A Review: The Pono Player (...and other thoughts on high resolution audio)

Photo: Bruce Botnick (left), the PONO Player (center), and Sam Berkow (right), SIA Founder and author of this article

SUMMARY:   The PONO PLAYER, a portable, high resolution, audio player has been released for sale to the public.  This unit, and its related music download website, have attracted lots of attention and press.  Much of the press ‘about’ the player has focused on the ‘value’ and ‘audibility’ of high-resolution audio rather than focusing on the player.  I found many of the articles that try to explore the complex issues of; sound quality, audible differences when comparing audio formats and the value of audio formats & delivery systems, ‘off base’ and inaccurate.  This note tries to clarify the issues being discussed, and offer my opinions on both the Pono Player itself and use of High Resolution Audio formats.   All opinions are my own.  Information about the Pono Player comes from the Pono website and discussions with the hardware designer of the Pono Player.


REVIEW: For the past few weeks I have been playing with a PONO player.  The Pono Player is a High Resolution portable audio player, and I find it to be a very interesting device.  Like almost every interesting piece of technology the PONO player has many great features and some features that are less than great.  

The introduction of the PONO Player earlier this year,  seems to have encouraged people to  discuss a number of topics regarding; audio, sound-quality, data compression, data delivery formats, audiophile equipment, hearing, listening and the motivations of both music and technology companies!  These discussions seem to elicit very passionate, if often strange opinions.  This document is intended to put these issues in perspective and provide my own review and opinions of the Pono-Player.

If you surf the web a bit, you will see that the PONO Player has had some very positive reviews and more than its share of TERRIBLE articles written about it.  You can think of the Pono player as a lighting rod for strong opinions!  Many of the negative articles focus, not on the Pono Player itself, but on the issues surrounding the use and/or need for High Resolution Audio files.  It appears that it is very hard for many people to separate their opinions about the PONO PLAYER itself and their opinions about the need/value of High Resolution Audio. I will try and separate these issues, and also try to put some of the more amorphous issues in a real-world context.

Lets start at the beginning: 

NEIL YOUNG has made an effort to both encourage people to listen to High Resolution Audio and create a reasonably priced, high performance portable audio player that supports High Resolution files.  {Lets define High Resolution Digital Audio as any stereo or multi-channel audio stream with a sampling rate and or bit-depth greater than CD-quality audio, that uses a 16-bit, 44.1kHz sampling rate as its locked-in standard}.

The PONO player is similar to other audio players, with the exception, that it was designed to support high resolution files (as well as CD-quality audio and several lower quality compressed formats).  It was also designed to include high audio quality circuitry that is rarely if ever included in portable devices.

There are LOTS of articles and reviews of The PONO Player, but many focus not on the PONO Player but rather, are centered on questioning the need for High Resolution Audio.  Many of these articles, seem to me, to be based on nonsense!  Of course a lack of rigorous investigation does not mean that the conclusions are wrong, but does mean that the foundations of the argument do not really support the conclusion.  It is my opinion and suspicion, that many of these articles have been supported and placed (directly or indirectly), by various companies, with covert desires to push any wide range acceptance of high resolution audio for music listening into the future.

The past 15 years or so in music technology have been dominated by studies of Data Compression, i.e. how to REDUCE file size of music files, ideally without reducing the perceived quality of the music.  I think several schemes do a very good job of getting 2:1 or 3:1 or slightly better compression ratios, and sound acceptable to most people if not perfect.  However, in my opinion schemes offering 4:1,  8:1 or higher ratios of data compression really trash the SOUND of the music.

Users of High Resolution Audio files, accept larger file sizes for the benefits of the assumed and well accepted belief that High Resolution Audio SOUNDS BETTER.  This is one reason why almost every recording studio in the country (and world) records in 24-bit resolution, at a higher than CD format sampling rates (typ. 48 kHz, 96kHz or higher). 

In professional studios, most music tracks and mixes are done in 24 bit audio.  The sound quality of the mixes in HIGH RESOLUTION, as heard in most recording studios and mastering labs is, among audio engineers is widely regarded as BETTER than the final CD quality release. 

This statement is rarely, if ever disputed in professional audio circles.  {As a side note, it should be mentioned that the difference between analogue and digital recording & mixing remains an open and widely discussed topic in professional circles, however the cost and limited access to analogue tape, combined with the ease of digital recording has resulted in a digital audio world}.

