Sunday, February 8, 2015

PONO Music Player - High Res Is Real - Me and Neil Walking Down A Lonely Street

"It's the difference between just hearing music, and feeling music."

PONO is righteous - the music side of things is just great. And that's what matters the most. High resolution audio files must be at least a part of the future, if we are to have a decent future for quality audio. When I heard Zeppelin in high resolution on this device it removed any doubt - PONO is like having a fantastic stereo system in your hand for 400 bucks. It does what they said it would do.

Blindsided? No, I saw it coming. Was it a dream? No, it feels entirely too real. Was it my imagination? No, my imagination's not that good. I saw what I saw, but what I'm seeing is something I hadn't expected. I'm naive that way. But, what I hear is exactly what I had hoped I would hear.

The Pono Music World App
I do see Neil Young, heretofore one of the most beloved musicians on the planet, getting aggressively bombarded by negative press over his new high resolution audio playback device, the PONO Music Player. Not only is the mainstream press in full passive aggressive attack mode, relentlessly denouncing the PONO Music Player, they're also busting their asses to make sure that everyone who loves vinyl is aware that Neil put them down just as he had that Southern Man so long ago. Of course, the comment that they printed, where Neil said that listening to vinyl is just a fashion statement, was actually made in the framework of a full comment from Young that in fact said vinyl was a good thing. They didn't expect anyone to realize that both statements are not mutually exclusive, and that they are both correct. Neil Young is being vilified for being an overly enthusiastic entrepreneur who is actually trying to help people increase their quality of life. Have we really come to this? Character assassination to keep the public dumb and in the dark?

(Neil Young's full interview with The Frame)

I've been an avid supporter of the concept of PONO since I first heard Young talking about it years ago (I've been hearing Neil talk about audio quality since the very early nineties, maybe even late '80s in the now defunct Musician magazine). I'm dead tired of trying to review records according to how they sound in the shitty mp3 format (that sucks any way you slice it - I'm reviewing half an album fercrissakes). It is the exact same as trying to review a movie from a grainy, bootleg print of a film. I knew there was a lot wrong with the way we've been listening to music, and I was right. I wish I could sit with you in a room and demonstrate the differences to you - then you'd get it. If you try it out yourself, and you do so honestly, you'll get it, too. You will want to know once again the visceral feeling that great music is meant to deliver.

I've remained an avid supporter through the company's wildly successful Kickstarter project, and their run-up to production and release. I've looked on somewhat dumbfounded as I've actually seen almost everyone that actually owns a unit raving about it, yet the vast majority of tech sites and mainstream media are lambasting PONO, even before it was even born, and some articles and reviews by writers who haven't even ever been in the presence of the unit, haven't seen it, felt it, touched it, or heard it have denigrated it mercilessly like so many paid attack dogs. Crazy stuff, and it's made me shake my head and look forward to being able to actually experience the device and make up my own mind about what is what when PONO is considered.

I was pleasantly surprised when my friend Toby contacted me, and offered to send me out a unit to road test. Here's my experience.

I received the unit, and I was impressed with the packaging and attention to detail of presentation. I threw it on the charger, and a short time later I was listening to the glory of high resolution rock. I devised a roughly four stage test in a desire to define the unit in my world - I have no interest or need for double blind tests, or anything other than listening with my own ears. I know the intricacies of sound, and I have a damned fine ear. I have no interest in deceiving either you or me, I'm too damned old and tired for that sort of nonsense.

I attempted to listen to all of my sample tracks on YouTube (at the highest quality I could find), on iTunes importing my samples at both mp3, and Apple Lossless Encoder levels, on Spotify at their highest quality output, on my home system, and of course, PONO. I tried to hear my samples in as many of these scenarios as possible. This is a casual test, but one that tells me exactly what I want to know. I'm not looking for, nor do I require anything more, thanks. I'm evaluating and reviewing the PONO, not prosecuting it. I'll leave that for the techies and the punks of the blog world. I'm interested in music.

