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Mid-March 2014
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Pono, PonoPlayer And PonoMusic
Music, as the artists intended, is finally going mainstream.
Article By Steven R. Rochlin

 

PonoPlayer and PonoMusic    Question: How many high-end audio manufacturers have appeared on the CNBC financial channel? Neil Young touting Pono did the day after their Kickstarter launch. As much as I have my not-so-positive opinions of CNBC and their clowns/talking heads, once you know CNBC's conflict of and self-interests you can gleam a half decent amount of information from their promotional Wall Street television broadcast. Recently, Mat Weisfeld of VPI appeared on the far more respected Bloomberg TV not just once, but twice! That is very impressive for our humble industry and I applaud Mat for his rewarding efforts at revitalizing VPI to embrace the modern marketplace. Yet, in total, that is basically all the high-end audio industry has achieved recently in the eyes of this investment/consumer to reach a broad mainstream audience in a substantial manner. Ok, the Audioquest Dragonfly is an exception to some extent.

How many high-end audio companies decided to showcase their products at the incredibly popular SXSW 2014 to reach mainstream consumers? And remember these attendees are not just regular Joe Six-Pack types, but highly technical, business savvy programmers, app start-ups, forward-thinkers, visionaries... and Venture Capitalists with deep pockets. Even RollingStone.com announced the successful launch of Pono when it hit a mere $800,000 in funding within a few hours of their Kickstarter launch. Looking at Pono's Kickstarter page they are touting magazines including USA Today, Billboard, Forbes, Newsweek, The Guardian, The New York Times, Huff Post, etc, yet not a single 'mainstream' high-end mag. Coincidence on Pono's part? I think not.

As of this writing, only ~60 hours since launch, Pono has earned over $2,750,000 from their Kickstarter campaign with 32 days still remaining. Have read various articles from the usual audiophile-type magazines and writers since Pono's launch three days ago (as of this writing) and it seems some of them are missing the train. Instead of coming aboard for a beneficial ride-along and looking at the possibilities, we get the usual pre-assumed assumptions. Color me not astonished at some writers willfully wanting to remain on the platform at the train station.

First, Pono is not just about you. It is not about me either. Pono is not directly seeking audiophile approval as we are already sold on the idea. Though as an extension, am sure many true music lovers will be buying albums from PonoMusic when it goes live online. So who is Pono marketing to? Pono is for everyone! All the recent bad-mouthing and speculation by other magazine writers is generally just that, speculation based on their own personal experiences in their life and knowledge of the high-end audio marketplace. With such a skewed and narrow vision of the world it is no wonder they do not fully 'get it'. Fact is many audiophiles will not fully 'get it' at this time because the PonoPlayer is not in production and thus no one can make sound quality judgments on the PonoPlayer and the PonoMusic store is not online to comment on the depth and breathe of their offerings. Speculation based on expert knowledge is wonderful, but can you wisely leave emotion at the door and look at Pono from a pure business model point of view?

One of the first things I did when first seeing Pono's Kickstarter page was not to look at the unit specs, not the price, not even their posted FAQ or the usual promotional blurbs. What I first looked at was who are the investors and brains behind this new company. You could have invested in the best widget within the world, but without the right team doing the right things in the most advantageous ways in order to make it a success... you may as well have invented a time portal that goes 15 minutes into the future that no one knows about. Sure it is a great invention worth millions trillions actually if you know how to properly use it yet you might never sell a single one because you have no way of properly presenting and promoting it that resonates with others.

Sure Neil Young is not a youthful hipster living in one of the newfound Dot Com 2.0 hotbed locations. Heck, Neil probably has never danced to EDM at a Las Vegas club. Neil knows music, is highly respected by other musicians, and has an impressive business team who has his back. During Neil Young's SXSW presentation he mocked the whole five speaker surround sound setup and how wives' were perhaps not so accepting of all those speakers in the livingroom. So he is well-aware of some of the problems faced with getting a product into consumer's home. Neil is also a visionary who found a way to get financial backing by some serious and respected business people.

