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Music: Hey hey, my my, why the pono will surely die

Craven Lovelace
NOTES
Free Press Music Columnist
Craven Lovelace
Staff Photo |

Understand from the get-go: Craven loves Neil Young.

Neil Young is a remarkably gifted songwriter who has been producing artistically meaningful work as a solo artist for nearly half a century. His guitar sound is incredibly distinctive and has influenced players for a couple generations. He is pigeonhole-resistant. Craven even loves the stuff he did during that weird period of the 1980s, when he was messing around with Devo and being sued by his record label for producing work “unrepresentative of himself.” (Heck, Craven especially loves that stuff, with both the synthesizer- and vocoder-dominated “Trans” and the rockabilly kicker, “Everybody’s Rockin,’” lodging high in his personal pantheon.) Neil Young’s rock god bona fides are in good order.

But as a hawker of high-fidelity audio equipment, he’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.



As you may have heard, Young is the man behind the latest digital portable audio player, the Pono. (Pono is, apparently, the Hawaiian word for “righteous.”) His Kickstarter project to fund the new device, which aimed to raise $800,000, hovers at the time of writing somewhat north of the $5-million mark, with still another 15 days to go. This is certainly a testament to the goodwill Neil Young has created for himself in this world. It has to be — because the science and design behind Young’s new device stinks.

The idea of the Pono (which is a triangular device that will fit into your pocket about as easily as, say, a coffee mug) is that it will “revive the magic that has been squeezed out of digital music” by only playing uncompressed, 24-bit 192Khz music files. That compares with the compressed, 16-bit 44Khz and 16-bit 48Khz files most people are used to from CDs or MP3s. And hey, that sounds great to someone who knows nothing about audio signal processing. I mean, 24 is more than 16, 192 is greater than 48. It’s gotta be better, right?



The unfortunate truth is it’s not. A song played on the Pono will actually be delivered with slightly inferior audio fidelity compared to the same song compressed into a high-quality MP3. And it will take up to six times the storage space. (Fully maxed out, the Pono will only offer 128Gb, and you’ll be able to carry somewhat fewer than 1,900 songs on it. In the same amount of space, you could fit more than 20,000 320Khz MP3s.)

If you doubt that 24/192 offers worse audio fidelity than 16/44 or 16/48, I urge you to check out the science at http://www.people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html. It will open your eyes (if not your ears).

No doubt, Neil Young’s intentions are honorable, but the $400 Pono is a boondoggle. If audio quality is of paramount concern to you, it would be better to save your money for some good speakers (or headphones) and listen to some 320Khz MP3s. (Or even 192Khz; most people, including audiophiles, have a hard time telling the difference.) The Pono may sound like a great thing, but in the words of a certain Canadian rocker:

“Hey hey, my my,

Rock and roll can never die.

There’s more to the picture

than meets the eye.

Hey hey, my my.”

Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog. He also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog: http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog. You may find him on Facebook as well.


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