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The PonoPlayer, what's up with that?

The Audiophiliac spends a bit of quality time with the Toblerone-shaped high-resolution music player.

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

The PonoPlayer. Steve Guttenberg/CNET

I feel like I've been hearing about the PonoPlayer music player for ages, so expectations ran high. The company never got around to sending one in for review, so I borrowed a friend's yellow player.

It feels light in my hands, and the triangular shape comes in handy when you lay Pono down on a table. I plugged in my Audio Technica ATH M50x headphones to check out the sound and was immediately impressed with the clarity. Pono sounds quick and clear, but the bass was lean. Navigating track selections via Pono's touchscreen tested my patience, it's twitchy and nowhere as easy to use as Sony's sweet little NWZ-A17 player.

I wish I still had the Sony to compare with the Pono, as memory serves both players share a light and airy tonal balance. I did compare the Pono to my reference affordable player, the FiiO X5, and that one had a fuller and richer sound. Not only that, the X5 did a much better job driving high impedance headphones like Sennheiser's HD-580 (300 Ohms). The Pono struggled with that headphone and squashed my music's dynamic contrasts, and the sound lacked energy. The X5 restored some of the music's excitement and played the HD-580 louder than the Pono. I don't think the Pono's lackluster performance with the HD-580 is a major concern, most headphones have much lower impedances, my Audio Technica ATH M50x for example is 38 Ohms, so it was a much easier to drive headphone for both music players.

The aluminum-bodied X5 feels more solidly built and better finished than the Pono, and the X5's smaller size makes it easier to stash in my pocket. The X5 measures 4.4 by 2.7 by 0.6 inches, the slightly bulkier 5 by 2 by 1-inch Pono is a tighter fit. The X5 has two TF-card slots for up to 256GB storage capability; Pono tops out at 128GB (64GB flash memory plus the included 64GB microSD card). The X5 sells for $349, Pono is $399.

High-resolution 192 kHz/24 bit FLAC files, as well as standard resolution 44.1 kHz/16 bit FLAC files sounded excellent on both players. With easier to drive headphones like the ATH M50x the Pono's dynamics returned, but the X5's sound still had more impact. Pono's bass was a tad thin, the X5's beefier low-end had more get up and go. I heard much the same sonic character with my Sony MDR-7520 headphones with both players.

The Pono was loaded with a few high-resolution Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tunes, and they really sounded great! The transparency with my Jerry Harvey Audio JH-13 in-ear headphones was superb. Norah Jones music was in the Pono too, and returning to the X5 Jones' sound had a richer/warmer character, which I preferred.

The Pono's top panel has two 3.5mm jacks. Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The rain and thunderclaps that open The Doors' "Riders on the Storm" tune sounded more spacious over the X5, the Pono shrank the soundstage's dimensions.

Summing up, I was a little disappointed by the Pono, it's good, but no threat to high-resolution music players from Sony, FiiO, Astell & Kern, or Hifiman.