PonoMusic Is Bullshit


As I write this, the Kickstarter for the Neil Young backed Pono music player is nearing completion, with the campaign raising close to 6 million dollars, well over their original goal of $800.000.

And that’s too bad. Because the Pono music player is a bunch of bullshit, a rip-off of mammoth proportions that is taking advantage of pretentious “audiophiles” with more dollars than sense, and naive tech geeks who believe everything the Internet tells them. Simply put, there’s nothing about the Pono music player that will make music sound better. That’s because there’s nothing new about the PonoMusic player, and every (old) piece of technology that it employs cannot and will not fix the current problem with audio quality in today’s music.

PonoMusic’s FAQ (which I suggest all fans of fiction check out) seems to focus on one point over and over again; that MP3s are over-compressed garbage that strip away the soul of the music. And while the argument can be made (kind of) that MP3s have been detrimental to audio quality, they’re not the real reason why music sounds worse today. And even if they were, nothing PonoMusic promises would actually fix that problem.

Before I get to the real reason why music sounds bad, let me briefly touch upon what Pono promises to do. Pono will apparently be more than an audio player, it will be an entire music “ecosystem” where music fans can buy audio of varying quality from a special music store. This music will range from standard CD quality to “ultra high resolution” files encoded at 9162 kbps (192 Khz/24 bit).

If you don’t know what any of that technical jargon means, don’t worry, it basically means that the music will be as uncompressed as possible. This is in comparison to other audio formats (including CD) which digitally compress the music to save space. What PonoMusic is basically saying is that, when you listen to music at such a high resolution, that it will no longer sound like “just” a CD or MP3. Instead, it will sound like you’re really there, that it will sound better than anything you’ve ever heard ever. That it will change the way you listen to – oh fuck it I just can’t write that garbage anymore.

Here’s the thing about bitrates, encoding, kilohertz and all that jazz: they all suffer from diminishing returns. If you encode a song twice, once at 32 kbps and then  again at 64 kbps, the latter is going to sound almost twice as good. One encoded at 128 kbps will sound even better. But after that  the results may vary. Some people can’t even tell the difference between 128 and 256 kbps. I can, but I wouldn’t say that 256 kbps is twice as good. And once you get past that, the differences are even more minute. I encode my MP3s at 320 kbps, but I honestly can’t hear a difference between that and 256 on my headphones – it’s more of a “just in case’ precaution. And I certainly can’t hear the difference between my high-bitrate MP3s and a lossless FLAC that is encoded at 1411 kbps (CD quality). I can’t imagine there would be a quantifiable difference between that and the “ultra high quality” (9216 kbps!!!) that Pono is promising.

And it’s not just me that thinks so. Science backs me up. Study after study (as well as anecdotal evidence galore) pretty much proves that most people just can’t tell the difference between a high-quality MP3 or a CD; or a CD and a better-than-CD format like DVD-A. The human ear just doesn’t have the ability to do so.

Get that? Bitrates and digital encoding aren’t killing music or destroying audio quality. They never have been and never will.

But if you do think that music sounds worse now than it used to – you’re not wrong. In fact, audio fidelity and quality has drastically decreased in recent years. But it has almost nothing to do with digital compression. As I’ve discussed on this blog several times over (and at my MP3 blog Lost Turntable) the biggest enemy against music fidelity are the Loudness Wars.


The original master of Nirvana’s “Stay Away” vs the over-compressed remaster.

For whatever reason, record labels, producers and engineers have gotten in their head that “louder is better” when it comes to music these days. So when the time comes to master a record, they squeeze as much noise out of it as possible, making the quiet bits loud and the loud bits intolerable. That destroys the dynamic range (the difference between the quietest and loudest part) of a recording, making everything loud. This often leads to hearing fatigue by the listener, destroys the subtle nuances of the music, and can even lead to audible distortion in some extreme cases.

The people behind PonoMusic know this. More importantly, they know that the kind of people interested in their product know this, so they do address it on their Kickstarter page. And by “address it” I mean “lie about it.”

“with the proliferation of lossy compressed digital formats such as mp3 – where everything became loud and flat and heartless. Yes, mp3s are really convenient, and sometimes, that’s OK. But, if you want to hear all the music, if you want it to be really special, you have to start with all the music.”

