Neil Asks Steve ‘Why Not?’
Many Apple marketing campaigns pushed their music products using the artists themselves. Legend has it that Neil Young was one of these artists and that he asked an Apple employee at a commercial shoot when they were going to upgrade the audio specs on the device because he found the MP3 playback to be lacking in detail and able to hurt his ears at high volume.
The blank stare he received led him to email Apple CEO Steve Jobs directly, which led to a meeting with Jobs (a Neil Young and vinyl fan) where Neil asked some direct questions regarding the future of consumer music. That’s the power of being a rock star and well respected fellow!
Steve heard him out and explained that Apple was in the business of making mainstream multitasking devices that did many other things besides play music. Supposedly Steve then professed his preference for vinyl and his surprise at the speed at which MP3 was accepted as the new standard. He closed his answer by saying that high quality music playback was a niche market that Apple just wasn’t interested in.
The elephant in the room was that no one was serving the market. No one at that point was making and selling a digital audio player (DAP) that offered highest quality digital audio. Sony had moved on from their Walkman line, Apple wasn’t interested, and the rest of the gadget manufacturers were following Apple’s lead.
The rumor as I’ve heard it ends with Steve telling Neil “build it yourself, you’re an entrepreneur.”
Neil thought “why not?”. Can we make a new version of the iPod that properly delivered full quality audio? Maybe if they only focus on sound quality, like a portable recording studio sound, there was a product there, at least for musicians and audio nerds.
He initially sunk over $200k of his own money into research and development of the proof of concept, and came to learn how difficult and expensive it is to bring such a device to market from scratch.
Young and his partners were unsuccessful at attracting enough outside investment. Streaming and MP3 were hot while past attempts at upgrading audio specs were not. The singular focus of the device was also against all modern trends. To focus only on sound quality – something that science has been unable to define – made for a product that, to this day, is criticized endlessly as being a scam by those that have not actually heard it.
Years passed, Mr. Jobs passed, and Young soldiered on telling anyone who would listen about this idea. He eventually found Kickstarter and crowd-funded the idea.
Crowd funding Pono was a huge success, with over $6 million pledged to pre-order a portable device that would play digital music at it’s highest level. Quality scored a rare victory in the digital age! Signing up several well-respected artists to do signature editions of PonoPlayers helped as well.
After all, by 2012 you could buy a chinese DAP to play hi-res files on, but it seemed like no one was thinking about it and you never saw them out in the wild. They were never on TV, never talked about in my travels.
Everyone I knew had given in to phones for their music collection, most streaming MP3 from their phones or playing their MP3 collection. Portable hi-fi seemed to be a thing of the past. Fidelity itself seemed antiquated.
Then there is the issue of content. By 2010 pop producers were actually mixing for MP3 release, even though their digital recording gear had been operating in high lossless resolution for years. The recording world was upside down and the record labels were having trouble selling quality, or selling anything for that matter!
Yet the labels still hold all studio masters up to 2000 on analog tape. This is all of the world’s recorded music, and most of it has been digitized at 16/44 only. Some had been transferred to 24bit and higher sample rates, but these were rarely heard by the public.
Music from 2000-on is usually recorded, mixed, and delivered for mastering at 24bit lossless resolution. By 2010 Apple’s iTunes store accepted – even recommended! – 24bit files for delivery, but they still won’t sell them!
Instead they lossy compress them to 256k aac , mark them “Mastered for iTunes”, and charge 30¢ more for them. Very strange.
Mr. Young thought it was finally time to put out the best copy available and let the consumer hear the full master version played properly. He also thought it was about time that past releases are re-released at the highest resolution possible. His righteousness about the power and importance of music brings us to the Pono Player (finally!).