If you’ve watched a news broadcast this week chances are you’ve seen or heard about Canadian Rocker Neil Young’s plans to introduce a new high quality music player called PONO.
PONO reached it’s initial goal of $800,000 in less than 24 hours and now thanks to media exposure the PONO Project on KickStarter has raised more than $6 millon dollars.
So what is PONO and why does anybody care? PONO is the latest gadget to come out of the Hi Fidelity Music Revolution which has risen as a backlash against the highly compressed MP3 digital music downloads consumers have been buying from online music stores for the past 10+ years.
Pono is a Hawaiian word and which means outrageous and frankly I find it ironic that an aging rocker like Neil Young is the pitchman and promoter for a hi fidelity music player … I mean really, have you ever listened to a Neil Young album?
Pono promises to bring back life and impact to our digital music which according to Young has been squeezed out of recordings during encoding to make the file sizes smaller and easier to download. In the Pono promotional video Young compares MP3 files to listening to music 1,000 feet under water and Compact Disc recordings to listening at 200 ft underwater. Pono’s music files will be sampled at 192kHz and 24 bit which Neil contends is like listening to music above sea level.
Most MP3 files are sampled at 192 kbps or 256 kbps. iTunes and some other online music stores now sample at 320 kbps but that still about a third of the quality of CD lossless quality recordings which are sampled at 1411 kbps (44.1 kHz/16bit) FLAC Files (Free Lossless Audio Codec).
High resolution recordings have a sampling rate of 2304 kbps (48 kHz/24 bit FLAC and Higher resolution recordings sample at 4608 kkbps (96 khz/24 bit)
Ultra High resolution recordings are sampled at 9216 kbps (192 kHz/24 bit) FLAC.
According to Pono’s Kickstarer page “PonoMusic is not a new audio file format or standard, PonoMusic is an end-to-end ecosystem for music lovers to get access to and enjoy their favorite music exactly as the artist created it, at the recording resolution they chose in the studio. We offer PonoMusic customers the highest resolution digital music available.PonoMusic is more than just a high-resolution music store and player; it is a grassroots movement to keep the heart of music beating. PonoMusic aims to preserve the feeling, spirit, and emotion that the artists put in their original studio recordings.”
The Pono music player looks like a Toblerone chocolate bar and includes 128GB of internal memory plus a microSD card slot for additional storage. The PonoMusic store will offer tracks for download in FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). FLAC files are sampled at higher bit rates and therefore contain more digital information and therefore can better capture the subtle nuances in music recordings.
While technically speaking FLAC files should sound better than lower sampled MP3 files it is questionable if the listener will hear the difference through a pair of common earbuds or on a car audio system with vehicle and road noise.
The premise of high quality audio is a good one, but lets face it the odds of PONO succeeding is remote.
1.) First there’s the question of the separate music player. Does the world really need another digital music player? Especially one that looks like a Chocolate Bar. Sales of iPods have been declining for years since the introduction of the Smart Phone and most consumers what to carry only one device in their pocket and that device is their SmartPhone. The PONO Music Player is just that … a music only player with an odd shape and nothing more.
2.) Then there’s the question of music selection. The Amazon Music store and iTunes have Millions of songs in their catalogs ready for download today …. how many will the PONO Music Store have at launch?
3.) Digital Rights Management – DRM. When iTunes first launched the Recording Companies required it had to incorporate some form of digital security in the music files to prevent unauthorized copying and file sharing (DRM). Consumers hated DRM, it made listening to legitimately purchased music on different devices they difficult and frustrating. The solution was DRM free music at a higher cost. DRM FREE music was easier and more convenient for the consumer to listen to on all his or her devices.
The one thing no one is talking about with PONO is DRM. Some people say because PONO is the only device which you can download and play FLAC Files that DRM won’t be an issue but lets get serious here for a minute. If record companies were concerned about copying and illegal file sharing of 196, 256 or 320 kbps files what kind of security do you think they’ll have on uncompressed Studio Master FLAC files? Ease of use and portability are the keys to any digital music ecosystem surviving. Consumers want to listen to their music in their cars, phones, portable players, laptops, stereos, at home, the office, cottage and on vacation. If the music isn’t able to be listened to in all those places then it will never gain mass appeal.
