Ars Technica reviews Pono Player: ‘A tall, refreshing drink of snake oil’

“Neil Young wants us to believe that higher-res audio files played through his banana-colored Toblerone will improve our music-loving lives,” Sam Machkovech writes for Ars Technica. “I’m here to say that he and his team are kinda full of crap — though that doesn’t negate the amount of quality found in this little, weird-looking thing.”

“Considering Pono’s firm sales pitch about us needing the highest-res audio available, we were surprised to not find any ‘highest resolution only’ filter in its internal storefront,” Machkovech writes. “This is where Pono’s snake oil really begins, because when you play any 192/24 songs on the player, it rewards you by—we’re not kidding—turning on a little blue neon light. This doesn’t happen if your 192/24 songs didn’t come from Pono’s storefront, however, as those are apparently not 192 enough.”

Machkovech writes, “No amount of testing made 192kHz/24-bit FLAC audio sound noticeably better than high-quality MP3s.”

Much more in the full review here.

Related articles:
Neil Young’s Pono Player: The emperor has no clothes – February 2, 2015
Neil Young’s 24 bit/192kHz ‘PonoMusic’ project is a very silly boondoggle – March 16, 2014
Neil Young unveils new music media ‘ecosystem,’ PonoMusic – March 12, 2014

31 Comments

  1. I know, I love this. Neil Young is like many flimflam artists comparing an earlier audio file compression quality instead of to today’s higher quality. And that comparison no longer really exists, I love the fact all of those diehard audiophile Emperor’s that have no hearing clothes being unable to decipher the difference between CD 16/44.1 and 24 bit 96/192 quality. Busted!

    It’s not worth the fuss and I’ve worked with many great sound systems, including electrostatic. I’ve always thought that you need to spends thousands on a great sound system and then just sit and listen to appreciate the difference and hardly anyone does that or has time for that anymore (before we had so many more distractions). Medium grade listening systems (which is what most people use) cannot make any great distinction.

    Music is the soundtrack of our lives but it’s playing in the background, not our sole focus. Oh well, everybody needs a hobby. Love the new Harman Kardon CarPlay sound system in my new (Apple paid for) 2015 Subaru Forester!

    1. Some of the other difference are that early mp3s were converted from audio recordings, but now artists routinely record in digital, so there is no loss in converting to another format. Plus, sound engineers have become better at the conversion.

  2. Ill grant that he was sincere in this effort, but really, can aging rockers hear all that well after standing in front of amps all their lives? It reminds of that deaf rocker in “Fifth Element”.

  3. Gee, when I said the same thing on this site a few weeks back, I was put down so strongly that I nearly told them off. Now, everyone knows what a crock high resolution sound is.

    1. “High resolution sound” itself isn’t a crock. In reality, it serves several useful purposes, not the least of which is recording and mastering, where it offers more headroom and frequency response to better handle manipulation. For playback, I have no problem with a higher-quality format being available to music and audio connoisseurs, even it’s impossible for the average person with average gear to detect the difference.

      But, a pocket player sold the way the Pono is being played is a bit silly.

      Still, the one thing I hope the Pono does do, along with renewed interest in vinyl and hifi in general, is trigger more interest in better mastering, i.e. finally put the “loudness war” in the annals of history where it belongs.

      Offering something of better quality isn’t a bad thing.

        1. Great question, Sam. I’m just an A/V enthusiast, and have only done a very little professional production personally, and then only in the context of video production.

          I guess if I were in your shoes, I’d probably start reading a couple of trade publications like Mix (mixonline.com), and I’d find a forum or two where professional recording engineers hang out and just start lurking and reading. Then, read some more.

          Once you know enough to be dangerous, see if you can get some work in a small studio. Just start calling around and talking to people. You might even offer to do some menial work part-time or just chip in for free a little. The idea is to just to get in somewhere around people who know more than you and learn from them.

  4. Fifteen years ago I bought an outrageous Polk Audio Home Theater system. Too bad I fly a high performance aircraft, wreck dive, and ride motorcycles; all of which have shredded any subtlety of hearing I once had. The choices we make.

    But Floyd still sounds good – when I set the system to “dry paint” setting.

    1. You forgot growing up target shooting every weekend without ear muffs.

      It wasn’t that ear muffs were sissy or anything. We never knew they existed, if they did at all.

      The good news is I have music ringing in my ears 24 hours a day. No need to buy a sound system.

  5. Note that I am NOT pro-pono. But:

    Machkovech writes, “No amount of testing made 192kHz/24-bit FLAC audio sound noticeably better than high-quality MP3s.”

    Unless the Pono Store is screwing over their buyers with less-than real 192 kHz/24 audio files, Machkovech is HEARING IMPAIRED.

    And no, I’m not going to argue about it. If you can’t hear the difference, that’s YOUR problem, thankfully not mine.

