All your burning questions about Neil Young’s PonoPlayer, answered

PonoPlayer
For those who plunked down $400 (or more) to grab Neil Young’s new PonoPlayer, that high-resolution investment is about to pay off. The Toblerone-shaped audio device designed to change the way we listen to music — and jettison the paltry MP3 paradigm — is shipping on time and as promised for its slated October release, hand-in-hand with its dedicated music service.

However, now that the Kickstarter craziness has subsided and the system is coming to market, a lot of questions remain. High-resolution is a big buzzword these days, but just how will Pono fit into our daily lives? Is this something worth spending your hard earned dollars on? And if so, now that the initial Kickstarter campaign has closed, how do you get one?

To get the answers to these and several other questions, we recently spoke with Pono’s Chief Operating Officer, Rick Cohen. And as you might imagine, now that thousands of early adopters will soon have a PonoPlayer in their hands, he’s pretty damned excited. We’ve got the answers to your most poignant Pono questions below.

Why should I spend $400 on a music player when I have a smartphone?

Cohen has a three-pronged response to this question. The first is simply the promise of “outstanding sound quality.” More to the point, the PonoPlayer offers high-resolution audio playback, through quality components, at a very reasonable price (the competing Astell & Kern AK240 goes for $2,500). That includes compatibility with file types above CD quality, at up to 24-bit/192kHz, allowing for more detail, better dynamics, and a more natural sound. Further, with high-quality components, the player should make even your MP3 files sound better.

Pono ChartThe second facet has to do with the “Pono promise.” That promise is that the company will offer “the highest resolution (of audio files) available anywhere.” CD-quality tracks will be the lowest resolution, moving up to 24bit/192kHz wherever available. Cohen claims that no one will have a larger catalog of high-resolution music at launch than the PonoMusic store, and the company has been working on gathering licensing from a huge amount of content providers.

And the third part of the equation is the name on the door: Mr. Neil Young. As a startup, PonoMusic has relied on Young as its ambassador of sound, wielding his four-odd decades of experience as an artist known for his integrity to prove that Pono stands for quality and artistry. While high-resolution files are still in the minority, Pono also rests on Young’s vision of a future in which they are the norm. Young and PonoMusic hope to help create a high-resolution revolution.

What files will the PonoPlayer play?

While the PonoMusic store will sell files in the FLAC format only, contrary to some of the rumors, the PonoPlayer offers compatibility with multiple file types, including FLAC, ALAC, WAV, MP3, AIFF, and AAC.

Will the PonoPlayer work with iTunes?

Not directly, but you can still play your iTunes files on the Pono.

The PonoMusic ecosystem is designed to make Pono a bit smarter than your average player. Unlike a lot of high-resolution devices we’ve evaluated, which require manual searching through all your sources, the PonoMusic Hub application seeks and locates all of the audio files on your computer, including those loaded into iTunes. Users will then be able to drag and drop anything in their collection to the player from the main Pono hub.

The company hasn’t forgotten about all those MP3 files you’ve “acquired” over the years.

And while the PonoPlayer is designed for high-resolution playback, the company hasn’t forgotten about all those MP3 files you’ve “acquired” over the years. Since the MP3 format’s volume is often maxed out at high compression levels to allow you to hear some of the details lost in the conversion, the volume is often louder than that of high-resolution files. To combat that, the software will tag volume level information to match it with your current audio files.

Those who want to add their new FLAC files to iTunes for playback on Apple devices, however, will need to convert the FLAC files to Apple’s ALAC format. It’s a bit of a pain, but there are several free applications that do the trick.

How much will PonoMusic’s high-resolution audio files cost?

Final pricing is still being determined by the company, but we were able to get a basic idea of what files will cost. As one might expect, the price will be based around what the company is being charged by the licenser of each song or album, as well as basic market pricing. Cohen said high-resolution files will cost more than files from iTunes, as higher resolution tracks cost more to license, and PonoMusic will set its pricing comparable to other services.

To give a concrete example from the competition, HDTracks charges about $18 for Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks at 24-bit/96kHz, and we can expect similar pricing from PonoMusic. One thing that has also been a bother about high-resolution audio is the inability to buy single tracks from many sites. We asked Cohen about the issue, and he said the company will sell single tracks “whenever available,” which means labels and licensers may pull the strings there.

Will the files be locked with Digital Rights Management (DRM)?

No worries here. DRM, or Digital Rights Management, is the file encryption used to tie digital files to a particular user, and disallow file sharing or copying. We put the question point blank to Rick Cohen, and he answered unequivocally, “DRM is not part of our model.”

Will this thing fit in my pocket?

A lot has been made about the size and general shape of the PonoPlayer. Part of the reason behind the design can likely be attributed to both the desire for a completely unique aesthetic, as well as the need for more space than your average flattened portable audio device to house high-quality components. When we asked Cohen about the pocket question, he laughed it off, saying, “I don’t know what kind of pockets these people have.” He also said that any bulkiness of the device would be offset by the sheer quality of the listening experience.

PonoPlayer Scale Coffee

We’ve actually gotten a chance to handle a beta version PonoPlayer, and it is a little large in the pocket, no question. Then again, so is the Astell & Kern AK240 – although it’s not quite the same kind of bulge (Is that a PonoPlayer in your pocket, or …). We really like the design outside the pocket, though. The ability to set the player on its side with the screen and controls facing you makes it seem less like a portable player, and more like a stationary audio device that can travel with you.

How can I get one?

If you’re interested in grabbing a PonoPlayer, but missed the initial Kickstarter offering, don’t fret, you can actually pre-order a player for your very own right now at the PonoMusic site. The second round of devices will not arrive until sometime in the first quarter of next year, however, as the company builds up its infrastructure behind the opening launch.

Whether or not PonoMusic can bring about the kind of sea change in the audio industry that Neil Young has been after since he first showed off the little pyramid in 2012 remains to be seen. But as the first wave of early adopters begin to receive their devices within the next few weeks, we’ll likely start to get some idea of what kind of impact the Pono will make.

How can I be a bigger part of PonoMusic?

Ok, maybe you weren’t asking this question, but for those who actually want to invest in the company on a large scale, PonoMusic has now opened up a second round of funding to raise equity capital. The company is seeking investments at two tiers, both of which offer stock in the company.

The $5,000 to $50,000 level is being collected via the investment site, Crowdfunder. This lower level offers some extra benefits for buying in, such as an autographed copy of Neil Young’s new album, or his forthcoming book.

The second tier rests between $50,000 and $100,000, and is collected directly from PonoMusic. This larger tier offers a few more enticing bonuses, such as a Skype call with Neil Young at the $50,000 level, or a “special meeting with Neil” at the $100,000 level, which has been met with good response according to Cohen, because: rich people. Either way, if you’re throwing down that kind of money, it’s not about the perks. Cohen believes the investment will be able to give people what he called “a really, really meaningful return” for their money.

Whether the Pono offers a meaningful return of its own is something we aim to determine when we review one in the coming months.

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