Is the Pono an Audiophiliactic Phony?


Nearly 16,000 people have ponied up almost $5.5 million for the Pono Music Player’s Kickstarter campaign, which will come to a close April 15. That is a surprising amount of support for a product designed to play high quality, lossless audio files which preserve recorded sounds exactly as the artist and producer intended. 

Who knew so many people cared about sound quality this much?

Pono is certainly a product aimed at a niche market. Most music listeners don’t seem to be very discerning about the quality of the sounds their audio equipment is capable of reproducing. This is evident when you take the time to look at the quality of equipment most people use. Typically, I see low-end, straight-off-the-Wal-Mart-shelf stereos in homes and offices, or bargain bin headphones incapable of managing the range of frequencies a product like Pono is alleged to be able to recreate.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

In fact, I envy people who aren’t hellbent on assembling an audio system capable of reproducing sound so precise it’s possible to hear the nuances of the space in which the source material was recorded. I’m not an audiophile by any means, mostly because I can’t afford to be, but I do believe I have higher standards than most when it comes to audio. When I’m in a listening mood, muddy sound drives me to the bring of insanity, as I spend hours attempting to tweak settings to find something satisfactory. This makes the act of listening to music more complicated than it probably needs to be.

So I suspect that I’m among the target audience for the Pono Music Player, but so far, nothing about the product has lit that gotta-have-it fuse in my head.

I like the idea.

If you have ever heard a CD, or record for that matter, played on high-quality equipment, and then heard an mp3 played right after it for comparison, the difference between them is astonishing.

An mp3 is a compressed version of the original recording, and when it is compressed data is lost for the sake of saving space. It’s the same concept used in jpeg photos. The smaller you try to make the file size, the more data the file loses, and the picture becomes blurry. There are nuances in recorded music, like the characteristics of space, that are lost to mp3s.

All of those subtle elements are preserved in what are essentially straight-from-the-studio, High Resolution Audio, FLAC files, where artists and engineers worked hard to craft them into an auditory experience for the listener.

The question becomes whether the Pono player is capable of doing what it claims it can do.

Neil Young is one of the founders of Pono, and has been the official honk in the media. He promoted it on Letterman last month.

Neil Young is one of the founders of Pono, and has been the official honk in the media. He promoted it on Letterman last month.

Pono is approaching recording industry people already, trying to arrange for the high resolution audio files to be made available for purchase through its own online store. So far, they appear to have some big names lined up for availability when the product launches, but someone who is into music so deeply they need to have super-high-quality files, is also more than likely into artists outside the popular/mainstream selections. How long until the more obscure artists are releasing high resolution audio files?

Also, are we going to see a new industry standard ushered in just for this product, and a handful of others jumping onto the high resolution audio movement’s bandwagon?

The music industry has seen this kind of thing before. Remember DAT or the Minidisc? Both mediums failed to take hold in the consumer market, despite their claims of superiority.

Then there is the issue of having a music player capable of recreating a wide range of frequencies, and yada, yada, yada, and rendering it useless by playing it through speakers/headphones incapable of accurately reproducing sounds that fine. If the speakers can’t hang with what the Pono is putting out, then there is no real point to having it.

Then there are the naysayers who poo-poo the idea that high resolution audio files in general.

I’m not going to get into a all the technical jargon because I don’t have a legitimate expertise in the subject, but in theory, from what I understand, the high resolution files take the standards established for CD quality, and pump some steroids into it so more information can be stored per bit of data and then subsequently be read and reproduced for playback.

There are those out there, who actually understand sample rates, bit-depth, and all that jazz, like some of the folks at Gizmodo, claiming the Pono and other high resolution audio players are pointless due to the limitations of human hearing. They contend the 44.1 kHz/16-bit CD-quality standard sampling rate is already capable of producing the highest discernible resolution our ears can handle. Anything more, like the 192kHz/24-bit high resolution audio files, is unnecessary.

If this is correct, then this entire project is little more than another gimmick aiming to suck dollars from the pockets of pseudo-audiophiles like me, and perhaps even the pockets of a few legitimate audiophiles, which is something that’s not all that difficult to do. For example, the $1,500 record player, which is not even shockingly high priced when compared to other “audiophile quality” components. Hardcore audiophiles with deep pockets have no qualms about spending $100,000 on a home stereo system.

