Is Pono Worth It? A Generational Struggle Over Perceived Quality


A few weeks ago, when I was home for the holidays, my dad asked a question that shocked and confused me. It involved Coldplay.

He asked me if I could move Coldplay’s most recent album from his iPod Shuffle onto his iPod Mini. I was perplexed. I’d given him the Shuffle just eight months ago, after winning three of them at a Toyota event at SXSW — a twist of fate that in itself seemed to say something about big brand benefactors in music. The Mini was beat-up and slow. I asked why he’d want to move his music around.

“Well, the only thing I have on the Mini is that Coldplay album,” my dad explained, “so I’ve just been using it to listen to that… basically since you gave it to me. I don’t know how to change which music is loaded where.”

My father came at the tail end of the Baby Boom, and he’s a big music fan, though not always an active one at this point. One of my roles in our relationship is to help him with that, in addition to answering his questions about things like Spotify. These inquiries include such gems as: “Wait, how is it legal to basically rent an album for free?” and “So I can’t plug two iPods together and transfer music that way?” But I was so tickled by the thought of my dad carrying around a whole separate device just in case he wanted to hear Coldplay’s “Magic,” that I conveniently never got around to putting Ghost Stories on his Mini.

He got me thinking, though, about this idea of his generation of Boomer music fans and the perception of a digital music library. I think of all the stories about dorm mates whose aspirational record collections he routinely pilfered, and I wonder why the concept of “sharing” musical selections from Spotify’s library seems so foreign to him. Then I think of Pono, the structured new digital player and system for high-def music led by Boomer hero Neil Young, no less. Everything has its place in the goldenrod world of Pono, with the player now on pre-order to the mass market following a $6 million Kickstarter campaign last year.

Pono’s rigid simplicity — a perfunctory touch screen for logical dragging and dropping, the fact that the music can only be purchased via Pono’s online store — gives some credence to the its reputation as the music player for Boomer audiophiles. Pono does one thing: it has the capacity to house and play FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) files, a format that, while compressing files, doesn’t do so to the degree that MP3, AAC, and WAV files do. Quality reaches levels that challenge and surpass CDs (16-bit/44.1kHz to 24-bit/192kHz “ultra-high resolution”). But as CNET points out, some audio experts say that while MP3s certainly compress songs to a point that diminishes the original recordings, CDs never really suffered from that problem to begin with. It’s when we moved to digital music players that the decline of quality became a big concern to audio fanatics.

When comparing 16-bit to 24-bit quality audio, you’d need a very high-quality set of headphones or speaker set-up to have your listening experience significantly altered. Even on my $240 Audio-Technica ATH-M50x headphones — an update to the model routinely worn by professional audio engineers — I could hear bits and pieces of different sonic textures in the audio sample on the Pono site. For a good hour, I toggled back and forth, comparing every song on Neil Young’s Harvest at Pono quality versus Spotify quality. The record seemed a little more delicate, as if I could envision the manner in which Young was finger-picking the day he recorded “Old Man.”

This might just have been psychological, though. Evidence suggests that in double-blind tests, most people can’t tell the difference between a FLAC file and a 320 kbps MP3, and even telling a lossless file from much lower-resolution file can be difficult. Can your ears really hear the difference between Pono’s fancy “hi-res” files and the files you play on your iPod? There are of course audiophiles who will swear blind that they can, but on the whole, the evidence says that you probably can’t.

And even as someone who has every professional reason to hear music in its most vivid detail, I am not quite sold on the cost vs. the value on a practical level. It doesn’t seem worth it to spend $400 on a player and nearly $20 to replace individual albums in my “library,” whatever that is at this point (it’s spread across a vinyl collection, thousands of audio files, and Spotify playlists synched to my desktop.) If I had a more significant disposable income, sure, why not. But as it stands, I already have one cripplingly expensive music habit — a vinyl collection — that I’ve already invested years in. (Plus, I can’t steal Pono files from my dad.)

I’ve seen a number of tech blogs (and very few music outlets) praise Pono for its quality, and they’re not wrong. Maybe I’m jaded, but I just can’t imagine it’s practical for the way most people listen to music. And that’s fine. Clearly there’s a specialty market for Pono, given its millions in crowd-funding — but it’s probably not the tech crowd either, which Pono seems to be courting currently at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Admittedly, I could see my dad and his Boomer music buddies appreciating it, but with as many music format changes they’ve been through in their lifetimes, I can’t envision any of them rebuilding a music library from scratch on another digital device where purchases aren’t physical.

Even it that weren’t an issue, Pono could only be used as a supplemental device. You’d be nuts to invest thousands replacing your full music library on the thing, and to care enough about even using Pono, you’d have to be the sort of person with an extensive record collection. Maybe the idea of a comprehensive music library on one device or even one format is a myth at this point, though. I go back to my dad and that damn Coldplay iPod of his. Maybe it doesn’t matter to listeners that Pono could just be an investment in their most treasured albums, the ones they’d pay $20 a pop to hear something new within. To me, it seems like the opposite of streamlined simplicity facilitated by the digital world. At least to a certain generation, maybe there’s a certain comfort in having something a little less than automatic.