Will 2015 Be the Year of the Pono?
I love my portable music. I also love the fidelity of my turntable, and I think Neil Young is pretty swell, too.
This makes me the ideal customer for Young's Pono, the portable music player that promises sonic quality second only to original master recordings. Just look at the company's visual representation of digital file types:
There is obviously a pretty dramatic difference, and it's what's kept me interested in the Pono since Young announced it back in 2012. Exciting new technologies are touted all the time, though. A firm just down the road from me has been promising a flying car for at least 20 years, and Marty McFly swore I'd own a hoverboard in 2015. On both counts my feet remain firmly planted on the ground.
There's ample evidence that the Pono is not vaporware.
But things are looking good for the Pono. Kickstarter backers were shipped beta models back in October, and the company's music library includes over two million songs. Young recently announced a partnership with Lincoln to put the Pono in their 2016 Continental model. There's ample evidence that the Pono is not vaporware.
If all goes according to plan, I'll be able to buy my own triangular music player in February 2015, but it won't be cheap. The PonoPlayer retails for $399 without headphones. Listening to a hi-fidelity device through cheap cans is like watching a sunset through a pinhole, so I can expect to pay another 200 bucks for a decent pair of headphones. But wait -- the player itself doesn't have enough power to drive high end headphones, so I'm probably going to want a headphone amplifier, too.
Album purchases on Pono Music are in the $15-$25 range, so after purchasing my hardware and a little catalog of tunes I'm into this thing a thousand bucks.
Am I willing to make that kind of investment?
The industry as a whole doesn't think so. As Young's company invests heavily in his dream of a high end portable player, the dominant trend in music retailing is streaming services. The assumption seems to be that customers want content and convenience, not objects. Why carry a separate player when we have smartphones in our pockets already?
The assumption seems to be that customers want content and convenience, not objects.
Streaming services certainly have their place, but even with recent improvements to fidelity they can't come near the sound quality promised by Pono. Additionally, some music fans don't like the idea of paying a monthly fee to own nothing.
The latter point is particularly problematic for collectors. Pono fills an audiophile gap in the digital music world, but for $25 all one owns is a digital file. That amount of money will buy a clean vinyl copy of Young's 'Harvest,' which I can then digitize myself and still have a nice collectible for my stacks.
And speaking of digitized files, I've spent the years since the first generation iPod was the new cutting edge technology ripping my LPs and CDs so that I could carry them in my pocket. Those files are horribly compressed, but I don't want to lose that time investment. Moving them over to the PonoPlayer won't change their compression rate -- I'll just be listening to the same old thing on a new device.
On the other hand, with the recent death of the iPod Classic, Apple no longer offers a device with adequate storage space for a decent sized library. The PonoPlayer features 64GB of on-board memory with an additional 64GB micro SD card included. One can add a bigger card and expand the storage space, which is an attractive feature. (Keep in mind, though, that FLAC files are significantly larger than MP3s.)
As for FLAC files, the format is not proprietary to Pono; in fact, competing players like Sony's Hi-Res Walkman are already on the market. FLAC files are available via various services, too.
What Pono seems to promise, aside from Young's star power, is access both to record label catalogs and to the original masters. The latter is a critical point. Regardless of the PonoPlayer's capabilities, it will only sound as good as the files played on it. Referring back to Pono's chart above, if I rip a CD and save it as a FLAC file, it will still sound like a CD. The notion of albums remastered specifically for the FLAC format is pretty exciting.
So will 2015 be the year of the Pono? I really don't know. Young is swimming upstream against a lot of market forces here, from the anticipated death of the portable player to the significant costs associated with adopting a PonoPlayer. My best guess is that Pono will remain a niche product, satisfying the needs of audiophiles with discretionary income and no desire to collect hard copies.
Now can we please get to work on the hoverboard?