Several recent articles, ‘about’ the Pono Player have done informal listening tests, asking causal listeners if they can hear the difference between High Resolution Audio and ‘Standard Audio’ on a PONO and another player, using consumer level headphones.  Its almost always a toss up in these articles, with several of their listeners picking the ‘standard or low resolution players’ sound as better.   From this test, they conclude that there is no real need or value in using (and paying a premium) for High Resolution Audio. 

Lets ask a few probing questions, to see why this method, and basing any conclusion on this methodology is so off base. 

First off, are headphones in general and specifically consumer level headphones, the right environment for this test?  Headphones, particularly those that are not design to be accurate (i.e. those that boost bass and treble), are designed for volume and ‘chest-thumping’ style sound, not accurate listening.  This makes comparisons of sound quality tricky. 

Second, The use of casual listeners seems initially to be an obvious choice, but is it?  Wouldn’t it be better to use listeners trained to hear the important aspects of music?  Would the casual listeners hear changes in: Tempo, pitch, overall speed of play-back, key-changes? Can they hear: excessively long reverb trails, ‘tubby bass’, ‘boxy-vocals’? 

How can you expect untrained  listeners to HEAR and IDENTIFY quality aspects of music playback, using gear that is NOT designed to make hearing these differences easy, if they are untrained in any aspect of CRITICAL LISTENING?

Using casual listeners (which is most people), to determine whether high quality data files ‘make a difference’, may seem egalitarian, but in reality this is a methodology that results in lowering the quality level provided to meet the minimum expectation of the majority of users.  This may be ok for a given user/listener on a given day, but should they become more skilled in listening, limits the quality available in the (hopefully near) future.

Thirdly, is the Pono-Player capable of making the ‘quality’ differential audible between “High Resolution” delivery of already down-sampled music?  It has been reported, that in some cases, the High Resolution Files being sold as High Res Audio are merely versions of the CD quality files re-sampled at higher bit-rates. In this case the quality differential may be extremely small, as any information LOST in creating a 44.1kHZ 16bit files remains lost when the up-sampling to a high resolution format occurs!  True High resolution files are recorded that way, directly into a high resolution files.  The use and value of resampling older music from original analogue tapes is debated within the production community.

The critics reply if normal ‘untrained’ people can’t hear a difference easily, why bother with High Resolution Audio?  The answer is that, if real High Resolution files are compared to CD quality or worse, and real playback systems, that avoids large bass or treble boosts is used, then a large number of trained listeners, who CREATE, RECORD and LISTEN to music, feel there is VALUE and an audible difference in the use of High Resolution files. 

One type of ‘value’ is that our collective response to the music, when played at High Resolution may be better than lower bit-rate audio formats.   This is where one of the most vexing problems comes in.  Consider HD-TV.  HD-TV is clearly better viewing and most (but not all) can easily see a difference.  However watching sports or a movie in High Def for many if not most people, can be more engaging, with viewers responding more emotionally to the higher resolution version of the content!  Better audio and video results in a more ENGAGING and often more EMOTIONAL response to the content.  It may be hard (or impossible) to quantify this well known and accepted result, but it IS well known and and widely accepted.  Is it hard to accept that the increased audio quality associated with the HD Video format is part of reason for this result?

Many of us know or have met someone born with perfect pitch, a rare and rather wonderful skill, that can not be practically learned.  There are however, many aspects of critical listening that CAN be learned.  Most of us have little or no training in how to listen, even if there are a great deal of ‘listening skills’ that can be easily learned (i.e. via ear training).  I like to get people to try a simple ear training exercise (if you have critical listening skills, please try this of get someone you know to try it and see the effect it has on them): Below is a simple Ear Training Exercise:

EAR TRAINING EXERCISE #1:  Pick a simple (and relatively short) piece of music. [The piece that you pick should be something with 3 or 4 players and a vocal, NOT something with a full orchestra, or layers and layers of keyboards and reverbs].

-   Listen to the song, all the way through as you normally would.

-   Listen again but this time focus on the lead vocal, all the way thru.

-   Listen again bit this time focus on the lead guitar, all the way thru

-   Listen again but this time focus on the bass all the way thru

-   Listen to the but this time focus on the Drums, all the way thru

-   Listen again but this time focus on just the KICK or SNARE drum all the way thru.

-   Listen to the song again.

Does the last listening sound the same as the first time you listened in this exercise?  Of course not. Your ear is now hearing many things you were unaware of during the first listening. Its almost impossible to ignore the effect of critical listening. In fact, if you listen to a few songs using this method, you are likely to start to hear new things in every song.  One note; after listening to a song over and over, you may stop enjoying it as music and it may become a critical listening work-piece (sorry)!

If you like classical music, doing this with a short string quartet piece is a wonderful ear-training exercise.

