Neil Young's reality distortion field

As Neil Young's Pono Kickstarter campaign winds down, the future looks bright -- or does it?

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
4 min read

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The Pono music player might be the sweetest part of Neil Young's new venture. Ayre Acoustic's Charles Hansen had a hand in the design, and he's a supertalented audio engineer. So I'm assuming the player will sound great, but high-resolution portable players have been around for years. Nothing new about that -- look at the gorgeous new FiiO X5 player -- I expect to have it in for review soon. (I requested one of the Pono prototype players that were shown at SXSW, but the company has not responded.) One thing I can say for sure: the X5 is smaller and flatter than the triangular-bodied Pono player, which won't fit in your pocket without creating an unsightly bulge. The limited editions of 500 Artist Signature Series Pono players look very cool; I just wonder how many will be up on eBay as soon as they're received. We'll see. Young's Kickstarter ends this coming Tuesday, so there's still time to get a Willie Nelson or Arcade Fire edition player for only $400.

I've already reviewed the $199 FiiO X3 high-resolution player and loved it. Hifiman has been selling superb high-resolution players for many years. Young's player is coming a little late to the party.

As for the PonoMusic download store, that's more of a mystery. I wonder where all of their high-resolution music will come from. The vast majority of the digital recordings from the '80s, '90s, '00s, and '10s have no higher than 48-kHz/24-bit resolution, and that's not all that much better resolution than what we have on CDs. There's not a lot of bona fide 88.2-kHz/24-bit or higher resolution music to release; in the early 2000s most high-resolution rock and jazz SACD and DVD-Audio discs were sourced from analog masters. Some sounded fantastic, nearly as good as a well-mastered analog-sourced LP. Most high-resolution music downloads currently on the market are also sourced from old analog masters. As for new hi-res music, there's some, but not that much.

A high-resolution audio download doesn't automatically guarantee great sound; hi-res just defines the limit of how good a recording can sound. In other words, a great recording with wide dynamic range, low distortion, and clarity can sound amazing in any format.

If the band has enough clout they can make great-sounding recordings and release them on all formats -- MP3,

, CDs, LPs, Blu-rays -- they don't need PonoMusic to liberate their sound. PonoMusic can't dictate sound quality or mastering standards, it can only release what the label or artist delivers. My point is, the record labels and artists could have been making better, less compressed and processed recordings all along; why haven't they done so?

The reason that so rarely happens is that the vast majority of bands, record labels, and listeners prefer music the way it is. Notice that I left engineers and producers off that list -- I'm sure they would love to make better sounding recordings, but they do as they're told by the labels. The label cuts the check and if it wants loud-all-the-time recordings, that's what it'll get. Most people don't like music that maintains its original soft-to loud dynamics; they want a whisper to be as loud as a scream. They want consistent sound volume, which is why music is so heavily compressed. Factor in the demands of the multitasking listener, where music is played as background to other activities, and consistent volume is essential. Sadly, PonoMusic won't change that.

Today's DVDs and Blu-ray movies still have full dynamics, so explosions and special effects are a lot louder than the dialogue, and a lot of folks complain about that. They want more consistent (compressed) soundtracks, and chances are good they will eventually get their way.

Some folks want full dynamics, some want compressed-to-the-max sound. The fix has been obvious to me for years: the labels should release two mixes, a heavily compressed one and another that sounds as good as they can make it. The same approach would work with movies on DVD and Blu-ray. That way, everybody gets what they want.

Pono players are due to start shipping in October. I'm not clear about when the PonoMusic Web site will start selling downloads. The record companies set digital music prices, and Pono says theirs will run $15 to $25 depending on title and resolution. I think that's fair, but I'm guessing a lot of player buyers may balk at PonoMusic's FLAC-only download prices. We'll see.

Have you contributed to Young's Kickstarter campaign? Share your thought in the Comments section.