By the time musician Neil Young appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman in September 2012, he’d had enough . Beginning with the widespread adoption of CDs in the early 1980s, digitalization had become a hallmark of the music industry. Now, more than a decade after Apple launched the iPod and one year after Spotify’s streaming service landed on US shores, Young believed the digital revolution gone too far. For him, the reductions in sound quality necessary to conveniently store and stream digital music had deprived it of its emotional impact. “I don’t feel right allowing this to be sold to my fans,” he wrote. “It’s bad for my music” . He showed Letterman his solution: a triangular yellow widget called “Pono.”
A year earlier, Neil Young had teamed up with tech sector CEO John Hamm to build what would become PonoMusic. Their mission was to leverage advances in digital technology to rescue the lost “soul” of music from hollow-sounding formats that had come to dominate the industry. For customers, they promised an uncompromising approach: the world’s highest quality listening experience, delivering their favorite music exactly as the artist intended it . The value proposition was an immersive sonic experience that couldn’t be replicated by existing digital platforms. After demo-ing the product to hundreds of well-known musicians, Young was confident that consumers would also want to “feel more from the music with Pono.” Eighteen months after appearing Letterman, he launched a much-hyped Kickstarter campaign with a goal of raising $800,000.00. It closed 35 days later having raised over $6,200,000.00, the third-largest project in Kickstarter history . After raising an additional $6,000,000.00 in crowd-sourced equity in mid-2014, Young’s vision finally became a reality in early 2015 .
“Testamonials,” PonoMusic. <https://www.ponomusic.com/aboutus>
To deliver on its customer promise, PonoMusic built its operating model around a three-part ecosystem that included PonoPlayer, the PonoMusic store, and PonoMusic-certified sound files. The triangular PonoPlayer was purpose-built using state-of-the-art components to deliver unparalleled sound quality. Though it could play any file type, it was optimized for a little-known, open-source format called Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) . The idea of “lossless” is crucial. Recall Young’s conviction that music had lost something essential. In a purely technical sense, he was absolutely right. The reigning formats of the time used digital compression to create smaller files better suited for storage and streaming. In the process, parts of the music were trimmed off using algorithms that selected for overlapping sounds. In practice, this could result in “cheap” sounding music that especially affected guitars, cymbals, and reverb . Typical bitrates – the amount of musical information conveyed every second – for these files range from 90-256kbps; CDs trim much less, with a default bitrate of 1411kbps. PonoMusic FLAC files, however, are completely lossless: there are zero reductions to studio masters and bitrates can reach a sky-high 9216kbps. Accordingly, Pono priced its songs almost twice as high as those available in the iTunes Store. But is bigger necessarily better?
The answer isn’t exactly clear. From an empirical standpoint, a 9216 kbps bitrate is well outside of human hearing in both dynamic and frequency range . Additionally, several studies demonstrated that not only were listeners unable to tell the difference between CD-quality and higher resolution audio , but also that those who self-identified as very confident in their answers were wrong more often than right . After all, CD specs weren’t chosen at random: 1411kbps accounts for everything the human ear can perceive, and then some . Citing this evidence, critics have called Pono’s value proposition a scam that doesn’t justify its $400.00 price tag and cost of ownership . Still, others have embraced the system. Stereophile magazine named PonoPlayer its product of the year, with one contributor musing: “You can listen to high-res music for hours…and enjoy it. Listen to a standard-resolution CD for 15 minutes and you get bored—it doesn’t compute.” So who’s right?
“The Studio,” Portlandia. Independent Film Channel. <https://youtu.be/BW92t264eBM>
Unfortunately for PonoMusic, the nay-sayers seem to have won out. After three quarters, Young cited stagnant sales figures in the 10,000s for PonoPlayer – a far cry from the first-generation iPod’s 200,000+ units over the same period . PonoMusic’s store has been down for months as they reportedly transition to a new infrastructure partner. Tellingly, Young’s music has recently become available to stream on AppleMusic and Tidal . The company appears to have incorrectly bet on a purpose-built device and a storage-based platform at a time when consumers were flocking to multifunctional smartphones and improved streaming technology. Going forward, I’d keep the store offline and recommend partnering as the official playback device for artist-owned streaming service Tidal. Its corporate culture aligns closely with values championed by Young and its premium service allows for streaming and downloading CD-quality FLAC files. For true audiophiles, PonoPlayer remains an industry-leading device with few competitors, perhaps still capable of carving out a considerable niche for itself in the years to come. (800 words)
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