at my person for something I’ve written, I find it pathetic. If the only way you can get your point across is with ad hominem attacks, then 1) your point isn’t that strong, 2) you’re the greater troll. Why not just go full GamerGate and just threaten to kill them? That’s what the ultimate trolls do. Go for it. Go big or go home.

Yeah, I get it, the mainstream press didn’t understand. Yeah, it’s frustrating when someone ridicules your hobby, but when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of how much Neil Young dreams of a high-res world for everyone, the Pono was never going to be a mainstream product. The masses just don’t care about high-end audio. They never have, they never will. Decades of talented audio reviewers have attempted the Sisyphusian task, but it’s never going to take. Most people think they can’t or won’t hear a difference, so they’ll never bother to find out that they can (and I firmly believe everyone can).

I guess all I’m trying to say is, to both sides of this nonsense:

J. Carter's picture

You'll be happy to know that they do make a phone with 128GB built in already. The iPhone 6 and 6+ have a 128GB option. I have one.

John Sully's picture

Still not big enough :-)

J. Carter's picture

I agree but that is what the author of this article says would be sufficient for him to get rid of his iPod.

Geoffrey Morrison's picture
Also specifically said "that is worth buying for other reasons too" Kidding, the 6 is a cool phone, but I prefer Android. Should have specified that.
Jaay's picture

You know, the quality of the sound card matters a great deal.

And most iPods and iPhones, and all Mac laptops, have crap sound cards.

The discontinued iPod Classic had a decent sound card.

FiIO and Astell & Kern have good to extraordinary sound cards in their PMP devices, can't imagine that Pono will be any different.

J. Carter's picture

I think the biggest issue I have seen is the vitriol from hi res advocates against the Pono. There is a certain very popular reviewer that I read and enjoy most of the time that is relentless in his quest to have Pono die a fiery miserable death. It is very confusing, it's like he wants hi res to stay a niche product (I know it always will be) and any attempts to make something mainstream will be met with his undying desire to bring it down, never to be seen or heard from again.

That is the biggest issue I have with the Pono debate. Like you say if you don't want it or don't like it don't buy it but there is no nead for all the hatred and anger spewed forth towards it.

John Sully's picture

Like the author, I have no problem with the Pono, it just isn't for me. My main use for a portable is in my car and hi-res is of dubious value in a car. In addition, my iPod integrates nicely with my head unit, making it easy to use. The Pono does not. Finally, the Pono does not have enough space. My collection, mostly ALAC with a smattering of both hi-res and MP3 files is approaching 500Gb, what I want is a music player with 1Tb of storage. That'll keep me happy.

Jaay's picture

That's what mSD card slots are for.

Plenty of serious PMP music players have those.

John Sully's picture
mlknez's picture

The issue that most have with the Pono concept is not the player but the promises about the Pono music store that Mr. Young made. There are 0 true high-res recordings in the 10 million track Pono store. The ones that are called "high-res" are really just digitized copies of low or standard res recordings in a hi-res container. Hi-res recording equipment did not exist prior to 1998! Even after that time, most recordings were, and still are, done on equipment that does not spec out above standard CD rate. What good is a high-res player if you are not using true high-res source material and hi-res capable speakers/headphones?

J. Carter's picture

Most of what you say here is not accurate.

First they only have 2 million songs not 10 million.

Second any analog recorded music can be classified as hi res since it has more information than standard CD redbook has so when you transfer it using 24/96,24/192,DSD etc it will be hi res. This means anything from prior to the late 70s can be hi res. Anything past that is a crap shoot but if it was recorded and mixed in the analog domain it has the ability to be a great hi res digital file.

NoHoR56's picture

See, here's the rub. There are plenty of people who would dispute your claim that any analog recorded music can be classified as hi res. They would say that's simply not true. This is the key controversy. What actually is hi-res? Some say it has to be recorded in 96/24 or 192/24 to qualify. Neil Young's problem is he's spent a lot of time trashing CD spec and most of the tracks he's offering are CD spec.

Jaay's picture

Well CD resolution sure is better than AAC or MP3.

And then there's nothing to stop you from getting high resolution downloads from another source like Acoustic Sounds or HD Tracks.

NoHoR56's picture

I agree that CD is better than AAC or MP3 but it is not high-resolution. If you look at the industry threshold on this the minimum definition of high-res is "ABOVE CD resolution" - specifically 96kHz/24 and 192kHz/24 bit (compared to 44.1/16). But that's just part of the story. The complaint against Young is that he ragged on CD's for years but is now offering 44.1/16 resolution in larger file sizes. Transferring 44.1/16 to 192/24 doesn't make it high res. It just allows you to charge more. At least Pono notes this on the site, but there's a massive amount of confusion out there on this exhibited by you claiming that CD is high-resolution. Specifically it's not. It's the very definition of Standard Definition.

Jaay's picture


I didn't quite say that CDs are higher resolution than MP3s.

CDs may indeed have the same sample rate per second that MP3s use. However MP3s and AAC files use much more compression and resolve much less data into audio output than CDs

Also, a Pono, or FiIO, Caylex is indeed set up for playing higher resolution downloads from other sources.

As for upsampling, no it's not as pure as going back to the original master tapes from say 1975 and redoing the digitization process at a higher sample rate than CDs use, but if you know some tricks, upsampling can improve audio quality of WAV files a bit. There are tricks and it definitely helps to start with a better file.

Young, HD Tracks and Acoustic Sounds have all made clear that they at least seek out files that are based on new better remastering of the tapes.

Right, no there's no way of really getting a higher rate audio file from say a recording done in 1988 at the CD sampling rate.

Young is right to complain about CD sound, particularly from 25 years ago. But much better soundcards, some of which can upsample well, and better CD recording techniques helped and in the last say 10 years you've no longer needed $5000 CD player to get to this better digital audio level.

Malcolm02's picture

If you really don't care about Pono, why are you writing an article about it? That shows that you care at least a little bit. If you really don't care, why not just ignore it, and spend your time discussing something else?

Geoffrey Morrison's picture
Literally covered this in the article.
estunesnsuch's picture

Thanks Geoffrey for your common sense article. Obviously, most people don't "get it", but many do. And most of those probably won't comment, so I just wanted to give you kudos for cutting through the chaff.

Keep it up! I look forward to more from you.

Jaay's picture

"Toblerone design is asinine, and paying $25 for the same dynamically compressed audio as iTunes is borderline bonkers."

And it's crazy to think that anybody thinks FLAC files from the Pono website are simply the garbage iTunes sells. FLAC is NOT a variety of AAC or MP3. And anybody writing for this magazine should know that.

FLAC files are played back at perfect CD resolution, sans compression.

Also, Young and Pono have made an effort to get better higher resolution remasterings of the files available for purchase at Pono's download website.

Same with other hi res download websites, like HD Tracks or Acoustic Sounds.

Then obviously, you don't have to buy any download to play files on the Pono, you can play your WAV files ripped from a CD. (I've read the rumor the even DSD is now supported--on the Pono, it is with the FiIOX5.)

Sorry most iPods really don't have good sound quality, bad sound cards is a reason beyond compressed file types.

But now FiIO and Pono offer serious playback for not thousands of dollars, so unlike CaylexM, Cowon P1, or the newer A&K PMPs.

And yeah, starting with a better sound card, in the Pono in this case, means that MP3s and AAC files sound a good bit better than iPods.

Geoffrey Morrison's picture
Perhaps google "dynamic compression" before you accuse me of not knowing what I'm talking about.