Oh no, Pono

>> Monday, March 24, 2014

Finally.  It's about frickin' time.  For more than a year, ever since Neil Young announced this "Pono" thingie, I've been wondering what the noise was about.

If you haven't been following, here's the deal: back in 2012, Neil Young made a mysterious announcement: not a new album, not a new film, not some other weird neilyoungian arthouse project; no, he announced that he was getting into the music player business, of all things.  Young showed up on The Daily Show and in the music press with this little wedge-shaped doorstopper thing that he swore up and down would be the next greatest and latest thing in digital audio, something that would kick the pants off the MP3 (hardly high-hanging fruit, that) and usher in a new era in consumer sound.  He even had at least one shill at last year's SXSW, a guy seated on a panel about the future of digital music I attended, who talked about how great Pono sounded in Neil Young's car.

And therein lay a great deal of frustration, because nobody--not Neil, not his flacks, not nobody--would say anything else about it beyond how fucking great it sounded in Neil Young's car.  This was the one thing you could say about Pono from 2012 to this year's South-By (which I was sadly unable to attend): it sounds great in Neil Young's car.  Dozens of musicians and musical eminences vouched for it as well, many of them appearing in the video Young put up on his Kickstarter site for Pono: it sounds great in Neil Young's car.

Well what the fuck is it, how does it work?  It sounds great in Neil Young's car.  What kind of codec or format does it use?  It sounds great in Neil Young's car.  Lossy or lossless?  It sounds great in Neil Young's car.  Compressed or uncompressed?  It sounds great in Neil Young's car.  Christ, can you give me even a hint of what kind of tech specs you people will be using?  It sounds great in Neil Young's car.  Fine, okay--can I take a ride in Neil Young's car?  No.

It was impossible not to detect the whiff of snake oil coming from the back of the huckster's wagon.  It doesn't mean a goddamn thing that something sounds great in Neil Young's car.  Not just because I'm never going to get a chance to take a ride in Neil Young's car, either.  First off, Neil Young's a goddamn guitar god, a goddamn living legend, and if I ever did get to sit down in Neil Young's car, a bitchslap from Neil Young would probably be the best goddamn bitchslap I ever took.  Sure, sure, the Pono sounds great, Mr. Young, now will you autograph my forehead?  There's a whole psychological component to musical enjoyment, and a shitty mixtape played on an off-brand boombox while you're making out with your high school crush may sound a helluva lot better than a live performance in the most precisely-engineered auditorium on Earth for obvious reasons.  But even if you set that aside, what kind of sound system do you think Neil Young has in his car before he plugs in his demo Pono machine?  I'm guessing it's not the factory speakers (though these days the factory standard stuff can be pretty damn good, with automakers licensing their systems from Blaupunkt, Fender, Bose, HK et al.).

But also, third, you know, who's going to be listening to this thing in Neil Young's car all the time?  Just because it's perfectly engineered to provide the optimal Neil Young's car experience really doesn't tell me anything about how it's going to sound in my car, or in my living room, or through headphones while I'm bopping along in my local coffee shop or whatever.

Tech specs do.  Specifically, telling me something about what kind of audio format you're using.  Some data about your DAC might help, too.  Although y'know, this is the thing about digital hardware these days: whether your DAC even matters depends on whether I'm plugging your gizmo into other gear via an audio cable (in which case your gizmo is doing the gruntwork) or whether I'm plugging it in via USB and treating your gizmo as a storage device when I'm at home (in which case my crap is doing the audio processing, and just reading the files from your doohickey).

Well, seems like the mystery was solved at this year's SXSW, where Neil Young showed up in person to flog Pono some more, and on the Kickstarter page I linked to earlier.  It's FLAC.

Which is great.  I like FLAC.  I use FLAC a little, though not too much because my ears are shit and MP3 is a little more versatile even if it's a cruddy format.  But maybe you already see the, I dunno if you'd call it a "problem", with Mr. Young's noise machine?

It's FLAC.  I have FLACs.  You might have FLACs.  You can certainly get FLACs.  You can buy FLACs.  And you can play FLACs.  On your computer, for sure, and probably on your phone (depends mostly on what kind of phone you're using), and maybe even on your digital audio player of choice (probably not your iPod, tho').

FLAC is lovely, but it's been around ages.

