14 March 2014

Missing The Point About Pono

On March 11, 2014, after over two years of rumors and speculation, Neil Young and his team finally formally launched PonoMusic, a music player and download store for hi-definition digital music files. Opinions both positive and negative abound. Despite a fair amount of mockery for having a Kickstarter funding campaign opening on the launch date, Pono met its 35 day, $800,000 funding goal in under 10 hours, and as of this posting (now about 55 hours in), the project has nearly 8,500 backers and has raised nearly $2.8 million dollars. Even Neil's most hardcore fans seem universally impressed, if not shocked, at the project's early success.

At this point, I am not completely sold on the product, although you might not know it from my postings on fan forums the past few days. I am not yet a "backer" of the Kickstarter, primarily because I'm not ready to drop $400 on an untried machine (and my wife would kill me if I did). But I do believe in the goal of bringing hi-def music to a wider audience at a reasonable price with easy portability, and based on the marketing I've seen so far, I have confidence that Pono will meet with some success. The reason I focus on the marketing is that is what is going to make or break the project. The product can be brilliant, but if it is not sold properly it will go nowhere. This team seems quite savvy.

Anyway, among the negative articles I've read in the past few days, this one in particular stood out, and I felt that it demanded a point-by-point rebuttal. Ed at Gin and Tacos calls it the "Fire Joe Morgan" treatment, and while I don't plan to dissemble every line of his piece, I did have more to say than could fit in a Facebook post, so welcome (back) to my blog!

OK, so the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs of this article start, "I want to say first that I love Neil Young. I have been a fan for many, many years. And I respect his crusade with Pono, but...", and "Don’t get me wrong, I have no love for MP3s or other lossy formats, but..." respectively. This is always kind of off-putting in an opinion piece, like the author doesn't have enough confidence in his argument to let it stand on its own without first trying to caress the reader, whom he already suspects of being skeptical of his position. Perhaps rightly so, as most people reading about Pono the past few days are likely supporters of the idea, or at least open to it. Still leaves me with a bad taste at the beginning.

"Don’t get me wrong, I have no love for MP3s or other lossy formats, but they’re a utilitarian truth at this point. They are designed to be portable, and that’s the market I think Pono is trying to win."

Well, this is at the heart of the entire article, and is probably the author's basic mistake underlying all the analysis that follows.  Yes, Pono is trying to introduce portable hi-def audio, but they are not trying to "win" over MP3.  At least not in the short term.  There is a great deal to recommend MP3 and their players.  They are a very compact format that retains very good sonic integrity, and every smartphone in the word can play them.  Listened to through shitty earbuds on a subway train, they do just fine, and if the MP3 is prepared properly, they can even sound pretty good through good headsets.  They aren't going anywhere any time soon.

But that does not mean there is not a niche in the market for higher end portable music and higher end portable music players.  A 100MB FLAC file is no less "portable" than a 5 MB MP3.  You just need more storage to carry as many, and storage just keeps getting smaller and cheaper as time moves on.

"But what kind of a listening environment are you in when you’re listening to portable music? The car, the bus, walking the dog, the subway? Not exactly acoustically treated palaces of sound. If you’re a serious music lover, you have your inner sanctum where you have things set up to get the best possible listening experience you can get. And the best possible listening experience it still to be had from listening to records. I have my studio, where my turntable’s set up and when I want to sit down and do some serious listening, I can do it there. It’s set up for that purpose."

OK, dudebro, I'm gonna have to stop you there. While a popular rhetorical device on the internet, douchebaggery is not a particularly persuasive one. "Treated palaces of sound"? "Your inner sanctum"?  Is that where you get to fully express your deepest "sanctumony" towards those poor unwashed cretins who don't have a "studio" where they "have things set up to get the best possible listening experience you can get"? I have a computer with a nice sound card, pretty decent old Harman/Kardon desktop speakers and a set of Koss Porta-Pro headsets and I consider myself to be a pretty "serious music lover".  And even with my humble music set up, I can easily discern the sonic improvements in 24 bit audio over CDs and MP3s. I aspire to one day, like you, have my own sound-proof masturbatorium in my home where I can play my studio-quality files (and my vinyl records) through an expensive stereo set up, but until then I'd like to HAVE the hi-def files and get the most my system can provide.

"Just watch the Kickstarter video for Pono. How many of the celebrity endorsers are railing on the evils of vinyl? Zero. They’re complaining about MP3s and CDs."

Vinyl isn't portable. CDs and MP3s are. Pono is portable. They're comparing apples to apples, not to vinyl.