4.) Streaming is the New Music Trend: Streaming Music is the new trend in digital music, especially those under the age of 30. Consumers would rather stream their music via some sort of on-line service rather than downloading, storing, cataloging, making playlists and managing files between devices. Why would you want to tie up valuable storage space on your smart phone or carry a separate device like a Pono when you can just subscribe to a service and stream all the music you want. Even if PONO can overcome the separate device, music selection and DRM concerns, Streaming vs Storing music on a single device will be a tough one to overcome and certainly not indicative of the current market trend.
5.) Apple, Amazon & Google? The last nail in the coffin for PONO will be the market dominance of Apple, Amazon and Google. Apple, Amazon and Google are certainly watching PONO and will not surrender their domination in the music marketplace without a fight.
Apple has many options at it’s disposal including developing their own hi fidelity music player perhaps an iPod Pro or iPod Hi-Fi. Apple may also be able to incorporate a higher fidelity music player into it’s existing idevices … lets call it iTunes Pro or iTunes Hi-FI. Another option for iTunes and Amazon would be to start selling FLAC music files. Apple also has it’s own higher fidelity music sampling format called ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec). Currently Apple iPhone and iPods are capable of playing ALAC files however Apple is not selling ALAC music in the iTunes store at this time probably due to copyright regulations by the record companies. The odds are if PONO gains ground, Apple will just go to the recording industry and get permission to sell ALAC music files on iTunes – if that were to happen, Apple would be able to offer higher quality music files, playable on a single, slimmer device such as an iPod, iPhone or iPad.
Tech Tip: While ALAC music is not available on iTunes yet, Apple users who wish to convert and import tracks from their own CD collection into iTunes can do it right now by using ALAC in the import menu options on iTunes. These ALAC files will play on all idevices.
The PONO Player and PONOMUSIC Project are currently enjoying the media spotlight right now but a lot of things will happen between now and October when the first PONO Players are supposed to start shipping. The timing of PONO is perfect coinciding with the growing trend towards higher fidelity digital music and even a resurgence in vinyl record sales. The real question with PONO or any other music player is convenience and lifestyle. The way we listen to music has changed, we’re plugged in all the time and music listening is often more a background distraction as opposed to an active, involved, conscious foreground listening effort. Connectivity, convenience and portability is perhaps the most important feature with choice of music player. In this department the Smart Phone wins hands down. It’s one device, we carry it with us wherever we go, it’s easy to download music onto it or better yet stream music on it and lastly we already have an eco system of music docks, wireless bluetooth, Sonos and airplay docks which all play nice with the smart phone but may not integrate well with PONO or may degrade the quality of sound from a high fidelity music player so why go through the effort. Pono is like 4K Television. 4K TV is awesome but for most consumers 1080p is good enough and far me convenient, easier to use, with far more content selection and much less expensive than 4K TV.
Like most KickStarter projects, PONO’s a great story and certainly a novel concept but will it succeed? Personally I believe the trend to streaming music services will continue and most consumers are not going to give up the simplicity and convenience of their smart phone for the benefit of higher fidelity music on a separate device?
If PONO does gain traction and the market look for Apple and Amazon to up their game and leave PONO in the dust.
The majority of crowd source funded projects fail and I’m betting that despite PONO’s current media popularity and phenomenal success at reaching it’s funding goal the PONO Music Player is sadly is doomed to fail.
We should Thank Neil Young and PONO for bringing awareness to the general public about the poor quality of MP3 downloaded music and for elevating the conversation about better music fidelity. Better music quality will happen, however it will not be on a separate player but rather within the eco system of smart phones and tablets and most likely with some form of streaming.
If you want to know more about the PonoMusic Product and Kickstarter Fund Raising Campaign check out the link at: Pono KickStarter Campaign