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Pono – Why I Backed The Pono Kickstarter Project

March 16, 2014


When I first started to listen to CDs in the mid-80s I thought it was an amazing innovation: no surface noise, portable and convenient. At first I thought these CDs had superior sound over vinyl and I could not get enough of them.  I was fooled by how quite (no surface noise) they were.  But I also remember getting listening fatigue – I had never experienced that before listening to vinyl. I remember listening to Steely Dan’s Aja on CD – it was clean and pristine – but it was somehow missing the soul of the vinyl version. Soon it did not matter because the only way you could buy music was on CD. There was this nagging feeling that something was not quite right with this format.

Then there were the remixs and remasters – that must be what the problem was (the “not quite right”) – the labels in their greed to sell CDs had just grabbed whatever tape they could find and issued them on CD. The remaster concept was to go back to the source tapes and remix/remaster for this new CD format. They sounded different from the original CD – sometimes better – sometimes not. Sometimes the remixer/remaster took too many liberties (kind of like the stereo mixes from the mono era) and added their aesthetic to the original. In general these remasters were a step in the right direction.

Fast forward to Napster – music was suddenly “free” on a format called MP3. It sounded like shit – but it was free! Then there was the iPod and you could now bring all this free music anywhere.  Again is sounded like shit, but it was so damn convenient. But the music was not free – it was just really easy to steal. This was not going to go well for the music industry.

Besides being easy to steal there was another thing that was not right – digital was making most things better (DVD was better than VHS, Blu Ray was better than DVD, etc.) but in the music industry the sound was getting worse. Artists started to play down to the crappy medium.

Then I found SACD and DVD A – they sounded amazing – but there were not many titles and they were really expensive. It was mostly focused on already issued music (more remixes and remasters). I got distracted by 5.1 mixes vs. stereo – that was a dead-end – a novelty at best.

It was about 10 years ago that I started to listen to my vinyl records (I had thousands of LPs) again. Not sure what got me started. But wow they sounded really good – I forgot how good they sounded. They sounded better than the digital stuff (except for surface noise). I started to get sentimental for the stereo era of my 20s – when you bought the best stereo equipment you could afford – ever searching for great sound. I realized my kids were developing some cool musical taste – but they did not seem to care about great sound. They listened through ear buds and crappy computer speakers. It saddened me.

About 5 years ago I started to get back to analog in a big way. I listened more and more to my vinyl records. I started buying used records (they were still cheap). New releases were starting to be made available in vinyl (although some were fraudulent CD mixes cut to wax). I started to reboot my stereo equipment. I bought a tube amp. I bought a new turntable. I bought new speakers.  I bought a DAC to try to make my digital music sound better. I started to rip in mp3 320kbps; I stopped that and went lossless. I quit eMusic because they had crap quality MP3 (which the DAC really reveled). I was officially frustrated with digital music.

Which brings me to the present: today I listen to a lot of vinyl through my home stereo and to Spotify through my iPhone. I love Spotify through my iPhone – I love the convenience – it is great for the car, for the gym – in general when you are on the go. I like the access, the ease, the portability and at ten bucks a month it can’t be beat. Spotify is just how I sample music. When I really want to listen it is via vinyl (and often due to the high cost of some vinyl and limited availability of titles I have to settle for CDs) on the home stereo.

I have listened to high-resolution files – if derived from the right remaster they sound wonderful. The next piece of equipment I want is an Oppo -105 that will play my CDs, SACDs, DVD-A and most importantly to serve as a DAC to play a wide variety of high-resolution files.

This leads me to Neil Young and Pono. Neil want to reboot the iPod/iTunes paradigm with a high-resolution store, an app for your computer and portable iPod-like device designed to play these files (via headphones or through your stereo).  There is no technical innovation here. The high-resolution file formats exist. There are online stores you can buy them from. There are apps to play the files. There are iPod like devices. The innovation here is what iTunes and the iPod did – create an easy to use ecosystem that appeals to the masses.

This is a good enough idea that I am backing my first Kickstarter project (on day one even). I pledged three Benjamins to get one of the first ones off the line this fall. I don’t think this will be a revolution (I hope it will be). I just hope it makes enough of a splash that musicians will make the effort to record at the highest resolution they can afford (in a room that matters) and make their work available in high-resolution files and legitimate vinyl (not CD 44.1 16 bit files cut to wax). Hopefully kids will discover high fidelity.

But this is not without risks – and here they are:

  • The masters better be good – it does not matter how great the technology – if the masters suck the high-resolution files will suck. The labels don’t have a good track record here.
  • The cost – buying a Pono $300 to $400 seems like a reasonable cost compared to other high-resolution portables on the market. But the $15 -$25 price tag per album that sucks. When I buy a high-resolution copy of Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks it will be the 5th time (vinyl, CD, remastered CD, SACD). My Spotify subscription is $10 a month.  A 180 gram vinyl copy would be $25.   So $15-$25 for a download album is too much!  Sell me the high-resolution files for $5 – $10. Provide a 192kHz/24 bit FLAC  “free” with the vinyl edition.
  • The smart phone – when I am at home,  I am going to listen to my high-resolution files via my PC/music sever/DAC/stereo. When I am on the go do I really want to carry another device? Especially when I will be competing with background noise?  I think it will be hard to give up my iPhone and Spotify account – they sound good enough “on the go” and they are cheap.

So in summary I am excited by the promise of high-resolution digital and the music industry getting serious about sound. But I am just cynical enough to remind myself I can still cancel out of my Kickstarter Pono backing by April 15th 2014.  It does not need to beat iTunes or the streaming services, if Pono can grab a little niche toehold in the music consumer market – kind of like vinyl has – I will call it a success.  As of today, just a few days into the Kickstarter campaign,  Pono has almost 11,000 backers and nearly $4 million raised.  So I think we might have our toehold.


From → Audio

  1. Suiigpsrnrly well-written and informative for a free online article.

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  1. Pono – No! | Axl's Catch Groove

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