Dr. AIX's POSTS — 30 October 2014

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I’m running to get to the airport early this morning but wanted to write a quick post on the Pono situation as I see it…now that we’re at the end of October. As you may remember this was the deadline for them to deliver the first round of their Pono players to the supporters of the Kickstarter campaign back in April. They raised $6.2 million to fund the company (there were some earlier round investments as well) and manufacture the high quality portable players. According to Rick Cohen, Neil’s lawyer, 60-70% of that initial round went to actually design and build the product. That’s why they went to Crowdfunder.net for equity round. They sought another $4 million…but I don’t know how much they actually raised.

With tomorrow being Halloween, the 31st of October, it’s time for the Pono players to start emerging from the manufacturing plants in China. I’m not aware of any devices being provided to the supporters…yet. Yes, they’ve planted a few prototypes here and there…but the few supporters that I’m aware of have not received any Ponos.

And then there’s the website. As of this morning, the “Pono-Matic Music Counter” was rounding 1,000,000 “total tracks” having been ingested. Not that long ago, Pedram Abrari, PonoMusic SVP of Technology, promised to have 20,000,000 tracks available at the launch. It looks like his promise is not going to be fulfilled. And the website itself still isn’t functional. They metadata associated with the tracks and the purchasing part of the site is non-functional. Clicking a few tracks this morning, it says, “preview unavailable”…so some things are still problematic with the site.

Neil Young was “giving us the full studio experience: at the recent Dreamforce event. The Pono CEO was the keynote speaker at their annual gathering. He and Pedram Abrari answered questions and showed live demos of the player in action. They encouraged attendees to stop by the demo stations and “listen to music the way the artists heard it in the studio”. That kind of statement has become part of the marketing mission for high-resolution audio…and it’s just not true. The artists listened to the multitrack masters during the production process. That means they pushed play on the analog 24-track deck or the space bar on the computer DAW. If the recording was done at more than 44.1 kHz/16-bits, then the artist heard something that Pono is not delivering in 99.9% of the cases. They’re presenting CD rips.

Neil continues to push his quality counts message. A report on the keynote message included, “In our quest for portability, we lost more than the charming pops and warm, fuzzy crackles we experienced listening to music on vinyl; we lost the emotion and feeling of music. Until Pono, listening to albums on vinyl used to be the closest thing to being in the recording studio with the artists. With the popularity of compressed digital music, we learned to settle for good enough. Pono is here to change all that.”

I applaud the message but the realization is lacking. Does anyone really want the “charming pops and warm fuzzy crackles” again? We can do much better than that. There is another option than to move from vinyl LPs to CD rips. Why not remaster what we can from the analog masters of the past (like HDtracks offers) rather than try to create the biggest and baddest site for downloading something we’ve already had to decades?

The Ponomusic website will be all about social networking. I think the ultimate goal is not about “letting your soul rediscover” of music but using the mantra of better quality audio…non-compressed…to bring a community of music lovers together. Ponomusic seeks to become a social platform just like FB and others. But so far, the message is so full of hyperbole that I’m not sure they can pull that off. Get back to the quality message, deliver the real thing, and let it grow organically.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(21) Readers Comments

  1. Hi Mark, the emails they have sent to their kickstarter supporters say that they were going to start shipping players for them this last week of October and anticipating to complete all shipments by mid November. They say they’ll prioritize early pledges and signature series players. People will get an email when the player ships with instructions on how to unlock the store. They say people getting the player now will have access to the store (Beta stage), once the player ships. They also say that the store will still be Beta until after all Kickstarter rewards have been shipped (they do not say for how long after).

    I do not know which tracks you tried to preview at the Pono store page but all the ones I tried worked fine for me.

    As you said, there’s still no information about what type of files can be downloaded and what sample rates/bit sizes are available for each track. I cannot imagine not having that information once you are allowed to purchase from the site. The good thing I can see on the social side of the site is that you’ll have a discussion place for each album, so people can put reviews, and make comments about quality of the files. I can imagine one can even post the spectrograms. So, I can see this social feature as a plus, since it is much more difficult to share experiences about purchases at other sites like HDTracks, etc.