I'm not a very technically minded person - I figure that most devices will piss me off once or twice before I have them truly up and running, so I am pleasantly surprised by the PONO's relative ease of operation. Not quite as easy as my iPhone, but easier than most start ups. However, even with my lack of love for the technical, that's not to say that I'm unqualified to write about this unit with great knowledge and awareness. I've spent the last forty years deeply immersed in the world of rock and roll as a guitar player, listener, writer, retailer of musical instruments, and I've always been an ardent student of record engineering and production techniques, styles, and processes. I've been in it thick for a long, long time. Probably to the point of a little obsession.

In choosing what to listen to for my testing, I went for things with which I was very familiar, some new records, things that I knew had great reputations, and things I knew to be lacking from the standpoint of sound quality. I wanted to somewhat run the gamut of listening experiences from the good, the bad, and the ugly. I'm not going to tell you too much about where the bad came from because I just don't find it necessary, or sporting. They were only used as a point of reference for my own edification.

The first track that I downloaded from the PONO Music Store was George Harrison's 'I'd Have You Anytime' off of his All Things Must Pass album (96kHz/24bit), as it is probably the single track that I know most intimately. I've heard and loved the tune in a great many ways, I've played it, I've recorded it, and I have studied it with great enthusiasm over the years. I downloaded the track onto the PONO Music World App on my iMac, and then sent it down the signal path onto the PONO player. It took me a few minutes, but any delays were mine and not caused by the device. It did load my entire library from iTunes onto the app in a very short matter of moments. Downloading of the actual high res tracks takes more time than the average lo res download that you may be used to, but a great more information is being delivered, so that only makes sense.

I started the audio testing by listening to the track on YouTube first, and worked my way up the chain in perceived/reported quality, finally landing on the hi res PONO, and quite often going back and forth, toggling between delivery systems to be sure of what I was hearing. The first thing that I noticed on the high resolution track was the tremendously increased dynamic range. Especially noticeable was the vibrato that Eric Clapton applies to the ending note of each phrase he plays on the intro's solo guitar, and the depth of the acoustic guitars. I could quite clearly hear both the width of his quavering string bends, and the length of the note as it decayed. Those details are almost undecipherable on the YouTube HD video clip, and somewhat blurry on iTunes, but the PONO rendering gave a much, much better rendering of what was being played. There is nothing imagined about this point - it is very easy to hear.

The cooler part, and here's where I may lose some readers, and I'll be glad that they're gone. It felt better. A guitarists' vibrato is often his virtual signature - whether you are B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons, Gary Moore, or Eddie Van Halen, your vibrato is your  signature, and one that I have studied intensely and could probably pick out of a police lineup. I would gladly use the PONO experience to define and explain this to someone. This is what someone is referring to when they say a player plays with great feeling.

When a great track is presented in the highest possible resolution you feel it in your gut, your chest, and in your heart. I'm very certain that if you heard this, or when you experience this, you'll get it, and I certainly felt it and heard it. A great first impression. It was like remembering what music was supposed to sound like, and much closer to what it used to sound like. This isn't snake oil, it's truth.

When Harrison starts to sing the first verse, he sounds as if he is present in the room - he's singing very softly, and whereby on the lower resolution formats his voice somewhat collided with Alan White's drum track, on the PONO I can hear them both in a quite clear and concise fashion. When the song goes into the chorus the drums get hit harder and become louder, something that was minimized by anything less than the remastered 2001 CD set, but tremendously optimized on the PONO. I tried this at various volumes, and with both headphones (AKG K240) and my home stereo speakers (mid 70s Radio Shack Nova 8Bs powered by a Marantz Model 1030 Stereo Amplifier), and the results were consistent in all directions. I've heard this song in a great many configurations, and this was by far the best I've ever heard it sound. I felt that I was in the control room with Phil Spector and George listening to a playback of the original master tapes. Did I go in wanting this result? Of course I did, but if it hadn't panned out that way, that's what I'd be telling you now. This sounds better than any vinyl I have ever heard, though, I would be the first to admit that I haven't heard it translated through the very best analog systems, only very excellent home systems.

