Neil Young Plugs Audiophile Music Player At SXSW

Rock 'n' roll legend Neil Young introduces the Pono music player to a crowd at SXSW. The audiophile device plays back studio-quality recordings only.
Posted at 3:10 PM, Mar 12, 2014

​SXSW hosted two musical relics on stage this week: Neil Young and talk about MP3 players.

The rock 'n' roll legend joined the growing ranks of entrepreneurs pitching new projects and spoke to a packed house about the Pono music player. The triangular prism doesn't play compressed MP3s, but instead, it sports a library containing the highest-resolution recordings possible.

Or in its creator's words,​ "Pono is about the music. It's about the people who make the music and the way it sounds to us when we're in the studio making it." (Via PonoMusic.com)

Some outlets are calling it a direct rival to the iPod. However, as a man whose celebrity was grooved into high-fidelity records, Young claims his Pono is the audiophile's answer to portable music.  

While speaking unscripted at the Austin Convention Center, Young said he grew tired of hearing the widely used MP3 format, which he compared to running "Xerox copies of the Mona Lisa," according to NME.

So, how much better are Pono's playable studio recordings? Well, we'll have to examine the bit rate, or the amount of information processed. According to PC Magazine, MP3s on average push out a bit rate around 256 kilobits per second. It's generally referred to as a "high compressed" format.

According to its developers, Pono's tracks can put out higher resolutions from 1411kbps to an insane 9216kbps, "depending on the recording available." This format is called FLAC, and it's generally uncompressed.

So by the numbers, the sound quality is there — but it remains to be seen if Young can get the right number of people on board to keep the system viable.

​Tech Crunch points out: "It's not going to spawn an explosive rebirth of dedicated portable music players. ... The PonoPlayer serves a growing niche of music listeners that want to hear and feel the nuances not available through MP3 [music]." (Via TechCrunch)

But Young has a promising start on the crowd funding platform Kickstarter. In less than 24 hours, the Pono music player had already surpassed its $800,000 goal and continues to rise. Backers can preorder a Pono for a $300 pledge.

The first production run of the Pono will retail for $399 for 128 gigabytes of space. Keep in mind, the system is sandboxed, so high-fidelity music purchased from PonoMusic.com can only be played on the Pono for now.

On its site, Pono claims studio-quality albums could run anywhere from $15-25, but there's no word on how much an individual song will cost. The device does support music you've already bought in the meager MP3 quality.

Billboard reports at Pono's post-show Q-and-A, the audience was skeptical of Pono's Toblerone-bar design and ability to play from other libraries. 

An observant audience member awkwardly asked Young and CEO John Hamm how much money they stand to gain from purchases on Pono Music. He was referring to the now-famous 30 percent cut Apple receives on iTunes purchases.  

"Hamm, after a flustered moment, responded: 'It surprises most people that everyone who buys music from the record labels pays exactly the same amount.' To which several audience members shouted, 'What?!'" (Via Billboard)

Meaning, Hamm couldn't disclose how much they make off each purchase.


There is a little more than a month left in Pono's Kickstarter campaign. According to its page, it's expected to ship in October 2014.