Pono, Hawaiian for Snake Oil
I wrote a scree yesterday indicting Pono for all kinds of crimes. I put it aside. Like one of Lincoln’s unsent letters, it will cast its heat alone, sitting on my google drive like a hot stone, until that too passes into ether.
Much of my anger came from frustration — in my professional life as an audiovisual archivist I have some sense of the limited capabilities of high resolution audio — and also a lack of information. I had believed Pono, the high-res audio player Neil Young is backing to rectify what he regards as decades of digital’s abuse of music, was set to use a proprietary format, and would essentially be a platform for selling new releases of old albums that could only be played on Pono. This is not the case. PonoMusic will be using FLAC, an open-source audio codec that’s been around nearly as long as folks have cried “foul” at MP3. FLAC is known as a “non-lossy” compression scheme, meaning that while it will compress the source audio file (whether that file is a high-resolution WAV or merely CD quality), the information it dumps in compression isn’t the actual audio data but rather the metadata that describes the audio and makes it work on various playback systems.
So it’s not in the music file but in the guts of the Pono player, with its advanced circuitry and digital-to-analog conversion system, where the magic happens that Young and Pono’s engineers are claiming. Which, given the range of gadgetry out there to reproduce sound, makes me shrug my shoulders. What’s nice to know, though, is that Pono will play those higher-res FLAC files that often inhabit a bandcamp page (as well as WAVs and, for those of us who are unwashed, MP3s).
While I’m no longer out for blood, Neil Young and his Pono provoked my ire in a couple of other ways. In interviews regarding Pono, Young has suggested that if you’re not listening to high-res audio, and doing so on a player like Pono, that you’re not really listening, that you have a tin ear that can’t truly enjoy the music because of the digital garbage in lower-res files. There are a ton of counter-arguments here, but I think Neil’s old man snarky-ness in itself is disappointing. Despite his reputation, he IS a part of the big music business, and has sold to dedicated fans the same record on LP, then cassette, then CD (often multiple re-masterings), then MP3. To tell them now they need fork over another $15-$25 for the new high-res release and $400 for a player compromises his integrity and smacks of money grab.
It also ignores the fact that most people treat music as a part of a larger experience, whether they’re cranking Pandora through the earbuds at work or enjoying a Sunday morning with a Zeppelin gatefold. Listening context and setting are everything. But let’s say you do want to experience what Neil’s talking about. Good luck. The real elephant in the room not being mentioned here is the playback system, and by that, I mean the amp and speakers (and listening space, for that matter) Pono might use to reproduce the audio, to actually push the air to your ears. Without good reproduction, and I mean very, very good reproduction (and in this context headphones just don’t count), Pono’s reproduction of high-res audio — and we’re talking about a sampling rate up to 4x CD quality — is no better than my iPod shuffle. Will PonoMusic sound great? Sure, if your playback system has a few thousand dollars in it. Would it hold up to a taste test against a well-mastered CD or higher-quality MP3 played back on a solid but cheaper system? That’s a shootout I’d like to see.
Further reading from the stalwarts at CNET: