The Pono Session

Does Pono deliver on its promise of providing high-res digital music that best reflects how the artist intended you to hear it? I listened to a number of FLAC files at 192/24, 176.4/24, and 96/24 on a yellow PonoPlayer through Sennheiser HD-650 headphones during an exclusive listening session in New York City, and—spoiler alert—the answer is a most emphatic yes.

Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” (192/24) was an instant revelation. Kenny Buttrey’s snare drum, never more than a supportive element in the mix of this iconic song, was as taut and present as if I had been sitting in with Young and his Stray Gators band at Quadrafonic Studios in Nashville when they cut this track for Harvest on February 8, 1971. Ben Keith’s pedal-steel lines and Neil’s own harmonica and acoustic guitar all displayed clearly distinct character; nothing sounded dulled, muddled, or compressed. And Linda Ronstadt’s upward-reaching harmony, as she extends the syllable in “gold” four times at the song’s climax, became an even sweeter payoff. I’ve listened to “Heart of Gold” countless times on LP, CD, DVD-Audio, and Blu-ray, but I’ve never heard it as clear and true as I did with Pono.

The Doobie Brothers’ “South City Midnight Lady” (192/24), a pivotal track from their 1973 album The Captain and Me, was a benchmark example of true channel separation, especially during the bridge with the chimes in the left and Tiran Porter’s walking bass line in the right, leading to Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s soulful pedal-steel guitar lines wafting around Tom Johnston’s guitar leads. When vocalist Patrick Simmons returns to sing the final chorus, I deeply and directly connected with the heartfelt conviction, longing, and ultimate uplift he conveyed.

Speaking of conviction, perhaps no modern vocalist sings with more of it than Adele, who puts everything she has into “Skyfall” (96/24), the title theme to the most recent James Bond film of the Daniel Craig era (2012). Every inflection is laid bare: how she enunciates “crumbles” as “crum-bawls” during the first chorus (and then alters it slightly each time she sings the word throughout the song) and the quick but deep, breathy gulps she takes before belting out lines beginning with “I” and “When.” I always felt her vocal was a bit overwhelmed by the ever-heightening dramatic string arrangement on the standard disc and download versions, but Adele is much more out front as a pure, shining siren on Pono. Absolute chills.

I also marveled at the distinctive character of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ blended vocals on the choruses to The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” (176.4/24) and the brisk attack of Joe Morello’s emphatic drum solo counterpatterns in The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five” (176.4/24).

During this session, I recalled what Neil Young told me about how he felt seeing people’s reactions during and after listening to Pono. “It’s gratifying, because people do hear ‘it’ as soon as they hear it,” he said. “People can’t believe there’s anything better than what they’ve already heard.” Neil (and everyone), this note’s for you: I heard “it.” Man, did I ever hear it. If Pono continues to deliver top-drawer golden-ear experiences like the one I just had, then the future of high-resolution downloads will reap a harvest of the highest SQ order.

Company/Product Info
PonoMusic
PonoPlayer in yellow or black, $399 (available for pre-order; delivery Q1, Jan-Mar 2015 per PonoMusic)
PonoMusic

Read "High Resolution Harvest," the story behind Neil Young's PonoMusic here.

COMMENTS
lfusaro's picture

I, and several of my geekier friends, are wondering if and how the Pono connects to larger systems (e.g., AV receivers, stereo receivers, etc. Any thoughts?

brotherlea's picture

I pledged for a player from the Kickstarter Pono Music project and must say, one place you might look at is the website ponomusic.force.com. Click on one of the players that are now offered for preorder and then you can read about its outputs. As I understand it, the player has two typical 3.5mm stereo mini jacks that may be configured through the user interface, offering four output modes.
One is a single volume adjustable jack intended for headphones.
Two is a single line output jack with a fixed volume output. A stereo mini plug to 2 RCA phono plug adapter can carry this output into consumer headphone amplifiers, stereo component pre-amplifiers or receivers.
Three is a "pair listening mode" converting both jacks into headphone jacks, with volume of both adjustable simultaneously.
Four configures one jack into a left channel balanced output with the other becoming the right channel balanced output. Typical TRS (tip, ring, sleeve) wiring convention into headphones wired for balanced inputs or into adapter cables terminated with XLR output plugs.

Stosh's picture

So from your description, there is no way to listen to multi-channel music by connecting a Pono to an A/V receiver? And it appears there is no digital audio output port?

