Last year, Neil Young launched a Kickstarter campaign to create a new digital music player called Pono, the idea being that it would serve as a high-quality alternative to the MP3s that he felt had degraded sound quality and fucked up the way everyone heard music. Young raised more than six million dollars on the campaign, exceeding his goal many times over. And now you can buy a Pono player for a cool $400, and you can pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 for a whole lot of classic-rock albums at the Pono store. But does Pono actually offer an audible upgrade over what the way-less-expensive iTunes store offers? A lot of tech people seem very, very skeptical.
In a new piece for Yahoo, the tech writer and former musician David Pogue writes at length about the various different ways that Pono fails at its goal. He mentions the player’s ungainly shape and its 64-gig storage capabilities and the fact that his touch screen is already fucked up. But most of the piece focuses on the audio quality, which he says is not really any different from what iTunes offers. And in an accompanying video, he gives a bunch of people a blind hearing test between a Pono player and an iPhone, and those who claim to hear a difference picked the iPhone as the superior product more often than not. Here, watch:
Pogue wrote to Young to get a response, and here’s what Young wrote back with: “Of approximately 100 top-seed artists who compared Pono to low resolution MP3s, all of them heard and felt the Pono difference, rewarding to the human senses, and is what Pono thinks you deserve to hear.” But Pogue makes the point that iTunes generally doesn’t offer low-resolution MP3s.
Apple MP3s are sampled at 16-bit rate, which is what you hear on CDs, where Pono files can go as high as 24 bits. But Pogue cites a couple of studies that claim the human ear can’t discern audio quality beyond 16 bits. So then Pono offers a higher-quality audio experience, but it’s one that you can’t actually hear.
I should note that I’m going entirely on what I’ve read, since Stereogum doesn’t pay me enough to buy a damn Pono player. But in the meantime, if you really care about audio quality, maybe you should just invest in some good studio headphones.