PonoPlayer Basics — PonoPlayer Review Section 8

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PonoPlayer Basics

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.

Ponomusicworld client is a rebranded version of JRiver's MediaCenter software. It does everything iTunes does but with no-compromises. It also takes a few minutes to get used to.

Ponomusicworld is a rebranded version of JRiver’s MediaCenter software. It does everything iTunes does but with no compromises and no Apple lock-in. It also takes a few minutes to get used to and isn’t 100% stable on OSX.

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.

Sincerely, Neil Young

Sincerely, Neil Young

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.

They use all of this to record great music, it's time you heard the results

They use all of this to record great music, it’s time you heard the results

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.



Continue to Section 9: Real World Listening >>

<< Back to Section 7: Neil Asks Steve “Why Not?”

 :: PonoPlayer Review: Table of Contents ::

  • Who are you kidding? Go write for a Coca-Cola commercial, of for ‘alternative medicine’. Your fake ‘Ponoplayer review’ reads as if Tom Cruise himself is ‘reviewing’ Scientology, or Sarah Palin is ‘reviewing’ the Tea Party.

    Poor old Neil. I love him to death, but this ‘Ponogate ecosystem’ has gotten the best of him.

  • pretty funny but you should trust your own ears. have you listened to a 24bit release of something you love at 16bit, played on system that doesn’t mangle it? if not, save your opinion until then and post your review.

    the quality improvement is obvious and immediate and not worth arguing about. only in the world of internet words and bad corporate science is there an argument.

    or perhaps you listen to horrible music? for me, rock and soul from the 60’s-80’s sounds like it used to, if not better, when released at 24bit. if you can’t hear things as “wider, fuller, more accurate, more dynamic” then maybe you are a robot?

    if you pray to the god of CD and find it to be some sort of gold standard you are mistaken. 16/44 was a compromise from 1978 that has been defended by bad science for quite some time.

  • ezraz
  • Leold

    I spent time with a friend this week with a pono player and heard a Bob Dylan song I heard many times before and it was incredibly beautiful. I had never heard the full sentiment of his voice. The sound was full, rich and warm. I am a medium audiophile with Meridian and Burmester gear. I don’t care what the dweebs think about MP3’s being the best the human ear can hear. They can fk off. I can tell the difference between an MP3, Spotify and a CD on my gear– I am positive. I have heard the spotify version of a song thinking it was the cd, and hearing something was wrong gone to my system and realized it wasn’t the cd. Blind test. Neil Young has the nuts to put this thing together better than all the dweebs out there and the mean spirited people mocking him. They are ignorant and that sucks for them. But hi-res audio is saving the art form. It is the difference between seeing a painting by Degas in person or looking at it in a book. If all the nasty haters want to demean people who think MP3’s are equal, that’s their problem. They obviously don’t have a heart for the rhythm of human expression and it is their sort of ignorance that harms the world in a negative way. Thank you Neil for being tough enough to bang through all the idiots so the rest of us may be more connected to the beauty of music.

  • Leold

    By the way I liked the sound so much I ordered a Pono Player yesterday. And my friend, an internationally accomplished award winning artist told me it was the first time he had heard his music recordings sound like they did in the studio. In the words of Axl Rose: “And to all those opposed…”

  • outstanding. it is about the art form of recorded music, and i’ll defend it as strongly as needed. so many people that can’t hear, can’t make music, can’t mix music, telling everyone else about what exists and what doesn’t. based on their incomplete math. ridiculous.

    stay human and stay righteous and know that the quality is worth fighting for, worth explaining to people, and best way is to just let them listen. all the words go away as soon as they check it out themselves.

  • i don’t have any high-end home gear, so i agree, the only time i have heard playback as good as ponoplayer is in a recording studio.
    it is very close to being there live, which is the ultimate goal of recorded music, to make the speakers disappear completely.

  • ezraz

    Hannes — why are you getting political and personal? Do you have an issue with my review? Post it and i’ll try to respond. Calling me names doesn’t help anything. I told you I bought a Ponoplayer with kickstarter and I’m posing my review, I’m not a paid journalist or marketing person, I’m a customer that loves music.

  • ezraz

    Post your thoughts once you get your ponoplayer. I am getting email sales from lots of the HD stores now – there’s ProStudioMasters, HDTracks, and of course Ponomusic. Also smaller ones spread around the internet.

