Pono may sound great, but don't expect it to stick around

Mar 21, 2014

I hate to be the one to break it to rock-and-roll legend Neil Young, but his new digital music venture has about as much chance of succeeding as I have of winning a Grammy - maybe less.

Earlier this month at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Young unveiled Pono, a company that will offer a , an online store and music management software all designed to work together much like the iPod and iTunes. What makes Pono different is that it is focused on delivering a better audio experience.

The company will sell songs and albums in a high-resolution format that its player is designed for. According to Young, Pono will take listeners back to the recording studio and allow them to hear music in exactly the way the artists intended it to sound.

The company has already drawn a huge amount of buzz, and endorsements from artists and industry executives ranging from Sarah McLachlan to Warner Bros. Records Chairman Rob Cavallo. Meanwhile, a Kickstarter campaign the company is using to get its service off the ground topped its $800,00 fundraising goal within a day of Young's announcement and had exceeded $2.6 million by the end of the week.

Yet, despite the enthusiasm surrounding it, Pono is an anachronistic and ill-considered solution to all-but-non-existent problem.

The service is modeled on how people used to listen to music 5 or 10 years ago, not how they listen today.

By and large, consumers are replacing stand-alone digital music players like the iPod with smartphones. And instead of plugging those players into their computers to sync their music, they're getting music on their smartphones wirelessly - either by syncing their songs over Wi-Fi or, increasingly, streaming them from services such as Spotify, Pandora or iTunes Match.

Pono would have consumers step back in time. They would have to carry around separate phones and music players again. And they would pay $400 for that music device - which, in an increasingly connected world, is resolutely disconnected. The only way to get music on it is by transferring it from a computer over a USB cable.

You can't buy a song when you're away from your computer and you can't stream it to the device. The company's not even working on a smartphone application that might be able to offer Pono customers some connectivity or instant gratification.

Because the PonoPlayer isn't connected, it can't access to your entire music collection or the universe of available music. Instead, it can only play what's stored on it, which, if the songs are all in the high-resolution format it's promoting, is only about 800 songs.

For now, consumers will only be able to buy the PonoPlayer through the company's Kickstarter site. You won't be able to test it out in Best Buy, much less Wal-Mart. That's going to make it hard for the company to market its player to the masses - much less convince them that it really sounds better.

While Pono's store will work much like iTunes, it's unclear whether it will have anything close to iTunes' selection. Even if Pono is able to secure a decent catalog and entice consumers with the promise of high-res music, those potential shoppers may well be turned off by the cost. Pono expects to charge between $15 and $25 for albums, which is about double what you'd pay for an MP3 album on iTunes or Amazon and $5 to $15 more than you'd pay for a month of Spotify.

If you want to have high-res versions of your existing digital songs or albums, you'll have to buy them all over again. Unlike Apple when it rolled out iTunes Plus and again when it rolled out iTunes Match, Pono isn't planning to offer consumers a way to upgrade their existing music.

Aside from the cost, there's the problem with the premise itself. Average consumers have shown repeatedly over the years that when it comes to listening to music, they care much more about convenience and low cost than quality. And quality is really not a problem anymore when it comes to digital music - at least with the files themselves.

When MP3s first came out, they were so compressed that the average listener could tell the difference between them and CDs. But the files consumers buy from Amazon and iTunes these days are much higher resolution than before - so much so that many experts have a hard time telling the difference between them and CDs. And as far as telling the difference between CDs and something higher-resolution, such as what Young's pitching? Forget about it - human ears generally can't detect it.

Young is surely right that what we hear when we listen to songs played through earbuds connected to our smartphones is a poor imitation of what the artists intended. But the problem is not the files themselves but the equipment - you're generally not going to get high-quality sound from an earbud, and smartphones aren't designed to be high-end audio devices.

Even if Young can convince consumers that the files themselves really are part of the problem, that doesn't mean will turn to Pono. If the company ever threatened to take a significant portion of the music market, you better believe that Apple, Amazon, Google and others would quickly start selling higher-resolution songs and albums themselves, a move that would almost certainly doom Pono.

Ironically, that may be Pono's best bet for some kind of long-term success - that it could influence the major players in to offer higher-resolution files and better audio components in their smartphones. Here's hoping that Young would be satisfied with a moral victory.

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Noumenon
3 / 5 (2) Mar 21, 2014
I don't think the writer of this article knows what they are talking about.

The device is obviously not geared toward people who care more about convenience than quality,... but rather those who care more about quality than convenience.

The device is not competing with the ipod or smartphones. It is not intended for people who are presently satisfied with compressed mp3's.

