By Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Neil Young doesn’t just hear music, he feels it. He wants you to feel it, too, which is why he developed Pon0Music, a high-end digital audio system that he unveiled last month during a keynote speech at the annual South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.
An early critic of digital audio — he delved into digital waters for 1983’s rockabilly ode Everybody’s Rockin’, but by the end of that decade he’d declared we were living in the dark ages of audio — Young created Pono on the assumption other listeners were as distressed as he was by the format’s brittle sound.
Neil may be onto something: within hours of its March 11 debut, Pono’s Kickstarter campaign — which concludes on Tuesday, April 15 — was fully funded to the tune of $800,000. And it’s continued to grow at rapid pace, reaching over $5.75 million through the support of more than 16,900 backers, which amounts to the third-most-funded Kickstarter project as of this writing.
“We made a low estimate,” Young conceded to Radio.com during a phone interview last week. “But we are very gratified by the results and by the interest and the support and pledges behind us on Kickstarter. It’s great to have the people recognizing what it is we’re doing and why we’re doing it. There’s a lot of people out there that understand this.”
Understanding “this” isn’t necessarily so easy, as Pono isn’t merely a digital music player. To hear Young tell it, either in person or during his hour-plus presentation at SXSW, Pono is a crusade, an opportunity to restore majesty to music, to place music back at the center of a listener’s life. Consequently, whenever Young talks about Pono, he’s not simply raising awareness of his Kickstarter campaign. He’s on a mission: He first needs to explain to listeners accustomed to hearing music through earbuds that they’re missing out on a whole world of aural treasures; then he has to sell Pono as the solution to a problem they didn’t realize they had.
Young insists that, whether they realized it or not, every music lover has suffered from the rise of CDs and MP3s. “I can only say it’s the 21st century, and now digital music can actually be heard the way it was created,” Young told Radio.com.
“The problem is, people made music, and then it got dumbed down so you could have 2000 to 5000 or however many thousand tracks on your little device that was mostly made to play ringtones. The ringtones sound about the same quality as the music, and music is something that stands on its own. It’s an art form, so there’s a lot more depth to music than a Xerox copy of it. The same thing could be said of looking at a Xerox of the Mona Lisa — the difference between that and the Mona Lisa is the difference between what we have been listening to and what we could be listening to.”
This argument isn’t dissimilar to what audiophiles — the kind of listeners who won’t hesitate on spending many thousands of dollars on stereo equipment—have said for years: most of us are ignorant to just how good home audio can be.
Although audiophiles are certainly eager to hear Pono, they’re not the technology’s target market. “This was made for the average listener,” Young said. “The average listener has been listening to stuff that they are capable of hearing a lot better. They just had nothing to listen to so they’d know the difference.”
In a nutshell, that’s the Pono advantage: it makes high-quality audio easy. Working with engineers at Ayre, the Pono team has created a plug-and-play device that will sound good whether it’s heard with a simple pair of headphones or is run through a powerful home audio system. For all the talk of sampling rates — and Young’s SXSW speech did get bogged down in sampling numbers — the idea is to demystify high-quality audio and deliver it in a pure form.
“When you’re listening to PonoMusic tracks, you’re listening to it the way the artist really created it,” Young maintained. “Instead of just being able to recognize what song it is and hear the melody and hear the words, you’re actually feeling all of the music the way the artist mixed it in the studio, and that’s the difference. You’ll get the same rush that the artist got.”
Artists are crucial to the Pono campaign, with their endorsements functioning as reviews at a time when the product has yet to hit the market. Eddie Vedder, Stephen Stills, Beck, Sting and Flea are among the musicians who rhapsodize about the player’s attributes in the Kickstarter promotional video.
“When you hear them all talking about this,” said Young, “like this is the way that they want to listen to music and there’s been a huge void, I think when people hear that, they go, ‘What was I missing? What happened?”
Young stressed that Pono also delivers the best-possible way of hearing the artist’s intent. This is as true for the kinds of lush, big-budget records Dave Grohl romanticized in his 2013 documentary Sound City, as it is for Young’s forthcoming A Letter Home.
Recorded with Jack White utilizing Third Man’s refurbished 1947 Voice-O-Gram machine, Young calls A Letter Home “an art project.”
“People used to record direct to vinyl and then send a record to their friends with a message on it,” explains Neil. “So what I did is, I recorded a whole album on that thing. This is a record that sounds old because it was recorded on a device that was recording music over 70 years ago. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s cheap or that it’s not good. It just means it’s old.”
