Let's move on from sad topics and delve into a new and superfluous bit of technology: the Pono Player.
Yes, it looks like a Toblerone. And something about the design harks back to the Game Boy Advance SP. The oversized "Plus" (aka, "volume increase") button looks so much like the Game Boy's D-Pad, I absentmindedly kept clicking different parts of the button, expecting my inputs to affect on-screen navigation.
But not to worry, the Pono Player has a touch screen—albeit an awful, pixelated, sluggish one that looks worse than an iPod Photo's. On the plus side, the garish, Pikachu-yellow-colored silicon case feels surprisingly comfortable in hand. I imagine this is the type of material John Siracusa pines for in iPhones, which have a tendency to slide off armchairs because of their aluminum chassis.
My good friend Max preordered a Pono Player during the surprisingly successful Kickstarter campaign. Other Max is bullish on the device’s potential to increase people’s awareness of high-resolution audio. And if it makes my friend happy, then I’m happy for him.
But he also wanted to prove to me that it could and should also make me happy. What songs do you want to listen to, Other Max texts me the night before we’re to meet up. I suggest he have songs off Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Peter Gabriel’s So handy, because I’ve grown up listening to both albums.
It’s futile to impart my impressions of the device’s sound quality because there were too many variables in my “test.” The 24-bit version of So seemed to hold up better in busier sections, compared to the CD version I’m used to, while the drums on Rumours sounded muddy and flat. But I was listening to songs on Other Max’s noise-canceling Bose headphones, instead of my usual set-up: a pair of Sony headphones plugged into a MacBook Pro’s 1/8" audio port.
What role does the Pono Player actually serve? When describing the digital music explosion of the 2000s, audiophiles tend to take a fall of mankind approach. They feel that the vast majority of people were duped into buying low-fidelity songs that sacrificed quality for the convenience of portability.
And while there’s truth to that—particularly in the early days of DRM-ed, 128 kbps MP3s and AACs—people have a tough time distinguishing between lossless and lossy audio. (I highly recommend checking out Marco Arment’s thoughts on the real-life effectiveness of high-resolution audio.)
Neil Young, the founder of Pono, promises to take things a step further. His player is capable of playing back 24-bit audio files, not just 16-bit files that most consumer DACs are limited to playing. In the current market, 24-bit-capable DACs cost over $1,000, while the Pono Player costs a mere $400.
But again, IRL, people normally can’t tell the difference between lossless and lossy audio files, no less 24-bit and 16-bit ones. By design, the Pono Player encourages listeners to use it on the go, a use-case where differences in encoding quality are largely irrelevant because of extraneous background noise and activity.
I’m far more worried about the recording and mastering of music itself than the quality of the digital package containing that music. I didn’t know why contemporary recordings sounded bad until I read Greg Milner’s fantastic book, Perfecting Sound Forever. Milner’s sobering chapters on the ongoing loudness war—which has resulted in songs that are literally painful to listen to—show how important it is for consumers to be discerning and proactive about the quality of music.
Does the Pono Player do anything to aid the good guys (i.e., audiophiles and music-lovers) in this war? It’s a conversation starter, for sure, but ultimately, it’s an expensive niche product.