This is a major drawback, in my opinion.

brotherlea's picture

No, Pono was not conceived to playback multi-channel audio. You are correct, there is no digital audio output port. I am in no way privileged or informed beyond what I have scrounged from the internet, but my understanding so far is that Pono is a startup company and this fall will open its online store, as well as begin shipping these players. I came across the initial Kickstarter project and pledged almost immediately, having the impression that the market did not yet offer high-quality mobile audio reproduction at the cost to me.
Now. My understanding also is that Apple has done a booming business in selling lossy mono and stereo downloads. Would it be good business to offer a low-cost, high quality multi-channel / digital output audio player before first testing the market's acceptance of lossless? Would content providers be willing to have multi-channel music sold without DRM (as Pono will)? 8 channels are available through Dolby TrueHD; how many consumers are prepared to reproduce every track?
Sound & Vision (not Sound OR Vision) implies reproduction of what I call movies--not generally implemented while driving or at school or the workplace; how portable must a "multi-channel" source be?

Stosh's picture

I know what you are saying, and I hope for great success for Pono. I abhor lossy music formats, and have been buying hi-res music from places like HD Tracks for a while now. We need to spread the word about the value of high-resolution, lossless music!

But I am not much into "portable" music. Other than when I am in my car, I don't listen to music outside of my house much, for reasons, philosophical and other, that I won't get into now. I primarily listen to music through my home entertainment system. I even have SACDs and DVD-A disks, along with a growing collection of hi-res music on Blu-Ray. So I enjoy multi-channel music very much. For example, the SACD of "Dark Side of the Moon" is just incredible.

Anyway, I was hoping the Pono would be aimed at more than just primarily headphone listening, and that it would support multi-channel music. Hopefully the initial launch will be a great success (though I worry about the price, and how the public will react to that), and maybe future iterations of the product will support multi-channel. But to be brutally honest, as much as I support the entire Pono project, I doubt if I will be buying one. At that price it just won't provide me with the experience I want.

brotherlea's picture

Sony's Pure Audio Blu-ray discs offers high resolution sound in stereo and surround. I think what you are really seeking is unprotected high resolution multi-channel digital files, not optical disk media.

Just today I discovered "DTS Headphone: X," which is billed as surround sound that doesn't have to be confined to a multi-speaker set-up, that a simple pair of headphones is all that is needed. It seems complex--for best reproduction, simulating one's physical head, ears and ear canals plus headphone choice is best. However, videos demonstrating its audio capabilities are available on the internet--I was impressed. It seems to be a form of digital signal processing requiring competent computing, but who knows? Time and technology may eventually bring about the best of both worlds--exemplary surround sound through conventional headphones AND the high-resolution discrete, lossless home theater experience!

mwelters's picture

I am skeptical. The quality likely has more to do with the equipment than with the source file. The book "Perfecting Sound Forever" explores this issue and notes that when a typical person is set up to compare, "blind", a 256 kps AAC recording with a CD quality recording, the typical listener needs guidance to identify the differences. That is how close in quality they are in controlled circumstances. Moreover, the vast majority of listening occurs in less than ideal circumstances. There is far more to be gained, even for the most discerning listeners, by improving the amplifier and the speakers than improving the digital source. I seriously doubt that, a person sitting on a commuter train with typical headphones will notice a real difference between an iPod or this. Same for a person in commuter traffic listening over bluetooth, or a person listening to music while cooking. Given studies, as noted above, it is doubtful that even in focused listening environments a difference will be noted by the vast majority of listeners.

mwelters's picture

In reply to my own comment, I suppose the difference is arguably that CD quality is inferior to what is being offered here, and so that is why a difference is notable. But the bit rates are 4-5x higher with CDs already, and if most persons have a hard time distinguishing that difference, then I'm not sure doubling or tripling that will have the alleged returns. I would have thought the most noticable differences would be on doubling the bitrates, and there would be diminishing returns thereafter. Interesting. But still skeptical.

brotherlea's picture

Rather than offering double or triple bitrates, the idea behind Pono is to make available master-quality audio, at an affordable price. Remastering old audio tapes is one thing, for tape is less capable than today's digital recording technologies, formats and bitrates. The idea is to avoid down-res consumer formats in favor of "as mixed" fidelity straight to the consumer--whether they are capable of hearing it or not. CD quality usually comes from a higher quality master mix--I want to own what's in the 'vault.'
Audio high-fidelity reproduction has always been about diminishing returns based on cost of equipment. Today, software written to take advantage of of digital chip capabilities makes as big a difference as audio circuit design and quality of electronic components. Who can honestly say that they've heard the very best audio reproduction from any particular bitrate? Or format? High-end headphones often reveal more detail than high-end loudspeakers. High-end in ear monitors often reveal more than high-end headphones. The point of Pono is to deliver the best sound for the (affordable) price.