"When I’m in the car, or tooling around town with headphones on (probably earbuds, which are generally not the best option for serious listening) MP3s are more than fine. They get the job done."

In general yes, they are. But even in my car, I can tell a well-mastered CD or MP3 from a bad one, and if I could play hi-def in my car or through my in-ear headphones (earbuds totally suck, I don't know why anyone stands for them), I'd like to do that. If I can feel a difference, it's worth it.

"Ultimately, I just wouldn’t look to a digital solution like the Pono as a serious listening solution."

I'm sorry, but who the fuck are you again, and who are you to decide what is "serious listening"?

"And I don’t think the average consumer will either. I don’t think the average consumer will even care.
"The argument Neil’s making the same argument that folks use against fast food: It’s bad for you. It is a subpar eating experience, etc, etc. But folks still eat it in droves and they don’t really care because it’s easy, it tastes pretty good and it’s cheap. Most people will only think that far."

And here we are back to the original assumption.  This product, in the short term at least IS NOT AIMED AT THE AVERAGE CONSUMER.  It's aimed at "serious listening" douchenozzles like you, who have a great love of the finer points of music and some disposable income that might be left over after furnishing their studio for optimal listening pleasure. The regular schlubs might come along someday, or maybe they'll prefer to have 20,000 bad songs on their phone instead of 4,000 great ones once storage capacity catches up with the idea. Who knows?

"What’s even more sad is Neil is so late to the party here that he’s created a product that’s obsolete before it exists. He created this to save us from MP3s and other lossy files, but you know how many MP3s I have on my phone? Zero. I listen to everything when I travel from place to place through streaming services. How many of you do the same? How many of us will get there in the next few years? Is he going to be able to figure out a way to find the bandwidth he needs to pipe Pono-sized files through satellites?"

Jesus. Do you remember what bandwidth was like on your phone five or seven years ago? Do you think we have reached the apex of wireless bandwidth here in 2014? We don't even have the best bandwidth in the world today here in America, you myopic grease. So, yes, I do expect that eventually there will be PLENTY of bandwidth to stream hi-definition audio files for the people who want it and want to pay for it.

But more critically, I don't trust streaming audio. In addition to the poor sound quality, it is subject to breaks and slowdowns in bandwidth, dead zones where there is no 3G or 4G, and other things completely out of my control that ruin my enjoyment of the music when the music stops flowing. When I lived in Omaha, I used Pandora and Google Play music all the time, because they had excellent 3G coverage and few customers. But I stopped using those services almost entirely when I moved to Atlanta because the 3G network was so clogged with users that I couldn't get them work worth a damn. Also, have you ever driven across the middle of America, or "flyover country" as I imagine you'd call it? There are still a lot of places, even along major highways, that you can't get 3G service for many miles at a time. Driving without music in such places SUCKS.

Now I have 4G, but my cell provider has also eliminated unlimited data plans, so I have to pay attention to my usage for the first time in years. When I play MP3s that are physically on my phone, I have no data download issues, and virtually no playback issues. If I had a dedicated MP3 player that were not also my phone/pocket computer, I'd have zero playback issues. For a serious music lover like me, who finds the tiny gaps in playback between MP3s terribly annoying, pauses in playback in the middle of a song I love are completely unacceptable.

"And what Neil forgets when he says he’s trying to save young people from the evils of first hearing music through their virgin ears on a format as inferior as MP3 is that all of us music geeks fell in love with music while likely listening under even worse conditions. I fell in love with music listening to records on a mono Sears & Roebuck portable turntable I got for Christmas when I was ten and to songs recorded by holding a tape recorder up to a speaker and taping them from the radio. That’s how I fell in love with music. It was the innocence, both mine and the music’s, that created the magic, not the media format. The music survives, the experience is there. Pono is not going to save music. Music doesn’t need saving. We just need more kids and more more music."

As much as anyone might have said that they're "trying to save young people, etc...", I don't think that's really part of the business model here. If you're going to write a long article about why Pono is doomed to fail, at least address the business aspects instead of erecting strawmen that are, if such words were ever actually uttered by Neil or anyone else, just a rhetorical device incorporated into the marketing language. Success or failure of Pono will be judged by profits and losses, and even if it ultimately loses money, by the success or failure of any other providers that follow in Pono's footsteps.