Even if A Letter Home was recorded on archaic technology, Young claims it sounds better on Pono. “When you listen to it on Pono, it’s a direct feed from the booth. It didn’t go to the vinyl, it went right out the back of the booth to an analog master, which was transferred to the highest resolution digital, and that’s what you hear on Pono. If you hear it on a CD, it’ll be off the vinyl masters that were created in the booth. And they sound great, but they sound historic, they sound like something that was recorded in the 1940s.”
Such distinctions are what Pono is designed to showcase. “The big thing is not technically what you hear, but it’s the way you feel when you hear everything and you hear all of the air,” explains Young. “Music is meant to be listened to with all of it there, that’s where the magic is, that’s where the soul is. It’s in the subtleties.”
And, he continued, “the subtleties have been missing for a long time, so it’s a wonderful experience to suddenly hear them in something that you’ve listened to, in a compromised form, for so long. It’s like a revelation.”
The enthusiastic response on Kickstarter suggests that there are a lot of people who are waiting for that revelatory experience. For now, though, they have to take the power of Pono on faith. Although Pono Music CEO John Hamm, who joined the company last March, has said there are listening events on the horizon, the product won’t be available for purchase at retail for a while. The hopes are that the early adopters will receive their Pono players this fall — initial backers are scheduled to receive their players in October; after the Kickstarter wraps, people can pre-order the player on ponomusic.com — and word of mouth will spread due to the quality of the experience.
Based on the Pono demo at SXSW, what these early adopters will discover is indeed impressive. The controlled demo was held with a pre-loaded Pono and a pair of expensive headphones, designed to showcase the player at its best. High resolution copies of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” and Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” did contain hints of that mystic “air” that Young mythologizes: cymbals have space, bass has presence, there’s separation between the instruments.
Further listening of selections from Toto IV and Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms — two staples of stereo demonstration stores in the 1980s — were similarly full, but it wasn’t clear whether they were high-resolution or CD-quality lossless files. Either of these kinds of files would sound good on Pono, but so would MP3s, because within the player lie electronics designed to enhance the sound, to make it sound richer, better than the average MP3 player.
And it’s a plug-and-play device: just put in a pair of headphones or run a line out to the amplifier, and all the sound will be there. In other words, it’s something of a preamp — a filter for the sound before it gets to the speakers — which also explains the awkward triangular design. Yes Pono is portable, but only in the sense it can be moved around. Although it can fit in your pocket, it’s not quite meant to be taken to the gym. It’s for sitting on a desk or entertainment center, where it can be fed into a system and you can sit and listen to music in all its glory.
With 128 GB of memory, the capacity feels slightly small for a device specializing in high-quality audio, but it can be expanded with a microSD card. There are other odd little flaws in the design, too. There are buttons to play and pause, rewind and fast forward, but all the other functionality is through a touch screen, meaning it feels like a hybrid of an iPod and iPhone. Generally, though, it’s as easy to use as an iPod.
This angular design feels a bit retro, as does the fact that Pono embraces purchasable digital files, not streaming, at a time when download sales are on the decline. Perhaps we should call it ‘artisanal digital,’ music designed to be enjoyed, not consumed.
Hamm admits that they’re in effect attempting to create a new kind of music consumer, one who collects high-quality digital downloads in the way they used to collect LPs or CDs. “There was no ‘best’ offering that was convenient in the consumer space,” he said, “and that was the marketplace that we felt was open. The size of that is TBD.”
Even if it’s unclear just how large this audience is, Hamm knows who belongs in this market. “Most of our customers believe, why would you not listen to music at the highest quality possible if you could?” he explained. “For them, music’s important. It’s like a ‘life is short, drink good wine’ strategy. [Those are] the kind of people who bought records and CDs and have collections of both. They’re also the folks that would be willing to do something a little extra to hear the music the way the artist made it. This is a quest, this is no different than people who want the best hiking boots or the best wine or the best chocolate souffle.”
“There’s a thing about music quality that if you love music, you are a seeker. We think there’s a lot more seekers of ultimate music quality out there than most people believed.”
Between Hamm and Young, all their rhetoric suggests financial success isn’t as important as artistic success: they’re doing this for the love of music. “Any success that Pono has is success for music,” Young said. “Pono is about music, and music has been very dormant for a long time. People have been listening to music like they’ve been looking through a dirty window. And we just took all the glass out of the window so that the music comes right through from that hole in the wall.”
Soon enough, Pono will enter the wild. And at that point we’ll see if music consumers are content with living with that dirty window, or if they’re ready for a whole new view.