That gives the impression that digital compression (NOT the same thing as dynamic range compression) is what’s causing music to be too loud. Furthermore, it also suggests that PonoMusic has the answer with their player/ecosystem, and that their music will not sound as compressed. And that’s a lie. I know that’s a lie because that would require record companies to create a second master of the album explicitly for PonoMusic, one that isn’t as loud as the original master. And since PonoMusic will, at best, be a boutique product for A/V geeks, that’s just not going to happen. So no matter what PonoMusic does, no matter what magic FLAC files they’ll be selling, they’ll still be the same over-compressed, sonically-crushed bullshit that you buy on iTunes or even on a CD.

PonoMusic is sonic snake oil; nothing more, nothing less. The people behind it are being disingenuous about what their product can and will do, and their Kickstarter is straight up lying to you. Don’t support this bullshit, and if you know anyone who is, make sure they know the facts before they throw their money away.

And goddamn how the hell is anyone going to fit a giant cubic triangle in their pocket?


27 Responses to PonoMusic Is Bullshit

  • Anna says:

    Supposedly, as we get older (all of us, regardless of what we’ve been exposed to) our ability to hear changes based on everything from thickening of the eardrum, loss of responsiveness in the bones of the inner ear, to the loss of stereocilia. It’s ironic that Neil Young, pushing 68 now, probably couldn’t hear any difference between his own music in this magic Pono thingy and an Edison phonograph.

    • ask412 says:

      Tough call, close to the mark Anna.

      Adding; where Neil young has a point, is on high quality audio equipment. Systems that cost the price of a quality European Sports Car.

      The rest of us are using bicycles and car sharing or are hipsters using fixies.

      Using iPod and iPhone with audiophile headphones the limit of our hi fidelity experience. Yes, Apple and others can give us more storage for 9162 kbps 192 Khz/24 bit, but who will open the choke points on downloading data?

      Because tollgates on the internet superhighway are trending exponentially. This will be the Pono challenge. We can only hope the whole music industry gets a KITA .

  • Flash says:

    I listen to the music, not the audio system.

    • SpkrJ says:

      No, you and everyone else listens to music THRU your audio system. That includes the file format, audio decoding/playback device, amplifier, speakers or headphones. They’re ALL part of what delivers what you listen to. All parts have a greater or lesser effect.

  • L says:

    Well … visit us at aos-music.com … we produce, record, mix, original artists, live, no overdubs, in 24bits/96Khz audio files and Hd videos files … you’ll hear the différence ! … if you have ears … enough !

  • Jay Amero says:

    If I’m not mistaken, they are remastering albums specifically for the Pono.

    Of course Neil can hear the difference between a Pono and an Edison, Anna. Do you just agree with everything this writer says?

    You two go ahead and enjoy your ipods. I have heard 24bit music and it does sound better, but you need good headphones and a decent sounding player. The Pono is supposed to deliver a good sound.

    You’ll love it once you actually hear it, then you’ll be saying the opposite. Neil Young doesn’t deal in snake oil. It’s his idea and he wants the real deal: good sound. So do I. It exists. This isn’t bullshit.

    Forget byte rates and formats. The player is going to deliver better channel separation and clearer instruments. I watched the clip with Beck where they all get into Neil’s Linc-volt and you can hear how good it sounds from outside the car. That’s not fake.

    • James Eldred says:

      From the recent update on the Pono Kickstarter:

      ” CDs and MP3s are derived from the original masters, and now, with the PonoPlayer, you can finally feel the master in all its glory, in its native resolution, CD quality or higher, the way the artist made it, exactly. That’s the beauty of Pono.”

      Sounds to me like they’re using original masters. So you are mistaken.

      And if they are going to offer new masters that don’t have their dynamic range squashed to hell and back then THAT will make the music sound better more than releasing them in insane high bitrates or as huge FLAC files. Put 100 people in a room and play them an uncompressed FLAC vs a 256 kpbs MP3 and 90 or more won’t be able to tell the difference.

