Dr. AIX's POSTS — 28 May 2015

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I should be preparing my keynote address and PowerPoint slides for tomorrow’s Newport Show. But the contents of a miniature coffin-shaped bamboo box were just too tempting to ignore. I really wanted to play with the new PonoPlayer and I’ve spent the whole morning doing exactly that. I should state right out front that I haven’t read any of the reviews available online and in the audio trade magazines. I don’t really care what they have to say about the device.

The unpacking happened yesterday. The Pono I was sent is black and had only a single tune in the library. I read the Quick Start guide and within a few minutes had my Oppo PM-1 headphones plugged in and the Pono Player working. The sound was full and clear through my phones…at least for the one tune that was already loaded onto the player. However, the real test would require loading a few of my favorite 96 kHz/24-bit tunes in its memory. This would require having PonoMusicWorld on my MAC.

I browsed my way to Ponomusic.com and was a little challenged to find the PonoMusicWorld application. I downloaded the latest version and fired it up. And it crashed…repeatedly. I guess it doesn’t like my aging MAC tower with OS 10.6.8. But I’m not going to update my OS just to make Pono happy. I have too many vintage applications that I need to be able to run so I haven’t upgraded in a while. So I went back to my Mac Book, which runs Mountain Lion. PonoMusicWorld works fine on the newer OS.

The Pono showed up as a connected device and I uploaded about a dozen of my favorite 96 kHz/24-bit tunes including “Lowlands”, “Mujaka”, “Let Them In”, “Lone Star”, and “So Sad”. Then I headed to the studio so that I could evaluate the sound quality through my B&W 801 Series III speakers. I used the BALANCED output mode and hooked the XLR outputs to a set of inputs on my Meridian 861 Reference Digital Surround Sound Controller. The signal path was the Meridian to a Bryston 4B power amp to the front stereo pair of B&W speakers.

I also have my Benchmark DAC2 HGC hooked up to the Meridian with the same files available from my laptop so that I could quickly compare the sound of the PonoPlayer and the Benchmark DAC2.

There is no doubt that the sound of the PonoPlayer was smooth, full, clear, and uncolored. I would have expected nothing less from Charles Hansen, chief designer and engineer at Ayre Acoustics in Boulder, Colorado. I was particularly impressed with the shimmer of the cymbals on the “Mujaka” track from the DVD-Audio/Video “The Latin Jazz”. Voices and Carl Verheyen’s 1961 seafoam green Fender Strat on “Lone Star” were also terrific.

But the overall fidelity moved up a meaningful notch when I switched to the Benchmark DAC2. I did my best to level match the two and understand that the comparison is flawed but I’ve come to know the sound of my favorite tracks and the Benchmark was more satisfying. The sense of space came through clearly on the Benchmark no matter the dynamic level and I noticed improvements in the dynamics using the AC powered DAC.

Pono lovers may quibble and complain. In fact, I received a call from a NorCal gentleman doing his best spin for the Pono…we chatted for a good 10-15 minutes before I told him I had to get back to work. I assured him that I enjoyed the sound of the PonoPlayer. Is it better than the Sprint HTC Harman Kardon Edition phone or the new Sony Walkman or even the new $3500 Astell & Kern portable player? I can’t say with any authority. They all sound really great…when playing great tracks.

Pono’s player is a very nice portable player. I dislike the size of the touchscreen intensely. Maybe my fingers are too big but in an era when screens have grown to the size of mini movie screens, why does the Pono sport a tiny 4:3 screen? Ok, I know that not a comment on the sound but it does matter. My experience with the PonoMusicWorld site was a little clunky but it was my first experience.

So now I’ve decided to evaluate the Pono Revealer and create some spectrograms of the five different flavors it creates: 192, 96, 44.1, AAC and MP3. I’ll give you those results shortly. It may not be tomorrow because I’ve got to get up early and make my way to Irvine for the Newport Show. I’ll see some of you there.

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(10) Readers Comments

  1. I was an initial purchaser of the Pono from the kickstarter campaign. And I LIKE it a lot, but I agree that the touch screen is small and also flaky. I would say that the option to use a balanced cable makes it a game changer at this price point, though.

    The Pono Musicworld software is really unintuitive though. Makes you appreciate iTunes, if that’s possible.

  2. IMHO the Revealer is more Neil hype, even though I’m a big fan of the player. Truth be told, I haven’t even loaded it on my Pono The software works fine on a Win 8.1 machine and you can side-load files and avoid PonoMusicWorld altogether except for firmware upgrades. You shouldbe running V1.06. As for the player, I am shocked, shocked I tell you that it won’t give you the same sound as a $2,000 machine – but it has NO competitors in the under $1,000 catagory. Selling for $399 (and occasionally $249 at Fry’s), it can’ t be beat.

    • I agree and thanks.

  3. Enjoy your observations. I had to upgrade to Yosemite in order to access PMW.
    I connected the player to my unbalanced system and also appreciated the Hansen sound. It was not quite as satisfying as my Oppo 105D playing the same recording in my system.

    I wondered if it was reasonable for me to expect it to be comparable.

  4. Is it absolutely nessacary to have PonoMusicWorld installed on your computer to transfer files to the Pono music player? Could swear I read somewhere that the player could be accessed as a normal external storage device. As a Linux user I detest proprietary unneeded closed source software. Its only spyware reporting your usage back to the coders employers.

    • It is possible to simply drag the files from a computer to the Pono library on the device.

    • As I mentioned above, the only reason to use PonoMusicWorld (PMW) is for the firmware upgrades, although it works fine when you get used to it. After all, it is based on JRiver software, one of the best in the business. Lots of options, cd ripping, etc, etc, built into the program.

  5. Being the audio expert and engineer of many very high quality HDA recordings, isn’t it possible for you to give us a more detailed compairison to the Sprint HTC which you own. We would expect it to be inferior to the Benchmark which is vastly more expensive

    • You’re right, I should have spent more time on the comparisons. Pono is a great device…but I wouldn’t spent my money one. I’d go the smartphone route.

      • OK thanks, just curious in any case. My Sansa Clip ll with flac ripped CD files and my Senn Momentums are just fine for music on the go for me.

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