Neil Young’s Pono Player: The emperor has no clothes

“It was one of Kickstarter’s most successful campaigns. Its inventors sought $800,000 in funding from the public — but raised a gigantic $6.2 million,” David Pogue writes for Yahoo Tech. “The project: the PonoPlayer, “a revolution in music listening.” It was designed to play back music files that use up to 20 times more data than the MP3 files that gave the first pocket music players a bad name.”

“You’ve got to admit it: The argument for the Pono Player sure is appealing — that we don’t know what we’ve been missing in our music,” Pogue writes. “Unfortunately, it isn’t true.”

“I’m 51 and a former professional musician. I know how to listen. But when I bought Pono’s expensive remastered songs and compared them with the identical songs on my phone, I couldn’t hear any difference whatsoever,” Pogue writes. “I got worried. Is the Pono story a modern-day “Emperor’s New Clothes” fable? Were those famous rock stars just imagining things? There was only one way to find out: conduct a blind trial, using identical songs on identical headphones, comparing the Pono with a standard audio player — an iPhone. So that’s what I did.”

“Neil Young and the believers in high-res audio aren’t fools, and their hearts are in the right place. But Pono’s statement that ‘Everyone who’s ever heard PonoMusic will tell you that the difference is surprising and dramatic’ is baloney,” Pogue writes. “When conducting the test with today’s modern music files, I couldn’t find even one person who heard a dramatic difference.”

Tons more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: Pono Player is the Monster Cable of portable music players.

Related articles:
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

52 Comments

  1. Then Apple should buy Pono. Isn’t Apple the Monster Cable of the software quality world? People buy Apple because It Just Works, except that it doesn’t. Anybody using Wi-Fi or virtual monitors on Yosemite can tell you that. And now Apple is the home of Beats, which is the Monster Cable of headphones.

  2. HEARING LOSS

    “I’m 51 and a former professional musician. I know how to listen” gives away a lot, you start to lose the quality part of your hearing when you’re about 21 and it’s downhill from there.

    Which is one of the most ironic things about ‘audiophiles’ who tend to be older gentlemen, who claim to want audio quality above all else … but cannot hear it because of the degradation of human hearing due to age.

    Saying that, the day that Apple start selling CD quality audio in the iTunes Store rather than the lossy compressed version, I will stop buying CDs and ripping them into iTunes in Apple Lossless format.

    1. It was a blind test, among many people. His own age is not apart of the equation, other than he said he knows how to listen to music, and decided to investigate. Leave his 51 year old ears out of it.

    2. Interesting idea – but real experiments don’t back it up. Anything better than CD quality sounds identical in every properly controlled test, regardless of the person’s age. CD quality is the highest quality sound any human being can physically hear – that’s the basis of the specification, and all scientific experiments to date on the subject back that up. Anyone who can prove otherwise, by proving even a single human test subject has superhuman hearing, that would be a historical discovery.

        1. Analog, really? Hilarious.

          The nature of vinyl records, like most analog recordings, is to lose sound quality the more you play it.

          You know those “pops”, “clicks”, and “static” sounds that characterize vinyl records (which I admit have a nostalgic charm to them): that is sound quality lost. It’s an entirely physical medium, so dust and needle scratches on the surface actually degrades the recording over time, enough that you can hear it as audible pops and static sounds.

          Vinyls can be fun and nostalgic and can make cool noises in the hands of DJ’s – I’ll give it that. But in terms of raw sound quality, digital lossless has been beating the crap out of vinyls for ages.

          1. Not really. Almost every real audiophile agrees that analogue is a superior sound. Digital is flat and cold and lifeless compared to analogue’s fuller, rounder sound. Now I’ll grant you that many people can’t tell the difference. And high end analogue is also high maintenance. But there is a difference. That’s why companies like Linn Audio and Thorens still do great business selling $10,000+ turntables. And it’s also why more and more artists are releasing on vinyl again.
            It’s sort of like the PC wars. PC proponents were always boasting about how much better the specs of their computers were compared to Macs. But we all knew Macs just worked better. It’s the same with sound. On paper, digital should be better. But it isn’t.

            1. Nope. It just proves that a particular very small cross section of people listening to specific sound sources through specific equipment couldn’t tell the difference. Nothing more than that.

