HEY HO, LET PONO!
or OH NO! IT'S PONO, for some
by Aaron Goldberg
After nearly 15 years in the Internet wilderness, it seems that the era of 'Hi-Def' digital music is upon us - well, according to Neil Young and his multi-millionaire rockstar and Internet billionaire mates at least. Neil has been a stickler for audio quality since at least some time in the '70's, but I don't recall any 'Quadraphonic4' releases of his music back in the stoner '70's, do you? My own serious dalliance with his music started at the arse end of the '80's when he released his Freedom album. It happened to coincide with my first purchase of a CD player, and was the very first CD I ever bought. Looking on the CD cover, I noticed the label 'DDD' on the back corner. Back when CD's were new, this type of labeling or SPARS (Society of Professional Audio Recording Services) labeling, was essentially used to denote the 'quality' of a recording. Each initial in the labeling series would represent whether analogue or digital technology was used in the recording, mixing and mastering in the album (so, 'ADD' means the album was recorded with Analogue equipment, mixed in Digital and mastered in Digital). So when it came to cutting-edge digital audio-tech, Neil Young was a stickler for quality from the get-go.
Through the '90's, as CD's became more popular and vinyl fell to the wayside to become a boutique music listening medium, the music industry for the majority didn't care about the technicalities of product. By the late '90's, as computers became cheaper and more popular, a variety of portable (i.e. easily copyable) digital-only formats began to emerge like 'Real Audio.' Eventually, we got to the 'compressed' format mp3, which allowed digital reproductions of music to be played on new devices called iPod's or mp3 players - the geek word for these players were 'Digital Audio Players' or DAP's. The bottom line here was to have as much music possible 'on the go.' In the '80's, it was the Walkman which only had 90 minutes on music on cassette, now the iPod or i-river or Zen or whatever could fit hours of albums or songs played at random so everything became just one big mixtape of music. But what this convenience gave was not only a loss of quality in regards to recording reproduction via a technology called 'compression,' it would subtly and more profoundly change the way we would hear music in order to make up for this 'loss.' How did engineers and the like do this? Simple, they just mastered everything LOUDER. So while you think you hear music that may perhaps 'rock' more, or seem more immediate, or in your face with more 'bass' or 'doof,' you are simply getting louder, noisier music. A negative by-product of this is what is called 'fatiguing.' The louder, bassier music that is being produced by the music industry to fit into these mass market digital formats actually make your ears and brain tired, but more so, the quality of the music deteriorates badly as you turn it up!
I was fortunate in the early '00's to have been bought a DVD-audio player. The 'alternative' to the iPod and the portable convenience of digital music was to go to the other extreme and present not only 'uncompressed' music, but to present it in 'surround,' basically 3-D audio, creating the total singer-guitarist-drummer-bass-keyboard BAND ambience right in your lounge room. Problem was, the hardware was expensive and the music content limited to the likes of Neil Young, the Eagles and not much else...
Meanwhile, vinyl kept chipping away in the underground- people who were used to it would still listen to it, claiming the magical 'warmth' of vinyl cannot be reproduced in any digital format. Whilst this is true, the real reason for the 'warmth' that vinyl has a lower 'noise floor,' which basically means vinyl has less sonic dynamics, it's not as 'hysterical' and spacious, and hence you get that perceived 'warmth.' At the end of the day, you still need a good turntable, stylus, amplifier and set of speakers to get vinyl to sound 'better' no matter how you slice and dice it.
But back to digital.
