What we think about when we think about Pono

SIMON SWEETMAN
Last updated 10:38 20/03/2014

This week there have been a lot of columns and comment dedicated to the launch of Pono - the download-service and player that Neil Young has had created, the aim being to offer "Lossless" audio, to do away with the alleged embarrassment of compressed audio and its inferiority.

Neil Young is promising the finest in high-quality, highest-resolution digital music. Pono

It's been hard keeping up with the column inches that have poured out since the news that Young would be speaking at SXSW and launching the device/system.

Pono is something that Young is passionate about. It took up a great deal of his memoir.

I've been asked a few times these last few weeks for my thoughts about Pono. And I've answered honestly. I don't really have any.

Certainly I've been interested in keeping half an eye on the stories around the player, a bit of professional curiosity - but I can't say I've seen a lot of point in the project from day one; the constant mentions in Young's memoir bugged me, not because it wasn't tangible (here he was sounding like an excited schoolboy with a weekend garage project that he only just starting) it was that the idea of the player - of what it aimed to do - seemed redundant.

I've made the decision, now, to do most of my reading on a Kindle. I'm totally sold on the device - on the idea of e-readers. Doesn't mean my book collection isn't important to me, or that I'll never buy a book again - I just favour the device currently. It fits with my lifestyle. And though there have already been plenty of changes to e-readers -  my wife's Kindle seems archaic now, no backlighting - I'm not waiting around for the Kindle that offers an audio-grab of pages rustling and turning, that gives off a scent similar to that of fresh pages. If I want that experience I go back to the bookshelf, I return to the books. And I do that already, from time to time. I'll continue to do that.

With music I've moved the other way - in terms of a collection. My focus, for the most part, is on my records. I value the experience of taking time out to sit down with records. I enjoy having to stand up and change sides after just 20 minutes. I want that (mild) interaction. I want the talking point of the cover. And the stories it might have attached to it if it's a second-hand copy. Heck, I started a separate blog just to chart the various stories around why I own what I own.

In theory I should hate the Kindle. But, as I said, for now at least, the Kindle suits me better. If I'm taking a holiday I don't need to pack loads of books - I can carry more than I'll need on the one device. If I'm dashing out in the car and there might be a wait when I get to where I'm going my Kindle will fit in my pocket. It's no drama if I don't need it. I don't need a clunky doorstop of a book on the passenger seat. I can read in bed with the light off. I use the Kindle to read in stolen moments. That might not sound like the best way to read - but it's how I get my reading down currently.

The iPod - and any other portable music players, now it's about Mp3, back then, back when I started, it was the walkman and there was the Discman too - is largely about listening to music in stolen moments. Sure, we can plug the iPod into the stereo/sound-system, bars and shops have playlists for their music and simply use an iPod for the storage and delivery of that music.

But it's still music for stolen moments. It's background. It's not for deep - serious - music listening.

Here's the best piece I've read about Pono. It sums up any feelings I might have.

The design is ugly, impractical and this focus on creating the best-possible sound for a device that exists as, essentially, an accessory seems to me to be a waste of time; almost solving a problem that doesn't exist.
Pono on Letterman
I bought a new iPod just last week. I needed it. The old one died. And I do need music to take with me when I travel - when I walk to gigs, or catch the bus; when I go on a long car-trip the iPod is plugged into the stereo.

To have all of that - well, actually, half of that, because Pono's storage capacity isn't as great as the biggest iPod - with improved sound, in a bulky triangle shape, something that looks like a relay stick for some Hunger Games tag-team offshoot - is of no value to me whatsoever.

I'm still working on building up a better home stereo, creating a system that will serve me well, offer the best sound I can get. But I want that for the home - for sitting still, for the music that I want to sit down with. I want that for my records. And, actually, in most cases, I want to hear the wee pops and jumps, the hisses that come from collecting records and playing something - a sound source - that is finite, that has some finality attached to it, a point of - eventual - obsolescence. A death, if you like.

The Mp3, or certainly the portable Mp3 player, was created to take the music with you, make it a soundtrack, a part of the experience. That doesn't mean crystal-clear, and with as close as is possible to an exact representation of the music on the original recording. It means tunes to hum to as you stroll, or music to heighten your experience, in most cases it means something to help you pass the time.

Pono seems a little bit precious to me - and misguided. It looks like an attachment for an X-Box and yet it's claiming to be the new gold-standard in listening experiences. Gold Standard?

I'm also dubious about the delivery system and the way the purchasing will work, and how that purchase is then split. I'm happy for artists to get a slice of the pie, of course. But this feels like a major artist looking for a way to tie distribution back to major labels - an apology to the "system" for the fact that technology one-upped it for a while there.

But that's the least of my concerns with Pono. I just can't - quite - see the point of it. And I'm sure that most of us - almost all of us - wouldn't actually hear the difference, beyond the shop-demo where everyone nods and agrees that it couldn't possibly be any better.

What do you make of Neil Young's Pono? Is there a market for it? Will it succeed? Is it of any interest to you at all?

Postscript: Nothing to do with the Pono at all - but if you enjoyed the movie A Band Called Death - or would like to see it, would like to own it, over at Off The Tracks I'm offering a chance to  win a copy of the film on DVD; two chances actually, two copies...so check that out before Friday.

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You can also check out Off the Tracks for The Vinyl Countdown, reviews and other posts  

- Stuff

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