            2. As @radio says, double blind testing proves you’re wrong. Then again so does common sense.

              Almost every real audiophile agrees that analogue is a superior sound.

              That’s BS and why almost all professional recording is done digitally.

              To be clear, all sound is analog by definition. However, when it comes to recording medium, existing digital technology greatly exceeds human hearing capability and is better than analog mediums. Specifically CD -> vinyl.

              You’d be hard pressed to find vinyl that doesn’t come from a digital source these days, but even worse than that, the top manufacturer of vinyl only accepts digital submissions either via online upload or CD submission… yes, standard audio CDs are sent, and they use them to make the vinyl records… that is when they aren’t using online uploads.

              On paper, digital should be better. But it isn’t.

              Nope, it has nothing to do with specs. It has to do with numerous testing showing results that are easily repeated. What is on paper are the theories on why the results show digital is better. So while below, I’ve summarized a theory on why CDs exceed human hearing, there still are test after test after test showing that this is the case.

              I’m sure you’ve heard that CDs have 44.1Hz and with the Nyquist–Shannon sampling theorem that exceeds the human ear range of 20Hz to 20,000Hz (sample rate / 2). What that basic understanding misses is that the ability to hear frequencies is dependent on the volume of those frequencies and occurs as a bell curve. So if you go in and get tested and they say you can hear 20,100Hz, don’t get to excited. To hear that, you need that sound to be cranked up really loud. So loud that if it were a part of other frequencies that were also amped up at the same level, you’d blow your ear drums out.

            3. Just because you can’t hear the difference doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

              Where did I say there was no difference? Of course there is a difference. The fact of the matter is that digital sound at 16-bit 44.1khz is going to yield the same test results in double-blind ABX testing as anything higher. Further, in comparing vinyl to CD quality digital, in double-blind ABX testing, CD wins… consistently.

              This really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone since the majority of current vinyl is sourced from CD, if not less.

              The bottom line, it’s not that I’m saying I can’t hear a difference, I’m saying that you can’t point to a credible ABX double-blind test that shows people hearing a difference above the margin of error when it comes to 16-bit 44.1khz versus higher rates or versus vinyl.

          2. @captain5 Yeah, really. Your definition of “sound quality” is unsound. Pun intended.

            Analog music generally has a much higher dynamic range because there is no compression. It also has presence that you won’t find in digital recordings.

            Your pops and clicks come from playing the album you picked up off the floor on your 79 dollar record player.

        2. The warm distortion analogue and vinyl systems add to the sound i find pleasing to the ear. CD’s sound too perfect

          i think this is what the anologue people are trying to say

          1. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Hell, I’ve missed the scratches that I had come to expect on certain songs. But many of “the analog people” are saying much more than this, and are doing so contrary to every credible test/survey and again contrary to common sense…

            This is why it’s somewhat frustrating trying to argue with these people (see other thread) when they claim analog is better (which makes no sense, since sound itself must be analog) or when they claim that vinyl is better than CD due to compression (vinyl is compressed too), and the irony of the fact that most vinyl is sourced from CDs or worse quality.

      1. The CD format was designed to deliver what essentially is the “retina display” of audio.

        But just like some Android phones came out with displays that were “better than Apple’s retina!!”, there are companies putting out “better than CD quality!!!” tracks to be sold at a premium to the gullible.

        In both cases, the supposed differences are irrelevant to 99% of cases. And before you “audiophiles” smack the “reply” button….

        What is always lost in these discussions is WHERE you are listening to music.

        If you’re listening in an acoustically-shielded and acoustically-neutral room, with a $10K or more system, then perhaps someone with great hearing can actually tell a difference between “audiophile vinyl” or whatever and a CD (Well, at least the first few times they play the vinyl…the format degrades slightly with every single play).

        Put that same person in a car, at work or walking down a street wearing even high-end headphones and they absolutely won’t be able to tell the difference between a lossless “high grade” audio file or vinyl and even a 128Kbps MP3 rip.

        The point being that even the slightest imperfection in your system or listening environment will completely mask the subtle differences that *some* claim to be able to hear between “audiophile-grade” and regular MP3s.

