Thursday, January 8, 2015

Neil Young’s Pono Finally Launches, But Will Anyone Care?

Pono Players image
Noted music artist Neil Young’s pet audio project Pono Music finally launched with a big sendoff at this year’s CES show, complete with a website full of high-resolution downloads and an unusually shaped player that will be in the stores on Monday. That’s all well and good, but will there actually be a market for the offerings? 

It’s difficult to start a new music service these days, and Young should get props for following through on such a laudable idea. Anyone who creates music on a high level (especially music using real instruments and players) hates to hear what happens to it after most audio compression algorithms that are in use today get hold of it. So much of the emotional impact that the artist lived with during recording is drained from it as frequencies are literally stripped away in order to decrease the file size. 

That said, artist’s have traditionally always had a complaint about the final distribution package sold to the public, whether it be vinyl records, cassettes, CDs, downloads or streaming. It just never sounds the same as in the studio, although many will tell you that the current state of digital music distribution is the worst it’s ever been in that regard.

The fact that Young has followed his heart and tried to do something about this is very cool. The problem is, Pono the company seems to be selling the ecosystem as a mass consumer product when there’s about zero chance it will be received that way. Here’s why.

1. It’s now a streaming music world, but Pono Music is a download service. No doubt that when Young first conceptualized Pono downloads sounded like a good idea. However, in 2015 there’s no sign that fans will come rushing back to the format any time soon when they’re just discovering that they can have millions of songs at their fingertips for anywhere from zero to 10 bucks a month via streaming. Which brings us to…

2. It’s expensive. First you have to buy the Pono music player at $399, which is far more than the majority of music consumers want to pay considering that their phone has become their playback device of choice. There’s also a lot of player competition on the market for less money (check out the FiiO series of players). Not only that, then you have to buy the music that you want to listen to from the Pono store and it’s not cheap (anywhere from $18 to $25 for an album and $1.99 a song). Considering that you can purchase the same album for $7 on Google Play, the cost of the extra audio quality will be a non-starter for many. See more on Forbes.


Anonymous said...

Quote: "Not only that, then you have to buy the music that you want to listen to from the Pono store and it’s not cheap (anywhere from $18 to $25 for an album and $1.99 a song)."

This is false, you can play all sorts of files (flac, alac, mp3 etc) on the Pono Player and you dont have to download them from Pono. Anything you have laying aroung on your computer can be played on it. And it sounds darn good too.

Steve Greenberg said...

FWIW I have heard from some non-pro audio friends that they love PONO. They are long time music fans and appreciate the sound, seems that while young people are gravitating to vinyl the older people consider HiRes as good or even better

I definitely see why it shouldn't work, but I think there is a market, probably not a fantastically large one, perhaps around the scale of vinyl??

Anonymous said...

The key is to educate listeners regarding the quality difference of higher resolution, good D/A conversion, and better playback systems.


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