Pono: It’s Baaaack!

It’s been awhile since I’ve heard anything from new from Pono. When it was first unveiled, at least in concept, two years ago, Pono was a bit of a head-scratcher. Brainchild of rocker Neil Young, Pono was his response to the scourge of lo-fi music. Pono was a new music player and/or file format and/or music delivery system that would resurrect recorded music. Stay tuned. So, it was interesting to see Pono surface again at SXSW last week.

Apparently, Neil Young and his company have been busy behind the scenes. Pono was vigorously promoted during SXSW, and is receiving a good deal of media coverage (including this dutiful blog). We also learned some details. Pono will feature FLAC, a well-known lossless file format. Pono will sell portable players of “audiophile” quality. The players will play FLAC as well as other file formats including - gasp - MP3. Pono will sell high-res files. Pono’s preferred specs are 96/24 and 192/24, but 44.1/16 and 48/24 will also be available.

To help fund the company, Pono turned to the crowdsourcing platform, Kickstarter. It quickly passed its goal of $800,000, and last time I checked, was approaching $4,000,000. Most of the money comes from the presale of Pono players, either the standard versions or limited-edition artist players. The company hopes to deliver those in October.

One of the interesting aspects of Pono is its artist support. In addition to Mr. Young’s obvious involvement, a video on the Kickstarter website (and elsewhere) shows numerous musicians who enthusiastically embrace the sound quality of Pono. Pono will presumably make a profit on the $399 players, as well as the downloads ($15 - $25/album). Presumably, Pono will enjoy the same deal that Apple gets for selling downloads, a 30/70 split, but at a higher price point. Musicians, of course, will enjoy greater sales, as will record labels. But what will music lovers get?

We already have FLAC. Obviously we already have adequate sampling rates and bit depths. We already have outstanding music playback from devices such as the Astrell & Kern AK100 and AK120, HiFiMan HM-901, Colorfly C4, Sony NWZ-ZX1, iFi Nano iDSD, and others. Let’s not forget about Blu-ray, SACD, DSD, and DVD-Audio. We have HDtracks. Terrific. What we could use is more content. Everything else about Pono is fairly mundane, except for the promise that it can increase the supply of carefully prepared music files. More important, it might help promote awareness of the importance of audio fidelity.

Note that it certainly isn’t enough to offer old files, lipsticked with higher sampling rates and deeper bit depths and their supposed benefits; the files must be remastered or otherwise sound demonstrably superior to unbiased listeners. This is an important, and larger, issue. Because its existence rests solely on the promise of higher sound quality, Pono must prove that it provides higher sound quality. Sorry, celebrity endorsements aren’t sufficient.

Because of its high profile, Pono bears some responsibility. If it does not genuinely up the ante of music quality, then it may instead irreparably harm the chances of other companies who wish to do so. And, it could potentially sour consumers on the whole idea. Conversely, it has a tremendous opportunity to awaken consumers to the pleasures of high-quality music playback. Obviously, all audiophiles will hope for the latter. Time will tell.

Pono. An important flagbearer in the renaissance of high-fidelity audio playback? Or another celebrity-driven foray into audio technology? Science? Or pseudoscience? Good questions. I’ll be exploring them in more detail in an upcoming issue of the print magazine as well as here online. Meanwhile, rock on.