"Look at the folks that are interviewed in the Pono Kickstarter video. All of them are musicians, record executives, etc. All of them are among the converted, they fell in love with music when they were kids and they are forever chasing that initial high. But how many average Joes did Neil put in his video? Zero. Why? Probably because the average person would just say, “Cool,” and nod their head. And maybe they could hear a difference, maybe not, but the experience of hearing the music wouldn’t fundamentally change. Not every was forever altered by the experience of listening to music. And it’s a prime example of exercise the false consensus bias to design a technology that provides an experience that only a small number of people are looking for."

Again, this is not for "average Joes", or for people who have not already fallen in love with music. Having famous musicians in the promo video was PERFECT, because the target audience knows those people and respects their opinions about music fidelity. We aren't interested in what some chucklehead who is not a serious music fan thinks about Pono, precisely BECAUSE said chucklehead isn't interested in it himself. Americans put far too much stock in the opinions of average Joes. We put our lives and futures in their hands every election day and that's scary enough. I'll keep my music choices based on opinions of people I know and respect.

"That’s why the Pono is destined to fail. Neil has created a product ten years too late designed to solve a problem that only exists for the people who recognize there’s problem, not for the average person."

You see why I'm sensing a pattern here? It is MEANT for those who sense a problem. You can only lead a horse to water, you know? If they don't want to drink, fuck 'em. But I want water.

"And that problem is already solved for folks who recognize the problem…buy records."


"If Pono had come out in 2005, not 2015, maybe it could have been a solution that gained traction,"

or maybe it would have crashed and burned because you would have needed to carry around something literally the size of a brick to have enough storage, and the downloads would have taken WAY longer, even over "high speed" ISPs at the time.

"...but now Neil’s asking people to step away from a decade’s worth of infrastructure to reinvent the wheel and the vast majority of folks just won’t do it. He’s marketing a product to compete with a product that doesn’t really exist anymore (both the MP3 and the CD)."

If the "infrastructure" you're referring to is iTunes, there are numerous competitors (albeit not nearly as successful), so there is clearly room for a similar service that focuses on a niche market. If you mean the fact that most MP3 players are built into phones now and people don't carry separate iPods anymore, that is true, but there is no hi-def iPod out there right now, and I'll bet that within 3 years, if Pono has any degree of success, there will be Pono equipped smartphones on the market. If you're referring to streaming music services, then perhaps their shitty product is what Pono is really aiming to cut into, not CDs and MP3s, which are as you point out, on their way out already. And as I said earlier, I have no doubt that streaming hi-def is not too far away.

"He’s missed the point that the magic of music is not in the media format, but in the music itself and in the ears of the listener. The music comes through if it’s good and excites the imagination of the listener, creating cathedrals of sound in their minds, which are not subject to lossy formatting. He’s kind of coming off an the old man shaking his fist at the sky (and yelling, “More barn!!!”)."

Um, OK bro. Good music excites the mind, but for every person like me, who was raised on tapes and CDs, there is a first WOW moment of hearing a song you know and love, either on vinyl or remastered well in a digital format, that makes you understand that there is SO MUCH MORE that you've been missing.

"Do I want to hear Pono? Sure. If it takes off, will I buy one? Maybe, but probably not. I have a great turntable and hundreds of records. But I’m one of the acolytes."

"Acolyte"? Oy vey. Since you can't seem to understand the non-portability of records, I'll throw some facts at you about records. Sales of records are booming in recent years. It's the only commercial format that is actually growing in sales. You know who's buying records? It's not middle-aged naysayers like yourself. It's young people, millennials, high school kids and people in their 20s. And you know what else those kids love? Their PHONES, and their portable music. Now imagine that when they buy the new record by their favorite band at the record shop, instead of getting a just a free MP3 download of the album, they maybe get a coupon for a cheap or free download of the album from Pono. You think they might like the idea of hi-def audio "to go"?

"I’m still chasing that initial high I got from listening to songs I taped off the radio. But in terms of technology and marketplace, designing Pono and selling it now is kind of like designing a better Zeppelin and touting it as the better way to fly when we all know that planes are faster and less likely to blow up on you."

Actually, it's nothing like that at all. Hi-def audio files are better, or to your metaphor "faster" than MP3s and streaming services, not the other way around, and in my experience streaming audio is MUCH more likely to "blow up on you" than files on my device. Yes, Pono has its issues and limitations, but being an inferior product isn't one of them. And by the way, they DID design a better zeppelin, one that uses helium instead of hydrogen, for to reduce the blow upping.

