Pono: Revolutionary Music Device Or Another Toy For Rich Audiophiles?

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The Internet has been awash with crap puns for the last two days and almost all of them involve Pono, which is a thing I am going to try to describe for you now so you don’t have endure the Kickstarter video that features Anthony Kiedis in a snapback and made Four Tet puke.

The most recent brainchild of Neil Young and currently being developed by PonoMusic – a new company founded by (yes, of course) Neil Young – the Pono player is a purpose-built device designed to serve those hankerin’ for high-quality digital audio in a market dominated by iTunes and crap downloads.

Driven by musicians, Pono allows you to hear a recording as it was intended to be heard by an artist and/or their producer when it was created in the studio, not the compressed-to-shit mp3 version farted out by laptop speakers that we have come to accept as standard. In theory, this all sounds perfectly logical. But is Pono really going to revolutionise the way we consume music? Or, is it just another toy for audiophiles with plenty of disposable income?

The Kickstarter video for Pono is full of testimonials from RAWK STARS like Tom Petty, Foo Fighters and Jack White explaining that mp3s don’t give back the same quality of music that they put down. This is fair. If you spent hours, weeks, months and sometimes years (if you’re Fleet Foxes) agonising over layers and layers of sound only to have the majority of people listening to a version that has been stripped back to the bare minimum, you’d be pretty butt-hurt about it too.

Statistically, the quality of Pono is thirty times better than mp3, but do you really actually give a shit about that? The way we consume music has changed inexplicably since Neil Young started making it. It has become another background noise for many people – a habit, a commodity, a form of distraction at the office from your constantly looming existential crisis.

I understand that this is an artist-driven movement and we’re supposed to be listening to the expert opinions of respectable individuals like Kid Rock etc, but I’m struggling to see what relevance Pono has to the majority of music-consumers. In my opinion, the project would have been better off filming the reactions of your average person with untrained ears whose best sound system is in their car. Where are they in all this? Nowhere. Because, for the most part, they won’t be the ones shelling out $399 for a new digital device plus the additional cost of replacing their entire music library to make it worthwhile.

And there’s the catch. If you want to listen to high-quality audio, you need high-quality files. Pono offers industry standard audio files with bit rates of up to 9216 kbps, depending on the quality of the original master recordings. To put that in perspective, CDs usually have a bit rate of 1411 kbps and mp3s operate around 192 or 256 kbps. So yeah, the difference is pretty fucking huge. And if your music collection is mostly made up of mp3 downloads, you’ll have to replace the entire thing with FLAC files available from PonoMusic.com at a rough rate of $15-25 per album. Then there’s the obvious fact even if you have the highest quality audio files known to man, the thing you’re using to play them will be as useful as a cat flap in a house of elephants if you’re running it through a knackered sound system or a pair of complimentary headphones that came with your mobile phone.

So, should we bother? Will the saviour of the modern music experience come in the form of a device that is named after the Hawaiian word for “righteous” and, when pocketed, give the illusion of a constant erection?

If we get to the bare bones of it, this “new” technology is basically designed to provide the experience of listening to vinyl on the bus. I know people’s musical habits vary, but I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I would rather have the actual vinyl to sit down with at home (or like, actually go to a show) rather than pay extra to try to digitally simulate the experience in a traffic jam. Then there’s also the issue of where the money for these files would go (Young evaded this question at SXSW, calling it a “delicate” topic). I can’t help but feel like it’s partly, if not intentionally, being backed so vehemently by major labels because of the massive cash-grab potential. Despite working with Independent labels, there’s no way the PonoMusic library is going to be of much benefit to the underground or DIY communities. Stuff like this never is. And at this point I think it’s worth mentioning that many sites including Boomkat and Warp already offer FLAC downloads as an option.

Ultimately, Pono is created as a backlash against iTunes culture but fails to target the majority of people who actually use iTunes as a regular source for buying music. Aside from famous musicians, its target audience is basically “old rocker”. That is, the cross-section of the public who are old enough to feel nostalgic for vinyl and obsessed enough with sound to grab any technological advancement by the balls. They are the people who go to concerts with a list of technical critique checkpoints on a mental notepad. They will grumble at John Mayer when he fucks up. And they are exactly they kind of person who would spend hundreds of pounds re-buying every single Led Zeppelin album in ultra-high resolution to replace the CDs they as good as binned and the vinyl they sold before that.

The entire ethos behind Pono is to replace the “soul” that music has lost during the translation to digital. How does it do this? By providing a fancy upgrade to an already deemed-vapid listening experience. Pono claims to be a “grassroots movement”, but the money donated to this project could have helped rescue some of the music and arts venues that are currently floundering from harsh funding cuts and dropping faster than Azealia Banks’ credibility.

Pono is based on exclusivity rather than accessibility, which will never sit comfortably with the reasons I love music.

Originally published on The 405 here.

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