    1. Note: Reading the actual article (which I just did) provides MUCH better details than what I ripped on above. Here are a few important points:

      – The listening analysis used limited quality listening equipment.
      – The listening analysis used source music that may well not benefit much from the higher quality high frequency audio quality.
      – The listening analysis used source music that had been digitized from analog audio tape. That’s great for oldies stuff, but it’s already compromised audio quality. Oops. (Meaning: analog tape audio quality decays with time and may well not have been recorded on top end equipment of its day. Example: Old Neal Young albums).

      – The Pono has a pile of problems as a hardware device.

      – The cost of the Pono device is a ripoff.

      – The cost of Pono-ized recordings is a ripoff.

      – Yes the testers COULD tell the difference between MP3s and Pono-ized 192 kHz/24-bit FLAC audio sound, and they said so. The question is about whether the higher quality audio was ‘noticeably better’. THAT is a subjective decision, NOT an objective analysis.

      Meanwhile: I see anonymous ‘nekogami13’ calls higher quality audio a ‘placebo effect’. How sad. I’ve worked with audio since I was a little kid and my only reply is how tragic it is that we humans can believe almost anything to be absolutely true without bothering to actually know any facts about the matter. That is the case with ALL people who think 192 kHz/24-bit digital audio isn’t objectively better quality than the best MP3 lossy compressed recording.

      The bottom line question of course is whether it’s worth PAYING the gouge pricing for all that extra audio quality. I personally say NO in most cases. It seriously depends upon the work, the quality of the original source recording and how much I love it and want to hear it over and over.

        1. To be able listen to music and be able to discern high quality recordings one has to pay attention and focus.

          Now that some form of music is pumping all around us wherever we are has trivialised it to the point that most people don’t care as there are so many other distractions.

          Nowadays, the music biz is mostly run to generate profits by people who wouldn’t know an artist if they fell over one.

      1. What’s actually tragic here is that despite your purported extensive experience in the field, you never once attempted to seek the truth via a simple double-blind test. I guess you were too worried about undermining your own livelihood to even try.

        1. My livelihood? We have people here who have made audio their livelihood but never me. It’s always been one of my avocations. I’m an all around techno, and that happened to be my first field of exposure.

          So anonymous coward russ: Tell us your credentials and why you consider established audio science, the frequently tested range of human hearing and digital audio sampling data to be nonsense? Please! This I gotta read. A good laugh is always welcome at MDN, and I of course love it when fools make fools of themselves. That’s another of my avocations, if you haven’t noticed. :mrgreen:

          When you’re deaf, you insist that the rest of the world must also be deaf. Oops. Reality doesn’t work like that.

  6. I agree with Mr. Currie. One thing I’ve noticed with hi-res audio files is that some of the source material doesn’t have anything that’s actually audibly different from CD-quality audio, so, no, the hi-res version will be indistinguishable. But, when you get a recording that’s been produced to take advantage of that extra bandwidth, the difference is immediately obvious. That result still relies on the playback equipment being able to handle it correctly. Somehow I find it hard to believe that a portable player can really do that, and only with adequate headphones.

  7. I had a guy who always said about your sound system: You can have the best tuner in the world, but if you put it through crap speakers, you get crap.

    Great, Pono makes a player that supposedly plays audio files at a much higher resolution, and thus retains more of the subtitles and important nuances of a piece of music, than an iPhone. But if you’re listening through Apple Earbuds or other cheap/inexpensive headphones, none of the music-saving technologies make a bit of difference.

    So the bottom line is buy a really good set of headphones first, then decide if you need to go all the way. I imagine most audiophiles have some serious headphones they love, but for the vast majority of people, Pono won’t do them any good besides lightening their wallets and giving them something else to carry around.

  8. We need new raw hi-res recordings to work with. For these tests.

    Imagine judging 1980 33 RPM laser phono graph systems with 1933 78 RPM records. Does anyone remember the laser tracking systems that were touchless, as I recall?

    1. I do remember that, can’t remember the name but it was trotted out at a few hi-fi shows and magazines. Late 80’s perhaps. It never worked properly, I was at some hi-show in London were it was first shown in public. The thing jerked back and forth rarely managing 1or 2 minutes.
      I think they sold a couple but disappeared not long after.

      Hilarious watching the poor guy doing the presentation.

  9. I think Hi-def files only really come into their own at higher volumes on a proper Hi-Fi system, one of the most noticeable benefits in this case is reduced listener fatigue. In addition music is perceived as having more live presence. If technology provides sufficient storage (and this is increasing all the time) then I don’t see the problem with just standardising on lossless files sometime soonish.

  10. Yes they said they could tell the difference only there was no difference. Which either means the people listening really can’t tell or the player and music provided was the same old thing only the player gives you that blue light that supposedly tells you thumbs up on high definition audio. I say scam for more money for songs sold and player with actually no audio quality difference. Stick with your iPhone or iPods get a nice pair of headphones and your audio quality is already high definition already and save yourself a lot of money that you would be scammed out of otherwise.

  11. All I know is that with the death of the iPod Classic, once mine actually does bite the dust, I’ll take a long hard look at Pono 2.0. The upward expandability is particularly appealing.

Reader Feedback

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.