"Pono plays back whatever the artist decided to do... just like the artist made them (in the recording studio)." Yes we can argue that some of what Neil Young says is false, or at least a tiny bit misleading, but it is only because we audiophiles have known certain things for years. Joe Six-Pack has almost literally no clue about high resolution audio FLAC files, and who are we as the high-end audio industry to blame for that fact? Remember that when you point your finger at someone there are three pointing back at you. To bring a wide variety of music lovers the great news about Pono, Neil Young is getting major traction with popular and well-respected musicians and trend-setters to join Pono. When these popular musical artists start to gain momentum in helping to promote higher resolution audio files to the masses, we can hope they extend this desire to their home audio equipment. Because, as I see it, any effort to bring public awareness to the availability of high resolution audio files over MP3 is a great effort we should all be supporting. HDtracks could get a boost from Pono due to a broader audience being aware of the benefits in downloadable high quality music instead of iTunes (and others) lossy MP3 format, which we all know is worse than the now nearly 30 years old CD(!). Like John Hamm, CEO and an investor in Pono said, "People swapped quality for convenience."

 

MP3 And The 1990's
When the MP3 first appeared online in the early 1990's we were still dealing with 56kBs dial-up modems, small 500MB (half a single GB!) hard drives... and eventually Windows 95, thick 'candy bar' cell phones, Netscape introduced SSL and Apple allowed other companies to 'clone' and sell their Macintosh machines to stores worldwide. For investors, you might recall the day Netscape went public at an IPO price of $28/share and by closing it reached $58. The first real 'big deal' in Dot Com IPO'ing! But forget the past because life moves on, the Sony cassette Walkman is dead, and am sure you don't want to miss all the fun we modern technology and music lovers enjoy each day.

Not only can we easily prove via measurement that modern technology is more productive than that of yesteryear, we can see the results within our daily lives too. So if we can easily prove that PonoMusic and HDtracks FLAC files are better than lossy MP3, with sound quality backing up the technical measurements, then what Neil Young said is true in that "Pono is about the music... about you hearing what we hear." Anyone who has been in a recording studio in the past, well, forever, knows how much music is thrown away in the MP3 compression process. Referring to PonoMusic's FLAC files, popular singer/songwriter Beck said "It's how it's supposed to be heard."

"If we fail, we know that people will realize something is wrong (with MP3)... if this succeeds everyone wins. Support us," said Neil Young. Excellent point Neil as many people have made a small fortune in the high-end audio industry because they started with a larger one. Yet the fact will remain that many more people will be aware of the MP3's shortcomings. Audiophile readers will surely agree that any way to get the message out to the public is better than no message at all.

Neil Young And Pono, PonoPlayer and PonoMusicHere are two more things Neil Young said during the SXSW event:

"I want to bring music to where it can be. It is the 21st century. Why should we be suffering [with MP3] at the hands of some mega-tech company?"

"In audio there's never been such low quality [music] and the opportunity for it to be so great."

 

"Kickstarter and music enabled us to get where we are" Neil Young said discussing the successful launch only four hours into their Kickstarter campaign. John Hamm, CEO of PonoMusic said "The last thing we want to do is start a format war" referring to the FLAC files they will be selling. "Pono is a simple mission, on the price convenience curve. We want to bring everyone a simple, easy end-to-end service with the music at the highest quality." When asked about the PonoPlayer's shape, CEO John Hamm said "The triangular shape was to be an iconic design. We chose components for their quality, not their size" He also said "We're building a company and long-term movement... it is building a huge community."

 

A Few Words About DSD Support
What I find truly interesting is that Pono may be the very best opportunity to finally bring modern high fidelity recording studio sound quality to the mainstream consciousness. Many of us have been enjoying FLAC files for years, but ask people on the street about FLAC and wait for the blank stare. Ask them about DSD and you'll usually get the same response. Ask them about lower-than-CD quality MP3 and see what happens. Frankly, Pono does not need the high-end audio community. Am sure this will anger some of the self-absorbed types who think they Pown(o) the industry, yet the fact is we are but a very small, niche' market in the scheme of life and our broad worldwide consumer-based economy. "Pono is aimed at the mainstream," said Neil Young. Face it, Beats could care less about audiophiles and look at their success, so Pono may be moving in that direction too.

