Yes, Pono is an awkward name. No, it's not a new type of music file. And yes, you can finally get dibs on one. The PonoPlayer was finally unveiled on Kickstarter in March 2014 after years of speculation and delays.
Neil Young's Pono ecosystem consists of two distinct platforms; the PonoPlayer hardware, and the PonoMusic Web store.
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.
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. Back in the mid-Noughties, iRiver had a series of players (the T60, T50, and so on) that featured a triangular shape very similar to the PonoPlayer's, but iRiver doesn't make "Toblerones" any more, and ergonomics might have something to do with that.
Though its design may have an eye toward 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?
As to "that shape," PonoMusic says it has several advantages including enabling it to use "a large, cylindrical battery that's much more efficient than a flat battery." 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."
According to Digital Audio Review, the player will feature 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.
While the standard player is available in either black or yellow, if you're quick you might still be able to get one of the limited-edition, signed artist series for $400 from the Kickstarter page which includes artists such as Willie Nelson and Arcade Fire, not to mention Neil Young himself.
The player will sync via a Micro-USB connection to the PonoMusic 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.
While Neil Young initially announced he was working with Meridian to develop the player, it appears development has switched to Ayre Acoustics.
It's hard to predict if the PonoPlayer will be a success once it appears in October 2014, 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 that instead -- regardless of the player they 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.