It’s official…I’ve actually held a Pono player in my own hands (although I haven’t heard it yet)! Friday evening, John Hamm (the CEO of Pono) gave a very engaging keynote address accompanied by a slide presentation with plenty of illustrations, a video pitch by Neil Young and some stats to a packed house at the AXPONA 2014 event. As I entered the room, John was roaming through the crowd allowing random attendees to audition the Pono player. I didn’t notice the type of headphones that he had connected to the device but based on the reactions by the folks that got to hear the device, I would say they were impressed.
The Pono KS campaign is behind them and the next stage of their effort is to build thousands of the Pono players (including getting them individually etched and numbered) AND put together the Ponomusic website…which is a daunting task. I listened to John’s presentation. He spoke about the idea behind their “returning to the soul of music” and Neil Young’s lifelong passion for quality music delivery. As a bona fide audiophile himself, John is well aware that the target of the Pono initiative is NOT the audiophiles that were in the audience. What Neil wants to do with their now well-funded project, is elevate the music listening experience for the general music loving population.
John’s presentation also included a brief discussion of the labels that they’ve done deals with and the masters that will be provided for the music store. The slide that was projected on the wall showed Universal Music Group, Sony Music and Warner Brothers. These are the last surviving three major labels that are responsible for about 80% of all record sales…and an even higher percent if you look at the sales of back catalog. As I’ve said in a previous post, I’ve had the same conversations with the same labels and even have the deal memos sitting on my computer with the financial terms. It’s expensive to get in the high resolution audio download game. Very expensive…and that’s not even counting the cost of lawyers.
They’re going to strive to get the “very best master available” to sell on their site. But he also mentioned more than once (I heard him say this in the audience and during his presentation) that Ponomusic is “not in the remastering business”. And I understand the reasons why. It’s tremendously expensive, time consuming and requires the involvement of the artists and managers for approvals etc. The path of least resistance is to push the label’s in house engineering teams to acquire and transfer the “best available” masters to a high resolution PCM digital master. The folks that I know in the mastering departments of the major labels have already been doing this for many years. It has been possible to purchase those 192 kHz/24-bit masters for at least 5 years.
My goal is to get the best possible transfers out AND to improve the fidelity of projects going forward. John spoke about this as well and he mentioned the “Producers and Engineers” wing of the Grammy organization, of which I’m a member.
Finally, I dragged John into our demonstration room and politely asked the gentleman occupying the sweet spot in the center seat if he would relinquish that location for my VIP. He graciously agreed and slid over to an adjacent chair. I then proceeded to play a few of my favorite tracks for John. My goal…as it always in the demos that I do…was to drop his jaw with the openness, the dynamics, the clarity and accuracy of the music reproduction coming from the system…to show him just how well a great recording can deliver “the soul of music”. In this case, the system was a very high-end assembly of hardware including the phenomenal German Physiks Emperor MK II speakers but the magic is always in the recordings. If the sound of the source isn’t spectacular, then the output from the system will always suffer.
I played one of my very best tracks first. It was a female artist singing a very plaintive, melancholy tune accompanied by an acoustic bass, a Hammond B-3 organ and acoustic guitar…a sparse and open arrangement. It’s about 5 minutes long and is the saddest song I’ve ever heard…it actually elicits very strong emotions every time I play it. That’s what a terrific artist and song can do…especially when the recording is equal to the presentation. John commented later that it was a rare musical moment and that he couldn’t understand how other in the audience could simply get up and walk to the door during the playback of that song…a question that I have asked as I watch reactions in the audience. His jaw was most definitely dropped.
Next, I turned to John Gorka singing “Italian Girls”, which a very clever and introspective song about a geeky guy longing for a connection with the Italian girls at his school. John accompanied himself with just his Martin guitar. My point is selecting this tune was to show John just how amazing it could be if Neil would allow me to capture him using the same recording philosophy and technology. He got it and walked off with a copy of John’s Blu-ray disc. Pretty cool.
Lastly, I navigated to a track by fellow rock star Dave Mason. Dave performed “World Of Changes”, one of his biggest hits. Jonathan McEuen on acoustic guitar and a percussionist accompanied him. The sound of the 12-string opening was so full of lifelike fidelity and Dave’s voice so dynamic and rich that I’m pretty sure that John was impressed.
We chatted briefly following the demos. I’m absolutely certain that John, a fellow audiophile, had his ears opened up a little bit…just like that rest of the attendees that ventured into our demo room. It was good day at AXPONA…and I haven’t even talked about my presentation later that afternoon. More to come.