This article originally appeared in the 4.17.14 issue of Metroland.
has long railed against digital music, particularly MP3s. He once observed that
listening to an MP3 was like looking through a screen that only allowed one
color through each hole.
And of course
MP3s are approximations of
what you get on a CD, which itself is an often lifeless version of what happens
in the studio, or for older recordings, what you’d get on a vinyl record.
kind of guy who doesn’t tear down without building up, Young announced last
year that he was partnering with some techies to create a device that plays
super high quality digital music files.
It’s called Pono.
Seed money for
the company was raised on Kickstarer;
initial $800,000 goal was doubled on the first day and the total blew past $6
million this week.
Which is great I
guess, although I do wonder about using Kickstarter for what’s clearly a
So what is Pono?
It’s a small device with three sides (Dave
Grohl said it looks like a Toblerone, and it does) that stores and plays
digital music tracks.
It’s tricked out
to play super-high quality music files, files with more information, higher
resolution, and better sound than CDs.
As the Pono promo machine boasts, you’ll be listening to exactly what
comes out of the recording studio.
cost for this thing is $400.
Well, nothing I guess, but this
isn’t the revolutionary advance it’s being touted as.
It’s likely to be a small niche audiophile
product that could well collapse under its own weight.
It’s an inevitable product; there’s already plenty of devices out there that are
comparable, and if there weren’t there would be soon.
It’s also trying to be a train that actually
left the station a long, long time ago.
The Pono model is based on downloaded song
It’s going to have an
iTunes-like store where you can download these superfiles; Pono claims that all
the major labels are on board with providing music and that it’s working with
indies “to bring a diverse selection
of music” to Pono customers. I dunno,
sounds to me like the library’s gonna be limited, particularly at first. Over the last ten years we’ve gotten used to
virtually unlimited music, millions of different tracks, from hits to profound
obscurities. I’m not sure how many of
us wanna go back.
Pono says albums will be available
for $15-25. While it appears that
customers will also be able to buy single tracks, the emphasis on albums really
underscores how backwards-looking this thing is. Albums?
Really? We’ve been living in a
singles world at least since Napster liberated the music so people could
consume it how they wanted. We don’t
listen to albums nearly as much as we listen to playlists, or music suggestion
services like Pandora. It appears that
Pono is aimed primarily at middle-aged white-guy music geeks, the kind of folks
who still get baked and listen to Dark
Side Of The Moon or 2012 alone in
the dark. Which is fine, but it ain’t
gonna change the world.
And then there’s the whole download
thing. Earth to Pomo: downloading is
going the way of the buffalo, the cassette, and the compact disk. We’ve got Spotify. We’ve got Beats Music. The only thing standing in the way of
ubiquitous streaming of music in the US is its pathetic broadband
infrastructure (which I gotta believe is gonna get fixed in the next 5-10
years) and public awareness. Ownership
of music is going to be marginalized in favor of convenience and unlimited
instantaneous selection, and soon the only folks who will care about “owning”
digital files will be the aforementioned geeks, fetishists really, who’ll feel
all warm and wet knowing that they own a super-file of Tubular Bells.
Then there’s the technical side. Pono will have 128GB of storage, which
translates to about 800 superfiles.
Which ain’t a whole lot. It
accommodates memory cards and remote storage, but so what? Who wants to deal with that? And a lot of commentators are saying that
most of Pono’s incremental audio quality is undetectable to the human ear. So, while it probably will sound better than
CDs to the discerning ear, it’s your dog that’s really gonna party on with
Add to this the fact that the target
demo, the middle-aged white guys reliving their 1978 dorm-room glories, have
long blown out their ear drums going to shows, falling asleep with the
headphones on, grudgingly settling for ear-killing ear buds. In fact, I could be the poster child for the
target demo. Excuse me, what?
Godspeed, Neil Young; I think you’re
going uphill backwards. But damn, I want
Paul Rapp is an area intellectual property
lawyer and musician who wrote this whilst listening to “Thick As A Brick 2” on
40 year-old audio gear.