        Since my environment is almost never ideal, the “high grade” formats are a waste of money and not worth the hassle. I’ll take my entire collection streamed at will from *anywhere* via iTunes Match vs flipping a vinyl platter every 22 minutes, thankyouverymuch.

        1. There is a huge difference between listening in a decent room in your house and walking down the street wearing earbuds. Because the difference between these environments is not minor, high-end audio will still sell; some of it is snake oil, but not all of it. Your failure to discriminate tells me that the rest of your life is lived with other unnecessarily broad strokes. Bad move.

          1. Wow, one comment posting and you’re an expert on how I view life?

            Pretty amazing….but I can top it.

            Based on YOUR lone web posting, I can assess with much more certainty that you have an inflated view of your own opinions, are a bit of a snob/elitist, and suffer from delusions of importance.

            But that’s just based on one post. I’d bet that further analysis would also confirm that you’re also a complete jackass. 🙂

        1. Not when the sound is CD quality to begin with, and for vinyl, that’s pretty much the case these days with few exceptions. However, vinyl itself is a compromise and not without it’s own artifacts and limitations.

          By definition.

          1. Of course a case could be made to prove any point and I say that because you said “these days”. Music is recorded digitally, so the compromise of digital vs analog is made from the start. A purely analog recording of sound is going to have much more information than a digital recording. Your ear may not be able to hear it or discriminate it but it is there. Think of this and it became clear on the way home tonight. Think of a sunset. From the deep reds to the west to the dark blues to the east there are more colors than the best display can represent. There are more colors than the human eye can see. The fact is that my “analog” eyes are going to see better and a more accurate representation of what those actual colors are in all their glory and imperfections, seeing as dust in the air “colors” my perception.

            I am by no means an “audiophile”. One thing I do know is that with my basic tube or solid state amp, some good quality speakers and a good turntable with an analog vinyl album, allows me to hear a more natural and better sounding rendition of just about any music in my listening experience.

            I still can’t get all the adjustments of my music, amplifier and speaker placement of my digital, 7.1 system to sound as good as listening to as I said, a fairly basic analog system.

            A few pops and clicks? That’s like complaining about the ambient sound at a Pink Floyd Concert.

            I was selling computers when they first started talking about music on CD’s. The talk then was that by definition, any digital conversion of an analog experience (music) is inherently a compromise. No doubt it has gotten better since the early 80’s. Much better as storage has gotten cheaper but it still takes a moment in time and quantifies it to meet specific limits whether they be technical, artistic or financial. If you tried to quantified all the information in a 5 minute song, you would have a 2 gig file. If you tried to play it back at full resolution, you would have a 30,000 dollar computer base audio system, an expensive 7.1 surround sound speaker system (which you would have to tune to the room) , etc. (all figures are for illustration purposes only).

            I’ll put that up against a 1980 tube amp, Altec-Lansing speakers and Shure phono cartridge with a clean vinyl album any day. i’ll be set up and ready to play in about 10 minutes while you are still placing speakers.

            1. Of course a case could be made to prove any point and I say that because you said “these days”.

              There’s a running flaw in your comment in the confusion between sound as “analog” and the practical reality of what’s available as an analog medium. In other words, there’s the argument of CD versus vinyl and the argument of digital versus analog.

              In digital versus analog, it’s important to be clear that we’re talking about the recorded medium of analog, and not the source sound as analog.

              The point I was making in reference to “these days” is to point out the idiocy of people who are claiming vinyl is better when the vinyl they are buying is inherently inferior because it’s been lossy converted from CD, if not from a format that is inferior to CD to begin with. But that’s not to negate that CDs have the capacity for better quality than vinyl.

              “Music is recorded digitally, so the compromise of digital vs analog is made from the start.”

              The fact that almost all music is recorded digitally is one reason why it’s going to be better, but it’s not a compromise.

              “A purely analog recording of sound is going to have much more information than a digital recording.”

              It depends upon what you consider “information”. When it comes to frequency response, analog is limited by the medium while digital is limited by the hardware and software. However, this becomes meaningless when anything over 20kHz is a waste and this very article is about a format going up to 96kHz. Now, you may have had your ears checked for sounds above 20kHz, but at that level, the sound spectrum would be cranked up so high that you’d bow your eardrums out if you were listening to the rest of the spectrum.

