A Week Of Pono

As I read more interviews with Neil Young and Pono’s CEO John Hamm AND tracked the record breaking number of people willing to shell out $400 for a one trick pony triangular high-end player, I have to close this week’s posts with another look at the world according to Neil Young and Pono.

John Hamm stated in the interview with Spencer Holbert of The Absolute Sound that the Ponomusic store will be up and running in October…it might be earlier but, it seems we’re about six months away from being able to download the first FLAC files from their new site. And they will be FLAC files. According to CEO Hamm, “All of the music on PonoMusic.com will be in FLAC, because FLAC is a universal audio codec that can be used by anyone.”

Users will simply download the FLAC files to their computer and then load them into their Pono players. As we know FLAC files are “losslessly” compressed files that can also have tags or metadata associated with them. There has been some controversy regarding the “sound” of FLAC files vs. uncompressed .WAV or .AIF files among audiophiles. I wrote about some of the concerns a while back (you can click here to read the post). That’s why I offer FLAC and uncompressed files for download.

I personally don’t see any real benefit to restricting customers to only FLAC files. John says that customers won’t even need to know what type of file to download. They will get the FLAC files and Pono will play them. That will require the Pono software to “uncompress” the FLAC files in real time to produce the digital stream converted back to analog by the DAC in the player. I suspect the decision was influenced by the smaller file size of FLAC files and the metadata than the fidelity of FLAC files.

The ability to choose an .AIF or .WAV file would enhance their download site. I know it takes a lot more time to prepare all of the different files types (iTrax.com offers up to 21 different versions of the same track!) but I think audio consumers are smart enough to decide for themselves what they want. I think they are.

John also talked about why music consumers will flock to Ponomusic, “Simplicity and availability. With the other sites, the user has to choose between AIFF, ALAC, WAV, or FLAC files, and needs to know why they are choosing it. Most people don’t know the difference, or simply don’t care. They just want high-quality music, and that’s it.”

The interview did provide a glimpse into the sources for the Ponomusic site. They say they’re going to offer the “studio master” in a high-resolution digital format. But then you read that they will deliver the highest quality files available from the labels.

I don’t believe that Neil and the Pono team will be doing new transfers and masters of the album offered on their site. We’ll simply have to wait another 6 months in order to get the straight story on the content and the player.

All I can say is, it must be nice to have a lot of famous musician friends willing to support your better music initiative. I can’t help but wonder how much money Metallica (and all of the other artists) is getting from of their “signature” Pono players? Aren’t they known for producing ultimate fidelity, dynamic rich records?


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.

18 thoughts on “A Week Of Pono

  • Sugith Varughese

    Hi Mark

    I’m not sure I agree with you: “I think audio consumers are smart enough to decide for themselves what they want. I think they are.” If that was the case, HDTracks would have more customers than iTunes. To most people I know, (i.e., non-consumers of high res music), Pono and what it’s about is ALL NEW. I for one am only glad that Neil Young and his high-profile musician friends are promoting high res music files and offering an idiot-proof player for “the masses”. It means that the standard download available on iTunes will become a lossless file because a new de facto standard will be set if Pono is successful–and given how it’s rolling out on Kickstarter–it just might be bigger than anyone thought.

    • Perhaps this is true for the mass marketplace…but I honestly don’t imagine that Pono or HDtracks or iTrax will ever be a mass consumer marketplace. Music is considered to be a commodity and nothing more by the vast majority of listeners. Apple may go there someday…but that’s not where the fidelity problem exists. It’s in the productions and over zealous mastering that occurs upstream.

    • So do I understand this correctly, if I download a album from Pono I’ll have to buy a 400 dollar player to decode the flac file do to some proprietary flag hidden in the meta data? If so sounds like a windfall for HDTracks etc to me

      • That’s what I’ve heard…but I’m not willing to state that emphatically. The door is still open.

        • Hi all,
          I don’t think it’s technically possibly to prevent a non-Pono player from playing a FLAC file simply by adding some metadata (you could prevent the Pono player from playing a file that is sourced from somewhere else if such metadata is missing though). FLAC has no DRM built-in. The Xiph web site has this to say about DRM in FLAC:

          “DRM. There is no intention to add any copy prevention methods. Of course, we can’t stop someone from encrypting a FLAC stream in another container (e.g. the way Apple encrypts AAC in MP4 with FairPlay), that is the choice of the user.”
          (Source: https://xiph.org/flac/features.html)

          So, if they want to DRM their music, this would mean that they would have to embed the FLAC stream in yet another container, probably with some encryption scheme that would prevent us from simply extracting the free FLAC stream from the container on the PC. And guess what: decrypting stuff does not come free in terms if processing power. Also, I would argue that they could not call their format FLAC anymore.

          And building DRM inside FLAC itself would require them to open-source their changes, becaus FLAC is licensed under GPL, so I doubt that they want to do that.

          In fact, when I read they were going to use FLAC, I thought to myself that this is good news because it must mean that they have abanded the stupid idea of creating such a closed eco-system which would prevent people from playing the music on anything else than these Pono players. You can seriously shoot yourself in the foot with such restrictions. Nobody does that anymore. Even Apple tried this and abandoned the idea.

