Will Pono Work?

On first glance, one would never expect Neil Young to be a sonic perfectionist. After all, he records a good percentage of his records in a barn, and has always preferred the “feel” of a song over musical perfection.

Yet Young has raged over digital sound ever since the CD was introduced in the early 80’s. Almost half of his autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, was even devoted to this subject, and he delayed the production of his giant box set, Archives, until a “suitable” audio format was developed.

Neil’s rage is spot on in many respects. It is a paradox that as technology has advanced, the public is content with almost AM-radio sound quality. Music is primarily heard on five dollar earbuds or built-in laptop speakers. Most current records are even mastered with this in mind. They’re over-compressed, and feature absolutely no dynamics. “Bricked” is the term for a song that features little to no change in volume.

I must admit that I’m part of the problem. Most of my listening is on my iPhone or IPad, but I do have semi-expensive earbuds and try to never dip below a 192 kbs sample rate. I have also over the years jumped on the various new formats that have been introduced with high grade audio. Too bad I’m one of the few with a collection of SACD’s and DVD-Audio discs.

This is the main reason that vinyl sales have exploded in recent years. Don’t believe the “hipster” hype that you read in so many articles. Records aren’t being sold because it’s trendy. They’ve returned because the difference between a correctly-mastered album on high-grade vinyl is a giant step above the 128 kbs files typically sold by Apple, Amazon, or Google.

Last week at SXSW, Young finally introduced what he hopes is the future of high quality portable audio. Pono is the player that he has been promising for years, and the low end of audio quality is supposedly that of a well-mastered CD. I could throw in some technical jargon for the high end, but it promises to be close to what is found on a studio master.

Personally, I welcome this new format. Odds are that I will purchase this, but I have my doubts that the general public will do the same. The fact that one will have to purchase their favorite albums again in this new format will throw off a large percentage of the public. It’s also a format that won’t work well with a lot of current trendy music. If you’re a fan of auto-tuned Pro Tools-created pop music, you probably won’t notice the difference.

There’s also the sad realization that most people are perfectly happy with their crappy MP3’s. I realize I’m a minority when complaining about laptop sound systems or tiny bookshelf speakers. The convenience of being able to listen to Pandora wherever they go outweighs the dynamic compression that makes them sound like white noise to me.

Hopefully, there are enough people out there to make this work for Young. If I purchase one, my plan is to make this device a “greatest hits” player. I’ll load it up with nothing but my favorite albums of all time…or should I say my favorite well-recorded releases. There will be no point to putting a Guided By Voices record on a Pono, but Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks? Wow. I’m sure that would be an incredible experience.