  • I enjoy digital files off my computer through my headphones. The sound is quite good ( better than my Samsung note 8 tab ). The author seems to skip an important part of the Pono approach. This would be that it is large enough to accommodate proper audio components and that makes a difference. This race to “thin” left audio quality languishing in our portable devices. I maintain there is a undeveloped market for quality audio in our laptops and tablets. They could make them 2″ thick, much more robust and longer battery life and include high quality DACs and op amps. I’ve no doubt that the pono does sound superior to to other portable devices.

    • James Eldred says:

      Quality components can make music sound marginally better if you have the right headphones for sure, but not at this better than sex level that these artists (who are Neil’s BFFs for the most part) are saying.

  • Head Caver says:

    Give me an mp3 and a 24bit 96khz wav file on a decent setup and yes i can tell the difference. Anyone listening to music on a decent audiophile system will tell you they cant play mp3 derived music cos the system shows up all the compression and phasing in mp3s.
    That aside, most people listen to crap music on crap systems.. so let them have crap!

    • James Eldred says:

      Good for you. You’re in the extreme minority – even if you’re telling the truth and not suffering from a confirmation bias. I would love to see what would happen if you were given a doubleblind test based on music you’ve never heard before.

      And you said it yourself “on a decent audiophile system.” You think most people can afford a decent audiophile system? No, they can’t. However, you give me an overly compressed MP3 or CD with no dynamic range and then the same music on a properly mastered disk and I can tell the difference even on iPod earbuds. That’s what matters more than anything else, and as far as I can tell, Poono isn’t going to address that at all. So who cares.

  • Richard Rowan says:

    Flash got a point here, Music counts, and only music, though Pono’s intentions to deliver the best render with these “original masters ” can be at least be appreciated. I think we have to let people make their investment as they please too, you can love music and listen to it on a mediocre system, a very good system will not make you a better lover. The fact is the difference is huge though, espacially when you come to delight a 24 bit / 96 khZ file. And actually the website mentioned – the Architekt of Sound label – is true honey on my Devialet 110, the feeling of space is amazing !!

  • Dave says:

    Watch and learn. Then read and learn. You can then play the sample files to test just how good your DAC really is.

    • James Eldred says:

      I was looking for these links THANK YOU. I’m pretty much saying the same thing but stupider and with more vulgarity.

      • Dave says:

        I’m an electrical engineer and took many signal and systems courses. I learned more from monty Montgomery in 1-2 hours than in 4 years of school. People really need to pay attention to this stuff so they don’t get ripped off. I.e. directional speaker cables , etc.

        I do have to admit I bought an odac and it passed most of montey’s tests. Most but not all demonstrating I am adding more noise to my system than with my 16bit soundcard. Still it was fun to build up the odac and o2 headphone amp. But that’s it for fun, and 24/96 vinyl rips are worthless. Other than the uncompressed music is nice on the ears, especially for rock music

      • SpkrJ says:


    • SpkrJ says:

      Seen this a while back. I think he’s got a few points, a few points are not really there, and he’s flat wrong on a few.
      Some of his points argue against some of the ones made here! (and seemingly against his own points at times!)

      Most every sound playing hardware I have came up clean, including an $80 Soundblaster Xfi USB soundcard. Maybe one of my PC’s embedded sound cards had the issue. (8yr old PC)

  • Dave says:

    Pono Music is nothing more than HDTracks with a player. It was originally planned to be a new, proprietary digital format with DRM, but when everybody screamed at them how monumentally STUPID that idea was, they backpedaled and just went with FLAC instead, I bet Meridian (at least initially a Pono partner) was royally pissed about that, as Pono was originally going to use MLP for compression ala DVD-A.

    Sometimes HDTracks gets new, dedicated masters for their releases, for example some of their recent Blue Note Jazz stuff. Sometimes they get what are likely the same digital masters that the vinyl cutting engineers do, which tend to be largely uncompressed. Often times however, HDTracks gets the exact same master as the CD, just with a higher bit/sample rate. In those instances, the HDTracks and CD versions will be audibly indistinguishable, and I’d be happy to put money down that anyone who says otherwise will fail an ABX test. It doesn’t even have to be unfamiliar music, and you can even use a high-end audio system if you want. It won’t matter.

