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.