houseofhits's picture

It's a bit, ah, silly, to be skeptical when you haven't even heard it. I own one, I'm a sound engineer & musician of over 35 yrs standing, & I can assure you, you're wrong. I've had comments from absolute philistines that it sounds really great. Obviously, a 24/192 file will sound better than the same thing at 16/44.1; it's not an academic difference, it's audible to anyone with unimpaired hearing. But this is also a genuinely high quality replay unit. Discrete, zero feedback etc. Hi res files sound noticeably better thru it than thru my Korg MR1000 hi res recorder/player that cost over 3 times the price. Cd files sound better thru it than discs thru my $1000 Rotel cd player. Also, I was sent the software where you put all your music files & buy Pono files before I received the player, & it was clear that the Pono software sounds better than Itunes playing the identical files thru the output of my laptop. People forget that software comprises algorithms, & some sound better & are better implemented than others.

So given that the player sounds really good & the software associated with it sounds really good, it adds up to a very positive listening experience for anyone who wants to expose themselves to it.

yamahr1's picture

Jumping on the "skeptical" bandwagon, what stood out to me is that the author says, "I’ve listened to “Heart of Gold” countless times on LP, CD, DVD-Audio, and Blu-ray, but I’ve never heard it as clear and true as I did with Pono."

Really? Why would Pono's high resolution format be all that different than the uncompressed 24-bit high-res formats of DVD-A and Blu-ray? I agree that the high sampling rates with 24-bit resolution sounds distinctly better than CD, but unless the mastering was different it's not plausible that there was a clearly audible difference between DVD-A, Blu-ray, and the FLAC file played on Pono. But of course this was no direct comparison, it was going from the author's memory, and as mwelters points out that is really not to be relied upon. I suppose the Pono file at 192 KHz compared to maybe 96 KHz sampling rates sometimes used could have made some difference, but I'm extremely skeptical about that being audible as I've always felt that the key to high res formats is the extra dynamics afforded by the greater bit depth (24 vs. 16).

However, I do disagree with mwelters about 256Kbps MP3 and CD quality audio being so hard to distinguish. Certainly the MP3 is fairly hi-fi, but no matter who or what encodes it, to me it always ends up less sonically satisfying than an uncompressed version when heard on a good system. That's why now almost all of my library is ripped to FLAC format. Even lossy-compressed versions of hi-res 96/24 material, like sometimes available as high-bit-rate DTS format, have issues to my ears, with something "not quite right" about the high end and the spatial recreation.

mwelters's picture

Just to clarify, my recollection is that the comparisons were 256 kps AAC with CD, which is better than 256 kps MP3. perfecting Sound Forever is a very interesting book.

V_squared123's picture

Curious how this is different from other portable high res audio systems.

3dit0r's picture

I'm a proponent of hi res audio, but in getting all carried away, the reviewer completely fails to cover whether the above tracks have been re-mastered for release on Pono. If he's hearing such a huge difference from other hi-res sources the answer is either 'yes', in which case it's more to do with that process that he's hearing different prominences in the mix, or the Pono player is unduly emphasising them, which makes me question it's neutrality as a player. Did the reviewer listen to the same master at lower resolutions on the Pono? I've heard the same master in different resolutions played through a reference level system several times and the differences are there, and worthwhile, but they're subtle. It's only a different master, or another piece of equipment which makes the kind of changes suggested here.

yamahr1's picture

@3dit0r: I wondered the same thing. But if you read S&V's other article on Pono here:
http://www.soundandvision.com/content/high-resolution-harvest
... as I did later, you'll find it states that none of the releases are being remastered for Pono. So yeah, that leaves me thinking there's no big leap here between the Pono music and, let's say, the FLAC files you can download from HDTracks.com. I applaud the whole effort, because the iPod generation needs to get a clue about sound quality, but unless this player is some kind of breakthrough (which I doubt) then it's hard to believe the listening experience would be all that different on Pono compared to a high-res 24-bit download from HDTracks played on a good system (in the same headphones.) Strange that the author didn't wonder the same thing.

That article also didn't say if the Pono tracks have some kind of proprietary encryption, like can they be copied to one's own computer for listening at home? At least the HDTracks.com FLAC files go anywhere. I play those files from my computer network directly on my excellent OPPO BD-103, and the results are great. I strongly recommend their 88/24 version of Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories", which is painstakingly produced and mastered.

brotherlea's picture

No encryption, no DRM.
That's funny, that you didn't believe the listening experience would be all that different on Pono compared to a high-res 24-bit download from HDTracks played on a good system, albeit through the same headphones. This "good system" you speak of--is it also a small battery-powered mobile device? If audio through the Pono player is the equal of the same through a good system, would that not imply "some kind of breakthrough?"

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