Neil Young Launches Ultra-Hi Res Pono Audio Player

A year and a half ago, Neil Young debuted a prototype for an audio player he claimed would revolutionize the digital music industry. Now, the device is finally reaching out to the market. The player is listed with a $399 price tag for when the device goes retail, but the Kickstarter is offering the stock players for $299 and several signature series featuring signatures from high profile artists like Metallica, Dave Matthews, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers for $400. The signature series also comes preloaded with the artist’s two favorite albums. Pono is built to offer the best fidelity possible from a portable device through utilizing the FLAC standard. What makes Pono different from previous multi-format audio players is that Pono Music plans to also launch a music service strictly selling high bitrate recordings. 

Pono Audio Player


How high? Insanely high. Pono’s kickstarter shows up to ten times the throughput of a standard CD and up over 30 times the 320kbps mp3s that iTunes and Google Play sell. At this point, you may be thinking ‘those files must be enormous’. And you wouldn’t be wrong. A 50MB album of mp3s would translate to about 1.5GB in Pono’s Ultra-Hi Res FLAC release. 



But how much can it even hold at that bitrate? The Kickstarter page’s FAQ responds to storage inquiries with “…a total of 128GB. 64GB of memory is built into the player and another 64GB of memory on a removable microSD card.” Since it sounds like Pono Music is going to be hosting any one of the four above listed levels of quality for each album, they suggest you’ll be able to maintain a local library of 5000 to 800 tracks in the worst case scenario.

The device itself is something of an oddity with its triangular design; this design, however, allows for some pretty beefy looking capacitors and a large battery that’s unfortunately not discussed beyond “…much more efficient than a flat battery.” Navigation is handled via touchscreen and the face buttons take care of volume with the power button in the middle.



The Pono supports AAC, AIF, ALAC, FLAC, mp3, and WAV, so pushing over your current library won’t be an issue. In fact, you’ll at least benefit from the assured hardware upgrade over your current audio players; one of which being the interesting output situation. The player has two standard 3.5mm jacks, one specifically meant for outputting to headphones, the other for a high quality stereo auxiliary output.  

The funding has exploded beyond five times the original goal, but beyond the Kickstarter, will people really have any interest in the product? Skeptics wonder if the average consumer will even hear the difference, despite the number of popular artists claiming that it’s some of the best audio they’ve ever heard:

Consumer interest will vary per person. A properly manufactured CD should have ten times the fidelity of the average mp3. While audiophiles can most likely hear the difference between the two versions, some people can’t. But really, just as with video, the higher the quality, the less noticeable return. Small footprint codecs came about in the first place to remove empty space and remove as much data from audio as possible while keeping the quality nearest the original. So ultimately, what we’re gaining back is audio that was initially removed because it was deemed non-essential to the listening experience.

So while it may not be the perfect device for everyone, Pono seems to guarantee a top tier mobile music experience. It’ll have a hard time squeezing itself onto the market, facing goliaths like iTunes and Google Play Music; but if it does catch on, we could even see those libraries updated to higher quality releases as well.

  • Bruno

    I have a pono player now, and can advise it strongly: it gives a ‘relaxed’ feel to the music I’m listening to. Crazy to say, but it seems more effortless to listen to it. Mp3 seems to come from a distance as if you were looking at a flat landscape, so you always seem to feel a need to pay attention and put an effort into it, or worse, put the volume way up.
    And yes, listening to the albums I really love and know very well: I am suprised to hear sounds I never heard before…so yes for me !

  • stan zorin

    Mr. Benjaming Young, is “high quality stereo auxiliary output” actually ‘hi-fi unamplified line-out’ ?

  • Antonio

    mp3 ils more than enough for the majority of people. Stop chasing extreme quality or else you’ll be always disappointed. Plus mp3 is read from car stereo, phones ecc ecc

    • stan zorin

      mp3 is not enough, mp3 is a sonic crap. You must have substandard hearing to be happy with it. Would you watch movies on an old black and white TV or would you rather watch it on a high definition color screen ?

  • Ret

    From an old timer: you don’t know what you’re missing. Mp3s suck. I can certainly hear the difference.

    • basroil

      From a guy who can read response frequency graphs, you can’t tell what you are missing because it’s impossible unless you have infrasonic and ultrasonic hearing. A good amp and monitor (headphone) with 320kbps mp3 will sound much better than LPCM at 24bit 96kHz on your laptop. Format is far less important than output when it comes to sound.

      • Ben Young

        Hardware is definitely a much larger portion of the battle than the formatting. That said, standardizing an audio format that contains everything that humans can possibly hear plus some overhead is going to ensure that consumers who might not understand the difference aren’t still lugging around some old 64kbps rip from the early days of mp3. Also, I’d still prefer to have 50% more sound than I can hear than be missing 10% of the observable spectrum.

        • basroil

          AAC-LC 44.1kHz already comprises everything you can hear and more (no easy way of defining 50% when discussing non-linearly weighted log scales), and 48kHz or 96kHz are well above anyone’s hearing. The only possible issue you have would be 16bit vs 24bit samples, but that is generally an issue with your decoder more than the format (since that data is compressed, but recoverable).

          As for people not lugging around 64kbps mp3, not going to happen with a $1k music player and uselessly large file format. If they think 64kbps is enough that’s their choice (and might be indicative of partial hearing loss), but done properly and with the right hardware/software, there is nothing wrong with the format itself (though AAC-LC works far better in higher frequencies)

      • goe

        Please read up on mp3 encoding before making a statement like this.