Retro Tech Spotlight: PonoPlayer

As a monthly feature of this blog, Audiogon looks at some of the technological marvels of the past that may have preceded your birth, escaped your memory, or come and gone without ever having made an impression. This month, we take a look at the PonoPlayer.

Oh yum. I love Toblerone!

Imagine you’re a highly successful recording artist who thinks the integrity of your art is being bastardized by technology that reduces that art into ever-smaller parcels of 0s and 1s, and you get paid fractions of pennies for your songs. So you get together a bunch of your other industry pals and try to develop a better digital marketplace, one where the music doesn’t sound like crap and where you actually get paid, and whaddaya get?

A yellow paperweight, that’s what.

We’ve looked at both successful tech and failed tech here at Retro Tech Spotlight, but this is the first occasion we’ve had to write about a product that literally came and went within the past decade. Chalk that up to musicians not having a firm grasp of Moore’s Law, or the lengths The Man would go to foil their plans.

A solid idea? Or a little Shakey?

Pono was Neil Young’s brainchild. Now, Neil Young, it should go without saying, is an effing genius. Can I saying effing genius? Well, I did. But it should also go without saying that Neil can, um, get lost in the woods sometimes. Like recording whole albums of brilliant music and then shelving them for decades because he thinks they aren’t just quite right. Or taking countless years to put together an archival compilation of the first decade of your career, putting it out on Blu-ray because you think that’s a medium finally befitting such a project, then dragging ass for another dozen years before issuing the second volume and putting that one out on CD, because everyone’s buying CDs nowadays, right?

Also, Trans.

So anyway, it’s 2012, and Neil’s feeling a serious grumpy old man vibe about folks increasingly listening to crappy 96kb MP3s on their crappy cellphones. “My goal is to try and rescue the art form that I’ve been practicing for the past 50 years,” Young told the Dive Into Media conference that January. “We live in the digital age, and unfortunately it’s degrading our music, not improving.” By September, he’s telling Letterman that he’s gonna change the game with a new music ecosystem called Pono, where artists could sell their music as high-quality files directly to consumers. Such files would need a player robust enough to handle their larger size, and thus the PonoPlayer was born.

Lest anyone question Neil’s motives, pono is Hawaiian for “righteousness.” Oh boy.

No, this is not vaporware. It’s something even more frustrating.

Things initially looked promising. Young had Silicon Valley entrepreneur John Hamm on board as CEO, had licensing agreements in place with Warner, Sony and Universal, and was working with Ayre Electronics on developing the PonoPlayer. A Kickstarter launch in March 2014 included options to buy the PonoPlayer in yellow or black (at an introductory price of $300), as well as a limited transparent player ($400) and limited chrome players ($400) with your choice of etched signatures from a who’s who of stars across the musical spectrum, including Young, Pearl Jam, Metallica, Elton John, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, Herbie Hancock, Emmylou Harris, and dozens of others.

More than 18,000 sold on Kickstarter in 35 days, raising more than $6 million. Units began shipping to backers in October. It went on sale to the general public for $399 in February 2015.

By April 2017, Pono was dead. So what happened?

Houston, we have a problem …

Well for starters, there was the player itself, which while impressive by 2015 standards, was certainly limited in terms of its ability for expansion.

  • plays MP3, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, unprotected AAC, AIFF
  • plays Direct Stream Digital (DSD) files
  • ESS ES9018M DAC for lossless playback at up to 24-bit/192kHz
  • 64GB internal flash memory
  • microSD card slot for optional cards up to 128GB (192GB maximum total memory)
  • 2.5″ color touchscreen
  • built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery provides up to 8 hours of playback
  • high-speed USB interface (cable included) for drag-and-drop file transfer and battery charging
  • bamboo storage box
  • AC adapter
  • 5″W x 2″H x 1″D

So OK, the PonoPlayer could store about 100 to 500 albums worth of music, depending on the file size. But at this point, so could a lot of smartphones, which were capable of playing high-res music files, as well a lot of other things, like, oh, making phone calls and texting and sending e-mails and playing games and such. And that price point wasn’t doing the PonoPlayer any favors.

Then there was the PonoMusic marketplace itself, which Young had hoped would allow artists to sell premium digital files of their music at reduced prices for maximum enjoyment. No dice. The record companies wanted these files sold at a premium price. But that was the least of Young’s troubles. Pono was already bleeding money.

In June 2016, the marketplace’s bankrupt content provider was bought up by Apple, and the marketplace was replaced by an Under Construction page. All that was left was for the fat lady to sing. The following April, Young did.

“I want you to know that I’m still trying to make the case for bringing you the best music possible, at a reasonable price, the same message we brought to you five years ago,” Young wrote in the press release announcing Pono’s demise. “I don’t know whether we will succeed, but it’s still as important to us as it ever was.”

For what it’s worth, Young now sells hi-res, 24-bit, 192 kHz versions of his albums on his own website. They sell for $23, $13 if you’re a subscriber to the site ($1.99 monthly, $19.99 yearly).

Trans is not currently available.