Don't get me wrong at all: if Neil Young and his audio experts weren't going to invent a new file format, FLAC was really their best choice for heaps and heaps of reasons.  And if they were going to invent a whole new audio file format, it would raise the question, "Why didn't they just use FLAC?"  FLAC is lossless, so it doesn't throw out bits and pieces of audio the codec thinks doesn't matter, the way MP3 and AAC do (for instance).  FLAC is compressed, so it doesn't take up as much space on a drive as a WAV file and it uploads/downloads faster.  (And FLAC is checksummed, which means it's actually a more reliable format than WAV.)  And FLAC is open source, so you don't have to factor in licensing issues (i.e. fees) when retailing the music and players (e.g. your MP3 players, hardware and software alike, have a licensing fee to Fraunhofer buried somewhere in the retail price).  So this is all good.

But it also pisses me off a little.

Because, you know, the whole thing about Pono was all this oogedy-boogedy business about how this would be a whole new thing in audio reproduction and how great it sounds in Neil Young's car, but the truth is they aren't really offering anything new (except maybe one thing that we'll come back to in a minute).  Hell, if you go to their FAQ, they're still being kind of handwavy about the hardware component, offering useful technical info like, "The DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) chip being used is widely recognized in the audio and engineering community as one of the best sounding DAC chips available today," which, if you think about it, actually tells you nothing at all.

But they could hardly justify selling the thing for $400 if they actually owned up to the fact that you might be able to play the same files on your existing--and possibly superior--hardware.  Or that you might already be able to play on your laptop or home computer.  Or that the core software component is free.

No, the whole thing has been--again--all about how great the bloody thing sounds in the one place you or I will almost certainly never listen to it: in Neil Young's car.

So is the whole thing a waste?  Mostly.  There is one thing that Pono may be offering, that may be worth a look-see.  And that is the fact that quite a lot of existing digital masters are shit but one of Pono's components is an online store offering "Pono certified" downloads.  That is, if Pono is going to have musicians and engineers sitting down to remaster the original studio tapes for FLAC, Pono's music store may offer customers better mixes.  This has nothing to do with Pono magic or Neil Young's car or anything like that.  You may remember that back in the day, a lot of CDs sounded like crap because the labels often took xth generation analog masters that had been made for cutting vinyl or for for duplicating onto cassette, ran them through a DAC, and told consumers that the shittiness was because digital's "higher resolution" would sometimes "reveal" limitations and deficiencies in the "source" recordings.  And then sometimes, if the artist involved was somebody big like Pink Floyd or Dire Straits, they'd actually get someone--maybe an engineer who worked closely with the band (e.g. James Guthrie for the Pink Floyd remasters) or maybe the original artist (I think, though I may be mistaken, Mark Knopfler came into the studio to oversee the Straits reissues)--to take whatever was in the vaults and actually turn it into a legitimate original digital master, and make a big deal about the remastered or reissued series.  Well, same thing.  Hopefully, maybe.  This angle is very dependent on how much trouble the labels want to put themselves to and how much they think they can get out of selling special "Pono Editions" of their catalogues, naturally; and in some cases, frankly, it's going to make zero difference because there are already properly mastered FLACs directly available from the artist (e.g. Trent Reznor has made much of Nine Inch Nails' catalogue available in FLAC directly via the band's website) or through sites like HDtracks.

(I guess the only question I have about that, though, is whether audio engineers will be given access to Neil Young's car so they can set up a mixing board in the backseat or wherever is most appropriate for remixing an album to the demanding audio environment of Mr. Young's hoopty.  "The fact is," one imagines James Guthrie saying, "The Wall is not going to sound the same in your living room at a modest listening volume as it will cranked to the max in Neil Young's car.  And Neil Young's car is the definitive baseline by which the Pono experience is measured.  I've got to tell you, I am really, really excited by how The Wall sounds in Neil's car, now.  The groupie at the beginning of 'One Of My Turns' sounds like she's in the backseat, leaning up in-between the front seats to give directions or add something to a McDonald's drive-thru order.  And, let me tell you, Dark Side of the Moon with the windows up is just unbelievable when the heater's running at, like, '3' with the outside vents closed.  You won't believe it.  Especially if you're in Neil Young's car.")

Anyway.  So there's that.  Maybe.  Better remastering is always a good thing.

Other than that, though?  Basically, this thing's a ripoff--a $400 FLAC player.  Sorry, kids.


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