Not surprisingly, this process, with repeated listening and changing focus, changes they way one ‘hears’ music.  This exercise has similar results with other senses.  Looking at artwork or photography with a skilled art scholar or artist, can revel things about a painting or photo that, once pointed out and explained, will often change the way you see other works of art.  Brush Strokes, depth of field, use of perspective, use of color combinations (or lack thereof) etc. all of these are hard to identify, until someone has explained critical issues of ‘seeing’ the artwork.  Asking someone unskilled in these matters, to compare two pieces of art or two photographs and ask which is technically more sophisticated is misguided, if you expect a insightful result.  Similarly it is wholly unrealistic to ask untrained listeners to hear and identify changes in sound quality without some training. I challenge the people doing these seemingly simple tests comparing PONO to standard audio outputs, to test trained musicians and skilled listeners, using speakers or headphones that do NOT mask quality, and I am confident the results will change dramatically.

It is my feeling that HIGH RESOLUTION Audio is best suited to better and ‘more accurate’ listening environments.  I believe this statement presents a challenge for The PONO player.  Most people do NOT have great (i.e. accurate and higher end) headphones (I am aware that there are LOTS of headphones in use which are costly, but if they would qualify as ‘accurate’ is an open question).  This does NOT mean that the High Resolution Audio is not better sounding. It does mean that causal, i.e. untrained listeners, may not easily detect the difference, as a few widely distributed articles point out.   However this does not mean that the differences are NOT there.  Again one most ask if the High Resolution Files being used are truly High Resolution and not resampled from CD quality sources or even analogue tape. The PONO player does offer the ability to easily connect to either unbalanced or balanced inputs on audio systems, where the differences may (or may not) be more apparent to casual listeners.

So why bother with High Resolution Audio if the difference isn’t easily heard for most casual listeners?  I suggest that with a minimum of listener training, good source materials, and accurate listening system (headphones or loudspeakers) the differences between high res audio and CD quality or compressed formats will be heard by a great many people! 

Additionally, Neil Young and others have argued that the human ear is attached to our brains in such a way that higher resolution audio allows the ‘emotion’ or ‘soul’ of music to come thru more readily than lower resolution formats.  This is a difficult argument to test empirically, but one that is hard for people who love music and have spent time listening to High Resolution versions of music and then had to create reduced CD quality (or lower bit-rate versions) to write off.  If you’ve spent time in high-end studios and mastering facilities or listening with great musicians this argument gets even harder to ignore.  

I argue that in a world of compromises, hearing great performances in great sounding rooms is spectacular, and high resolution audio sounds amazingly good in higher quality listening spaces!  So why not start the signal chain with great audio files?  Former Talking Head front man, artist and songwriter David Byrne, has written a book called HOW MUSIC WORKS.  In this book he says (or should I say, I understand parts of his book to say that he conjectures) that what we expect the ‘sound’ to be for a given style of music, is based on the roots of how that music developed.  This is an under-lying challenge for the market-place today because whats important (in general) to some groups of listeners, such as classical and Jazz fans, who often want accuracy and tonal balance and the ability to hear the interplay of instruments or sections, is unknown and seemingly un-important to fans of heavy metal, hip-hop, or Rap who value volume and a very bass heavy tonal-balance.  

One way that these differences show up in Live Sound Reproduction is the differing levels that live system engineers run the Subwoofers (loudspeakers that generate the lowest frequencies) relative to the part of the system generating the low and mid frequency ranges for various types of music. These level differences can be so large,  as much as 12dB or more, as to render the system unacceptable to listeners, if the style of music is changed (i.e. playing classical music would be excessive boomy if played on a system ‘setup’ for hip-hop or reggae, similarly Hip-hop and Reggae might feel lacking ‘bottom’ if played on a system setup for classical music). 

One can put forward the argument that in any case or style of music, Higher Resolution files carry more of the musical information, and the final sound quality of ANY genre of music should be determined by the the artist (via the mix presented), not the limitations the format the music is delivered in.

Below are comments on some of the Pono Player features, configuration and use.

COST: The player costs $399 and is shipping NOW. 

SHAPE: The player is triangular.  The reason for the shape is to allow the use of full sized capacitors on the audio outputs and to be able to include a large enough, i.e. a 2,950mAh cylindrical, battery, to support high quality audio output stages.  

The triangular shape is a problem for some people, as its portability has been questioned.  While the unit is VERY light-weight (4.6oz), the shape is a bit awkward in small pockets.  For my uses this is not an issue, as I use my portable music players mostly on planes, trains or automobiles or at my work station or next to my laptop.  In these cases the player is usually sitting next to me.  If you want to take a player on a hike or skiing, the form figure of the PONO may be less than ideal, but the light weight should help make it less problematic.

