When it comes to controversy, you would probably have to look back to the original 1999 Rio MP3 player and the music industry's resulting "anti-piracy" lawsuit to find a portable media player which has generated as much hand-wringing as Neil Young's PonoPlayer.
The product in question was announced on The Late Show with David Letterman by the legendary musician in September 2012 and went on to raise millions on Kickstarter. Unlike MP3 players of old, which were more about convenience than sound quality, the PonoPlayer is one of a small but growing niche of portable music devices that can play better-than-CD-quality hi-res files. And now, after filling the initial Kickstarter orders in late 2014, the PonoPlayer is finally available to the masses for $400, which translates to about £270 or AU$530.
The reason why Pono has created so much angst? In a nutshell, Pono's benefits have been oversold, and the almost-fever pitch of expectation dragged out over many years has lead to the disappointment some people -- including CNET's own Audiophiliac Steve Guttenberg -- are experiencing today.
As Martin Mull once said (and has been frequently repeated by many, such as Elvis Costello), writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and that's kind of how I feel writing about this player. After trying the PonoPlayer for the first time at CES in January, I noticed something intangibly seductive about the PonoPlayer. Whether it's the iconoclastic shape, the friendly menu system or the warm, cuddly sound, it stands out from its competitors in many ways. Simply, it's inherently likable.
While the benefits of high-res versus CD are another argument completely, the Pono is a flawed player on the precipice of something really great. Its sound quality is a cut above others at the price, plus it has a number of high-end features that are unusual at this level such as DSD playback (the high-end digital format that was the basis of SACD) and balanced output.
Yet for all its charm, the PonoPlayer comes with some notable caveats. Firstly, it has a number of ergonomic annoyances -- that shape! -- a quirky touchscreen and effectively only one button. And most importantly, its 6-hour battery life (on high-res audio files) just doesn't pass muster. That would barely get you through a cross-country flight, and it's only an eighth as long as that of the Sony NWZ-A17 Walkman, its principal competitor.
If you're looking for a dedicated music device with a ton of personality and a smattering of audiophile features, the Pono Player is certainly worth investigating. However, given its first-gen problems and battery issues, you may find that the PonoPlayer isn't as good a buy as the more recommendable $300 Sony A17.
Editor's Note: The review has been updated with testing for Balanced Mode playback, and the score has increased from 6.9 to 7.1.
Yes. It's a pyramid. Yes, it sits weirdly on a table. But, it actually feels comfortable in your hand and even when in your pocket.
This is a large music player measuring 5 inches high by 2 inches wide and an inch deep (13 by 5 by 2.5cm). The shape brings to mind the iRiver T60 and T50 players. Pono says this design enables it to house a larger and more efficient 2,950mAh cylindrical battery (more on that later).
The player is available in two main colors -- yellow and black -- and we received the black version. The surface is covered in a grippable rubberized coating that is unfortunately very susceptible to fingerprints.
The front of the player is quite simple, with a 2-inch touchscreen plus three buttons: volume up/down and select. While most of the navigation is performed via the screen, the Select button does everything else: Play/Pause, Select, Sleep, Next Track and Power.
Incorporating the Play button into the Power control means you do have to jump through some hoops for many functions, especially to lock the device. To do so you'll need to hold down the Select button for 3 seconds and then press the Sleep icon on the touchscreen.
Another issue I had was that the raised buttons still work in Sleep mode and can be triggered in your pocket or bag, running your battery down. Activating Lock on Sleep in the menu fixes this problem but raises another: you'll need to press select and then swipe the screen in a specific fashion any time you want to use the buttons.
Navigation is fairly simple, with a left/right swipe action that should be fairly intuitive to smartphone users. You can browse from Albums, Songs, Playlists and Settings from the main screen and clicking on an album twice causes it to play. Exiting menus means touching an icon in the top right of the screen. I did notice early on that it likes a light touch, and slightly heavier presses can confuse the player and cause it to select rather than scroll.
The PonoPlayer was designed in conjunction with hi-fi manufacturer Ayre Acoustics and uses a digital audio converter (DAC) developed in-house specifically for the device. It features 64GB of onboard storage, and for further expansion it includes a microSD slot that will take cards up to 64GB. While early units of the player included a 64GB card, Pono has confirmed it no longer comes with one.
Unlike many modern players featuring apps, wireless connectivity and video playback the PonoPlayer is designed to do one thing: play downloaded music. It can reproduce DSD, FLAC, ALAC, MP3, WAV, AIFF and unprotected AAC files at up to 24-bit/192kHz. Interestingly, the player has also a light to indicate when you're listening to a "certified PonoMusic song," or in other words a download from the Pono store. (Plenty of other high-res audio stores are also available, and the Pono is, happily, compatible with files downloaded from competitors.)
The PonoPlayer and to a similar extent the Walkman NW-A17 are handicapped by their lack of wireless. No, nobody wants Facebook on their music player, but Wi-Fi brings two main benefits: music streaming services and wireless library updating. Having to turn on your computer, connect a USB cable and load the player up with music via the included software is so 2005. Given that the future of music is undoubtedly streaming (and offline downloads) --which may even come eventually in high-res -- it's a shame that these players are stuck so firmly in the past.
The player comes with a modified version of JRiver Media Center (usually $50) called PonoMusic World, which lets you download tracks as well as rip CDs and control other wireless music players via DLNA.
One of the most intriguing "hidden" features of the PonoPlayer is its ability to work in balanced mode whether driving an amp or a pair of modified headphones. I heard the Pono through a Mark Levinson setup in balanced mode at CES 2015 -- playing Neil Young, naturally -- and the acoustic number sounded fairly sweet.