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Yes it’s all very easy to mock the ageing rock-star for thinking he can enter the world of digital music entrepreneurship at the age of 68, but he may just be on to something.
PonoMusic was founded by Neil Young in 2011. It’s both a purpose-built portable digital music player and download service. Its goal is to provide the best listening experience possible when it comes to digital music.
This may seem like the mission statement of every manufacturer of MP3 players or music download services that has ever been but Pono has some fairly major unique selling points that may mean this is more than just a Howard Hughes style folly.
Pono Music explained
‘Pono’ is Hawaiian for righteous, just in case you were wondering.
Here’s the techy bit:
Standard MP3 files have a bitrate of 192kbps or 256kbps. These are highly compressed files, in fact they can carry as little as 5% of the information from the original recording. However the trade off is that you can carry thousands of these on a portable device.
CDs at their highest quality (or lossless) have a bitrate of 1411kbps.
PonoMusic will have the ability to play ultra-high resolution recordings that go all the way up to 9216kpbs. This is six times higher quality than CD lossless and 30 times higher quality than MP3.
The main point here is that Young, his team and indeed audiophiles all over the world have become tired of the compressed sound that the cheap and convenient format of MP3 affords.
Music sounded much better in the seventies because recordings were mastered directly onto vinyl, and this is how the general public consumed their purchased music.
Now that technology has improved, it’s possible to preserve and recreate the integrity of the original recording. With all of its dynamic range, nuances, high-ends and low-ends, echoes, drumstick drops and sound engineers munching sandwiches in the background.
What Neil Young describes as the "feeling, spirit, and emotion that artists put in their original studio recordings".
PonoMusic wants to provide a choice. Sometimes you want a huge number of MP3s to choose between if you’re out for the whole day. Sometimes you want to kick back on an evening with the highest possible quality recording of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. I can't be on my own there?
PonoMusic’s CEO John Hamm made quite a neat analogy when talking to BloombergBusinessWeek’s Joshua Brustein last week.
To me it’s like wine, there are days for a $10 bottle of wine. There are days for an $80 bottle of wine
How often do you buy an $80 bottle of wine?
Before the Kickstarter campaign launched and secured the service its $800,000 goal in just one day, there was a definite air of cynicism around the project.
Perhaps it’s just the polarising figure of Neil Young himself, who has only increased with irascibleness with age.
The Pono announcement came just weeks after my favourite music news story of the year, where Neil Young screamed “WRONG!” at an audience clapping along to the intro of ‘Ohio’. Young refused to continue until the audience had ‘settled down’.
Eric Clapton made the point to Rolling Stone earlier this month that he was surprised Neil Young would be able to hear the difference between different audio sources after all these decades of touring with Crazy Horse.
The look of the PonoPlayer itself is also rather divisive. In fact it looks like a big yellow Toblerone.
It’s not going to be the most comfortable thing to put in your pocket.
Can we listeners even really tell the difference between different bitrates? Some audio experts even believe that bigger files don’t necessarily relate to better quality music.
The trade off in using massively high resolution files of course means a smaller storage capacity. You’ll be able to store 800 ultra-high resolution recordings on the PonoPlayer. Compare this to your average 16GB iPod which can store 4,000 songs.
Downloads will only be available through one online site run by PonoMusic itself. This may not make for the most competitive environment.
I remember being quite snobby when the iPhone was first launched about the fact that I didn’t want to combine my mobile phone with my MP3 player. I was defiant about it.
Right now I can’t even remember the reasons why. Right now I couldn’t be without the convenience of my smartphone and its ability to store all of the music I need in one device.
That’s the problem with the PonoPlayer. It’s taking us back to the time of standalone MP3 players. It’s a technological regression.
Why Pono Music will succeed
This technological regression may actually be very necessary. Music quality has suffered since the move to MP3, and those people wishing to enjoy music exactly how it was meant to be heard have been sidelined when it comes to digital platforms and portability.
As of 18 March 2014 the Kickstarter campaign has reached nearly $4.1m with 28 days still to go.
Although it should be noted that this figure has been raised by the relatively small number of 12,160 backers. Each of these backers has spent an average of $330. This isn’t quite the mooted $399 price of the final product.
This basically means it’s a niche product, but one that will likely succeed because of the media hype around it and the small band of loyal and, let’s not be shy about this, high spending audiophiles.
Neil Young should be applauded for taking a stand against the stranglehold which companies like iTunes have over our digital music enjoyment.
I’ve just spent the last couple of weeks writing a series of articles called Death to iTunes where I’ve tried to find a better alternative. It’s harder than you may think. At least with PonoMusic there is a better alternative for sound quality.
In regard to the arguments about the negligible improvements in sound quality in terms of bigger files, these are missing the point. PonoMusic is about preserving the integrity of the original recordings. All of the extra information that is lost in studio recordings after being compressed to MP3, will be available again.
There’ll be sounds in songs you won’t have heard since playing the vinyl three decades ago or that you never knew were there in the first place.
In terms of memory, as well as the 128GB available in the player itself, PonoPlayer can accept microSD cards of up to 64GB each, so if you do need more music then you can always swap cards. It also has two output jacks, one for headphones and another stereo output specifically for your home audio system.
All in all, it seems like a pretty exciting package. Besides, I haven’t paid any attention to anything Eric Clapton has ever said, so I’m not going to start now.