PonoPlayer is a DAP, that is it plays digital audio files just like your phone, iPod, computer, TV, stereo (and probably your car, coffee maker, and dog leash these days). The difference is that it attempts to play back the highest quality files at the highest quality possible. Novel, eh? Sadly, in consumer music the trend away from quality has been real and the Pono Player comes along like a breath of fresh air.
The basics of the device are very similar to early iPods albeit with some very important upgrades. Just like the classic iPod it’s pocket sized with a small screen, it needs a computer and USB cable to load/sync files, it has a rechargable battery, and no speakers.
It will play MP3, WAV, DSD and FLAC formats at any resolution, contains 64gb internal space and a Micro-SD card for expanding beyond. The first generation players shipped with a 64gb card, and 128gb cards are available. A 64gb card can hold 100-300 high resolution albums.
How it differs from iPod and other DAPs: PonoPlayer has 2 output jacks that are very flexible. In fact it can be run 4 different ways – headphone-level like an iPod; line-level like audio gear; by using both minijacks at once it can do dual headphone-level for an intimate moment with another headphone wearer; and balanced line-level for professional audio gear and expensive headphones. Awesome.
PonoPlayer can show you the file format and quality of the song playing. You can change the interface from light-on-dark to dark-on-light and lock rotation. There’s a nifty little blue light that glows when it’s playing a lossless song purchased from the pono music store, but this is just marketing because it can play files from any source.
The true beauty of the PonoPlayer is that it does nothing but play music. It comes without games, browsers, video, texting, radios or social media. It can’t tweet your favorites or alert you of another shooting. Your boss can’t contact you on it. You can’t install apps. There are no alerts and nothing interrupts the music.
It’s focus is beautiful.
It will play albums with the songs in their original order, it allows you to pick individual tracks, shuffle all songs on the device, and it can play playlists built with the Ponoworld computer software (much like iTunes). It has volume controls, shows album artwork, a very flexible output, and not much else.
There’s not even a built-in EQ because this goes against the ethos of the device. It is meant to play master recordings as they were released with no outside interference or compromises.
It’s like a record player and an iPod had a baby – it acts like an MP3 player but sounds like a record player – or better.
So how does it sound?
So how does it sound? It took me 3700 words to get to it because I want you to understand what I’m about to tell you. It sounds perfect. Load it up with your favorite albums at the highest quality you can buy and you will be a very happy person. The smugness you have about your music will for once be justified and offset by the pure joy that will come through your senses.
When you factor in the sadness of knowing that everyone won’t hear what you just did, and what we as a society have thrown away, you go there. Tears often follow. That lump in your throat that only the finest artistic moment can give you.
Your body moves and reacts. The beauty of the music shines through and you recall every time you heard that song and how it should always sound this good. Tales of tears and lots of the pono smile abound from those who have heard it.
Common responses: “this can’t be digital!”
“Oh wow, it sounds like vinyl”
“I feel like they are in the room with me”
Most people over 35 shout “FINALLY!” and people under 25 start to look around as if they are being tricked. Some literally get confused due to their own ignorance of good sound.
But everyone smiles and focuses on the song. You can play it on speakers at high volume and still talk and hear yourself think. There is no pain at full volume, no artifacts or digital distortions. The bottom stays big and round and music is wide, full, deep, natural, and exciting again.
Dynamics are huge, from digital silence all the way up to the most booming section. Riding the volume is sometimes needed since the full dynamic range is back. Instruments compliment each other and don’t compete for space. Vocal harmonies don’t mash together like sharing a seat on a bus. Each part in the mix has it’s space in the EQ and the pan.
A new part sung or played does not mask the previous part, it just keeps building. Delays sound real and you start to hear breaths and fingers on strings that you’ve never heard before (no matter how many times you have enjoyed that song).
Synthesizers squawk, snares sizzle and pop, basses snap and warm your heart. Of course hi-hats express themselves (remember hi-hats?), reverbs decay naturally, you can hear the room it was recorded in, and in many songs entire new parts will appear, magically uncovered for the first time. It can be thrilling listening to this little devil.
If you’ve been in a professional recording studio or enjoyed listening to an expensive vinyl rig, you have heard this sound before. If you’ve enjoyed classical music in a concert hall, you’ve heard this sound before. If you play an instrument yourself then you’ve heard this sound before. Yet it has to be heard to be appreciated, despite my thousands of words.
An added benefit is how good it makes your existing gear sound.
Audio is all about signal chain, and signal chain theory says that the source is the most important. Everything after the source can only degrade the sound, not improve it.
If the source and the rendering of the source is the highest quality it ensures quality down the chain. Any headphones over $20 are going to sound better. Cheap speakers don’t sound cheap anymore. Average speakers sound amazing. I don’t own any high end speakers but I can only imagine….
You just plug it into other things and make people happy. This little thing is pretty righteous.