              On the other hand, with analog, the medium itself is still limited to a frequency range, and instead of cutting off at the limits, it introduces rumble as well as distortion as you reach peak volume, with a lower signal to noise ratio.

              I am by no means an “audiophile”. One thing I do know is that with my basic tube or solid state amp, some good quality speakers and a good turntable with an analog vinyl album, allows me to hear a more natural and better sounding rendition of just about any music in my listening experience.

              The problem here is that you’re not doing a double-blind ABX test. You’re listening to something and saying it sounds “yummy” and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but the point I’m making is that it does not sound more like the original source as compared to what you can get with digital.

              This is why virtually all professionals use digital through the entire process.

              To go back to your sunset example… we have the actual sunset that we see with our eyes. That is the source. What you want to do is look at a photo and compare it to what you see with your eyes, and compare a second photo to what you see with you eyes. Then decide which one looks more like the one you see with your eyes, not which photo looks prettier.

              A few pops and clicks?

              No, rumble, distortion, lower signal to noise, loss from conversion from digital, analog compression, hiss, etc…

              The talk then was that by definition, any digital conversion of an analog experience (music) is inherently a compromise.

              The mistake here is thinking that analog recording or conversion is lossless. It’s not. It’s very much not.

              ’ll put that up against a 1980 tube amp, Altec-Lansing speakers and Shure phono cartridge with a clean vinyl album any day. i’ll be set up and ready to play in about 10 minutes while you are still placing speakers.

              I don’t know why you’re comparing 7.1 sound to vinyl and then complaining about the speakers. And $30K is way out of line (by at least an order of magnitude) for what you’d need to play back digital with a much higher frequency response than that vinyl, not that you could even hear it beyond 20kHz anyway. The irony is this comment of yours is being made on an article about a $300 player that the test subjects couldn’t find a significant difference between that and an iPhone, with the “yummy” factor going to the iPhone.

              BTW: Both analog and digital recording were part of my undergraduate and graduate degrees and I’ve been professionally working with audio since 1995 in radio, tv, film and music. I’ve also produced consumer electronic reviews for major media companies.

    3. I too am 50+ and love great music. I believe there is a difference between digital and analog music but it really depends on what equipment you listen to it on to tell the difference in most cases.

      When I really want great sound this is what I do. I own a pair of Klipsch Corner Horns, a 2 channel Marantz “analog” receiver with a digital to analog converter. If I have high-quality digital content, I send it thought the converter and the Marantz and speakers make beautiful deep rich sounds that rattle every window in my house.

      I can’t imagine any earbuds coming close to hearing and at the physical experience of a little “Unplugged” by Clapton that comes from my Klispch.

      1. Observer ..
        Only the Klipsch-snobs even know what you have, there ..
        I know .. because, I own the original
        La Scala’s ..

        (Try listening to “Tank” from Emerson, Lake and Palmer .. and crank them up during the drum solo)

        You just might break a few windows with that one !

        1. rimshot,

          Thanks, I’ll do that. And yeah I’ll admit it, I’m a Klipsch snob and I’ve been carting them around for 30 years and damn glad I did. La Scala’s!!!!…..what a beautiful product.

          If people on this site truly appreciate exceptional quality and beautiful craftmanship, like many Apple products, how could they not appreciate this craftsmanship of these products. Take a look people.
          http://www.klipsch.com/la-scala-ii-floorstanding-speaker

  3. Sadly, the is completely believable. Sony and JVC, I think, spent so much time, getting CD Audio right. They had one shot to produce the “perfect” listening experience, starting 30 years ago. Why is it that people think they can do better? At that time, data was at a premium, so they spend their time getting the most with the least. I remember when the audio disc was described. It was an unbelievable 650MB of data. Let’s face it, as a species, we have pretty poor hearing.

    Anyway, I heard it coming from a mile away.

    1. “Sony and JVC, I think, spent so much time, getting CD Audio right. They had one shot to produce the “perfect” listening experience, starting 30 years ago.”
      I think it was Sony and Philips and there was plenty of non technical factors that went into the final CD product. Beethoven’s 9th, by most accounts, was a determining factor in the capacity of the disc.
      http://www.wired.com/2010/12/1216beethoven-birthday-cd-length/
      So, the idea that the sound can’t be improved based on the totality nature of their initial efforts does not work.

