A fair-weather audiophile’s response to Pono

If you’ve not heard of Pono by now, you either aren’t much into the audio scene, don’t pay attention to Kickstarter all that often, or are not a Neil Young fanboy. This is all very understandable.

The tl;dr is it’s a portable mid-to-high-end ($400) headphone DAC/amp combo with storage and a music playback interface that’s being marketed alongside FLAC-format songs to be sold at various resolutions through a Pono-branded storefront. Woo summary.

The Kickstarter ends in a few hours and is at over $6 million. Yes, audiophiles / Neil Young fans are a bit crazy.

First things first: it is very easy to call anything in the audiophile world snake oil. Because a lot of it is. I get really tired of hearing about how vinyl is better than CD, 24/192 sounds better than 16/44.1, and FLAC sounds better than 320Kbps MP3. None of these statements hold any objective water. All the evidence is 100% anecdotal, and I don’t care what “your ears,” your uncle’s ears, or Neil Young’s ears hear.

This is the part of Pono I would call, to be frank, bullshit. Because it is. FLAC is not magical unicorn juice for your ears, nor is a high sampling rate or bit depth.

The part of Pono that is legitimate, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the device itself. Part of me does hope that the idea catches on, even if it means some of the late-night-informercial crap about FLAC and “digital lossless quality” ends up riding in on its coattails.

The thing is, most people today have never heard their music through anything better-sounding than their iPhone. The iPhone, as smartphones go, does have a very good DAC / amp combo (if this terminology is unfamiliar, Google it, because the explanation would be unnecessarily long here), better than what you’ll see on pretty much any Android device. Still, the nature of smartphone / tablet SoC design pretty much ensures that, for now, real good DACs and amps need, if in the everyday sense just a little, more physical space.

This is where Pono comes in – this quirky triangular prism has the necessary headroom and area to house and isolate a decent digital to analog converter (DAC) and amplifier. You would be surprised what a difference in quality of audio this can allow. Pono seems to be working with a very reputable name in the audio business on this (Ayre Acoustics), and at this point I’m fairly confident that, from an audio quality standpoint, they’re going to have a very good product. I can’t know for sure, of course, but hear me out.

My strong inclination is that the jump in quality from iPhone to Pono will, for many (if not most) people, be very easy to hear. Like removing a fog from their music. If you’ve always used on-board audio on your PC / laptop or a smartphone / tablet for music, you would be genuinely surprised what a difference dedicated hardware can do even for a ‘lowly’ 128Kbps MP3. This is what I think Pono has the potential to do – to introduce the concept of quality listening to a wider audience. Who knows, it may even work.

Now all we need to do is convince people that their iPhone EarPods are going to make them deaf and give them cancer and that they should spend $30 on some headphones that aren’t basically like putting an industrial trash compactor in your ear.

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