Finally getting ears on the Pono

First, let me welcome the dozens of new subsribers to this blog.  Dozens, within the last week.  And all of you have oddly similar, and oddly bogus looking email addresses.  And none of you are in the USA!  Wow! So I’m not sure what you hope to get from me, but here’s what I have for you.

Today I got my first chance to get hands and ears on a Pono High-res digital audio player, Neil Young’s little science project.  Sure, I know it’s been out a while.  Hey, I’m a busy guy, not much time to play.  Today I found myself with a bit of forced free time, so I visited a local audio shop and spotted the Pono, and got a test drive.

The caution-yellow prism-shaped device (you can get one in black too, but both look like they should be hanging on a tool belt) has an oddly solid feel, and the GUI isn’t half bad.  The shop plugged in a pair of Sennheiser Momentum headphones, and I started scrolling through the song list looking for a nice fresh high-res bit of audio to listen to.  I found a ton of Youngian masterpieces, all from the 1970s, so no joy there. “But wait”, you say, “That’s all analog!  That’s high-res stuff!”  Sorry, no. Having actually lived through that period, and worked in pro audio then, I can tell you, analog anything isn’t high-res.  There are basically only two requirements for high resolution: Better performance than 16 bit linear PCM samples, and higher performance than 48KHz sampling rate, or the equivalent in analog performance.  Analog tape of the 1970s and even up until now doesn’t hit either of those basic requirements.  So, while the files may have been 192KHz, 24 bit, the original audio wasn’t even close.

The search for a demo piece continued.  I scrolled through the song list, checking each one, until finally…wham!  I hit the end of the list.  Huh.  No actual high-res material to demo.  Odd.  So, I reasoned, I’ll just pick something more or less current, at least it won’t be analog.  But the current selections were all in the throws of the Loudness War, crushed to death by loudness audio processing.  No high-res there either.  So, I searched for the best of the best analog track, and landed on Miles Davis, “So What”.  Wow, there it was, in all it’s analog, tape-noisy glory, with Mile’s horn clearly being inter-modulated by the string bass.  Of course, at 192KHz, 24 bits, all of that distortion was clearly and accurately preserved.

The search went on for a little while longer, auditioning tracks that sounded perfectly identical to their original masters, which weren’t high res either. I finally finished listening to a favorite Neil Young track, “A Man Needs A Maid”.  Yes, analog, tape hiss at the orchestra cues, and all.  Listening to it at length I gradually experienced the full weight of Young’s song-craftsmanship, and the rather unusual production of the piece, and loved it…just about as much as I ever have.  No more, no less.

Perhaps it was the headphones.  Sennheiser Momentums, at $350, should be no slouch.  Of course, they are not uncolored either. There’s that midrange peak, and bass that’s there but a little sloppy.  Still, nothing I couldn’t hear high-res through, right?

I like the styling of the Pono far better than I thought I would.  I hate the color, they should have at least come up with a few options, or stayed with something neutral.  I love the fact that you can shove in an SD card and expand storage! If only Apple…yeah, never mind.

The real issue is one of “Why?”  What do you get for your money, less in terms of the hardware, which seems fully capable, more in terms of the entire concept of High-res audio.  Is it really high-res?  What benefit is there to a high-res copy of an old analog master?  Just this: if something was  done between the analog master and a CD or vinyl that was either not done in the transfer to High-res, or done better, then I can imagine an advantage to those files.  But not because they are high-res, rather because they were created more carefully.

High-res audio must have a traceable heritage, what Mark Waldrep rightly calls “provenance”, all the way back to the original recording method. Up-sampling doesn’t “create” high-res out of standard res digital, or anything analog.

So, we’re still at Square One.  We can’t deliver high-res unless the entire chain, mic to our ears, is high-res.  That’s still the challenge, and possibly the undoing of the entire concept.

While I like a lot about the Pono player, I’m sticking with what I have for now while I wait for the source material to catch up.

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