April 30, 2014
Neil Young’s Righteous Pono Toblerone
I was down the pub last night (what do you mean “again”?) and had the misfortune to sit too near a voluble, overloud, hi-fi obsessive. He was the full nine yards with long hair (though not as long as mine used to be), a Metallica tour T-shirt, trippy tattoos, and a seemingly endless supply of boring stories about things that play music. Loud? His voice was fully equipped with a very big sub-woofer, but as the night wore on and the ale kicked in, the high-pitched trilly tweeters took over and he got squeakier and more annoying. He just never stopped banging on. His mate hardly got a word in – he was just there to listen.
I suppose I was a bit of a hi-fi nut back in the day, too, but it was never a topic of conversation that held much sway in the bar. But, obsessive nerds aside, I still love to hear music played big and clear, which is why I prefer CD quality to MP3. MP3 is great, as we all know, for packing loads of music into small spaces, but I am one of those people who can hear a real difference between the two. I know others say they can’t tell the difference. They are just not trying. Listening to that bloke in the pub, I was reminded of the current fuss around Neil Young’s new music player, the Pono.
So, the music world is running along nicely when along comes the crusty old Neil Young with, not for the first time, an attempt to create a revolution. Young formed a big part of the soundtrack to my life, so I had to take notice. What is Pono? The name itself is apparently Hawaiian for “righteous.” So far so good. What it aims to do is deliver a huge leap forward in listening quality. Pono is a music player that you load with music digitally captured from the artists’ and record producers’ original masters. It can even work for analog recordings. You get to hear the music exactly as recorded, no compression, no loss. “Our listeners should hear what we heard” says Young. Is it any good?
If the huge response to the Kickstarter campaign is anything to go by, it looks like Pono is the next big thing. The campaign soon raised its target, with over $6 million being pledged. This makes it the third largest fundraiser after the Pebble smartwatch and the Ouya game console. Initial reactions are good. Lots of listeners claim it is a totally new experience in sound quality. The triangular shaped device will be sold on the Ponomusic website and will ship with 128GBs of storage. It’s a lot of memory, but it will be needed – the files will be huge. Memory cards can be used to expand your collection. The odd shape might be enough to put some buyers off. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails likened it to the famous Toblerone chocolate bar. I can see what he means.
Some critics claim that the 24-bit/192kHz quality claim doesn’t stack up and that the human ear cannot really cope with more information that it already gets from CD quality at 16-bit/44.1kHz. In the end, I don’t see myself rushing out for this one. I already have vinyl in the form of 78s, 45s, 33s, as well as cassettes, CDs, DVDs and MP3s. Enough already.