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PonoPlayer review: A triangle in the rough

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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.

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7.1

PonoPlayer

The Good

The PonoPlayer is a charming portable music player that offers distinctive looks and excellent better-than-CD sound for the money. The interface is attractive and easy to use, and the player offers compatibility with a wide number of file types, including all manner of audiophile-friendly digital formats. If you have headphones capable of being driven in balanced mode the sound quality improves significantly with no battery life penalty.

The Bad

The battery life is terrible. The triangular shape makes it harder to stow than a phone. The lack of a workable key lock can lead to the battery running down or blasting you with full-volume sound, and the touchscreen can be finicky. There's only 64GB of storage and no Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

The Bottom Line

The PonoPlayer is an inherently likeable portable music player that delivers excellent high-end sound, but its quirky design and lackluster battery life leave us waiting for the second generation -- or a price cut.

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.

Design

Sarah Tew/CNET

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).

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Features

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Screenshot by Ty Pendlebury/CNET



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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.



Bigger, but shorter battery life

Pono credits the Player as having an 8-hour battery life playing high-res files. The Sony Walkman, on the other hand, claims it has 30 hours of playback in a much thinner, lighter and non-prismatic shape.

I put the two players to the test looping a 24-bit/96kHz (WAV) copy of Bjork's "Vulnicura" at a "comfortable" volume and found the Pono could only handle 6 hours and 17 minutes of the Icelandic songwriter's breakup cycle. The Sony was much more sensitive to her plight, however, lasting 48 hours and 11 minutes; that's two days of battery life, or a full working week! If the Pono's battery life is this poor by comparison, its "special shape" doesn't seem quite so special anymore.

24/96 WAV playback (in minutes)

Sony Walkman NWZ-A17 2,880Sony Walkman NW-ZX2 2,532Astell & Kern AK Jr 546Cowon Plenue 1 480PonoPlayer 358PonoPlayer (balanced) 374
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

PonoMusic

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Screenshot by Ty Pendlebury/CNET

While not a part of the player itself, the PonoMusic site has a symbiotic relationship with the device. It's where Young hopes you'll get the music to fill the player in much the same way that iTunes and the iPhone work.

Unfortunately, PonoMusic is no iTunes. I found it awful for music discovery in particular. There's only a dozen or so "featured" albums and a search bar. Sites like HDTracks or Bleep work much better for browsing when you don't have a specific title in mind.

The Pono site has also been criticized for the prices of its downloads, and yes, Arcade Fire's "Reflektor" is unnecessarily expensive for a CD-quality release. But the prices can also be cheaper than its competitors. I picked up a 24/44.1 copy of the Decemberists' "What a Terrible World, What A Beautiful World" that was almost $3 cheaper than at HD Tracks. As usual, it pays to shop around.

Though you can transfer music to the PonoPlayer via Windows drag and drop, if you buy music from Pono you'll need to use the PonoMusic World software.

Performance

As part of my testing I used a number of different headphones -- including the Sony MDR-1R and Audio Technica M50 -- and compared the player itself against a smartphone (the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active ) and of course, the Sony Walkman NZW-A17 .

The main impression that resulted from this comparison is that the PonoPlayer is fairly warm in its presentation, which suits "analytical" headphones that can help to bring out more detail.

Sarah Tew/CNET

When faced with Okkervil River's "So Come Back I'm Waiting," the PonoPlayer was able to flesh out the reverb-drenched vocals, giving them shape and an immediate, confessional quality. The Samsung phone made a very good fist of the music but wasn't quite able to capture the same intimacy. Neither did it have the same breadth of stereo image or convey the forceful, staccato stabs of the full band as dynamically.

Beating a midtier phone is one thing, but the PonoPlayer's articulate bass and better midrange detail helped it win out against the Sony NWZ-A17 as well. The descending bassline at the end of "Life" by The Beta Band was "lumpier" via the Walkman, with more differences in volume between each of the notes. The PonoPlayer was able to deliver all of the notes at virtually the same level.

On Bjork's "Stonemilker" the Pono sounded more alive, with more space around the instruments and crisper vocal articulation. While the Sony sounded bassier, it wasn't as lithe, and the performance space seemed smaller.

Meanwhile, the double bass part in David Chesky's "Transcendental Tripping" was further forward in the mix and went deeper when heard through the Pono. Big synth bass sounded impressive though "one note"-like through the Walkman, while singular notes were more easily discerned when using the Pono.

For all its claims to be a high-res only system, the PonoPlayer is just at home playing CD-quality files. With the Talking Heads' "Fear Of Music," the Pono had a warm, supple and yet detailed sound which counterbalanced the coldness of the album's production.

If you're lucky enough to own a pair of balanced-mode-capable headphones -- think twin-wired models such as the Sony Z7 , the Sennheiser HD 650 and so on -- switching the PonoPlayer to balanced mode becomes the no. 1 reason to buy this player. It can sound as good as the Plenue 1 for less than half the price! Bass deepens and midrange detail improves markedly. The most remarkable thing about using it this way is that there was no penalty to battery life in our tests -- it managed over 6 hours playing a 24/96 WAV file. If only the player didn't have all of the other frustrating issues...

Is there any point in paying more than the Pono? Yes, but in some cases you'll need to pay a lot more. Both the Sony ZX2 and the Cowon Plenue offered a bigger sound with better bass, but run at the $1,000-plus mark. Meanwhile, the Astell & Kern AK Jr. offers a better user experience and better battery life for a hundred dollars more.

Conclusion

Would I buy the $400 PonoPlayer with my own money? Sadly, no. But the other day, when presented with a drawer full of players, including the Sony Walkman ZX2 and the Cowon Plenue 1 I still reached for the PonoPlayer for my commute home. It's just got...something.

But in the end, the actual PonoPlayer could never live up to its own hyperbole. If you have $400 and you want something that sounds immediately impressive, a better set of headphones would make more of a difference. (Memo to Pono: a price cut to $300 would certainly help, too.)

The PonoPlayer by itself cannot revolutionize the industry, but it does have people at least talking about better-sounding music. If this conversation serves to improve the situation, then that could be the PonoPlayer's greatest contribution to the music industry, not the player itself. There will undoubtedly be more PonoPlayers to come, and they will hopefully learn the ergonomics and battery-life lessons this device will teach them.

I'm looking forward to that day, and a PonoPlayer I can more enthusiastically recommend.

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7.1

PonoPlayer

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 7Sound 8Value 7