Cliff Let You Borrow His Notes
Who: Pono Inc. is a private American company founded by Neil Young.
What: A high-definition Digital Audio Player. Tested version 1, Model NY001, retail $399US.
When: First production run (for kickstarter supporters) released December 2014. Available to everyone else early 2015.
Where: Available to order from ponomusic.com.
Why: To deliver the first meaningful upgrade to digital audio in 30+ years.
How: The player focuses on delivering hi-fi quality at a mainstream price, while the store aims to push high-definition music to the masses.
- sounds amazing when playing high-definition files
- sounds pretty damn good playing CD quality and even sometimes MP3 files
- simple iPod-like operation with familiar touch interface and large, obvious buttons
- plenty of storage for large HD music files. 64gb internal built in + 64gb on MicroSD card, and both mount on your desktop.
- plays FLAC, WAV, and MP3 files from any source, free of DRM
- works with all of your traditional audio gear
- uses Micro USB to sync and charge (same as Xbox & PS4)
- can configure 4 different output setups, including balanced output and dual headphone
- triangular-tube shape sits anywhere you set it and feels good in the hand
- allows ‘side loading’ of the internal storage and MicroSD card, bypassing client software
- Ponomusicworld client is a full-featured music library manager and integrates the store, just like iTunes
- auto-rotation of display is jumpy because of triangle math, but it can be turned off
- the Ponomusic store has way more 16/44 (CD quality) music than true HD music at this point
- the Ponomusic store doesn’t allow for filtering/searching HD only (because above)
- Fiio and Sony have similar products at lower price points
Summary: The PonoPlayer is basically the “iPod Pro” that Apple never made. If you demand more from your portable audio than a phone or iPod provides, give one of the new DAP’s a listen. Your senses will thank you for it.
PonoPlayer FAQ – See comments below.
1. Does Ponoplayer sound better than a phone/iPod when playing MP3’s?
Yes, it’s true, I’ve finally admitted it. Even MP3’s sound better, inching towards “good” on PP!
2. Does Ponoplayer sound better than a phone/iPod when playing 16/44 files?
3. Does Ponoplayer sound better than a CD player when playing 16/44 files?
Yes, but depends on quality of CD player & amp compared to.
4. Do 24bit files sound better than 16bit files on Ponoplayer?
5. Do 24bit files sound better on every speaker type?
6. Do 24bit files sound better with every music type?
Not always, depends on production of the music
7. Do 24bit files always sound better, any time of day, any place, at any volume?
Not always, but they do cut through noise unlike many believe
8. Are speakers an important part of hearing improvements at 24bit?
Important but not pass/fail. Every speaker has capabilities that PP can improve.
9. Do I need to spend on new speakers/headphones to enjoy Ponoplayer?
Depends on how capable your stuff is. If average or better, it will be perfect for PP.
10. Should I re-purchase 24bit albums I own on CD or just rip them at 16/44?
Depends on if the CD still can be ripped.
11. If there’s multiple HD qualities available which one should I buy?
24bit or bust! 24/192 can sound amazing. It can be the best but occasionally a little crispy. 24/44, 24/88 and 24/96 all sound excellent. Some stores sell gradients, Pono only sells the highest available.
12. What about other formats such as DSD, Surround, or the new MQA?
It can play DSD but I don’t own any files. DSD is a different encoding method that had it’s consumer shot with SACD (and DVD-A I think) and hasn’t gained much traction. The new one not shipping yet, MQA by Meridian, actually has some history with Pono, and offers DRM in the encoding itself meaning you can’t just make copies and play anywhere like you can with pono files. That has the copyright holders interested but replacing PCM is a huge undertaking and many don’t figure Meridian can do it at this point. All that said I haven’t heard DSD or MQA, so I’d have to hear them to understand if they are worth the fuss. PCM’s played on PonoPlayer sound so good I’m skeptical of improvement based on encoding. But curious enough to investigate.
As far as surround, it does stereo/mono only, no surround, which covers 99% of recorded music. I’ve never been a big fan of surround music, the simulated stereo of recorded music is closer to our binaural brains.
1 – You can shine a turd but it’s still a turd. That said, shiny turds are still more aesthetically pleasing, so yes, the PP does try to work it’s magic signal chain on MP3 files, and you will hear an improvement from a phone.
2 – PonoPlayer has better circuitry/DAC than any iPod or phone ever made, with the storage to hold the HD files.
3 – PonoPlayer has better circuitry/DAC than most CD players, silent operation (no spinning noise), and who carries around CD’s anymore? That said, if you have a serious CD setup this will sound familiar to you, like going back 20 years.
4 – Your mileage may vary, because much of this depends on the producer, mixer, mastering engineer, genre, and artistic choices in the studio. Assuming you don’t listen to things done by total amateurs or noise-electro-distortion music, you will hear subtle but awesome differences at 24bit.
5 – Even the cheapest speakers and earbuds will show an improvement when getting fed from PonoPlayer. Speakers do what they do (it’s not very complicated) and they are the last piece of hardware in the signal chain so they are dependent on quality in previous links up the chain.
6 – See #4. Some types that won’t show much improvement: modern laptop pop or hip-hop built @ 16bit, modern rock compressed to high-hell aka loudness wars stuff, punk demos into 1 cheap mic, industrial with heavy distortion. But most everything else should reveal a better soundstage than 16bit.
7 – First thing in the morning or in a real noisy environment, or at the end of a night if you’re tired and you’ve fried your ears, the 24bit advantage will be less obvious. 24bit shines with volume and focus, so background music also doesn’t show as marked of an improvement. AB tests also prove difficult because of mastering issues as well as listening psychology based counter-intuitive testing.
8 – While cheap speakers can and do sound better with 24bit, if you have PonoPlayer playing at 24bit you are delivering highest-quality source and better speakers will really shine. It’s like a good meal – it will taste OK standing at the bus stop eating out of styrofoam, but you’ll get the entire experience in other ways.
9 – Get the PonoPlayer first and play it through your existing stuff. Then upgrade the speakers or amp where you see fit.
10 – A 16/44 FLAC rip played on PonoPlayer sounds pretty good (better than my CD players) but if money is tight then rebuying is tough to recommend. If the artist is putting out a 24bit version and you love that album, it’s up to you if you want the master-quality or not.
11 – I hear clear differences between depths of 16bit and 24bit, but less so between sampling rates of 44k, 88k, 96k, and 192k. The Beatles and The Cars have released their catalogs at 24/44 and they sound awesome. 24/88 and 24/96 are practically the same. 24/192 is the largest file available but an album takes us so much space I have been purchasing 24/96 so far.
I think it comes down to 24bit being the upgrade, with the sampling rate still determined by how much space you want the files to take up, and how expensive your speakers are. I use cheap mainstream speakers so I don’t always buy 192 over 96. If you can get native 24bit masters it’s worth it at any sample rate.