So the Pono has a lot of forces working against it, including the science of human hearing, and getting an entire industry to try something new — again. At the same time, it has a lot going for it too, namely the $5.5 million the project has collected via Kickstarter.

Just as I did with DAT, Minidisc, and even Laserdisc on the video side of things, I think I’m going to sit this one out and see how things go. I have a suspicion the Pono is going to fizzle out in a year or two, and then quickly become a common sight on vendor tables at a flea market near you.

In the meantime, if you haven’t listened to music not deriving from a lossy compression file such as an mp3, make it a point to give it a shot some time soon. You might be surprised by what you’ve been missing, provided you have the equipment capable of revealing them.

The First Step to Recovery is Admitting You Have a Vinyl Problem

It started innocently enough about a decade ago.

“I’ll do it once or twice,” I thought. “It’s no big deal.”

At first, it wasn’t.

Then a few times a year, turned into a few more times per year, and as the years piled on, so did the obsession. Now I’m here at the beginning of yet another year, and my once or twice habit, has turned into a financial drain that has added a lot of undue stress to my life.

Backrooms like these are where chasing this dragon leads. They are often scary and filled with freaks.

Backrooms like these are where chasing this dragon leads. They are often scary and filled with freaks.

Nearly every dollar I make, I struggle over the decision of using it to pay a bill, put away for a rainy day, or feed the beast. The beast is winning more and more often.

I was on the prowl all night last night looking for a fix, and finally went to bed depressed because I didn’t have the cash to score what I wanted, what I needed.

I feel like I’m losing control, which means my friends and family probably realized I lost control a long time ago. The addict is always the last to know.

My stereo equipment is inadequate, and my vinyl collection isn’t what i want it to be. It’s sad but true. It’s consumed me.

With addicts, things seem shiny at first. Then the shine wears off.

With addicts, things seem shiny at first. Then the shine wears off.

Last night I was searching for tube amplifiers, and phono preamps with tubes, and speakers capable of making such a purchase worthwhile. No matter where I turned, or what dark Internet rabbit hole I went down, I never had enough cash to be satisfied.

It didn’t used to be this way.

I bought a few records on a whim one day. I didn’t even have my own turntable. I had to use one belonging to someone else. It wasn’t long before I was on the hunt for my own.

That was when the cheap stuff was just fine. If it plugged into my receiver, and made noise, it did its job.

Then the records began to pile up. Not too many at first. Just a few here and there. It didn’t become a weekly habit for several years, and it wasn’t until earlier this year that I became a daily searcher.

Three years ago, I decided my turntable wasn’t good enough.

Then I got my hands on a classic Realistic LAB-395 Direct Drive turntable with its original Shure RXT-4 MM Cartridge, that only needed a stylus replacement.

Good enough, right? It plays. What more do you want?

Good enough, right? It plays. What more do you want?

Then my receiver wasn’t good enough.

It still isn’t, but until I do something with my speakers, there’s no point in chasing that dragon.

Since the speakers and tubes are still out of reach, I keep eyeballing an upgrade on the turntable, and maybe even a better phono amp that doesn’t have tubes.

The cycle is endless now.

If I’m not looking for high-priced audio equipment, I’m looking for over-priced accessories like dust arms, record cleaners, and stabilizer clamps.

In case you're asking, "What the fuck is a stabilizer clamp?" It's this.

In case you’re asking, “What the fuck is a stabilizer clamp?” It’s this.

I’m even considering learning how to solder and assemble electronics so I can get shit to put together myself.

I’m sick. I need help.

If it wasn’t for the steady flow of records I bring into the house, I’d be a miserable wreck with a bad case of the shakes.

There aren’t any Betty Ford clinics for this. I’ve just got to deal with it on my own.

I just hope I can come to grips with my problem, before I start pawning my grandmother’s jewelry and prostituting myself for .50 cents per ride downtown.


This could get ugly, if I don’t turn my life around.