Neil Young takes on the establishment with PonoMusic

Neil Young takes on the establishment with PonoMusic

Summary: A startup founded by Neil Young promises high-resolution music, and could pose the first real threat to Apple's dominant iPod and iTunes music business yet. Will Apple build, buy, or ignore?

TOPICS: Apple, iPhone, iPad
PonoMusic first edition players - Jason O'Grady
Photo: PonoMusic

Neil Young thinks that the music most of us listen to is junk, even his own. 

No, it's not your secret Miley Cyrus playlist, it's the low quality of today's compressed audio formats that makes the musician cringe. "Pono" is Hawaiian for righteous and Young's goal with the ambitious project is to honor the artist's intention, and the soul of music.

Young's PonoMusic project launched on KickStarter yesterday and rocketed past its $800,000 goal in less than 24 hours. Backers are able to order the innovative player in either yellow (gold?) or black for $300, or chrome for $400, and the first run is expected to ship in October 2014.

The limited edition PonoPlayer in chrome - Jason O'Grady
Photo: PonoMusic

PonoMusic consists of two components: The PonoPlayer hardware which is shaped like a Toblerone chocolate bar and includes 64GB of internal memory and a microSD slot, and a companion music store that will sell high-resolution music that can be downloaded to the player. 

The PonoMusic Store will offer tracks in FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) audio format although the PonoPlayer will play most popular high-resolution music formats from other sources and supports the following formats:

  • CD lossless quality recordings: 1411 kbps (44.1 kHz/16 bit) FLAC files

  • High-resolution recordings: 2304 kbps (48 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files 

  • Higher-resolution recordings: 4608 kbps (96 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files

  • Ultra-high resolution recordings: 9216 kbps (192 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files     
The internals of the PonoPlayer hardware - Jason O'Grady
Photo: PonoMusic

Young first introduced PonoMusic to the public in 2002 on Late Night with David Letterman (video), complaining that today's compressed CD and MP3 formats are "dummied down." At the time, Young mentioned that he was working on a content deal with Sony Music and that he had Warner Brothers on board.

Young told Wired in September 2013 that he had the support of three major labels for the music service. But, sister site CNET speculates that customers will also be able to use other services like HDTracks. Other stores that sell lossless music include and

Apple is likely paying close attention to PonoMusic, but should it acquire the music startup?

One line of thinking is that Apple could eventually acquire, miniaturize and incorporate Pono technology into its own devices, but it would be a difficult task. The PonoPlayer is the size and shape that it is because it allowed engineers to use larger audio components and to separate them far enough apart to prevent electrical interference between the various subsystems. The shape also allowed engineers to use a more efficient cylindrical battery according to the Kickstarter project.

Another possibility is that Apple could market a dedicated Pono-like player to audiophiles as "iPod Pro" or "iPod studio," perhaps under a licensing deal with Young. At a minimum, Apple should sell music in lossless formats, instead of just the lossy AAC format it offers today. 

Apple's not ignoring lossless audio entirely though. It introduced the Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC) in 2004 and open-sourced it 2011. ALAC is similar to other lossless codecs (like FLAC and Shorten) and, although all current iPhones and iPads can play ALAC–encoded files, they're not sold via iTunes and are thus limited to audiophiles encoding their own music.

What do you think about PonoMusic and lossless audio in general? 

Topics: Apple, iPhone, iPad

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  • Drat!

    Apple forgot to patent the triangle. Perhaps, Apple can do an end-around and acquire Toblerone:
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • LOL

      Drat, triangles! Why didn't we think to patent that one.

      Damn you Isosceles!
    • But,but,but.....

      It's a triangle with rounded corners !
      Alan Smithie
    • Dwight Schrute

      already patented this.
      new gawker
  • Hey, Neil. Are you happy or do you have a Pony in your

    Pants pocket?

    Apple will ignore this tech.
    • I disagree - I think Apple will buy this tech

      They same way they bought and used
  • Average people don't care much about quality

    We live in the era of "chewing gum" music - chew and spit. Quality is not of paramount importance. That philosophy is killing blur-ray movies, made SACD irrelevant and will do the same to this nice attempt to shake things a bit.
    Even in piracy torrents we see the phenomenon, 7 or 8 out of 10 content is of low quality - huge amount of people thinks that CAM movies are good enough!!!!!
    • Convenience wins

      Come on, we've seen it enough to not be surprised any more. This triangular thing will probably sell a handful and wind up on the desks of some professionals or people who appreciate the finest quality music, but they won't be occupying anyones pocket.