      1. Yes Philips. – So what you said, because it’s old, it can be better. I like that logic. I like it a lot. As far as improvement goes. Typically there’s a 20/80 rule, 20% effort produces 80% results. The last 20%, requires more than 100% effort. Take it for a grain of salt. I am in the mind set that Sony took it to 99.9% without breaking the bank. Everyone else, is arguing about 0.01%. Regarding the quality of music playback. Monster in deed.

        1. Actually, if you read the article and looked into it, debates revolved around the size of the disc, capacity of the disc and what might decide the capacity of the disc. Each of these had a lot to do with marketing the product, not just making it the best it could be technically. Record bins at stores were a big factor as well. A lot has happened in the last few decades so an 80/20 calculation in 1978 is not the same as it is in 2015.

  4. Pogue is correct. I listened to the so called hi-res files on the Pono web site through some very expensive equipment and they make no difference.

    The main difference is in the mastering process. Mastering done to increase loudness is the real culprit in bad music quality. The people responsible for bad mastering are the exact same people that are friends of Pono singing praises of the pond player. They are indeed running around naked.

    1. That’s all people are hearing, “Mastered” versions off CD with heavy multi band compression and clipping versus how it was before mastering. Death Magnetic by Metallica was so badly mastered there was a petition to have it remastered and the version on Guitar Hero actually had more dynamic range. Who produced that album? Rick Rubin.

  5. Doesn’t a lot depend on what you listen to the music on? I have no doubt if you listen to the two formats on an iPhone with ear buds, you won’t hear any difference. But what about on a high-end system? With a quality amplifier and speakers, I’d expect you WOULD hear a difference. On the other hand, most people probably don’t listen to their music on high-end equipment, and I WOULDN’T expect them to hear a difference.

  6. There is more alchemy, bullshit and subjective opinion wrapped up in audio quality than would fit into a USAF C-17. The facts that every single person hears somewhat differently and our hearing is constantly changing makes things even more complicated.

    Microphones, Speakers, Headphones, Pre-Amps and Amps all color sound. Different D/A converters will produce different sound from the same source material. The room you listen in will also color the sound- from it’s have to the materials it is made up from to the furnishings in it.

    Music is about expression and enjoyment- all the rest is bullshit. The people who obsess over every last spec in audio are like baseball nerds who kill the joy of the game by overanalyzing a kid’s game.

    The equipment that suits you, your wallet and sounds good to you is the right system for you regardless of what the audiophile poseurs preach. Nothing recorded sounds like live music and few things are recorded to sound like they were performed live- engineers sweeten even the audio of live concerts.

    I am 53 and have been playing musical instruments since I was 4 years old. I use Apple lossless and find it works very well for mobile music and the Focal speakers I use with my Mac Pro. The Pono player cannot make wine from water and is the answer to the question nobody is asking.

    I wish Apple would offer customers the option of buying from iTunes in Apple Lossless format and upgrading previous purchases to it like they did with iTunes Plus a couple of years ago. I would also appreciate it if Apple euthanized Beaten by Dre and the bullshit for which it stands.

  7. The story misses the point. I listened to it and it sounded great, but so does the iPhone high res music. The worst is that eh interface is so clunky that I have never wanted to pick up the player since the first day. This is a device that only a geek would want to fool with. The human interface is inhuman, rendering this an abortion, not a delivery.

  8. I understand different codecs will ‘cutoff’ frequencies at the ranges higher and lower than most people will hear. If Pono is claiming that their audio files do not do that or perform signal cutoffs at higher than normal and lower than normal you will not only need equipment capable of reproducing that sound but the listener will also have to be able to hear it.. It would be interesting to see the age ranges of the test participants, have them also do a hearing test and find out the frequency ranges of the equipment used to play the file back. As a fun aside I have heard that if you have a cellphone conversation with one person in a room full of crickets chirping making it hard for that person to hear, the person on the other end will not hear any cricket sounds at all since the frequency of the crickets’ chirp is above the high cutoff range of the cellphone.

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