To avoid consumer confusion about high resolution music file types, and since the PonoPlayer already supports all the major file types, there is a financial advantage in only supporting PonoMusic's high-rez FLAC format. Sony's proprietary DSD format could be supported since the internal DAC can handle it, though as a business decision why support DSD if you only sell FLAC files? DSD is still unknown by virtually all mainstream consumers. On the other hand, if there is enough demand for DSD either Pono could offer support via a firmware update or the hacker community could make it happen since the PonoPlayer is based on the highly popular Android platform. For all we know the PonoPlayer will support DSD files when it is released so this whole debate will be moot.

 

Side Note
As a side note, yes you can load your existing FLAC, MP3, etc files to the PonoPlayer. Thus you can easily load your existing FLAC music to the PonoPlayer. Apple really did a very bad thing when early on they choose to use a protected file type to force you into their lossy music ecosystem. No doubt Apple made this decision to enhance their profit at the expense of allowing music lovers to freely enjoy their music they paid for.

 

How To Make A Small Fortune
As many of us in the audiophile community have realized, you can make a small fortune within our industry provided you start with a big one. Apologies if that sounds pessimistic, yet looking over the landscape there are better investments elsewhere that are far more liquid, and to some extent, relatively predictable with a long-term (historic) lifecycle. Recently we have purposefully spent funds (notice I didn't say doesn't say invest) in our Enjoy the Music.TV venture. Dare one mentions that this site was very close to bankruptcy during our third year online (1998). Later in life came the reality that, pertaining to investing, there would be zero conflict of interest. Thus quite a few attractive high fidelity audio business deals that have crossed my desk all were flatly refused. I'll avoid the usual Audio and Fi magazine discussion, let alone the incredibly well-backed financially McLaren trying their hand at selling high-end audio equipment and how that went. Am sure the investors, who are the core backers of Pono, also knew the risks and what would be the most productive way to promote it to ensure the grassroots crowd would spread the good word (gospel?) about the quality of FLAC music files.

Speaking of the crowd, how many companies have major leading musical artists actively endorsing their product to their fan base? Has the high-end audio community admitted we have a track record of being relatively powerless over our love for music and ability to promote high-end audio in a meaningful and broad-based way? Are we willing to take the next step with accepting that perhaps someone outside our direct community could help restore the discussion about high fidelity versus MP3 back to the masses? And lastly, will the gatekeepers of the high-end audio industry accept their personal decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of someone who can bring this discussion to the forefront?

 

Pono Gets The Conversation Going
The Pono train may be leaving the station, and the Matrix Trainman does not need the high-end audio community to ride along. Perhaps we need them more than they need us? The real question may be "Are we willing to embrace Pono because for the first time in decades it will bring the discussion about true high fidelity music back to the mainstream consciousness." Dare I say this, Pono could also boost sales of high-end audio products if we play our cards right. Holding a pair of niche' high-end audio market Audiophile Aces is good, yet Pono may be a Royal Straight Flush. What hand of cards are you willing to bet on that have the best odds of #winning the 'hearts and minds' of the public? When Pono wins, we all win because it brings the knowledge of higher quality music as the artists intended that blows away mainstream lossy MP3 to the everyday music lover. You can draw your own conclusion and history will one day tell the tale. We as a community need to decide if we choose to support and expand upon the discussion of FLAC over MP3 to further help the Pono movement, or will the industry get mired down arguing over... and thus pollute, contaminate and the joy-killer of them all confuse millions of music lovers about our own niche' hobby called high-end audio.

Who would you bet on to bring about more broad-based consumer awareness concerning high resolution music versus MP3? Remember what I said during a seminar about a year ago concerning marketing? Neil Young's message of consumers choosing convenience over sound quality during the past few decades at the hands of lossy MP3 is true, yet today we have the technology to finally break the stranglehold provided music lovers are aware there is a choice. Thus I resonate with Neil's message of enjoying music as the artists intended and the Pono initiative. You should too... if you love music.

As always, in the end what really matters is that we all...  

Enjoy the Music,


Editor and Creative Director, Enjoy the Music.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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