Neil Young's PonoPlayer: Can You Hear the Difference?

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PonoPlayers (Dirk Haun/Flickr)

Rock legend Neil Young has been popping up everywhere these days. Earlier this week, he joined “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon on stage for a duo performance of “Old Man.”

Dressed identically, down to matching cowboy hats, it was still easy to tell the “Two Neils” apart.  But how easy is it to tell the difference between MP3s and high-resolution music files? That’s what Neil Young’s been talking about lately. Last month, his company, Pono, unveiled a $399 high-fidelity music player and downloading service.

Criticism from some in the tech community has been harsh. Yahoo Tech's  David Pogue declared “the emperor has no clothes,” and advised people not to buy the player. He pointed to some scientific research suggesting that the human ear can’t even discern a difference beyond CD-quality sound.

But many musicians and avid music lovers who have long been dissatisfied with the sound quality of MP3s have been extremely receptive to Pono.

Leila Easa checks out a PonoPlayer at a listening party at the AudioVision SF store in San Francisco.
Leila Easa checks out a PonoPlayer at a listening party at the AudioVision SF store in San Francisco. (Audiovision SF)

Joe Shockman and Jeff Howe were among several self-described audiophiles at a listening party at AudioVision SF's store in downtown San Francisco.

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In response to hearing a Daft Punk recording of “Get Lucky” on the PonoPlayer, Shockman, an engineer for Google, noted, “There was a chuckle in there I had never heard before. I mean, you hear subtlety in the making of the music.”

Howe, a building designer by day and a musician and DJ by night, gushed after hearing Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” “Actually being able to get source material -- and being able to carry around a player that can deliver that source in that quality -- was mind-blowing to me," Howe said. "I'm kind of looking forward to getting one and going to parties where people are listening to iPods and other MP3 players. Unplug that and plug in a Pono, and show them what real digital audio can sound like.”

High-fidelity music has long been the domain of audiophiles willing to shell out big bucks for expensive niche equipment, but the Pono system is one of the first serious attempts to push high-resolution audio into the mainstream, says Pedram Abrari, Pono’s senior vice president of technology.

“Pono is an end-to-end high-res music ecosystem," Abrari says,  "kind of similar to the original iTunes iPod, if you will, but it's all for hi-res music.”

The objective of Pono, he says, is to turn the tide on compressed music and restore the “feeling” back into the music. This is a word you hear often from Pono proponents, including Neil Young.

In an interview with John Horn for KPCC’s “The Frame,” Young said, “Do you want to hear all of the music that you can recognize on your iPod? You want to feel it? Do you want it to be a visceral experience? Do you want to get goose bumps? Do you want to cry? Do you want to laugh?

Young says that we’ve lost a visceral, soulful connection to music, which most of us now listen to in a compressed form. “I think MP3s, basically, are too much of a compromise. As an artist, I look at it that way. I think it’s the low bar for music.”  He says it’s time to shift the focus back to quality.

When audio engineers talk about digital sound quality, they usually focus on bit and sampling rates. The more bits of data per instant of sound, the better the quality. Think of it like pixels on a television screen; the more you have, the clearer the video.

Abrari says, “It’s very easy for people to look at hi-res video and standard-def video on two TVs and say, 'Oh, that's better.' "When it comes to audio, he says it’s a little bit harder to detect. “It's almost like trying to detect a difference between fine wine and wine out of a box. Once you develop a palate for it, the feeling that fine wine gives you when you drink it is very different than a feeling that really cheap wine gives you."

Neil Young behind the wheel of his Cadillac El Dorado outfitted with a PonoPlayer.
Neil Young behind the wheel of his Cadillac Eldorado outfitted with a PonoPlayer. (PonoMusic Kickstarter Video)

Not surprisingly, that’s what a lot of professional musicians have said about hi-res audio. Dozens of high-profile artists praised the Pono system in a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, which raked in $6.2 million. In the video, they’re shown riding with Neil Young in his Cadillac Eldorado outfitted with a Pono sound system.

After listening, Norah Jones exclaims,  “That music made me feel good; much better than I’ve felt in a long time listening to music.”

Dave Matthews adds, “It’s really a difference. I don’t know … curved and round and there’s a dynamic. It doesn’t seem like it just hits a wall.”

Young says he turned to crowdsourcing after most venture capitalists he approached in Silicon Valley declined to invest. Again speaking with KPCC, he said, “The reason we went to Kickstarter is because the venture capitalists didn’t have the vision to see what this was. They have no interest in rescuing an art form. That sounds like a waste of money.”

But, Young says, the success of the campaign proved there’s an appetite among consumers for higher-quality sound. But will they be willing to spend almost $400 on a player and about $2 per song?

I borrowed a PonoPlayer for a week and tested it out with family and friends. We thought we could hear a difference, but I wanted another opinion. So I turned to Adam Savage, co-host of the TV program "MythBusters." He tests scientific theories for a living.

Adam Savage, co-host of "Myth Busters," in his "cave."
Adam Savage, co-host of 'MythBusters,' in his 'cave.' (Joanne Jennings)

As it happens, Savage and his production team are developing a show about high-fidelity sound. Speaking in his “cave,” a personal workshop, Savage said, “I appreciate Neil being a studio musician, listening to his tracks the way he intended to record them and for all the decades he's been so great at what he does, having a goal for the listener to hear what he hears.  But I also think that people can go a little overboard in terms of the compression ratios -- and from what I understand of the PonoPlayer, it's going into sound frequencies that dogs cannot even hear.”

So, with that in mind, he conducted an informal test. “So, we got a hold of a PonoPlayer and I thought, 'I want to find out if there's anything to this.' So rather than test on my own ears -- I did have a listen -- I enlisted the help of my son. He's almost 16."

They played “Harvest Moon,” by Neil Young on three different devices; the PonoPlayer, an iPhone and a laptop computer with a totally uncompressed file called a “FLAC.”

“We listened to those and cycled them several times through his ears, without telling him the order they were going in. So, each time, I tested, I gave him a series of three listens to the beginning, the first minute or so of the song. And I asked him to assess: What was the best? What was the worst? What did you notice?"

Savage’s son said the PonoPlayer came out on top two out of three times. “These differences are very, very subtle and very minor," explains Savage, who adds that the PonoPlayer's quality was most apparent in the complex harmonics. "That is stuff where the crispness really does matter.  The crispness of drumbeats against silence.”

But listening to music can be a very subjective experience, says Jay Kadis, an audio engineer at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics and author of The Science of Sound Recording.

Because it’s so subjective, Kadis says measuring how the brain and nervous system experience music is very complex. “In order to get really meaningful, statistically meaningful responses, you have to do an immense number of tests and it's really impractical. What you think you hear is what you hear and that is one of the confounding variables, that the brain is doing the processing.”

When we listen to music, Kadis says, we’re also getting influenced by everything else that’s happening around us -- what we see, touch and smell. “And all awareness interacts, so it's very difficult to isolate just our response to the auditory system.”

That might explain why there’s so much passion on both sides of this debate about high-resolution music.