I mentioned how in the early '00's, there was a new format called DVD-audio which produced hi-definition audio in stereo or 3-d/5.1 surround sound if you wanted to get higher listening pleasure. Sony decided to create their own format called Super Audio CD, which presented even better quality audio in both stereo and surround, and once again only the Eagles and Elton John provided content for this format and once again, only some Internet millionaire could afford the equipment and/or space to have hardware to exploit such 'quality,' and the format DSD is owned by the Sony corporation. Back in the '90's, IBM developed their own digital audio format called 'WAV'- essentially it was an uncompressed format that recorded audio 'as is,' but when Apple decided to destroy the music market, and said 'files are too big and cumbersome,' WAV was basically relegated to the recording studios digital audio format of choice because they could dump the whole recording 'as is' onto digital storage. Meanwhile in the early millennium, a bright young coder called Josh Coalson developed an 'open source' audio format called FLAC which offered the same 'uncompressed' digital audio as WAV, but anyone could encode their music into that format and use it for whatever they wanted (or they could donate toward the project according to the Open Source model). As a result, FLAC seems to be forging ahead as the 'standard' digital format for uncompressed audio presented in the 'best' or 'untainted,' 'direct' or 'as is' way possible via a digital medium.
Now the big, 'robust' (read nasty) inter-nerd flame war regarding Neil Young's new PONO player/ecosystem comes in relation to the now legendary 'graph' that simplifies what music resolutions for differing music formats mean to the listener. I will come forth and say the graph is accurate but not necessarily true. I'm no music scientist or audio engineer, but science dictates that 44.1Hz is the highest sample rate that the human ear can discern, and apparently the highest sample rate ANALOGUE INSTRUMENTS can produce. Whilst this threshold is important, it doesn't mean that sample rates can't go beyond that, it just means an album recorded in 1974 on the mixing desk Dave Grohl bought (because the smug tit can afford it), the actual sonic definition won't sound that much better, but if Obnox, for instance, walked into some swank multimillion digital studio in Florida with Rick Rubin and recorded an album, the 44.1Hz limitation of analogue will become insignificant in light of new technology that can sample recording in true 'high definition' rates. My point here being it's all about how well the ORIGINAL PERFORMANCE was recorded in regards to how well a new-fangled digital player will present it. Outside of that, a good remaster on cutting-edge technology might just do the trick. Amongst all this, we have the trusty FLAC digital format which can more than accommodate any frequency ranges that are required to reproduce music in the best possible format that the human ear can hear. For now, let's leave it at that, and get back to the PONO itself.
Legend has it that Young himself approached the dying billionaire Steve Jobs, the man who single-handedly gave the music industry a digital format that saved them from extinction, whilst delivering crap quality music to millions of bums who couldn't do a single search of the web forum 'head-fi.org' to realize there were better Digital Audio Players (or DAPs) out there, than the bloody iPod. Before he died, Jobs apparently told Young that DAPs were yesterday's news, and that in the great tradition of American capitalism, he should go forth a create his own device and sell it. So he did.
With all this digital audio history and Neil Young's continual insistence at pushing the frontiers of these technologies, his announcement of an affordable HI Definition audio player, roundly endorsed by all his California and Seattle multi-millionaire muso mates, came as no surprise. The announcement was immediately compelling to me for two reasons. First, having played in a band myself and having partaken in the whole recording and mixing process, I have been fortunate to experience first-hand what it's like to have your piddly little songs recorded in a nice studio, mixed through an expensive desk, played through expensive monitors, and have my mind utterly blown by something seemingly so insignificant sound so good! To be honest, the recording I made ALWAYS sounded better to me on CD- they were clearer, more immediate, instruments and sounds had more definition and it replicated more accurately what I heard in the studio. Unfortunately, this would ultimately get fucked up by the industry food-chain of mastering service providers, 'executive' producers and other drongos who felt recordings had to sound 'this way' or 'that way' to get played on the radio or Spotify. And that is half the problem that Neil Young is trying to address via the PONO player and subsequent eco-system– he wants artists to present their own 'approved directors edition' of their music. The second reason I pledged was that I trust the opinions of musicians endorsing their 'vision' in the best possible way, in the same way a film director does for their 'directors cut.' We are getting the artist's vision, not the record industry's.
