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What's up with Neil Young's Pono high-resolution music system?

We've heard about Pono for years, and now the promised 2014 launch has been postponed.

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
3 min read
Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The Gigaom Web site reported on December 20 that Pono announced it won't be showing at the CES show in Las Vegas in January.

I first heard about Neil Young's Pono music system more than a couple of years ago, and it was supposed to roll out a few months later. Rumors continued to circulate about an imminent debut, then fade away. Young showed a Pono music player prototype on the David Letterman show in September 2012, and it seemed like the launch was within reach.

Like everybody else I'm still unsure about how the Pono music service will work. Will we have to buy a Pono music player to fully enjoy the glories of Pono files? In other words, is Pono a closed system? Or can you play Pono high-resolution Master Files on your computer at home or on an iPhone or Android phone? I can't see how that would be possible in the near term, and I don't consider phones' digital converters and built-in amplifiers audiophile-grade devices. Playing a file is one thing; hearing better sound from it is something else.

The biggest stumbling block for Pono is the scarcity of high-resolution music being recorded today. According to a friend who worked at one of NYC's biggest mastering studios, only 10 or 15 percent of clients ever bother with true high-resolution masters. Most are no better than 48kHz/24-bit, very few are bona-fide high-resolution 96kHz or 192kHz masters. But even if Young can rack up enough high-resolution music albums, how Pono Master Files will differ from the high-resolution WAV, FLAC, or ALAC files that are already available from other high-resolution download sources, he isn't saying. How will the Pono player be any different than the Astell & Kern, FiiO, or Hifiman high-resolution players already on the market?

While the original high-resolution audio formats, SACD and DVD-Audio, could produce awe-inspiring sound quality back in the early 2000s, most high-resolution mixes were only slightly better-sounding than the CDs'. Young has said that Pono files will be artist-approved studio masters, and that implies different masters and possibly mixes than the CD, LP, or iTunes mixes. If they can pull that off, Master Files would really be a major sonic improvement over what we have now. It's nice in theory, but if Pono is ever going to be a high-resolution alternative to the iTunes store, Pono has to offer a vast selection of music. If Pono could somehow enforce higher quality standards on the music business, that would be a great thing, but why does the business need Pono urging them on? If they cared about sound quality in the first place, they would make all of the releases sound great in every format they sell: MP3, FLAC, CD, iTunes, or LP.

I proposed the "two-mix" solution for a couple of years ago. Mix One would be the standard heavily compressed mix that sounds fine on Bluetooth speakers, car audio systems, and cheap earbuds; that's the mix we have now. It's fine for the way most people listen to music. Mix Two would be less compressed and processed for folks who have decent stereo systems and/or high-quality headphones. The prime reason cited why the two-mix approach isn't being implemented is cost; the record companies don't want to spend extra cash to create a second mix. Why will they now for Pono? We'll find out if Pono ever gets off the ground; Young now claims it will happen early next year.

I wish Pono great success, but it hasn't clearly defined what it's trying to accomplish.

Editors' note: This story was originally published on October 19, 2013, and has since been updated with additional information.