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Pono's success points to appetite for high-res audio

Neil Young's Pono has proved there is a market for high-resolution audio players. So why are people rushing to buy one when there are alternatives already available?


opinion The success of Neil Young's Pono on Kickstarter has proved that there is a market for high-resolution audio players. So why are people rushing to buy this one when there are alternatives already available?

The player itself. (Credit: Pono)

Pono is making plenty of waves in the audio community. Thanks to its recent Kickstarter campaign, in which Pono smashed the US$800,000 target in one day, there is no doubt that there is significant interest in high-quality audio and portable music players that support its playback.

In terms of crossing over to a mainstream tech crowd, the Pono is starting to reach the same audience that the iPod first targeted when it debuted in 2001. This time, however, it's the promise of high-resolution sound rather than a portable device for your entire music collection that is making headlines.

“Hearing Pono for the first time is like that first blast of daylight when you leave a movie theater on a sun-filled day,” said Young as he opined about the player.

For those unfamiliar with high-resolution and lossless audio, Pono makes things seem (and probably sound) pretty amazing. But there are a few things that don't quite make sense in the wake of Pono's initial success.

Audiophiles who want high-resolution audio in a portable format have a number of existing options to choose from. For example, the Astell & Kern AK240 and the Fiio X5 are just a few available.

Then there is the question of the audio files themselves. Pono supports FLAC and many other popular high-quality playback formats. Transcoding music to FLAC isn't a difficult process. But, is the casual Pono buyer going to be interested in the extra effort needed to convert music they already own into a better-quality digital format?

The cost of albums and songs on the Pono Music store hasn't been confirmed across the board, but we do have an idea of pricing. Between US$14.99 and US$24.99 is the ballpark figure, which is generally more expensive compared to buying albums on other stores in WAV or FLAC format.

At the moment, most of us aren't buying music in lossless formats though. To the untrained ear, the quality delivered by a 320kbps MP3 sounds remarkably close to CD quality — especially if all you are doing is listening to the song on a portable player through inexpensive headphones or earbuds. For the majority of listeners, this is more than enough.

A limited-edition player from the Signature Series. (Credit: Pono)

Pono currently has a maximum capacity of 128GB, made up of 64GB of internal storage and up to 64GB extra storage via microSD. For the highest-quality 9216 kbps (192 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files that the Pono Music store will offer, 128GB is going to get eaten up pretty quickly. Based on the quoted figure of 800 tracks provided on the Kickstarter page, that's only around 66 albums (or 33 albums if you don't have a microSD card on board). That figure was calculated by assuming an average album would consist of 12 tracks.

As for constantly swapping out memory cards that are hardly any bigger than a fingernail, well, we'd wager that this is going to get tiresome pretty quickly. Just think of how confusing sifting through a drawer of tiny memory cards is going to be, just so you can find the right album you want to listen to on the run.

What the Pono player does have going for it is its price (US$399 or US$300 if you pre-order through Kickstarter) and celebrity cachet. Pearl Jam, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Foo Fighters, Willie Nelson, Patti Smith, Arcade Fire, Beck ... the list goes on of musicians and bands that have lent their name to a limited edition Pono.

On the aesthetics front, the player itself is not particularly attractive, nor is it pocket-sized. However, that's the price many are willing to pay for being able to hear music as close to the original recording as possible. If there is one thing that we should thank Pono for though, it's bringing more widespread acceptance of high-resolution audio, and it's a discussion that will now spread beyond the audiophile community.

As proved by the game-changing success of the iPod, there are plenty of buyers who are willing to push aside the scepticism and fork over $399 for a player that promises to open up a new world of audio quality. Let's just hope they're using some good quality headphones too.