    If you take a digital master, recorded and engineered at 96/24, and compressed to DR5 (typical loudness war DRC), and you dither it down to 16/44 for CD production, you have made no audible changes to it. Anything above 22.05kHz will be removed, but otherwise they are the same. There *are* some DACs that *do* sound better when fed 24/96 material, NOS DACs in particular, but all that’s required there is upsampling your 16/44 music back to 24/96 which can be done on the fly by software players like Foobar.

    If you do an ABX test between an upsampled 24/96 file and a native 24/96 file, EVERYONE will fail that test. To the extent that HD music files sound any better than their CD equivalents, it’s because of better mastering.

    If a particular Pono album uses a dedicated, uncompressed or less compressed master, it’ll sound better than the CD. If it doesn’t, it won’t. The problem is it’s hard to get people to give you $6,000,000 for that, especially when there’s already somebody doing what you’re going to do (HDTracks) and already several people selling HD capable music players (Ibasso, A&K, Hifiman, etc).

    So in order to cash in, the Pono guys had to obfuscate, confuse the issue, and lie. Their little graphic of the poor music listener suffering under the tyranny of the MP3, and then soaring into the clouds on the wings of 24/192 is complete and utter horse shit.

    Music was NOT ruined by the MP3. The audio cassette sounds far worse than the MP3 ever has. DAWs and brickwall limiters have ruined music. DR5 mastering has ruined music.

    The one potential upside I see to Pono is this. Nobody records to tape anymore, so pretty much all of today’s vinyl releases are cut from 24/48 or 24/96 files, which are often uncompressed because the accepted industry wisdom is that you don’t need to compress vinyl to “modern” loudness standards. If the label sends Pono THOSE files, which most of the time never see the light of day, that would be fantastic, and I’ll be happy to buy them. If they are “modernized” to be “competitive,” then Pono will be the complete and utter waste of time that I suspect it will be.

  • SpkrJ says:

    You might be surprised how low the price a “decent audiophile system” can be, or at least something good enough to hear the kind of detail where you can tell. Go to your Best Buy, get a pair of the $130 Pioneer speakers designed by Andrew Jones, put ’em on a pair of stands out from the wall a bit, rather than on your bookshelf… hook to your moderately good HT receiver… and you will be amazed. And probably easily able to pick out the average MP3 from original. There are now several under $500 speakers that are several classes of quality above the average crap “HT in a box” stuff. Same goes for headphones. Building your own speakers is another option, quite a DIY community out there, and one can build very high quality for much less $$.

    Point is, you don’t need a $10-20-50K system to hear the differences. And, there’s more to get out of whatever you listen to, with a little better system.

  • David Hyman says:

    what’s bullshit is this article. you have no clue what you’re talking about.

  • Tom says:

    Sure, I can’t hear the difference between 320 mp3s and HD wav files either, but shouldn’t the quality of the playback device also reflect quality of sound? Is there no potential for the Pono player to sound better than other portable music devices if it is made from higher quality components?

  • aero@terra.es says:

    Well, hipsters say they can tell the difference between wav and flac.
    Nothing more to say ………..

  • Well the players are out and the consensus is in: this author is a tool and the Pono sounds amazing.

    • James Eldred says:

      I don’t know why you felt the need to comment on two separate posts on this story, John Lowenthal, who is currently employed by Pono music or one of its partners, but thanks for your insight.

      I don’t care if Pono is getting good reviews. Great. I hope it isn’t bullshit. Even if it isn’t that doesn’t change the fact that the majority of stuff said about the system by the people who are making it is nothing but bullshit and lies that has nothing to do with it’s supposed audio quality.

  • If you want to improve your listening experience, spend money on the components (earphones, stereo, etc).

    Vinyl is garbage. Perhaps you can make an argument for its cultural significance, but its bulky, not portable, lossy, hissy and hard to master.

    The CD is still a great format. The DVD concert video is really the best contemporary music format for a myriad of reasons.

    It’s funny how Neil Young pushed vinyl right up to the second he figured out a way to cash in on digital music.

    • James Eldred says:

      “Vinyl is garbage” is a harsh statement. It has its faults that’s for sure. But for many vinyl enthusiasts, myself included, vinyl is more than just audio quality. It’s about the experience. I’d never claim that vinyl is superior, but some people prefer it for its limitations.

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