      On an anecdotal note. I have done a lot of "taste testing" portable music players: iPhone +\- amplifier, CD player +\- amplifier and various headphones and rip qualities. The biggest "bang for the buck" was the headphones, by far. You can have great sources but if you are putting the sound through the $19 pair that Apple or some other company tosses in the box you are really wasting your time.
    • But some of us do

      An awful lot of people studied music in high school and college and tend to be pickier about the sound than the average music consumer. If Pono really does have better sound quality, then musicians and other serious music listeners should be the ones targeted.
      John L. Ries
  • whatever - its a way to get people to purchase more music

    Good for the economy I guess.

    Not going to bother bringing up again how we can't hear anything outside of what 44.1/16 can reproduce, never mind 192/24. (you want to argue about 24 bit over 16, fine I'll give you that one).

    But when you talk about 192Khz - an interesting fact is that with high sampling rates not only can humans not hear anywhere near such a range, you can actually end up with audible intermodulation distortion because unfiltered inaudible high frequencies mix and generate a spectrum of audible distortion.

    I would love to make the supporters of pono do independent blind tests with the same masters, using the different formats and see the results of that. Of course all these artists are salivating at the prospects of reissuing all their stuff in new hi-res formats, in this age of streaming services.
  • small typo

    In the paragraph under the photo you have that Young showed the device in 2002 and the photo says it was in 2012
  • Big waste of storage space

    I use FLAC for unmixed bed tracks, but for the final product? I defy anyone to tell the difference between a 320 kbps MP3 and a FLAC. You'd have to have exceptional hearing and good reference speakers (and most people don't have either.)
    • Headphones

      A good set of over the ear headphones would do the trick. Storage gets cheaper by the day. What will be your excuse tomorrow.
      • Headphones !

        You know nothing of stereo.
        Alan Smithie
        • Wow

          Proper headphones have always been a very good way to evaluate source material. Alan Smithie just what are your qualifications in this field. Before you reply bear in mind that the appreciation of music is one of the most subjective fields you could dip your toes in.
          • Don't know about him

            But I have been a music producer and a/v developer since 1987, and a musician before that. And I can tell you this: unless you have the ears of a child and binaural hearing above 15 kHz, the only discernible difference between a 320 kbps mp3 and lossless 44.1 is a slight reduction in spatial separation, which most are not trained to hear. And even that can be fixed by a good mastering engineer.
    • Gold Cables

      I'm sure you're right. And this late 50s Neil Young fan who played his (mine and Young's) music too loud has yet another variation of technical debt here.

      You know, people say "Voila" and journalists take the angle that some established company has to worry. It's not that simple. There are supply and sales chains, pricing, and marketing challenges. Besides, the personal music player looks to be in decline (having been disrupted by the smartphone). Is a different encoding really the missing ingredient? Having been around long enough to remember when the songs which had a chance of being a big hit were mixed for transistor and AM car radios, I suppose that the ones mixing the tracks for Big Name Du Jour are paying close attention to the mp3/aac version. (I wonder what encoding the radio stations get.) In other words, it is a constrained encoding, but the music sounds good enough. (Though, I mix my amateur's tracks to AAC which is essentially WAV or CD-quality.)

      But good luck, I hope it works out well.

      My thought: Apple is no more worried about Pono than Marantz was worried about Mackintosh in the 1970s.

      (Mackintosh made audiophile tube amplifiers because... it sounded better than solid state. They did well. The low-cost general consumer companies didn't lose a step.)
      • Corrections

        Apples iTunes format is Mpeg-4, not AAC. I do mix to AAC.
      • Tube amplifiers

        .. like anything in music, what I'm about to say is highly subjective.
        The reason tube amplifiers, like McIntosh (!!!!) are not more spread is because, while the sound of amplifiers is warmer is not as .. well.. HI-FI as solid states, which provide a more accurate and analytic sound. Couple that with the high price and one could see why they are so rare and not so popular (btw, McIntosh was bought ans sold 4 times in it's short life)
  • No matter how good it is, I'm not carrying around another device.

    For portables a couple of things are understood 1) that there may be a quality factor you have to give up because of the small size of the unit and the earphones/headphones/earbuds, etc. and 2) I'm willing to give that up so I can just carry around one thing that can provide "decent" sounding music. For this thing to be successful it will have to fit into the same exact phone space I carry around now (not two devices) ... it can't require me to allocate more space to "carry-gadgets" or it needs to be a living room only or simply mostly static device.