Woodside resident Neil Young launches high-quality music player

PonoPlayer offers audiophiles superior listening, portability

In this digital era of MP3s and streaming from YouTube, Pandora and Spotify, most people don't put much thought into how they're getting their music, and perhaps even less into the format it comes in.

But Neil Young -- the folk rock veteran and longtime Woodside resident -- isn't most people. As one might expect from a career musician who has spent decades listening to vinyl records and mixing in recording studios, Young seems to care deeply about the quality of the music he listens to.

"Good music -- well represented and well recorded -- makes you feel," Young said during a taped interview this week at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. "You have goosebumps, you'll cry, you'll have a visceral reaction, and that's what's been missing."

This passion for high-quality music has resulted in a new portable music player, the PonoPlayer, which goes on sale today, Jan. 12, in retail stores. Young touts the Pono as producing a richer and more textured sound than devices that play CDs or the ubiquitous MP3 files.

The musician in 2000 started talking to industry professionals, engineers and investors to figure out how to bring recorded music out of a what he termed the "downward spiral" since the introduction of CDs in the 1980s.

Then, about 18 months ago, a business and product emerged. And after a successful 2014 Kickstarter campaign (that pulled in $6.2 million, though only $800,000 was sought) and a launch in August on Crowdfunder, the portable PonoPlayer is ready to hit the market.

Thousands of supporters have already received their devices; the online PonoMusic Store, offering more than two million songs, is live online; and the product is available for preorder, with delivery in February.

Tech news website The Verge also reported on Jan. 6 that the product would be available in 80 retail stores nationwide as of Jan. 12, including in some Fry's Electronics locations.

The PonoPlayer is a rounded triangular prism, available in two colors, yellow and black, and is capable of playing a wide range of music formats -- including FLAC, ALAC, WAV, IFF, AAC and MP3 – supporting up to 192 kHz/24-bit. Put in layman's terms, the more sophisticated of these file formats are able to contain much more data, which when played produce the higher fidelity sound, according to Young.

The device can hold 64 gigabytes of music, which can be doubled to 128 with the insertion of an included micro SD chip. It also sports two output jacks, one for personal listening on headphones and the other for plugging into a car or home stereo. The PonoPlayer is currently priced at $399. Some will no doubt find the cost prohibitive, but the product's popularity on Kickstarter evidences a niche among audiophiles willing to shell out the extra cash.

In his interview at CES, Young admitted that some consumers might very well stick to their MP3s, as the difference between the formats isn't easily audible to them. But for the many artists he introduced the product to over the last few months, the higher quality pumped out by Pono was the clear choice, Young said.

To all appearances, Pono is more a labor of love for Young than a lucrative business opportunity. At CES he expressed his startup's willingness to share the technology they've developed with other companies, with the purpose of getting music, as it should be listened to, into the hands -- and ears -- of more people.

Young's mission of sharing his love of music was apparent in a Dec. 31 letter posted on Pono World Times, a news site for the product, startup and community.

"The biggest joys for me," Young wrote, "are the genuine Pono smiles; the looks that come across new listener's faces as they hear more than they have ever heard from their favorite songs, songs they have enjoyed hundreds of times before and are now discovering anew."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the PonoPlayer's number of headphone jacks. The player has one output jack designed for headphones and another designed for connecting to a home or car stereo. PaloAltoOnline.com regrets the error.

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3 people like this
Posted by John Dolby
a resident of Nixon School
on Jan 10, 2015 at 2:48 pm

" Put in layman's terms, the more sophisticated of these file formats are able to contain much more data, which when played produce a richer and more textured sound than CDs"

Nope, afraid not: Web Link

2 people like this
Posted by Wayne
a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2015 at 10:23 pm

Note: It does not have two headphone jacks. It has one. The other output allows for "balanced" audio output as used in professional sound systems.

2 people like this
Posted by patekswiss
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 11, 2015 at 8:46 am

Its good to boost a local, and I've been a fan of Neil Young's music for a long time. But he's just dead wrong about "high resolution" digital music. Early CDs did have sonic problems but, for the millionth time, these were not related to limitations of the medium, but to factors (like mastering habits from the days of vinyl) that have long since been addressed. Modest increases in sampling rate and word length above 44 kHz / 16 bit can bring slight (and I mean slight) sonic improvements, but going to the extreme of 192 kHz brings in its own set of problems that slightly degrade audible quality. Moreover, the idea that all lossy formats sound bad is also a scare tactic -- certainly at 320 kbps, mp3s sound very, very good indeed. You can great sounding results at either end of the spectrum -- this isn't to damn Pono as not sounding good. But the idea that you gain sound quality from all that extra data and specialized playback hardware? Just ain't so. Unfortunately, the high end audio world has always been plagued by snake oil, and likely always will. I have no problem with anyone buying Pono -- or a $1,000 speaker cable -- if buying something exclusive, or expensive, or hand-crafted, makes them feel good, but we should be careful not to accept the sonic claims for these things.

3 people like this
Posted by John S.
a resident of another community
on Jan 12, 2015 at 3:15 am

I hate to break it to you John Dolby and patekswiss but the differences in sound between 320 kpbs, CD quality, and 24/192 can be, but are not always, audible. Furthermore,the electronics in the path between the file and your ears are important as well, which is something the Pono player addresses. I've heard one, listening to both 320 kpbs and 24/192 remastered files of a friend's band. It's music I'm very familiar with and the 24/192 is audibly superior.

2 people like this
Posted by Golden Ears
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 12, 2015 at 12:17 pm

If it doesn't use vacuum tubes, forget it.

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