Tech News: Neil Young’s Pono Player

April 4, 2014
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The big news out of Austin’s cutting-edge SXSW music fest and convention out of Austin, Texas, was the announcement on March 15, 2014, by the legendary Canadian rocker Neil Young of the launch of his very own new portable PonoPlayer accompanied by the launching of a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for the device, with early buyers getting both a jump on commercial customers and a discount on its planned US$399 price.

This will sound vaguely familiar to many techies. What’s different, however, is that Young, who fans know is fiercely protective of his music and its presentation, will present his customers with a kind of fait accompli as his music download store, and, from then on, all his music, will only be exclusively available if customers pay to download his PonoMusic files. This is because, the artist claims, the current digital quality of much of approximately fifty years in the business is often bad.

Neil Young’s Pono Player

At any rate, after making a deal with audio elements designed by Ayre Acoustics, Young aims to push ahead, forging his own path despite Apple’s iTunes, Amazon and scores of other means of musical reproduction. Indeed, Young, like scores of other artists like David Byrne, Annie Lennox. Jimmy Page, Dave Stewart, Ani DiFranco, De LaSoul and others do not allow their music to in any way connect with or offer support to streaming music services – at least, that is, until they are offered what they feel is adequate and fair remuneration.

As a genuine fan, I can report that, according to, in many cases, these PonoMusic files have been re-mastered to get the most out of the new format. The PonoPlayer will, theoretically, be a digital-music experience unlike any other, offering the finest quality, highest-resolution digital music from both major labels and prominent independent labels, curated and archived for discriminating PonoMusic customers. Getting other labels and artists to go along may yet prove to be problematic, of course. So far, nobody’s saying how much each song download will cost, but it will surely be more than Amazon and iTunes charge, due to the extra work involved with creating these new downloadable audio files.

Neil Young’s Pono Player

The PonoPlayer has 128GB of memory and can store 1,000 to 2,000 high-resolution digital-music albums. In addition, memory cards can be used to store and play different playlists and additional collections of music. Considering its stated capacity, these files should have a bit rate of around 360 Kbps, which is also the maximum bit rate allowed by MP3. Consequently, Pono will have to offer a brand-new compression scheme to fit these apparently higher resolution music files. Therefore, The PonoPlayer will feature the ESS ES9018 chip for turning the ones and zeros into sound, as well as a custom-designed filter from Ayre Acoustics with minimal phase. As opposed to what all audiophiles feel is the major glitch stigmatizing digital music there will be no more of the “pre-ringing” found in other audio file types. It will also come in three colors and offer a small LCD touchscreen.

And although his stated corporate goal is to “offer the highest quality digital music available from all the major labels with the world’s greatest sounding, user-friendly portable music player,” PonoMusic’s CEO John Hamm never satisfactorily explains how this change in the music industry status-quo will actually take place.

Will music fans be willing to pay $400 for a music player that is not at all like a reasonably priced smartphone that can handle so many other tasks? Will music fans want to buy their music in download form from a single store? Well, you never know. Audiophiles are usually pretty free and easy with a buck and $400 isn’t much for a piece of audio equipment. The big question is, will mainstream music fans go along with it? Time will tell as the Kickstarter campaign launches.

Mr. Young put it this way: “Our mission is to bring the highest-quality digital music to discerning, passionate consumers, who wish to experience music the way the artists intended, with emotion, detail and power intact. It’s about the music, real music. We want to move digital music into the 21st century.”

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