"If Neil’s really looking for a way to save fidelity in music, maybe be should look at how music is being produced these days, not how it’s being reproduced. He’s campaigning against low-bit rate reproductions of music, but the reality is many folks are recording music in their homes or studios at 44.1K or 48K, therefore creating the lossy files at the source that Neil and the Pono are crusading against."

This is a good point. There is, however, no reason he can't do both, and the reason many people are recording music at CD quality (which is not technically "lossy, but simply "low bitrate") is because they assume the music will be listened to at even lower quality. Perhaps if hi-def music sales are out there in greater force, more artists will record in better quality.

"I just recently got to the point where I was able to record at 96K and I’ll probably never get to 192K."

Firstly, who are you again? Secondly, 96kbps is plenty. Even most of us Rusties know that 192kbps is overkill. Thirdly, I bet if you were SERIOUS about producing music, you could get a computer that could record at 192kbps. I mean, I can record at 96 on my home computer and the only music I've ever recorded was me and my 10 year-old son playing "Cowgirl In The Sand" through my webcam. I bet my next computer will be able to do it, and I don't even CARE if I can or not.

"So, Neil, it you want to save the sound of music, buy us all new,  super-expensive computers and amazing outboard gear or analog tape machines and lifetime supplies of tape. Otherwise your PonoPlyaer will eventually just be playing back files that started out as lossy to begin with."


"I’ll be the first to back that Kickstarter."

No, you won't.  It's got thousands of backers already who actually believe in the project, so basically, shove it up your ass.

"Or if you have some time available at your studio you’re willing to donate, I’ll take that, too."

Neil Young doesn't owe you the sweat on the back of his balls, and you can't have that either.

"But mostly I’m just happy to make and listen to music just about any way I can."

And we will all happily never buy your music.  Enjoy!


  1. Thanks very much for this post. I definitely learned a lot from it. One question I do have, though, is that you seem to imply there's a distinction between in-ear headphones and earbuds. When I google 'in-ear headphones' all the results results that come up are what I would describe as earbuds, yet the way you talked about them it sounds like there is a significant difference in quality between the two. So, in short, what is the difference?

    Any help you could give me is much appreciated.

  2. Sure, thanks for the feedback.

    The difference has to do with whether the earpiece actually has a rubber nub that sticks into your ear and cancels outside noise, or simply sits in your ear with a small speaker, like your standard Apple iPod headphones, which are fine for phone calls and casual listening where you might want to be able to hear other things going on around you. With in-ear, it is difficult to hear anything besides the music when it is playing, and they make decent earplugs even when not playing anything. Good in-ear plugs are huge step above any earbud headphones.

  3. OK dudebro, nice take down on the f'n doubters.

    Sure, there are a lot of arguments to made for & against PONO. It doesn't seem like its for the high or low end market but for the average masses. And maybe that's why it's so attacked by the might priests of audiophile and shrugged by those who seem to care less about quality.

    Linked over on TW @ http://neilyoungnews.thrasherswheat.org/2014/03/audiophiles-thinking-and-neil-youngs.html

    Feel free to drop a comment on TW anytime. :)

    ps - we're always a sucker for a Thrasher lyric headline. ;)

  4. "And even with my humble music set up, I can easily discern the sonic improvements in 24 bit audio over CDs..."

    Er... no you can't. You may think you can, but you've never tested yourself in a blind test. There is no possible way to discern between 16 bit audio and 24 bit audio *if that is the only difference between the files*. If you don't believe that, then you don't believe the mathematics behind digital audio which says that the only difference between 16 bit and 24 is some white noise so quiet that the sound of your own breathing and blood circulation will drown it out. And if you don't believe in the mathematics, then why are you messing about with digital audio at all? If the maths isn't correct, then even 24 bits must be wrong.

    The truth is that CD was always capable of transparent reproduction and so one of the main reasons given for the existence of Pono is really nothing more than a placebo effect. Maybe that doesn't matter and it's all about raising public awareness that quality matters blah blah, but it's the reason why *I'm* irritated by the whole thing!

  5. Thanks for the detailed feedback. Sorry my editorial struck a nerve.

  6. Remember... Music is recorded in 44kHz, 48kHz, 96kHz, 192kHz.

    You seem to be confusing this with "kbps" which is referring to the "Bits Per Second" of lossy MP3/AAC/Ogg etc...

    lemming003 is right: there has not *ever* been any controlled investigation to show that CD isn't good enough.

    To even suggest that a vinyl record is anywhere near the transparency of even CD is laughable... One might like the sound of the distortion from a vinyl/turntable, but its's just not an accurate reproduction of what happened in the studio.