Let's talk about this 'feel' thing. One of Neil Young's strongest and most repeated comments about PONO is that it not only sounds better, it also feels better to the listener. For me, that feeling is very palpable, and not something I can manufacture - believe me, I've been trying to do that within my world of audio for the last twenty years. The disappointing experience of listening to things sound so often worse than they did before, and so seldom better.

My wife is not as fanatical about music as I am, but this was her first reaction and statement - that the music made her 'feel better', in that she noticed a visceral difference in both her breath, her muscular system, and her mentation when experiencing the high resolution tracks. She's a massage therapist and perfume/body products maker by trade, and these factors are not something she is casual about. And she's right, high resolution audio does make you feel better. Now, mind you, high res will not make the good bad, it cannot reanimate that which is lifeless, it is not magic. But, it will give your body, brain, and mind much more information with which to work. It will make the most of what you have. This feeling is decidedly more pronounced when air is being moved by speakers, and not as palpable when experienced by headphones (though this may prove different with better headphones than those I have been using).

That was my first lasting impression - that this was the best I ever heard one of my favorite songs sound.

My other PONO moment came when I did the same approximate test, but with a downloaded CD, not a high res download. What would the PONO do with a ripped CD? And how would it sound on playback when compared with playing the same CD through my house system, and iTunes. Could it make CDs sound better than I have been used to experiencing? This is important as much of my library is in the form of CDs, and I want to be able to utilize them regardless of the player I'm using.

Since I had already went with the tested and true, this time I went for the new and somewhat uncharted.

Black Star Riders have a new album, The Killer Instinct, and it's being released in a few weeks (yeah, I am shamelessly plugging this great record). I have not only listened to it a good deal and wrote a review, I had even went so far as to speak with one of its main creators, guitarist and songwriter Damon Johnson about the conception, recording, and production of the album. At the helm of this project from behind the mixing board was producer Nick Raskulinecz, and he is as good at capturing the sound a rock band makes as anyone currently residing on the planet. He's produced Foo Fighters, Mastadon, and the last two Rush albums - his resume is remarkable, and his talent and results speak for themselves. One of the things that impressed me about this album was the fact that it even sounded pretty good when presented as a 320kbps mp3 file (the highest quality mp3s, and the rate at which most record labels send out album review streams). Just coincidentally, I received a hard copy of this CD on the same day as the PONO unit arrived, so I thought that would be a good sign to follow, and a good example of the best thing out there short of true high resolution.

I downloaded the CD onto iTunes at both their lower and higher quality options (if you're not aware that you can rip your CDs onto iTunes at a variety of bit rate settings and sonic options, and that they set their machines on the lowest resolution settings, you can check under iTunes General Preferences> Import Settings> and you can choose the level of Import Using). Could I tell the difference between iTunes lower and higher import rates (128kbp or 320kpb)? You're damned right I could - the differences weren't huge, but they were very noticeable. Either would sound OK to good if you had nothing better to with which to compare. However, with each step up things got better, and made my day a little better, as good things should make you feel. It's OK to feel good things - don't deprive yourself of feeling good. There's too much of that being forced onto this world, and I think you should avoid that all you can.

Now, for my money, this is where it gets interesting. I had ripped the CD to iTunes at a rate that should give me all I can get from the CD, but when I played the ripped CD through the PONO player, the difference on playback was again extremely significant. I believe that this must be down to the quality of components being used inside the PONO, and the work of the engineering team from Ayre Acoustics. The sonic experience being delivered by the PONO unit was quantifiably better than that from any other source, including playing the CD through my home system. And for those who don't think the quality of components don't matter, well, you're dead wrong. It makes a big difference. The reason some Vox AC-30 guitar amps from the sixties sound like the voice of God himself, and others sound like dreck, it is because the Vox corporation did not care what components they were using, only what they could readily purchase to build all their orders. When they got great components they ended up with magical amps and when they went cheap they got the duds. Quit believing that quality doesn't matter - it does, damn it. Here's what I found.

