(Oregonian (Portland, OR) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 12--The talk of SXSW on Tuesday night -- at least among the music critics who care as much about home speaker set-ups as they do undiscovered buzz bands -- was Neil Young's Pono, a newly unveiled project the rock legend has been promising for years. Young is a notorious, even cantankerous audiophile: he didn't begin releasing his "Archives" series until he could do so on Blu-Ray, which allows for 24-bit audio, a higher resolution than the 16 bits a CD has -- quality reduced further in MP3s, which trim file data to produce the small files we download and stream. That's why YouTube videos generally sound bad, not that anyone can tell anymore.
Young's goal, and that of the musicians he'd aligned with, such as producer T Bone Burnett, who gave hi-fi digital audio his own attempt with his stalled CODE format a few years back, is to bring listeners the same sonic richness that artists hear in the studio. There are many factors that stand in the way of that beyond just file size: an appropriate mix and master of the music, engineering processes which often squeeze air and dynamics out of recordings in order to hit higher volumes, an issue known as the "loudness war"; a format which retains the character of the master, arguably best achieved so far by vinyl; and a system, like a receiver and speaker set-up or high-quality headphones, which flatters the musical data. An iPod and its accompanying free earbuds and a 128kpbs MP3, for instance, represent multiple barriers to a recording sounding, well, musical.
Pono appears like an attempt to answer the portability problem, as well as removing some of the complications of audiophile equipment like preamps. The Pono system, as far as I can tell, works like this: a Pono web store will sell high-resolution files (so you'll have to buy everything again -- again) in the FLAC format, a "lossless" format capable of better-than-CD 24-bit sound that's long been used by concert bootlegs and audio obsessives. The Pono player, essentially a triangular iPod, will have a 64 to 128-gigabyte capacity in order to carry all these massive files, as well as a key advantage over Apple's portable players: iPods and iPhones can't play FLACs, though they can play the rival Apple Lossless format.
Pono's Kickstarter page says quality will vary depending on the masters available: some Pono files will cap at CD-quality audio because higher resolution files don't exist, though I imagine music previously upgraded for Super Audio CDs and other HD formats will make a quick transition. As always, you'll need great speakers or headphones to make the most of the additional file data, but Pono, with its promise of "the best sounding audio components," seems to offer a miniaturized version of the multi-component systems that have previously characterized audiophile listening.
I have yet to hear a Pono player in action, and real-world use, outside of the realm of ideally staged demonstrations, will be the defining test of its value. At $400 for the device and more for individual albums, the product seems destined for a niche audience -- a music industry move toward high fidelity and away from the convenient, cheap-sounding files that have long dominated digital music has to be a good thing, but then again, $400 sure buys a ton of records.
Are you interested in hearing what Pono can do?
-- David Greenwald
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