What’s the Point of Pono? And Why Are Pono’s Numbers Bogus?

03/12/2014

When Neil Young first touted Pono – his soon-to-maybe-be-real music service and player – it was all about a better file format. The Pono format was supposed to be better than existing formats, but, at the time, Young gave no details about it, other than saying it would be very high resolution. The Wikipedia page set up after Young first announced this is called, in fact, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pono_(audio_format).

Now that the Pono Player has been announced, it’s clear that either Neil Young’s idea made no sense, or that he was never really talking about a new audio format at all. The Pono Player will play high-resolution FLAC files – up to 24/192 – but will also play all those other files that we already have: MP3 (which Young has derided constantly), AAC, Apple Lossless, WAV, AIFF and FLAC. In fact, after making such a kerfuffle about a new format, the Pono website says this:

We want to be very clear that PonoMusic is not a new audio file format or standard. It is an end-to-end ecosystem for music lovers to get access to and enjoy their favorite music in the highest resolution possible for that song or album.

So, if the Pono Player is simply playing existing file formats, what’s the big deal? It’s not the first portable player able to play high-resolution files. The Fiio X3 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) can play files in the same formats, and it only costs $200. Granted, it has limited storage, but you can add a microSD card for up to an additional 64 GB. (128 GB microSD cards should be hitting the market soon as well.) The Pono Player will have 128 GB, though only 64 GB is in the player; another 64 GB will be on a microSD card.

Apparently, the big deal behind the Pono Player is its little light:

The PonoPlayer will show you, via its user interface and a special “light” (to indicate a certified PonoMusic song) exactly what quality level you are hearing – when you are hearing Pono quality, and when you are not. If the light is lit, then the music you are listening to is Pono-certified as the best available quality.

But Pono gives some very confusing information, which is simply deceptive. In their FAQ, they say:

On the “low end” of higher resolution music (CD lossless, 16 bit/44.1kHz), PonoMusic files have about 6 times more musical information than a typical mp3. With ultra-high quality resolution recordings (24 bit/192kHz), the difference between a PonoMusic digital file and an mp3 is about 30 times more data from which your player reconstructs the “song”.

Early in that section, they talk about “PonoMusic files,” but information about their store suggests they’ll be selling music in various formats, not all of which will be 24/192; some will only be CD quality. And the claim of “about 30 times more data” is just snake oil: most of that “data” is inaudible (you can’t hear about 20 KHz, and probably not even that high), and the “30 times” comes from a deceptive calculation. On the Pono website, they discuss the following qualities:

  • CD lossless quality recordings: 1411 kbps (44.1 kHz/16 bit) FLAC files
  • High-resolution recordings: 2304 kbps (48 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files
  • Higher-resolution recordings: 4608 kbps (96 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files
  • Ultra-high resolution recordings: 9216 kbps (192 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files

They’re making their calculations based on compressed MP3 files (using 256 kbps) and uncompressed high-resolution files. All of the 24/96 files I have in my iTunes library come in at about 2,000 – 3,000 kbps, because they are compressed, as are the FLAC files that are mentioned above. That’s about half the actual bit rate, because FLAC compresses about 50%. But if the Pono people quote uncompressed bit rates, yet still say these are FLAC files, they’re simply lying. (For example, 1411 kbps is the bit rate of uncompressed CD quality files, in either WAV or AIFF format, not in FLAC format as the Pono FAQ says.)

Here’s an example; it’s in Apple Lossless format, which offers essentially the same level of compression as FLAC:

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So what’s the point? As I said in my previous article about Pono, is the setting up of a high-resolution music platform, which may have the impetus, through Young’s name and those of other musicians, to dethrone existing players. While the high-res music sector is very small, it does represent a demographic willing to spend a lot of money on music.

(Also, the initial Pono press release said that the device would hold from 1,000 to 2,000 albums; the press release was corrected to say that it can store from 100 to 500 high-resolution albums. It’s hard to get something like that wrong, but they managed.)

Pono is being deceptive in its marketing, and this, to me, is a big strike against them. They’re selling something that doesn’t matter to most people, and they’re trying to convince others that it does matter. The only way they can do this is to be truthful, not manipulate numbers to suit their message.

Update: It’s interesting to see how out of control the marketing is for the Pono. If you read the thread on the Computer Audiophile forum where the press release was initially published (and why was it published there first?), you’ll see a number of areas where information is unclear, and corrected. The capacity of the device (not 128 GB, but 64 GB with a 64 GB microSD card), the number of albums it can hold (which I discuss above), and more. I’ve done a lot of work in marketing, from both sides – working for companies and as a journalist – and this sort of confusion is rare.

I’m also a bit confused about the terminology they use when describing the device. They say:

The PonoPlayer has two output jacks. The first is a normal mini-stereo output specially designed for headphones and is meant for personal listening. The second is a stereo mini-plug analog output specifically designed for listening on your home audio system, in your car, or with your Sonos Connect – so you can share the PonoMusic experience with your friends and family.

What is the difference between a “mini-stereo output” and a “stereo mini-plug analog output?” I think they’re the same. The former is a standard 1/8″ headphone jack, and the latter is, most likely, a standard 1/8″ headphone jack, perhaps at a higher level to use with other devices. So why call them different things?

See also: Music, not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music Is a Marketing Ploy.