• Innovations: Pono is an impractical, ten-year step backward

Innovations: Pono is an impractical, ten-year step backward

Pono Players
One word that’s been on the lips of seemingly everyone the past few days is “Pono.” The digital music player and accompanying service, PonoMusic – which creator Neil Young unveiled last week at SXSW in Austin, Texas – is essentially the anti-Spotify. As exciting as that sounds, PonoMusic requires a specific player incapable of hosting other features or streaming services. The result is a service-product combo that merely revisits tired methods and technology rather than breaking new ground.

Young’s company PonoMusic, set for official launch in October, forgoes the common model of streaming everything for a flat monthly fee (or using a free, ad-based version) in favor of purchasing music on a per-album basis. Where PonoMusic differs from iTunes, Amazon and others is in the albums’ quality, which, according to a press release, is in its “no compromise” studio quality.

For the technically inclined, album bit rates will go as high 9216 kbps (192 kHz/24 bit), which is drastically above and beyond the 2304 kbps (48 kHz/24 bit) of CDs. However, the jury is still out on whether the average – or even seasoned – music listener can discern the difference.

The press release goes further to explain the necessary device, the PonoPlayer: “[It] is a purpose-built, portable, high-resolution digital-music player designed and engineered … to allow consumers to experience studio master-quality digital music at the highest audio fidelity possible, bringing the true emotion and detail of the music, the way the artist recorded it, to life.”

Yet according to Young during his SXSW appearance, the lush and layered “Phil Spector” studio approach has been dying because of the mp3. We now live in an era of music produced at home on laptops and consumption occurs via streaming and base-level earbuds, so it’s questionable how many artists are still taking advantage of a high end sound. Even if that method was pursued, does it even offer a significantly different listening experience?

There must be a method to test that. It would be interesting to see how fans, artists and industry professionals would fare in a blind “taste test” of music produced in a variety of styles and eras. After sharing a stage with a band as raucous as Crazy Horse, Young himself probably isn’t the best judge.

If Pono does take off, then there it may admittedly have the potential to change the face of music production. Theoretically, a sizable following for Pono might give artists more incentive to risk using intricacies and dynamics during studio time that are inconsequential in an mp3 or CD-quality recording. Such production comes at a high price, however, and would likely be attainable only for the most popular, well-funded artists.

In the promotional video below, Beck, David Crosby and other friends of Young extoll the virtues of Pono and promise warm, fuzzy feelings when listening to this high-resolution format. But of course, these sensations will cost you. Album downloads through PonoMusic are expected to go for $14.99-24.99, and the Toblerone-shaped PonoPlayer itself is set at $399.

To put that in perspective, the price-level for six Pono albums and a player is equal to a year’s subscription with a streaming music service and an off-contract smartphone. With such a high price point, expectations for a surge of warm reception should be low.

That said, within a week of Pono’s official announcement, over 12,000 fans have pledged just over $4 million via Kickstarter, vastly exceeding the $800,000 goal. Still, this proves nothing about Pono’s long-term performance. It seems more likely that leading pledges were enticed by rewards that included chrome versions of the PonoPlayer with laser-engraved signatures from notable artists of Pearl Jam, Willie Nelson, Arcade Fire and Young himself. It remains unclear if the service will appeal to anyone beyond audiophiles and fans of Neil Young and his associates.

According to Nielsen SoundScan, 34 percent of all music spending comes from just 14 percent of consumers, the so-called aficionado fans. That statistic could be huge for PonoMusic, and though the service attempts to take advantage of an increased love for sonic quality – i.e. the recent spike in vinyl, merchandise and concert tickets sales –  it seems likely that individuals will continue to invest more in physical albums rather than digital copies.

Engraved Pono Players
The playing field might be somewhat leveled if Pono downloads come with discounts for physical copies (the reverse of the vinyl download code model). At a certain point, the cost of owning an album in all its formats, a goal for many aficionados, becomes astronomical. How many times should a fan be expected to pay for the same album?

Realistically, Pono is business as usual. When asked at SXSW about Pono’s revenue share, Young went silent. Spotify and iTunes have been widely criticized for taking a large cut (30% for the latter), and Pono has given no indication of operating differently.

In his Letter to Pono, blogger Bob Lefsetz refers to his smartphone: “I’ve got a single device that lets me play music, surf the web, talk, text, stream music and file … and Neil says I’ve got it all wrong.”  He makes a fair point that proves the folly of the PonoPlayer. It’s a technological leap back to the early 2000s, “a single player that looks chunky in the pics (just to) get higher quality audio.” Today, a stand-alone digital audio player has fallen out of relevance and stands as a relic of an increasingly forgotten past.

Therefore, it’s fitting that the Pono music service shares a name with the Hawaiiian word for “righteousness” – it’s inexorably tied with being a music snob or audiophile. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the honeymoon phase will end once buyers accustomed to wireless syncing and 4G data begin to miss the familiar convenience. Lefsetz proposed lobbying “for a faster Internet connection, so I can get hi-res streams,” and truthfully, we think he’s on to something.