    Also dig out/borrow CD’s, because 16/44 FLAC’s sound pretty damn good on Ponoplayer.

  • Yes, I love music too, but I’m not a Pono customer. I’d rather spend my hard-earned money on music instead of useless devices and fake ‘upgrades’ of digital formats far beyond human hearing capacities. Besides, there’s no need to put more of my money into Neil’s pocket than I’ve already done in the past 40 years.

    In my book, a ‘review’ is critical by nature. Let the product prove its value in the face of critical scrutiny. In that sense, yours is not a ‘review’. It sings the praise of Pono, in glorious words. You want to tell the world about that goods that Pone has bestowed on you. Good for you! But that’s not a review.

    You may not be a ‘marketing person’, but apparently you are “in a conversation with the Pono guys about a follow up piece”. So you do have an interest in writing your reviews other than personal expression – let alone a reviewer’s scrutiny.

    The main point is that no one has offered any convincing proof of the so-called aural benefits of hi-res audio. A recent McGill study proved that in a double-blind A/B-test, even studio musicians and recording technicians could not distinguish between CD quality and 256 kbps MP3. Let alone CD quality and 96/24 audio or that ridiculous 192/24 format.

    But hey, I’m probably trying to convince an ‘audiophile’ religionist here. And facts won’t cure any religion. So I’d better stop.

    Enjoy your Pono. Like other people enjoy copper bracelets to cure their headache.

  • What is this, a sect? Does listening to a Pono player make your brain shrink?

    The other day I watched a Kagakonosugoyoshimauwa tv-set. Man, it was as if the blinds fell off my eyes! The first time I saw the movie as as if I was in the recording studio! It was very close to being there live with the actors, the ultimate goal of this tv-set being to make the camera’s disappear completely.

    To all those opposed, I say, along with Axl Rose: “Pay the goddamn one thousand bucks first, and then we’ll talk”.

    And hey, I have no interest in Kagakonosugoyoshimauwa whatsoever.

  • Yeah, yeah, but how do you appreciate the FACT that YOU cannot distinguish between a 256 kbps MP3 and your favorites ‘hi-res audio format’, even in the best of circumstances?

    Are ad hominems all you have to offer in return? That’s rather shallow, innit?

  • Nope. YOUR words will go away once you have been subjected to a double-blind test, and you have proven yourself unable to distinguish between quality aural formats in CD, MP3 and hi-res.

    Remember, the burden of proof is on you. The only way you can escape that is by ignoring the debate-based-on-facts. Which will brand you as an ignoramus.

  • ezraz

    Burdon of proof is on you since you need math or some convoluted ‘test’ to prove it’s existence. I cannot nor will not be able to prove what I can hear easily.

    Your tests fail you. Not my problem.

    People record, mix, and now release music at 24bit, and none of these people can hear it at all? Yeah right buddy.

  • ezraz

    That’s not a fact. I can distinguish easily if I know the material and am in my listening environment.

    Your tests are flawed. Flawed tests give bad results, leading to bad conclusions.

    Your tests show confusion because for various reasons, the ear does not react accurately to your chosen method. You know this but continue to live with those tests and those results.

    There’s also a general ignorance of explaining what we hear, as opposed to psycho-accoustically knowing it.

    But people who live and work with sound, musicians, studio engineers, live sound people, those people tell you about 24bit audio being more realistic and you use out of context math to insult them all by claiming your math says they are crazy. they imagine things. they are all fools. yet they know more about music and audio than you or i, and they make their living on that knowledge.

  • ezraz

    I really don’t get your point, do you love music or not? Everyone has a basic budget of what they will spend to hear their music, and what level of shittiness they can put up with. I can’t spend that thousand dollar kind of money on stereo gear but I want to hear it as good as I can afford. The PonoPlayer is a huge upgrade wherever you plug it in for $400.

    TV’s are not the same, because visual requires you to sit and stare at it, the blinking lights sooth us and the whole thing is a pleasant distraction. Music carries a ton more emotion per second than anything on a TV, so the additional resolution comes through clear and strong on every instrument, every part.

