I received an email this morning from Neil Young. No, it wasn’t a personal email from the man himself but a form letter thanking those of us who signed on to the Pono website some many months ago. As you might imagine, Neil is gratified to see how many people have supported his Pono Kickstarter campaign [This morning is hovering around $3.77 million with about just over 11,000 people signed up to received a player engraved with a rock star’s name on it.
He calls out Elliot Roberts “for his tireless efforts to bring you the great signature artists we are offering with their special limited edition players. More signature artists seem to sign up every day!”. And why wouldn’t they? All they have to do is send Elliot their signature, sign the contract for a piece of the action and deposit a $10,000 – $50,000 check (or more…I’m just guessing that they’re getting $20-50 per unit). It seems to me that Pono has become more of a souvenir vendor than high-end music company. Is anyone else bothered by the money grab that’s being couched as a pitch for better audio? Do the celebrities endorsing Pono (after listening in an automobile) really need the money?
In some ways, it reminds me of the MaxD, “the HD Audio company that dramatically improves the audio quality of music, movies, games and voice”, company in Santa Monica that has celebrity spokesmen like Mick Fleetwood who said of the MaxD technology, “MAXD restored my faith in the future of audio!” MaxD is a publicly traded company and I’m sure that supporters are being granted generous blocks of the stock (which is currently trading below a dime per share!) I don’t think it will be too long until there’s a Fleetwood Mac Pono signature model.
[NOTE: MaxD is completely bogus…at least the Pono player and system are capable of good quality audio.]
Neil Young positions his efforts and those of his team as a “revolution in the way people can listen”. If he means that Gen X and Millennials will finally have the chance to hear music “creations exactly the way they were made”, he’s got it all wrong. The development of a very good quality playback device that can reach high-resolution audio specifications is not revolutionary. And neither is building a website that allows owners of the Pono music player to access “reduced resolution” audio files. Maybe we’ve been a niche but we’ve been out there.
Dictionary.com includes several different definitions for the noun revolution. It seems the third one would be the most applicable since Pono isn’t attempting to “overthrow an established government or political system”. Definition number 3 states that a revolution is, “a sudden, complete or marked change in something”.
Pono doesn’t satisfy this definition either. The only thing sudden about the effort is the amazing uptake of users willing to shove $400 at KS to acquire a high-resolution player. And “the complete or marked change” has been going on for at least 15 years…since myself and others started making and releasing higher quality recordings. I was so hung up on the amazing capabilities of high-resolution music and the DVD-Audio format that I haven’t ever released a compact disc!
I launched iTrax.com in the fall of 2007 as the first high-resolution audio download site. HDtracks came along a year later with major label catalogs. There is nothing revolutionary about Pono or better quality players and downloads. It’s not even new or better than what knowledgeable music lovers have been doing for a while. The only thing new or “exciting” about Pono is that a bona fide rock star, a bunch of other rock stars and a high-end audio manufacturer are collaborating to bring music back to the fidelity that many of us grew up with.
And while I agree that moving past heavily compressed “reduced resolution” files like MP3 and AAC to FLAC is a good thing…we’re still shackled by the output from the studios and labels. If you play a digital FLAC file that came from the usual sources, the output will remain as good as the master used to make the FLAC file.
The major labels have seen dollars in resurrecting their older catalog and newer digital releases through the “high-resolution audio” channel. For the most part, HDtracks has been the 800-pound gorilla in the room. But as many of you know, they get a lot of blow back because the “masters” that they offer are not really “high-resolution” and quite often of limited fidelity. They’ve even been shown to have “juiced” their transfers. Ponomusic is going to be offering the same masters as HDtracks.
There might be a few special albums that get new transfers and mastering. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Neil Young’s catalog offered on the site. He’s already prepared those masters for the Blu-ray releases that he did a few years ago. And they sounded great.
But a real revolution would be to get the artists, produces, engineers and labels to make better sounding recording in the first place. We have to demand it…or it’s not going to happen.