Neil Young is a famous audiophile. Cranky ole Neil has raged for years about audio fidelity. First we got to hear about how much he hated compact discs. Now seemingly every chance he gets he’ll go off on how much he hates MP3s.
To some extent, he’s right. Digital music doesn’t sound as good as analog. And compressed files don’t sound as good as uncompressed. The thing is, 99.9% of the world doesn’t care. The average person can’t afford the kind of equipment that brings out this rich sound and the average person probably couldn’t tell the difference – especially because most of the music today is heavily processed stuff that is mastered for MP3 in the first place. Most people are probably listening to 128 KB MP3 files through the cheap earbuds that came packaged with their phones and they think it sounds great.
At any rate, for years Neil has been threatening something revolutionary in the audio world and he finally announced it, via a Kickstarter campaign – Pono Music, Where Your Soul Rediscovers Music. And it’s not really revolutionary after all.
After all these years of sound and fury from Mr. Young, I for one feel let down.
Pono is a portable music player and a music store. The files are in FLAC format, although the player will also handle MP3 and other formats. So it’s not a new audio format, which is what I was kind of expecting. FLAC has been around for a long time and there is already a huge library of software for encoding in FLAC and for playing back FLAC music files.
So first, the store. They claim that all the major record labels are behind this. Albums are expected to cost between $15 and $25. They’re reasoning that people will pay more to buy digital music in a lossless format. It’s expensive but I can see some people going for this.
There is no word on whether or not the music files they sell you will contain Digital Rights Management (DRM) protection. I think the answer to this is no because they say that you can play the files you buy “on your PonoPlayer or other compatible devices.”
So I think that’s all pretty good.
Now, the player. This is where I have a problem.
It will sell for US$399. It will serve one function and one function only – playing music. I am already walking around every day with two mobile phones and a tablet that are capable of playing music and are also capable of about a million other functions. Do I really need to carry another device just for playing music?
Well, they claim that music will sound great on this. They say that this will be “the best playback device ever for listening to high quality digital music.” The best Digital Audio Converter (DAC). The triangular shape is said to allow them to use larger components inside, properly spaced, as well as a round battery instead of a flat one, which they say will all result in less interference.
The device itself has just three buttons – on/off and two buttons for volume. Everything else is controlled through a touchscreen interface. In terms of storage, it comes with 64 gig of internal memory and with a 64 gig MicroSD card. They’re claiming 8 hours of battery life for the player. The player will be assembled in Shenzhen.
The Kickstarter campaign has already raised over $2.4 million dollars. There are different rewards at different pledge levels, starting from $5 (you get a thank you on their web site). You can get a Pono player for $300, $100 off list price, in black or yellow.
$400 gets you something a bit more collectible.
It’s a chrome Pono player, numbered limited edition (500 of each), laser inscribed with the signature of the artist of your choice, pre-loaded with 2 albums chosen by that artist. The signature editions that are sold out are from Pearl Jam, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and Neil Young. Still available are ones from Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, James Taylor, My Morning Jacket, Patti Smith, Arcade Fire, Beck, Crosby Stills & Nash, Dave Matthews Band, Foo Fighters, Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones, Lenny Kravitz. I guess Patti Smith and Arcade Fire would be my first and second choices – if I was interested in getting one.
The Pono player is expected to ship in October.
$5,000 gets you an invite to a launch party in California hosted by Neil. This one is sold out already.
So why am I not interested in getting one? These days most of my music listening is done in noisy environments – on the bus, in the office, walking down the street. And I recognize that at my age, a lot of my ability to hear high frequencies is gone. I think that sitting at home in my home office I might hear and appreciate the difference, but the rest of the time I won’t. And I simply don’t want to carry around another device every day when the ones I’ve already got already do the job for me quite well.
What about you? Does the Pono player interest you? Are you thinking about getting one?