    I’m with you in that I didn’t see the point of making a store where 44.1/16 content is 99.9% of the total, oh well. I’m open to “rediscover” music that I already have if there is a new clean transfer and great mastering being done. I certainly don’t need a store of CD rips, I have done that myself already for all the CDs I own.

    Have a safe trip!

    PS: Were you inspired to write about Pono because you are going to Neil’s country? 🙂

  2. Add all of that to the existing issues: It’s triangular, can’t possibly feel good in a pocket, 128gb limit (heck, I have more than that in AAC files in my existing iPod) it’s yellow (really?) and $400. All those are negatives, with only one positive: 192KHz/24 bit. Law of improving products condemns this to failure. To win over an existing product you have to provide customers with perceived multiple advantages, and few disadvantages. CDs did this over vinyl with size, convenience, play time, ease of use (tracked, random access) no wear, and quality (ok, argue that one), with only a price negative. CDs penetrated the market fully in under 3 years.

    Quality at any cost with no other advantages has never won in the marketplace beyond the niche. Questionable that the niche will support this. Now, if Apple just made a player that did even 92KHz and sold those files, this war would be over instantly.

  3. It occurred to me while walking my dog that Neil Young, having pledged himself legally to the Pono project, was not in the position of being able to just walk away, as he had done musically over his career, with no apologies to those left behind.

    It will be interesting to watch Young and Pono over the next few years.

  4. At least TIDAL says they are giving you CD rips. And it seems to me, if all you are getting from Pono is CD rips, why not just pay your $20 each month to TIDAL and be able to access the music on phones or computers. I have a trial to TIDAL, but I’m thinking that I won’t subscribe; Rdio has converted all their tracks to 320 kbps AAC and I’m not sure I want to pay twice as much to get 44.1/16 lossless; rather spend my $10 each month and buy some real HD music downloads.

    • One might wonder why N.Y./Pono don’t see these facts – they are doomed to fail.

      • There going down the path they’ve chosen and have take considerable money to build. We’ll see how it goes. It’s November 1st today…do you know anyone that has received their Pono player?

  5. For shame on you Neil Young! Your riding on the coat tails of your past fame and reputation for being an honest straight shooter to run a snake oil scam on your fans. As Mark has pointed out over the last few days it’s become difficult if not impossible to make money as a musician in today’s market so to make up for your lost income your running this scam. SHAME
    You want to become a legend in audio do as Mark said, toss out that 20 million track catalog of CD rips and go back to the master tapes doing the best possible remasters in 192/24 or 96/24 buckets. It will be slower to make your fortune but as word gets out about the quality you’ll not only make $ but live with pride in your contribution to the music industry..

    As an aside I recently borrowed a copy of the 1998 EMI boxed collection of Frank Sinatra recordings. A 21 CD set of everything he did with them from 1954-1962. The 21 CD set is called The Capital Years and was remastered in 1998 by EMI in the UK to 20 bit state of the art (for the time) digital. I find the sound quality on most of the albums in the collection simply amazing for the time.
    The only stuff I have from the comparable times are pop recordings done by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee, all the kings of rock and roll. Unfortunately there’s just no comparison, those recordings sound like they were done on a wire recorder, too bad but at least we have a record of the glory days.
    Anyway since The Capital Years collection has become near impossible to obtain any more and the current prices are over the moon, there’s one set on ebay right now for $695.00
    http://www.ebay.com/itm/Frank-Sinatra-21-CD-The-Capitol-Years-Box-Set-Mint-condition-Rare-272-Tracks-/300901893833?pt=Music_CDs&hash=item460f2686c9
    Mark, It would be wonderful if you could get licensed to remaster this set in today’s state of the art digital, I think the sales potential would be very high once heard. What great sound for the mid-late 1950s

  6. Please stop writing ill informed articles. You don’t even fact check before publishing.

    20M tracks was never promised by Pedram it was 2M. The site is still BETA and hasn’t been fully launched so of course it’s not complete.

    Taking hi-res recording from the original masters is exactly what Pono is asking of the studios to do and will make them available as soon as they can. It’s part of the Pono promise to have the best resolution available period.

    The community you mention is actually alive and well at Pono Music and is growing every day. When we actually have players and a full website with Artist spaces capable of interacting with listeners it’s going to explode.

    If you think being controversial is going to get you hits – you’re wrong. This is the last article I read with your name attached to it.

