Audiophiles have been complaining about the crappy sound quality of the MP3 files that you get from online sources like iTunes for years, but now somebody is finally doing something about it. Neil Young describes Pono as an "end-to-end ecosystem for music lovers to get access to and enjoy their favorite music exactly as the artist created it." In practical terms, this means that Pono will consist of an online store that sells high-resolution music, and a player to listen to them on. Think of Pono as a sort of super high-end replacement for Apple's long lived iPod Classic, and the associated iTunes Music Store.
The music you buy from iTunes is encoded using Apple's lossy AAC data compression, which tosses out a lot of the subtle details in the original recording. People who care about their audio will often rip files from CDs as lossless FLAC or WAV files, because with storage costing just pennies per gigabyte these days, there's really no good reason to scrimp on file space. Pono plans to take even that audiophile approach up a notch, by offering higher resolution files at 96 kHz/24 bit or even higher. This gets you into the realm of true state-of-the-art professional digital playback, which Neil Young describes as a breakthrough for the listener.
The PonoPlayer was launched on Kickstarter two days ago, and since then, it has raised over $2.4 million. I guess it's good to have the media attention and ability to promote stuff that Neil Young can bring. The player has an unusual shape that reminds me of a Toblerone bar, which would be great if they made clothing with Toblerone pockets. As it is, I don't think Jonathan Ive is going to be losing any sleep over the PonoPlayer's form factor. The player comes with 128GB of storage, which isn't really a lot once you start dealing with high-rez files, but half of that is on a removable microSD card which you can swap out for additional capacity, like that new 128GB one.
This is all very encouraging for those of us who have been complaining about the downward slide in audio quality over the last decade, but is it really the revolutionary step that Neil Young says it is? The PonoPlayer won't be shipping until October, but you can already get the same results today from other vendors that don't quite have the marketing clout of Neil Young. There are several portable music players from companies like Astell & Kern and Fiio that can already play these high resolution audio files, and high resolution music can be downloaded from HDTracks, (full disclosure: I do freelance work for HDTracks). So you don't really need to wait until October if you want to feel like all of those stars in the video below.
I'm starting to see the effect of Pono as being similar to how Beats by Dre shook up the headphone world a few years ago. It may not turn out to be the first or the best solution for improved quality, but through its sheer marketing moxie it could make the rest of the world more aware of the importance of audio performance in a way that helps everyone.