There is already a portable audiophile market in existence to which this above device targets. These are people who want hi-res 'bit-perfect' music.

If the author only listens to Brittany Spears, he will see little need of such a device.
loneislander
not rated yet Mar 21, 2014
Agreed, but for a slightly different reason. I'm going to suggest that the author is perhaps under 40 (which is hardly a high risk statement these days) but I'm going to say the author sounds like a Canadian male of _+34 years old - university educated and not likely a musician and I take every one of his points as golden. Except:

There is a huge community of people out there who would a) pay more for songs if they knew the artists might get more, b) will pay for sound quality even if they can't hear it -- because one of their important friends might be able to tell the difference, c) can't stand the complexity of how most technology works and would be happy to see their "juice" go through a wire even if a wireless option weren't available, and d) wouldn't think twice about dropping $500 on something that gave them or their friends pleasure -- even if it were a massage.

Fantastic article - you make all the points very well.
ormondotvos
not rated yet Mar 21, 2014
It's a crowded market, full of bs aimed at wannabe audiophiles who can't hear the difference anyway. It will sell a few and then fail.

Although one must acknowledge Mr. Barnum's edict.
alfie_null
5 / 5 (1) Mar 22, 2014
If the company ever threatened to take a significant portion of the music market, you better believe that Apple, Amazon, Google and others would quickly start selling higher-resolution songs and albums themselves, a move that would almost certainly doom Pono.

Pono would be purchased by one of the above. Not quite the same as being doomed. More like being stuck in Purgatory.

Phones that play MP3 (or whatever) streams try to be everything to everybody. Kind of like those pocket-sized transistor AM radios (and AM broadcast) back in the early '60s. I wouldn't attempt to predict the future.
Noumenon
3 / 5 (2) Mar 22, 2014
Ormond/loneislander are quite confused and are making irrelevant points imo. That there is indeed an charlatan element in the audiophile world, does not mean improved equipment / file quality would make no difference to listening experience.

I have a $10,000 audio system with full speakers and separate amps, dacs, and $1,400 headphone, headphone amp,.... do you deny that this equipment produces better sound quality than a ipod with earbuds and compressed mp3's? No?,.. well then it stands to reason that some improvements can be made in the portable market as well.

..:you're generally not going to get high-quality sound from an earbud, and smartphones aren't designed to be high-end audio devices.


The author does not understand the intended market. The type of people who would pay extra for the above device, are not going to use earbuds. They're more likely to buy a portable amplifier to drive full headphones,... of which there is already an existent market.
Noumenon
3 / 5 (2) Mar 22, 2014
..... and also saying that "smartphones aren't designed to be high-end audio devices",... ignores the entire point of developing a improved portable audio player.

If the company ever threatened to take a significant portion of the music market, you better believe that Apple, Amazon, Google and others would quickly start selling higher-resolution songs and albums themselves, a move that would almost certainly doom Pono.


Pono would be purchased by one of the above. Not quite the same as being doomed. More like being stuck in Purgatory.


I don't agree that Pono would be purchased by any of them. It is a niche market. Your typical unsophisticated Brittany Spears music or rap listener, who make up the vast majority of the market, is who Apple, Google, etc, target,.. and for them compressed mp3's is acceptable.
Noumenon
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 22, 2014
,.... for example, have you ever tried to listen to classical music on a typical smartphone? This type of music requires a wide dynamic range, which requires a proper amp and headphone, which then requires that the source, the file, be uncompressed, bit-perfect, and preferably, hi-res.
NeilG
5 / 5 (1) Mar 22, 2014
Honestly this article comes from a Luddite as it's clear they haven't even heard it yet and are already decrying it. The difference between MP3 and 24 bit is huge, where anyone can hear it. It's true not everyone will go for it just as many eat at McDonalds and don't cook quality food but they can certainly taste the difference. We have seen TV's go from SD to HD and now 4k. Anyone see the difference. Humans tend to prefer things that look and sound like real life. Of course not everyone can be bothered.

The writer asserts that people will have to buy their music all over again...you mean like they did from video tape to DVD to Blu Ray. From buying an iPhone through 6 variants to get to a 5s. That's the price of progress.

Bandwidth is increasing daily, to stream music via a smartphone in flac and 24 bit studio quality can be done now on a 4G. I just hope when that happens Pono are able to find the business model and keep ahead of those that turned music into 'fast food'.
brendanjb2012
5 / 5 (2) Mar 23, 2014
How can anyone think the problem is non-existent? This author is an ass. Of course we have been listening to only half the music. I for one am looking forward to Pono and will be happy to throw my I-Pod into the Charles upon purchase.