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Pono is dead. Probably. Long live Xstream

Neil Young announces a new streaming service called Xstream after struggling to build a digital music store for his Ponoplayer.

Sarah Tew / CNET

After five years, it appears that Neil Young's Pono initiative -- which resulted in a hardware player and digital music store -- may be finally over. In its place: Xstream.

A post on Pono's forums this week (membership required) confirmed that eight months after its music download store went down, the company was now channeling its efforts into a new streaming service called Xstream instead.

Xstream will provide hi-res music at a "normal price" Young says, and in a direct dig at Tidal (and Spotify) he says that companies shouldn't charge a premium for hi-res streams.

Pono's music download webstore went down in July of 2016 after music partner Omnifone was sold, and Pono announced at the time it was moving to to 7digital.

"The more we worked on (the webstore), the more we realized how difficult it would be to recreate what we had and how costly it was to run it", Young said.

"As you might imagine, I found it difficult to raise more money for this model: delivering quality music at a premium price to a limited audience that felt they were being taken advantage of with the high costs" he said.

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Neil Young says he will launch all of his own titles on the new Xstream service

Screenshot by CNET

"All songs should cost the same, regardless of digital resolution", Young wrote. "Let the people decide what they want to listen to without charging them more for true quality. That way quality is not an elitist thing. If high resolution costs more, listeners will just choose the cheaper option and never hear the quality", he wrote.

Services such as Bandcamp and Drip currently sell 24bit music for the same price as 16bit (when available) with prices typically half that of hi-res music stores.

Xstream will be designed to be adaptive, and stream in the highest quality a user's connection will allow.

"Xstream is one file, streaming for all with 15,000 seamlessly changing levels of playback quality," Young said.

However, the existing Ponoplayer will not be compatible with Xstream because it lacks a Wi-Fi adapter and is only able to play music downloaded onto its solid state drive.

It's ironic that Neil Young made the news in the same week as Record Store Day, which is dedicated to celebrating physical media sales in the face of competition from streaming services.

Up until January 2017, it appeared the move to a new provider for Pono was still underway with the release of a free computer music player named Pono Music Vault. However, the company's Twitter and Facebook accounts have not posted since its announcement on January 23.

Young said he is talking with record companies about the new streaming service and has so far only announced that his own music will be available on Xstream. A date has not yet been detailed.

Young's service may struggle among competing music services such as the top-performing Spotify and Apple Music, while at the other end Xstream's main competitor Tidal was partly sold to Sprint earlier this year. Tidal currently offers lossless music for $20 in the US, £20 in the UK and AU$24 in Australia (or twice that of most services) and adds in hi-res music through the proprietary MQA format at no extra cost. MQA requires a hardware decoder for optimal sound quality and it's unknown if Young's Xstream will also use MQA.

Young announced the Pono system on "The Late Show with David Letterman" in September 2012 and after years of delays the player went on sale in early 2015. The Pono digital music store was online for 18 months before it went down.

What does the future hold for users of the Ponoplayer? It is still available for sale online and Young's only comment about the player was that "we sold tens of thousands of players, every unit that we made." Future support is unknown at this stage.

Representatives for Pono did not reply immediately to CNET's request for a comment.