Back to the test. I went to what I believe is the best sounding song on the album, a track entitled 'Blindsided'. It has a very soft acoustic guitar intro, its dynamics change several times, and there is a lot of attention being paid and focus going on in the song's mix. The first thing I noticed was the third of three drop dead gorgeous acoustic guitars on the song's intro - it's hard to detect on everything but the CD, and through the PONO (but best on the PONO). It's mixed toward the center of the stereo field and there are acoustic guitars on both the right and left channels playing similar, but slightly different parts. You even hear a slight pop from the guitar in the middle that sounds a few incidental harmonics when the player lifts his fingers off the strings, the PONO is that accurate. When singer Ricky Warwick comes in on the first verse his voice is joined by Robbie Crane's bass, and the separation between the two is fantastic, the bass is joined in the right speaker by a droning organ tone, and a single electric guitar note (slightly distorted). On PONO you can clearly hear Warwick's breathing, and the way that he goes into and ends his vocal lines has incredibly rich detail. This was for me undetectable when heard through any other device or method.

During the song's first guitar solo, you can hear the organ get louder in the mix and change the notes it is playing, and the acoustic guitar repeating the introduction's signature can be heard very clearly on the left channel. And that guitar solo? Once again the player's vibrato is so pronounced and crisp that it could be used as a learning tool for both playing, and listening. I honestly believe that many people would be well served by some coaching as they experience more critical listening, and better sound quality for the first time. They would get it eventually, but education always facilitates a faster learning curve. There's a point right after the tune's second guitar solo in which the drums are treated with a time based effect that echoes in syncopation with the beat, and the bass plays a smart figure around this drum sound, and it's a most clever proposition that was obviously the work of not just the band, but also a producer who was working very hard and being very creative - were it not for the PONO's ability to accurately reproduce these details, I would never have noticed it. The fact is that it did, and I am very appreciative to be able to hear everything the artistic team intended. I found the emotional content of the tune to be highly elevated by the improved sound quality. That was my experience.

Those are the two tracks that convinced me that I want a PONO music player. I can't say that the machine is magic, it only does what they say it will do, and it does the music side of things very, very well. I've heard better sound but it involved a great deal more money, and landscape than the cost and size of a PONO music player. By many times the cost.

I even threw up some demos by a band called The Yawpers, sent to me by their producer, Johnny Hickman of the band Cracker, and the mp4 files sounded just great through the PONO. Mind you, the tracks were well played and produced, and there is no substitution for that. Do they sound better through the PONO than through iTunes? Yes, they do. Keep an eye out for this band, incidentally - great stuff.

What won't the PONO do?

It won't make bad good. As I said I listened to a great many tracks that were lacking due to the compromises made on the original product. I wish there were more high res choices in the PONO Music Store, but they can only work with what they have, and that means that the majority of tracks available are only available at lower CD bit rates. But, they will sound as good as they ever will through the PONO, and you can put your entire music library on the device as is. The fantastic sound quality that is available via high res is almost like a plus, while we really know it's the point. The Led Zeppelin tracks I heard are wonderful, as are many of the other tracks I tried at high res. Mind you, I listened to some tracks that were entered at 192kHz/24bit that were not thrilling, but you can only work with what source material exists, you can't make something better, you can only better display and present it.

Here's a partial list of acts I experienced - Miles Davis, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, UFO, Gary Moore, John Coltrane, Johnny Cash, David Bowie, Mastadon, Cracker, Ron Carter, Toto, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Lou Reed, Guided By Voices, and quite a few others.

I uploaded several albums by MoonJune Records, a label well known for a very strong commitment to high quality audio that offers high resolution downloads at their bandcamp site (, and records by both Indonesian guitarist/composer Dewa Budjana and English guitarist Mark Wingfield sounded like you were in the room with the musicians. This is why you want access to high resolution audio. You may not require it for everything you listen to, and your existing library is probably fine, but I'll tell you something - once you hear and feel the difference between good high resolution material and the rest of your collection, you may well be wishing right along with me for the rapid growth of available products.

The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Beatles (said to be close to a deal with PONO), and many others have not made the full leap into making their catalogs high res friendly, but hopefully this little device, and others like it will sound the alarms for better quality sound  to both musicians and listeners. Musicians need to return to a time in which they demanded a certainly level of sound quality, and a whole generation has grown up thinking mp3s and ear buds are somehow good. They aren't the end of the world, but there is a huge and better universe beyond them, and that universe could be filled quite soon by more selection and better quality audio, and that's not a bad thing for which to hope.

