After years of scolding the digital music world for tolerating the miserable sound of MP3s and promising to introduce a high-fidelity alternative, Neil Young is about to launch his Pono music player. He'll unveil the thing at South By Southwest tomorrow, March 12, but a press release already gives the essential details: Pono will cost $399, will hold 100-500 "high-resolution digital albums" in 128GB of memory, and will come with software to manage all the hi-res music on your computer. Presumably, it will also sound amazing.
But all that of course leaves the most important question unanswered: Will anyone care?
Young's pitch for the Pono so far is based on the idea that compressing music into an MP3 format removes something essential about the music itself -- that if you aren't listening to songs at the highest quality, you aren't really listening to them at all. Implicit in Young's view, it seems, is a notion that consumers today don't really know what they're missing. Their ears are so accustomed to MP3s that they haven't realized the drastic difference between a compressed digital file and, say, a studio master played on control room monitors, or a heavy slab of vinyl run through a really high-end audio system. Young thinks that once we hear what we're missing, we'll never be able to go back to the old MP3s.
But is that really true? I think most serious music fans are keenly aware of the advantages of (let's call it) real sound -- audiophile-quality components, high-grade vinyl, etc. They probably enjoy it, to some degree, at home. And the people who aren't aware of what they're missing probably don't care enough about music to bother hearing it as well as possible anyway.
If many listeners really do believe that the sound coming through their white earbuds is as good as music gets, audiophiles are often guilty of the opposite delusion. Getting bitten by bug of great sound can be an expensive proposition: audiophiles are notorious for spending ludicrous sums on not just amplifiers and speakers but cables, racks, power supplies. (A family member of ours tells the story of an audiophile friend who had his entire basement filled in with concrete -- the whole thing -- to get better response from his living room stereo system.) So at some point, this obsession with really good sound goes too far for most of us. And in 2014, a $400 digital music player looks pretty far out there.
Granted, the Pono seems likely to become essential equipment for the audiophiles, for the kind of people who tote headphone amps around with their iPods, or spend $900 on a pair of headphones or $10,000 on a home amplifier. And maybe that's successful enough. But as we've noted sadly, the era of the digital music player -- where you bought files, stored them on your computer, and transferred them to a portable machine to listen to -- is coming to an end. The convenience of web-enabled streaming rules in 2014. While 100 or 500 albums once have seemed like a lot, we've now got most of the world of recorded music available at the tap of an icon.
How can Pono fight that? Great sound is lovely, and Young is right that it's a completely different experience than shitty MP3s. But it would be a true feat for the Pono to become anything more than a specialty gadget for audio nerds.