  • It is not that difficult to get my point. My point is that hi-resolution audio players objectively do NOT offer the advertised quality improvement, yet DO attack our purses, draining money that could be also spent on music instead of useless (because mostly inaudible) technical ‘improvements’.

    The point is not whether ‘i love music’ or not. That is just a detraction from your side, that I will ignore.

    Your argument that Pono is good because you can’t spend bucks on a stereo does not hold water. You don’t have to spend 400 bucks on a Pono to hear quality music. There are many audio players costing a fraction of that Pono that will deliver quality sound that you – yes, you – cannot distinguish from the 192/24 or 96/24 format through a Pono. That’s because you are human, and not a machine, and sorry no, you don’t have perfect ears, like 99,999999999999 percent of the people don’t have perfect ears (and the rest are lying cheats).

    Every double-blind audio test will tell you that.

    Now it is beyond me why music lovers such as you don’t consider that good news. Chances are that you consider it bad news, now doncha?

    NOT having to spend 400 bucks on a Pono, and NOT having to spend hundreds of hard-earned bucks on downloaded music in some ridiculous format, will save you a LOT of money that you can spend on GOOD MUSIC.

    It will mean millions and millions of money EXTRA for STARTING BANDS, rather than wasting all that money away on useless ‘new formats’ that are nothing but the emperor’s new clothes.

    The key phrase in your message is “the PonoPlayer is a huge upgrade wherever you plug it in”. It is simply NOT TRUE. Compare a good mp3 player costing less than $100 with the SAME cans and the SAME audio files (or 192/24 converted to 320 mp3 if you want), and you, your brother, your sister, your mum & dad, and all of your neighbours and their kids won’t be able to hear the difference. Let alone it being a ‘huge’ upgrade.

    In sum: sorry for your loss. Please stop advocating that silly ‘huge improvement’ because deep in your heart you know it isn’t true.

  • No, i don’t listen to ‘horrible music’. I mainly listen to classical music, from Medieval to brand new, and everything in between. I can distinguish a Herreweghe Bach recording from a Gardiner or Suzuki recording. I enjoy the chamber orchestra version of Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem. I managed to organize the European premiere of Frank Ferko’s Stabat Mater. I will sing in Schnittke’s ‘Concert for choir’ in a few months. And I customize string instruments in my spare time.

    Besides I play in an amateur rock band. We play 60’s Motown, 70’s New Wave, we skip the 80’s, move on to 90’s hip-hop and grunge, and constantly plug our own personal favorites in the set list.

    Yes, I am in the habit of trusting my own ears. Have been doing that for the last 35 years, ever since I bought my first equipment, the best Hi-Fi I could get for the money I earned. At 15, I cut flowers out in the cold for weeks to buy that PS-X3 with an Ortofon FF15XE MkII, and put bulbs in paper bags for six weeks to buy the Philips N2521.

    Yes, I have compared good 24-bit and good 16-bit recordings. If I could find any difference at all, it was most certainly not in the realm of a HUGE difference ad advertised by Neil Young & Co, or significantly “wider, fuller, more accurate, more dynamic”. I found it easy to believe that double-blind tests typically do not reveal the superiority of the 24- bit format.

    No, I am not a robot. I am a human with good ears. Like many participants in such double-blind tests, who are time and again proven wrong about their expectations. Why is that so hard to digest?

  • ezraz

    That wasn’t hard to digest. I believe you. I don’t believe most doubters go through the effort you did, nor do they have the breadth of experience that you do. You know your music, you play music, etc. so I don’t doubt your findings. Most people I’m arguing with are talking bad science and out of context numbers. You are talking practical experience and trail & error, I can accept that.

    But why then would you compare me to sarah palin? Because I love the sound of an audio product? Because I mix at 24bit and I can hear a difference when it’s dithered? That has nothing to do with religion or beliefs or magical bracelets.

    I am surprised you can’t hear an advantage at 24bit on your systems when playing classical music. But as long as you aren’t telling me you can’t hear a difference between MP3 and 24bit I don’t have a problem. I didn’t say everyone hears 24bit improvement every time, but I think most do. You don’t, no biggie. You save money going forward.

  • ezraz

    The review was critical, there were several cons listed and I used a few thousand words going into if you should get this device. I can find 4-5 thing I don’t like about the PP and I did.

