The PonoPlayer ain't no ordinary MP3 player

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LAS VEGAS -- Almost a year after debuting on Kickstarter, the PonoPlayer is finally available to buy, and the company was showing off the fruit of its toil at CES 2015.

The PonoPlayer is one of a new crop of high-resolution players that offer "greater than CD-quality" playback with models from the likes of the Cowon Plenue 1 and the Sony ZX2, which was also announced at this CES. The difference is the price: while most high-end players hover around the $1,000 mark the PonoPlayer is an "affordable" $400 (AU$495, £265).

In a world of iPod clones, the design of the PonoPlayer definitely sticks out. This is a small device measuring 5 inches high by 2 inches wide and an inch deep. The player is triangular -- calling to mind the shape of the iRiver T60 and T50 players -- and the company says this design enables it to house a larger and more efficient 2,950mAh cylindrical battery.

While known generically as "Pono", this brainchild of Neil Young's consists of two distinct platforms; the PonoPlayer hardware, and the PonoMusic Web store. The music store sells high-resolution recordings by artists including Foo Fighters, Taylor Swift and Neil Young, as well as the hi-res PonoPlayer itself with orders shipping from February 2015. After some initial delays Pono says all of the original Kickstarter orders have also now been filled.

Sarah Tew / CNET

While "MP3 player" might as well be a bad word in the audiophile community, that is essentially what the PonoPlayer is. Though it is designed to reproduce high-resolution (24-bit/192kHz) music, it features compatibility with FLAC, ALAC, MP3, WAV, AIFF, and AAC (unprotected) formats -- something most other MP3 players can do, and some do high-res, too.

Though its design may have an eye on the past, the PonoPlayer is no "retro" device. It features a touch screen and a total of 128GB of storage (64GB onboard and a microSD slot with 64GB card). Interestingly, the player has also a light to indicate when you're listening to a "certified PonoMusic song," but what this means is still a mystery. Is it simply detecting a 24-bit file?

The company says the player is easier to hold in one hand, while it's also able to sit flat on your desktop or home stereo system and keep the display visible. PonoMusic also says that it was able to include the best-sounding audio components with "absolutely no compromises."

While Neil Young initially announced he was working with Meridian to develop the player, it appears development later switched to Ayre Acoustics. According to Digital Audio Review, the player features the ESS Sabre 9018 DAC, which is the same as is featured in the high-end Oppo BDP-105 player. The player has two outputs: a headphone and a line-out that will be helpful for use with a hi-fi.

The limited edition Neil Young player. PonoMusic

While the standard player is available in either black or yellow, Kickstarter earlybirds were able to snap up limited-edition models featuring artists such as Willie Nelson, Arcade Fire, and of course Young himself.

The player will sync via a Micro-USB connection to the PonoMusic World app for PC and Mac. The app will enable users to organize music and buy new tracks from the Web store in 24-bit FLAC format.


It's hard to predict if the PonoPlayer will be a long-term success, but my personal thought is that this little device could act as a Trojan horse in the way that an inkjet printer or a gaming console does -- it gives the people a cheap(ish) device, and then they spend the real money on the consumables. If Neil Young and friends are able to convince record companies to carefully master digital music for "exclusive" release on PonoMusic, I can see people willing to spend money on the software itself instead -- regardless of which player they might use.

From Sony to Samsung to DTS, a lot of companies are counting on high-resolution music to filter down into the mainstream as a way to sell hi-fi gear, and with mouthpieces like Neil Young to help them, they might actually have a chance.

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