People attending this year’s International CES consumer electronics confab in Las Vegas can barely move 10 feet without running into a 4K television set. Yet one new product that’s turning heads — without the marketing firepower of giants such as Samsung and Sony — offers clear, portable music: Legendary musician and songwriter Neil Young is drawing attention to this week’s commercial kickoff of Pono, his compression-free music player and download service. It offers “the best sounding music you can get anywhere in the world,” he said today in a Q&A session to discuss his plans.
“If people can’t hear the difference between an MP3 file and a Pono file, then bless you. You’re doing great now and don’t need anything else,” he says. But he aims to replicate the music experiences that listeners had with vinyl recordings which “sounded like God…Ears are the window to the soul, and good music makes you feel. That’s what has been missing. Now we’re in a downward spiral that has to end somewhere.”
He recognized the problems after CDs became the dominant format for albums. “Shortly after the initial buzz you realized, this hurts,” he says. “Analog has so much dynamic range. All the [digital] sounds at the same level started hurting…I started to realize that my records sounded better than CDs. And now we’ve slipped even further” with MP3s and streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify.
Other efforts to win fans for superior audio missed the beat. For example, DVD Audio promoted 5.1 surround sound which required six speakers. “It was the most basic simple screwup,” Young says. “I can handle two speakers, I’ve handled that in the past. But furniture got in the way of audio.” Sony followed with its Super Audio CDs. That “was a good try. Unfortunately it was only limited to Sony” releases. Then came Blu-ray audio. “I put all my archives in the highest resolution and it sounded great,” Young says. “But you have to have a Blu ray player and it’s not a funky experience that you can have in your pocket.”
Young says he discussed his concerns with the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs around the time the company began to sell the iPod. “He loved music and had a real good phonograph system in his living room, listening to vinyl. Think about that for a second. He told me [about the iPod] ‘That’s a consumer product.’ I’m surprised how many people went for the music on the iPod….It’s a player that does everything kinda OK.”
Young decided to lead the charge for high quality portable audio, but ran into resistance from potential investors. “It was a complete joke. There are some brilliant people out there. But this is not going to make you a hero next week…. Investors look at this and say, ‘Music is over. We’re into a watch that can control the trunk latch on my car’.”
The perception started to change when Young listed Pono on Kickstarter. It took just a day to raise the $800,000 he wanted, and went on to raise $6.2 million.
He’s initially targeting audiophiles: The player — which he says can play any audio file format — goes for $399 with albums ranging from $19.79 (for Taylor Swift’s 1989) to $27.49 (for Led Zepplin IV). But Young says his player “is a temporary situation, We would love other people to make this. We’ll sell the music and make sure the music is right.”
He’d like to see Apple offer Pono quality playback in iPhones. “Thus far they’ve chosen not to,” Young says. If that changed then “it’s a home run for music –unless they screw it up and put something on it so they can own it…Proprietary formats are not a good thing. They put a ceiling on everything.”