For those who bought a PONO via the Kickstarter campaign for $299 (or $399 for the 'collector scum' versions), it's quite fair to say the device is a bargain. The closest 'Hi Def' competitor for the price is the FIIO X-5, a Chinese player that is well built, plays all the same Hi-and-Lo Def audio formats, sounds nice but lacks on-board memory. For that, you have to dish out at least an extra $100 for micro-SD cards to match the storage spec of the Pono. The other thing that made the PONO appealing to me, besides the multiple rockstar endorsements (and to me, that counts PLENTY) was the fact the electronics were designed by 'Ayre Acoustics,' one of the more high-end American hi-fi manufacturers - at least if the player looks like shit, the internals will no doubt be quality. Sony are rebooting the Walkman, but at present they only have two models that are almost double the price. Anstell & Kern are a Korean manufacturer who make a high-end player that sounds utterly magnificent, but you won't get much change from $1000, and you wouldn't want to accidentally drop it in the toilet, would you?
So, the pro's and con's of the Pono are as follows:
- Cheap build quality. Basic plastic case.
- Touch screen interface is too small, over-responsive, hard to manipulate with adult fingers.
- Buttons on device can get knocked easily, along with over-responsive touch-screen makes it a real pain in the arse when you carry it in your pocket, songs get switched or paused accidentally.
- While it was cheap on Kickstarter, its retail price is a bit of an ask considering its limited functionality. For it to survive its price will have to drop- market forces will decide that.
- Battery life ain't too grand. Considering the 'Toblerone' design was to accommodate a better battery, getting 4-5 hours isn't much chop.
- ... And the player gets quite warm in your pocket. Another issue with the battery (sheesh, it's starting to sound like a 787 Dreamliner!).
- The 'Pono World' software. Personally I think it's great, but the majority out there hate it. It's basically an audio-only version of the 'I-River' software, which, is the best multi-media playing, encoding, media serving/streaming, all-round kvetching software out there. Once you get the hang of it after about 3-months of hair pulling, it is a powerful piece of app.
- Overall, it sounds great. This website is called 'Perfect Sound Forever' and the PONO has set the ball rolling to achieve that state. It's not the 'best,' but for a small device, it delivers a spacious and often detailed sound. It can get a bit 'shrill' or overtly 'trebly' on some upper end sounds (a perfect example is the guitars on the Pixies Doolittle album). I think the interesting thing about listening to music on the Pono is the fact that you are not relying on sound 'coloring' anymore. Essentially there are no EQ, Bass, or Digital Signal Processing gimmicks programmed into the device. You just get the straight sound and volume control. If an album was recorded crap to begin with, the Pono will not give you much help, and will more than likely accentuate the flaws of the recording.
I have played hours of music through it of a different variety, my brief observations as follows:
- Giorgio Moroder/Donna Summer "I Feel Love" extended version 192/24 FLAC. I use this as my personal reference/demo track. I sounds magnificent, like it's 3D. It pulses and throbs beautiful, and the kick drum sounds like a kick drum, not a headache inducing 'beatz'/'doof' crap. Vocals are mixed perfectly and the analogue sequencers affect you on a molecular level.
- Rolling Stones "Sympathy for the Devil" 176.4/24 flac. This is another track is would refer to as a reference track. I haven't noticed this before but it sounds like Bill Wyman is using a semi-acoustic electric bass?? (ED NOTE: That's actually probably Keith) You hear the complexity and density of the rhythmic tracks, and also how dirty and piercing Keith Richards' final guitar solo really is.
- Neil Young "Cinnamon Girl" 192/24 flac official PONO version. PONO WORLD tracks have a special embedded tag that makes that makes the player emit a blue light track, and notifying you it's 'Pono standard.' You notice how dirty the fuzz is on this track, and Neil Young's vocals have a 'space.' You can almost hear the reverb off the wood in the vocal booth, it's hard to describe.
- Prince "Controversy" 192/24 FLAC. This was a track where I was able to demonstrate to a friend the difference between 'compressed' and 'uncompressed' HiDef music. A friend of mine claimed that the quality of streaming on Spotify had improved remarkably, and they do in fact offer an 'extreme quality' of streaming for Premium subscribes. I played him "Controversy" through my hi-fi system, and initially it sounds 'bigger', 'bassier,' more obvious. When we switched to the Pono, it sounded quieter, more laid back, but the subtle, but ultimately big difference was that we could notice Prince double-tracking his vocals with a high-pitched and deeper pitched vocal that harmonizes with that '80's synth. This couldn't be picked up via Spotify, the double-tracking seemed blended into one vocal.