The service will hardly achieve the stated goal of making “the power and majesty of music available to everybody.” Pono is presented as the Mecca for both high fidelity lovers and fans of dedicated music devices, but it’s hard to ignore that it’s merely a throwback to a disenfranchised technology.

Frank Mojica

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2 Comments

  1. Samual J. Bottoms

    October 31, 2014 at 12:29 am

    In your article you state, “Lefsetz proposed lobbying “for a faster Internet connection, so I can get hi-res streams,” and truthfully, we think he’s on to something.” That sounds good on the surface, but the question also becomes how long until something of that nature comes to fruition, and what exactly is needed to make that happen, because as we all know, things like that are more easily asked for than delivered.

  2. whackamus

    May 16, 2015 at 6:31 pm

    In the article you state:

    “For the technically inclined, album bit rates will go as high 9216 kbps (192 kHz/24 bit), which is drastically above and beyond the 2304 kbps (48 kHz/24 bit) of CDs.”

    You’re going to want to correct this. The redbook (CD) standard isn’t 48/24 but 44.1/16, which translates into an uncompressed bitrate of 1,411bps. That’s bps, btw, not kbps. Or, put differently, that’d be 1.411kbps. Again: you might want to correct that. It isn’t simply an error in fact; it’s both an error in fact and an error in fact that’s off by a few orders of magnitude.

    And did Neil really invoke Phil Spector’s as a production style to be emulated? Was that his example or yours? Because there’s nothing “lush” and/or “layered” in a Phil Spector production: it’s a wall of sound, with each constitutive component of the mix maxed out to 11. Give Phil props, of a sort: he achieved [sic] this effect prior to the invention of digital compression — or, for that matter, of sophisticated analog compressors — with the result that P.S.-produced stuff still sounds fantastic on the AM radio band, and downright shitty in other contexts. (What I wouldn’t give to travel back in time and wrest production of All Things Must Pass from Phil. Good god, what a travesty, especially in the context of the tech which, at that time, was starting to become available.)

    I think there are a few forces at work here, however, that may make or break Pono and similar services. There’s explosive growth in storage capacity, which everybody gets, and then there’s this coalescing trend away from free or cheap bandwidth, such that streaming hi-rez stuff via services such as Spotify is impossible (i.e., far from cost-effective) for a preponderance of potential consumers — were such services available in the first place. More important, however, is a related trend, a kind of cultural “mass specialization” — i.e., the consumerization of specialization — that we’re all inscribed in, but which comparatively few of us actually grok. (We’re all of us becoming specialists of one kind or another. We brew our own beer, distill our own whiskey, grow our own pot, fry-up our own donuts, craft our own cupcakes, print our own 3D artifacts. We weave hemp, we weld iron, we raise chickens. We’re connoisseurs of this or that niche brand, product, or experience. It’s mass specialization, baby!) In my own experience, I believe this last trend helps to account for the fact that (in 2014 alone) I randomly encountered at least half a dozen ordinary-seeming people who self-identified as “audiophiles.” As someone who’s bought and sold mid- to high-end audio gear for 25 years now, I’m … taken aback by this. Ars audiophilia was traditionally a niche thing. And it still is. But a cultural awareness of ars audiophilia, which is itself a function of a kind of cultural mass-specialization, is an altogether new thing. I have no market research data to back this up, but I’d bet it’s drastically enlarged the pool of potential “audiophiles” — and by this I mean the kinds of folks who’d pony up the cash for hi-rez music from a service such as Pono.

    I have friends who listen to 24/96 and 24/192 content on their friggen iPhones, for example. Are these folks “audiophiles” in the traditional sense of the term? No. Is something like Pono a gateway drug to ars audiophilia? No. Could such folk reliably distinguish between 16-bit/44.1kHz CD sound and 24-bit/192-kHz Pono sound in a double-blind listening test? No. Heck, could such folk reliably distinguish between 16-bit/44.1-kHz CD sound and 16-bit/192kbps AAC-encoded sound in the same double-blind listening test? Almost certainly not. But (to paraphrase Patti Smith) this is the age where everybody’s boutique! It’s an age in which something like Pono, especially to the extent that it markets itself as a lifestyle or craft/boutique service — i.e., especially insofar forth as it’s bound up with the creation/maintenance of a kind of hyper-differentiated, mass-specialized consumer identity — might could succeed. Personally, I’m just happy that services such as Pono, HDTracks, and StudioMasters are emphasizing quality — not so much as a function of bit-rate or bit-depth, but, rather, in the preparation and/or analog-to-digital transcription of source material. This last was a long-wished-for desideratum devoutly to be wished.

    Far from being a step backward, then, a service like Pono might be precisely of and for its time.

    There’s this, too: Thanks to Pono, we’ve been treated (at long last) to an authentic digital release of Neil’s Time Fades Away. Those of a certain persuasion managed to obtain a copy of the unreleased HDCD remaster via, er, backchannel means. But to have TFA at glorious 24-192 is nothing less than the signal event of the new millennium. For some of us, at least.

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