Neil Young's Pono: Waging Heavy Peace on Low-Rez Sound

Six months ago, we reported that Neil Young was going around talking about a crazy idea he had for a new music business model.   He had some high-res, music-in-the-cloud idea that he thought would revolutionize the way people listen to music. Would it be the Segway of the music biz? Six months later, he's back, promoting a new bio, Waging Heavy Peace, and hitting the airwaves with a prototype in hand.

As we told you earlier, Young has long been a very strong voice in opposition to compressed digital audio formats. Shoot, the guy despised DVD and CD – can you imagine the rants he had over MP3? Waging Heavy Peace was named for his war on poor-quality music files - it was his response when asked if he was waging war against Apple.  Before the death of Steve Jobs, Young had been in talks with Apple on a high-resolution digital music distribution model, but according to him, since Jobs' passing, Apple hasn't been returning his calls. The book, according to Young, "will force iTunes to be better and to improve quality at a faster pace."

Now he's got something tangible to show off – new hardware and connections to some of the bigger music labels to back him up. Pono (Hawaiian for "righteous") is the new music system, created by Neil Young and Craig Kallman of Atlantic Records with help from Dolby Labs and Meridian. Now, those companies know a thing or two about high-resolution digital audio - Meridian devised the standard lossless system used on DVD-Audio discs, also used for Dolby TrueHD on Blu-ray. The studios involved are Warner Music Group, Universal Music Group, and Sony Music. Before Kallman joined Young, Warner had already converted its music collection of over 8,000 albums to 192-kHz/24-bit files.  Pono is a complete system: encoders for the Pono audio format, cloud-based music service, and playback hardware. The full technical standard for Pono has not been divulged, but we could imagine it's at least 96-kHz and 24-bit. Young wants listeners to hear studio-master–quality music wherever they are.

So what exactly is Pono? Young was on the David Letterman Show last week with his prototype. The canary yellow prism-shaped device is a portable player, and it appears to have two headphone jacks, a few simple buttons – no thumbwheels or knobs; overall, the minimalism is reminiscent of Apple, but the form factor very anti-Apple in design. The bulky triangular shape does make it easy to set the player on a desk, but it looks too awkward to slip into a pocket or take out for a jog. The player is said to be able to play back high-resolution 192-kHz/24-bit audio files (or whatever the new Pono music service will utilize), along with almost any existing file format.

With so many existing lossless audio formats already available, and so many players that can already play them, why would anyone try to reinvent the wheel with another new format? Maybe Young is hoping that attaching his name to a format will create a buzz. Certainly, people are talking about it already - but is that enough? When Young showed off Pono to fellow musicians at last year's Bonnaroo, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea claimed he heard a drastic difference, agreeing that "MP3s suck" by comparison. Jim James from My Morning Jacket, however, made a very practical point, that the arrival of Pono would mean re-purchasing music - yet again - on another file format. "I've already bought Aretha Franklin's 'Respect' a lot of times. Do I have to buy it again?"

Serious audiophiles are already using lossless encoding for their music collections. Is this newer format significantly (and audibly) superior than using a high-res lossless format to encode from a CD? Or better than existing 24-bit/96- and 192-kHz files? We won't know until we hear it. But if nothing else, Young's involvement and advocacy may mean Pono causes people to reconsider where they get their music from. They may ask whether it might be worth the extra storage space and longer download times to get higher-quality audio. I truly hope their answer is: Yes.