Neil Young’s pricey PonoPlayer no better than iPhone for music

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Neil Young's PonoPlayer digital music player is getting ripped by critics who say it sounds no better than an iPhone. Photo: PonoMusic
Neil Young's PonoPlayer digital music player is getting ripped by critics who say it sounds no better than an iPhone. Photo: PonoMusic

Eccentric rocker Neil Young has never been swayed by the critics. He has always made the music he wanted.

But he may not be able to be so carefree, as some critics eviscerate his latest musical endeavor – a pricey, Kickstarter-funded digital music player aimed at rescuing music from the MP3 format.

The PonoPlayer, resembling a Toblerone bar in shape and color, was supposed to revolutionize the digital listening experience and with a $400 price tag, not to mention a $6.2 million Kickstarter campaign, expectations were high. Users can download music from the Pono site and listen to high-quality files that restore the quality historically compressed out of digital music.

Turns out, it sounds no better than music on an iPhone, according to several critics who have put the PonoPlayer through its paces.

In a post Tuesday in Slate, tech writer Seth Stevenson said he and some people he enlisted had “zero confidence” in their ability to pick music played on a Pono from that of an iPhone.

“Bottom line: Not one person had any clue whether they were listening to the Pono or to the ‘inferior’ iTunes track,” Stevenson wrote. “When forced to state a preference, six out of seven people actually picked the iPhone as the higher-quality experience. An eighth person refused to guess because he simply had no idea. These folks were in their 20s and 30s, all avid music listeners. A couple of them write about music professionally and one is a video producer.”

Yahoo News’ David Pogue gave the PonoPlayer a more rigorous vetting. Whether his test subjects used cheap earbuds or expensive headphones, the iPhone playbacks sounded better.

The headline read: “Neil Young’s PonoPlayer: The Emperor Has No Clothes.”

Pogue said Young’s heart was pure in his quest for high-quality digital files, “but Pono’s statement that ‘Everyone who’s ever heard PonoMusic will tell you that the difference is surprising and dramatic’ is baloney. When conducting the test with today’s modern music files, I couldn’t find even one person who heard a dramatic difference.”

Young has not responded to the criticism but in an email to Pogue, he said that 100 top musicians compared Pono songs to low-quality MP3 files and each heard a difference.

Sam Machkovech of Ars Technica called the PonoPlayer “a tall, refreshing drink of snake oil,” while Gizmodo’s Mario Aguilar accused Neil Young and Pono of “peddling junk science, and supporting expensive gear and music files you don’t need.”