- Big Star "Try Again" 88.2/24 FLAC from SACD remaster. Even with your bog-standard official Apple iPad bugs, you can hear the double tracked acoustic guitar, even something that might be a mandolin, but is actually an overtone. And then you hear Alex Chilton quite clearly do a one-off harmony on 'again' in the last stanza.
- St. Vincent 'Digital witness' 96/24 FLAC. While this track has a lot of 'space,' and takes advantage of all the cutting edge tricks in contemporary production and electronic instrumentation, it's a victim of this 'loudness war' issue. It's mixed way too loud, like most music produced since around 2001 and the PONO makes this as obvious as fart in a chapel.
- The PONO sounds better than my Yamaha's RX-V777 built-in DAC playing FLAC, and as good as the DAC on my Oppo103 Blu/CD/DVD/audio/SACD player. Directly into my PrimalLuna Dialogue valve amp, it sounds great BUT not better than an Anstel&Kern AK100.
- The PONO sounds fantastic in my car stereo through the Aux input. Way better than the CD player and MP3 player. Makes long drives an utter pleasure, mix tapes never sounded so good, should become a staple for bands on tour.
- Official 'PONO' product is embedded with a metadata tag that activates the blue PONO LED on the player - an electronic stamp of 'top quality'! Its naff, but I like it.
IN SUMMARY, I think the PONO is far from a failure, at the same time, it's not actually a revolution. You have to give Neil Young credit for raising the awareness of the music consumer towards quality listening. I don't think the retail premium of $399 is worth it, considering that alternative players of similar price-price point have more features and comparable sound quality, which is the ultimate taste test, that is up to the consumer. What is significant however is that with the PONO concept, Neil Young has created a boutique standard for audio quality like the Criterion Collection have for home video, or George Lucas did for cinema-audio via the THX. While Mr. Young pontificated at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) last week about PONO being open to 'everybody,' it will be interesting to see how the 'standard' accommodates little indie labels and acts, who may not be able to afford the remastering services that Elton John can. Will a Pono standard apply to BandCamp considering they already provide 192/24 FLAC and WAV recordings? And while record labels like 'Audio Fidelity' have been doing a 'High Definition' standard for nearly 40 years, they haven't done it at the scale one hopes Neil Young is striving to achieve. I personally don't think HiDef is going to go away, Neil Young has done more than anyone in pushing it to the mainstream and making it more accessible than ever before. As long as the content and endorsed hardware they deliver sounds fantastic, that can only be a great and righteous (pono? Irie?) thing.
A perfect sound forever, perhaps?
POSTSCRIPT: I think overall the response to the PONO has been quite positive. With the Internet, your best bet is to read reviews by people on Forums, as so many of the blog and websites these days just write extended copy for the vendors (and many get their testers for free). You can find some hysterical articles and YouTube videos bagging the Pono and Neil himself. While I don't think the roll-out has been perfect, we can only hope they care enough to improve the product and realize the potential of perfect digital sound forever. The following two articles give pretty down-to-earth, and what I feel, accurate representations of the product. The first makes excellent analysis of the PONO remasters' themselves which I think will be crucial to the overall success of the 'concept.' I can vouch that the Neil Young masters sound magnificent and undoubtedly will score high in this guy's microscopic analysis. It was very interesting to me that the Beck and Metallica PONO files are sub-standard- to be honest they just didn't sound as fulfilling as the Neil Young PONO masters did - and this guy tells you exactly why.
This other review is a 'man of the street' type review. It's detailed and rambling, but he tests the device with average consumer equipment and gives what I believe an accurate description of the PONO experience from the ears a rock lunatic:
Also see our thoughts on Neil Young's first announcement about the Pono player
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