It would be easy for me to be harder on the PONO Music Player, but I've held it, felt it, used it, and most importantly, heard it. In regards to the cost of the music (the average price of an album is between fifteen and twenty-five dollars, individual tracks run from $.99 to $2.99), but let's remember that CDs cost fifteen bucks thirty years ago, and they didn't generally sound this good. Look at it this way - you're getting a lot of digital information for your dollar, and it's information that costs these days, not the manufacture of products. All PONO really does is help further the cause of better sounding music at a fair price, and with a reasonable product. Those who lash out at it seem often to be driven by the simple fact that they can't afford it, and I appreciate that, but the economy isn't dictated by PONO. It is simply making available a choice.

I did find out that I need to step up my headphone game. My beloved and long used AKG K240M headphones are no longer able to keep up with what I am wanting to feed them. The other components in my system cost me less than $150, so I would have a very, very nice home system for around six hundred dollars, and the price of the music. Plus, there's a good chance the musicians are getting paid fairly when their catalog sells, something that can't be said for the streaming services. There's nothing wrong with streaming, as there is nothing inherently wrong with iTunes. They have their places in the world, as should PONO. It's just another alternative, and one that I happen to like a great deal.

The most important thing is for the consumer to not listen to what we write, but to experience things and figure them out for themselves. All I'm doing is relating my experience as I tested the device in a way that made a lot of sense to me. I wish that Neil Young wasn't getting attacked like he is, but he is, and he's a big boy who can fend for himself. But he won't walk alone - I too shall be walking that walk towards better sound, and a return to sanity concerning the quality of music we hear. I'm with you, Neil.

Check it out for yourself - be your own ears and voice, wherever that leads you.        

I'm not a technical expert, and I'm not an engineer - I am an extremely devout music lover, and a member of long standing in the musical community. I know what I like, and why I like it. I've spent over forty years developing my opinions, and this is just my experience, as I said earlier. I don't have a phone that will deliver high resolution files, nor do I really want one at this point. I'm old school enough that I prefer a separate music player - I'd perhaps use it in my car, but I don't walk around listening to music, though it would be great for the gym, and for that they really need to stabilize their touch screen and button situation a bit.

If there were more options in the super high resolution section of the library this would be a slam dunk, but even as it is, I'm a huge fan.  High resolution needn't and shouldn't be just for audiophiles. What healthy food is for the body is what good quality audio is for your ears, and more. This is a great first step in bringing this technology to the street, and I anxiously look towards following PONO to see where they take it. The PONO Music Player makes what you already own sound even better, and when you go to high resolution your experience is greatly improved. That is, if the mainstream doesn't kill it first, and that's a possibility that maybe the real story here. Pono does exactly what they said it would do. But don't take my word for it - check it out with your own ears, eyes, and sense. Make the right choice for you.

I hope to soon write my record reviews using the PONO Music Player exclusively. Then I'll be able to give you all even better service when I write about records. I'll be able to tell you much more about the artists' intentions, as well as the results.


revrannulf said...

Good stuff, Tony! Thanks for all the info!!

gman said...

Thanks for the in depth review on Pono.I had looked online and was hard pressed to find a lot of positive reviews.Somebwere lukewarm.I hope to be able to hear myself.I do think that if it is real good,word of mouth will take over.

Anonymous said...

Nice work! FYI, all of The Who's studio albums (apart from Endless Wire) are available as hi-res downloads (several are available as SHM-SACDs, and Tommy and Quadrophenia are on Blu-ray audio discs), as are several of their comps--all sound phenomenal. :) Also, the Stones' Abcko catalog is available on SACD, and some post ABCKO material is avaialble in hi-res formats (SACD, Blu-ry audio discs, download).

I love that you listened to GBV in hi-res. :)

jowdjbrown said...

PONO is like having a fantastic stereo system in your hand for 400 bucks. It does what they said it would for sale