          Best regards,

          • Yep…from I’ve been able to learn from the various interviews and statements they will offer only FLAC files. There won’t be any DRM but there won’t be any choice as well. It’s be like HDtracks…labeled as high-resolution audio but the same old standard analog transfers in bigger bit buckets.

  • “There has been some controversy regarding the “sound” of FLAC files vs. uncompressed .WAV or .AIF files among audiophiles” – yes, but I am sad to see that you, who mostly have been claiming to be evidence- and fact-based, help support that controversy. There has been absolutely no evidence of any audible difference between lossless audio formats as storage and distribution formats.

    • I’m not saying that I agree with the observation…the post was about trying to imagine a possible reason for the assessment as printed in TAS many months ago. I offer both FLAC and uncompressed files so everyone can have it their way.

  • Doug Hughen

    Pono is more a statement on the power of celebrity branding than audio quality. I personally know enough old rock stars from the ’70s and ’80s to say that a significant majority are deeply in love with all things analog. Perhaps it reminds them of the good old days when they made millions of dollars per release with no ability to make good copies. And a lot of them have significant hearing damage from years of touring with no protection so if Neil can’t hear ‘echo’ he should see a doctor.
    This looks like an effort to squeeze more licensing revenue out of the back catalogs of aging obsolete record labels and artists.
    Phones have won the portable hardware battle. They are the best thing since the handheld transistor radio. Apple will be dropping the iPod and moving iTunes to a streaming service. Hard to believe this will gain any critical mass.
    I remain cautiously optimistic that a new breed of artist/engineer will step up and push digital to the next level. It won’t be Pono.

    • Thanks Doug…I think you’re comments are pretty much on the mark. This will always be a niche…but I sincerely hope that the interest will be good for everyone.

  • So Neil gets all of these artists to listen to his Ponos playback system in some ratty, 1970’s Cadillac and everyone rants and raves about the sound? Nowhere was there any mention of what kind of sound system was in that car… People nowadays are so used to the horrid stock sound systems that these car manufacturers get away with, that they have a very low expectation of obtaining good sound in a car so anything better than usual sounds great to them.
    Since when is an automobile, especially a clunky Cadillac the standard to critically evaluate a sound system? Should this test not have been done on a nice audiophile system in a properly treated room???
    I also do not necessarily take all of these “rock Stars” enthusiastic endorsements without a grain of salt! These guys unfortunately probably have the worst hearing of anyone, playing live on stage with overdriven distortion ridden monitors etc so they should not all of a sudden be the spokespersons for what good audio sounds like!

    I am just shocked that they have so many backers already on their Kickstarter site! I guess all the enthusiastic endorsements by a bunch of old rock stars is working!

    • It’s definitely working…and I’m jealous. You can get a cheaper and more capable player for less money that will do more things. But it won’t have Neil Young’s etched signature on the back. Oh well.

  • Blaine J. Marsh

    I feel a little better, but not completely. This is from the Kickstarter website (read the last few words):

    “How much will PonoMusic cost?
    The record companies set their own digital music prices, label by label. High-resolution digital albums at PonoMusic.com are expected to cost between $14.99 -$24.99, and there may be exceptions. For this price you get the best quality digital music available anywhere, you own these albums forever – they don’t live only in the cloud, but also on your computer and backup disc, and you can play them anytime you wish on your PonoPlayer or other compatible devices.”


    • They got pushed off their closed system.

  • Blaine J. Marsh

    One final comment: the player is nice, but it looks like it is unnecessary. Success depends on the price, quantity and quality of the CD or greater resolution files. No mystery there…

    • They will be same files that the major are offering me…if I put guarantee them hundreds of dollars per years. It makes no sense to me…I’d rather hold out for truly better tracks than dump more of the same on the marketplace.

  • It’s the same old merry-go-round, isn’t it? VHS Vs. Beta, DTS Vs. Dolby Digital, SACD Vs. DVD-A and now….”Pono”. God help us. All we want is “high definition audio”, not another “proprietary” system….please.
    Here in Australia, our biggest music outlets are selling more and more vinyl and it’s very depressing. These albums are selling for between $35 and $65. I bought the original releases on vinyl for $5.50. I bought a couple of the ( so-called ) Hi Def stereo releases from A&M. “Breakfast In America” and Amy Winehouse’s “Back To Black”, which is impossible to listen to. I understand it is a business and I also understand that they trade on “fads”, but I can’t help feeling that we have lost our way here and the back room boys have too much say.
    Music is the reason they all have jobs. Music is the reason these companies exist. They all need to do the right thing by “music” and stop treating us like idiots.
    While I’m having my mild breakdown, I’ll also add that “flac” sounds “toppy” to me. Why is that? Isn’t it just a packing format?

    • Warren…take a deep breath! I’m with you all the way. Music people don’t run the labels any more. It’s investment types, lawyers and bean counters. They don’t care about giving you quality, they care about making money…they’re required to make money or they lose their jobs.

      I’ve spent a lot of my life and more resources than I should trying to do the right thing. I only wish that I was smarter and could do what Neil Young is doing with his Kickstarter campaign…but I can’t. All I can do is spread the word and point artists and customers to the real deal.

      FLAC should sound exactly the same as the source files. If it doesn’t to you then you should get a hold of the PCM originals, if possible.



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