STORAGE:  The PONO player has 64GB flash memory and an Expansion Slot that supports microSD cards of up to 128GB.  One GREAT feature of the PONO-player is that it acts like an external hard drive.  This is great for someone who wants to carry lots of extra music and load it via SD card and provides an easy way to move music on of off the player (more on this below).  High Resolution Audio Files are Larger than standard CD-quality files (called WAVE or WAV files).  These are what most people start with when they compress their audio files, using any number of compression types.  So the PONO will always hold less songs than a player storing smaller compressed files.  However the PONO Player will hold a LOT of music:

• CD lossless quality recordings (44.1 kHz/16 bit): About 5000 tracks.

• High-resolution recordings (48 kHz/24 bit): About 3200 tracks.

• Higher-resolution recordings (96 kHz/24 bit): About 1600 tracks.

• Ultra-high resolution recordings (192 kHz/24 bit): About 800 tracks.

COMPUTER INTERFACE: I LOVE the fact that the player does NOT require an iTunes interface.  With due respect to my friends at iTunes,  the ever changing and sometimes confusing iTunes interface has become a pain.  The PONO-Player uses a simple and well known to almost everyone, ‘folder’ or ‘window’ based system, connecting via USB port to - both OSX and Windows, where you can drag and drop files onto the internal hard drive or the add-on SD card.  The PONO will scan for more files upon ‘seeing’ a new card, or power-up.  Getting an SD card interface for your PC/Mac and dragging files to the SD card, and moving the SD card to the PONO seems to be the fastest way to get music on or off the PONO -player.  I really like this way of working… simple, straightforward, and fast.  This is a GREAT feature of the PONO.

AUDIO FORMATS: The PONO supports a wide range of audio formats, including many High Resolution formats. It is important to note that there are very few High Resolution Portable audio players that are currently shipping.  The PONO will also play standard CD formats and some (unprotected) compressed formats, including: FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, AAC (unprotected), MP3, DSD.  High Resolution music is currently sold on several website, including  

AUDIO OUTPUTS -1:  The PONO comes with two (2) 1/8” stereo female jacks.  Both can drive headphones, so you and a friend can listen at the same time.  One jack can be used as standard stereo UNBALANCED output (you will need a cable with  an 1/8” three conductor stereo connector terminated to (2) RCA male connectors), which can drive a home stereo or AUX input on most standard consumer audio devices.  I have found the unbalanced outputs on the PONO to be a bit low in level, which I have learned is based on the ‘industry standard’ 1vRMS output, that is ignored by many manufacturers, and a desire for the unit to conserve battery life. 

AUDIO OUTPUTS -2:  The PONO output jacks can be switched via the PONO touch-screen based menu system (see below), into XLR BALANCED OUTPUT MODE.  In this mode, each of the outputs is a single channel 3-conductor BALANCED OUTPUT (one Right, one Left).  Again you will need a special cable for each output.  FOR ME THIS IS A GREAT FEATURE. 

In my work, I often am asked to listen to a sound system or a room, and need to bring music or other test signals I know well, and patch it into the house’s sound system or a studio’s console.  Attaching a unbalanced music source to a balanced system seems like starting off badly (Balanced signals have better noise rejection, and are generally better sound circuits than unbalanced).  The PONO Player solves this problem elegantly (I will have more thoughts on portability below).  For people in Pro Audio, who want to carry a high quality portable audio player with balanced outputs, The PONO Player is a wonderful choice!

OPERATING INTERFACE:  The PONO is operated (selecting album or song or playlist) via a 2.5” touch screen. This is really one of the most divisive issues about The PONO Player.  I live on my iPhone 6, with its 4.7-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit widescreen Multiā€‘Touch display with IPS technology.    The PONO screen ain’t that.   No doubt about it, a 2.5” touch screen seems small & decidedly low-tech compared to an iPhone 6 or typical high end Samsung/Android screen.  Given that The Pono Player is designed to provide a high quality listening experience, the use of the small screen feel decidedly low-tech.   It would be wonderful to be able to control/operate the PONO via USB or Wifi, or Bluetooth, from a laptop or tablet or Smart-Phone app, but thats no longer a portable player is it? 

Suddenly, I am envisioning a future where I can buy an Install-Version PONO unit, with an attachable X-Terra byte drive, sans screen, attached to my stereo or sound system controlled by a Smart-Phone app, or laptop or …… ahhh the future is so bright, we all need shades! 

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