    If you heard the PonoPlayer you wouldn’t call it “useless”. It a music player that sounds amazing, so that’s not useless.

    I am in no conversation with Pono Inc. about anything, just a regular customer.

    Whether you believe 24bit is worth it or not, the PP is a fine player. It will play your MP3 files and your CD-files wonderfully. They will sound better than any other device playing them.

    I’m also not an audiophile, would a so-called audiophile have the collection of garbage & vintage gear that I do? I’ve never spent money on custom cables or any of that jazz. I’m a plain old fashioned signal-chain guy. Give me flat clean power for as cheap as possible.

    I do enjoy the Pono, about as much as I’ve enjoyed any music player ever.

  • ezraz

    Sorry you think you can tell people what they can hear and that your ears know everything. I have played it compared to several iPhones and Android phones and it sounds far better playing the exact same files.

    You speak BS. If you knew anything about signal chain you would understand this. A good DAC produces better analog signal that a cheap DAC. Better analog signal is conveyed through better circuit design.

    Do you think a $10k mixing board sounds the same as a $100 mixing board? They both have preamps and EQ, same thing, just different build qualities using different components. Do they sound the same wise-ass? Are studio owners falling for “snake oil”?

    My brother, wife, sons, father in law, friends, and bandmates all hear an improvement playing files on the PP. Even MP3. It’s called signal chain and it’s a basic part of audio.

    The fact that you can hear no difference between 192k mp3 and FLAC tells me you are deaf and clueless about audio. Sorry fella, but true. Enjoy your McDonalds since that’s the best food anyone can ever make.

  • @disqus_hwtxNLr5QM:disqus did you get your ponoplayer? Post some thoughts, good or bad, I’d love to know what you think.

  • @hannesminkema:disqus anything change in 5 months? I wonder if you’ve been able to hear one of these devices yet yourself?

  • here’s several more ponoplayer reviews: http://wfnk.com/blog/ponoplayer-review/

    you’ll see i’m not the only one raving about this little thing.

  • Hannes, if you really exist – have you tried out any new DAP players since arguing with me about it? Or was this political for you? I don’t understand why you argue so strongly against a simple product you won’t even try. Post your own review, get as critical as you want, I’ll happily read it.

  • Hi ‘Ezraz’, I do exist (last time I checked) and I *have* tried out a Pono Player, and it *did not* convince me at all of any ‘super quality’. It was a nice player ‘n all, but such could be had for a quarter of the price.

    I find the responses of these artists who state they have some kind of ‘musical epiphany’ (seemingly a musical orgasm) while listening to Pono rather ridiculous. No mobile music player can deliver any epiphany if the listener is used to listen to a trustworthy 1970’s HiFi setup.

    Either in Neil’s car or outside of it.

    This is not merely political for me, as you suspect, although it has some political aspect. Just like selling the Pono Player has a certain ‘political’ aspect for Neil, since commerce is politics.

    To go into your question: I argue against Neil’s product because I think that product is overpriced. As a consequence, I think some of Neil’s potential customers should rather spend their money on music then on money-wasting devices.

    I’ll leave the “you won’t even try” statement to your own responsibility.

  • Fair enough, glad you tried it. Glad you exist. I know you can get FLAC players for $100. To me it doesn’t invalidate the ponoplayer. I hear what those artists hear when I fire up the ponoplayer as opposed to iPhone, youtube, or streaming. When I compare the ripped CD’s rendered on the pp vs played on a CD player ( i have 2 still alive), I appreciate the pp even more. The DAC, the filtering, the analog stage, the output — I hear pure quality, i.e. I hear nothing added.

    For me it’s the best $400 digital signal chain you can buy. I haven’t heard any of the $1k+ DAPs, and I’ve only heard a hifiman and fiio in the $100 range, and they didn’t sound as good as the pp.

    I mix and produce and sometimes even play! music and I think the ponoplayer has the most transparent digital sound i’ve ever heard EXCEPT for 2 places: the monitor chain of a pro-level studio and my mastering engineer’s various rigs.

    As far as money wasting… I spent $400 on the device and I try to buy 2 HD releases a month for $25. So I spend $300/year on hi-res music and $400 once for the device.

    I’m saving money and building a sick collection of master-quality recordings that will not degrade with time.