    • I’m glad that you’re pleased with the way Pono has progressed. Enjoy rediscovering the soul of CD quality.

      • The point of Pono is, and has been, to offer a hi-res package including a player and the ability to download the HIGHEST AVAILABLE resolution file (with the guarantee that it is not an “up-res” cheap copy). To have a single site to purchase and download is worth the price of admission. As for the hardware – you don’t have to use it but for those or us who don’t burn and rip and steal our music the Pono ecosystem seems like the answer. Here’s hoping it is what it says it is.

        • The mission of Neil Young with regards to audio fidelity has been to deliver the original sound that he experienced in the studio to his fans. He dislike CDs but was pleased when DVD-Audio and Blu-ray came around with higher sample rates and word lengths. I had hoped that Pono initiative was going to be built around the delivery of high-resolution audio not the “highest resolution” available…which means anything at any quality could be included on their site. If 20 million CD spec tracks are available…what percentage do you think will be retransferred? Pono has stated that they won’t be doing it. The labels are delivering around 10 per week per label…that doesn’t get you to 20 million any time soon.

          Ripping and tagging CDs is easy. If you purchase the discs you want at Walmart or Amazon for $5 and rip them yourself…you’ll save a ton of case. Better yet, simply stream the millions of CDs from Tidal or Deezer at full CD quality. The Pono 2.0 player is going to be a streaming device for that very reason.

  7. Even if Pono in fact is what you describe, a way of bringing folks together around music, that’s just fine for starters. Again, none of has heard a Pono download yet, and it’s well known that talk is cheap, and that goes both ways.
    Any venture as far-reaching as Pono is bound to have teething/birthing problems. You have spent a fair amount of time and print semi-dissing Pono ; it almost seems like you hope Pono fails. I see this output as simply mean behavior w/o any beneficial aspect for anyone. Why keep attacking someone’s effort to improve the public median of sound quality? Why not note criticisms in a positive context?

    • Craig, I’m merely pointing out the things that are happening inside the Pono enterprise. I’m not impressed…I believe they’ve fallen off the original mission. There’s nothing special about selling CD for $14.99 when you can purchase and rip the CDs yourself for less than $10 each through Amazon AND get the physical discs.

      • Since no prices have been announced, that I have seen, I presume your $14.99 is a WAG. I’m hoping for a lower price to be competitive. At a minimum the Pono software has ripping capability built in (there is a nice “how to” video posted on the store site).

        • When Neil and other were interviewed early in the KS campaign, they stated that the prices would range from $14.99 to $24.99…I’m assuming that the CD rips would fall at the low end of the scale and the 4000 albums transferred from the third generation analog “masters” by the labels will be at the higher price…about where they are on the other sites.

          • In viewing the Pono “how to” video on downloading, they show a 192/24 Herbie Hancock album for $18 and a 96/24 Michael Jackson for $15. That would seem to indicate that CD quality would be under $15. We shall see…

          • I’ll have to take another look. Maybe they’re changed things up since the initial announcement.

  8. I think the OP is primarily pointing out the lack of Pono shipments. I’ve been scouring the Web and Twitter for more than a week (the last week in October) and have not seen any posts by happy owners claiming to have received the devices (which, by the way, some of us have already paid for.)

    It’s now about halfway between the beginning of the last week in October and the middle of November, so where are they?

    • I’m not aware of anyone getting their Pono player either. I haven’t checked around very much but I think I would have heard about it. I’m guessing something happened to delay the first shipments. Making stuff is really hard…and I’m sure they’re working very hard to get things moving.

  9. Pono battery: “Large 2900mAH Li-Ion rechargeable for up to 8 hours of playback time”

    In my opinion, with a cylindrical battery sitting in that triangular prism, run time should be better. “Up to” tends to imply that one might get 8 hours playing mp3s. Hi-res FLAC will consume rather more power on any device.

    Additionally, no-one knows what the User Interface will be like, and how long it may take before an update to fix any bugs.
    I suppose anyone who ordered via Kickstarter has to honour their pledge, but for anyone currently contemplating the Pono player, there really are alternatives, obtainable now.

    • I became a member of the Pono community yesterday. It seems some people are actually getting machines. A friend who was an early supporter said he’s going to get his today. Thus it begins.

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