The Pono Pretense

Dave Business, Cracked Up (Blog), Opinions, Tech 1 Comment

Neil Young and PonoFWIW, I have nothing against Neil Young nor do I dislike high-quality audio. Quite the contrary.

I’d never classify myself as a “fan” of Neil. I could take or leave his music – perhaps blasphemous to other Canadians out there, but, it is how it is. I’ve long given up paying attention to the opinions of artists. They may have achieved a certain level of success with their art, but after meeting enough of them, I realized, long ago, that none of them are infallible in their views or opinions. Neil’s a fantastic songwriter and musician.

Being an audio professional who creates and listens to audio on thousands of dollars of equipment daily, I can respect Neil’s desire to increase the fidelity of the sound we are all listening to these days. I’ll freely admit that the compromises involved in squashing down tracks of high bit-rate/sample-rate audio into a smaller package is always a bit painful. However, that compromise results in a lot of advantages that in the end, let me enjoy virtually any music I’d like to listen to … anytime … and virtually anywhere.

The Pono

Pono /ˈpn/ is a proposed music download-service and dedicated music player focusing on “high-quality” recorded audio.
– Wikipedia.org

Ponomusic Ecosystem

Pono classifies itself as an “ecosystem” – complete with a snazzy graphic that reminds me of something I’d see in my kids’ science textbooks.

The music being offered for sale is apparently a version of FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec).

The player is a digital storage and playback device that has been compared, in functionality, to the original iPod / MP3 players of the early 2000’s.

The store is it’s own e commerce environment.

The OhNo of Pono

I’ll re-iterate – I have no problem with the goal of better fidelity audio, in fact I strongly applaud any attempt to promote and encourage consumer demand for better sound.

PonoMusic is dedicated to restoring that ear-body connection with a new digital music system that optimizes the listening experience end-to-end.Ponomusic.com

This all sounds fantastic but the whole implementation, smacks of another attempt to get consumers to buy into a yet another record collection upgrade – to capture that heady boost to sales that the introduction of CD’s had back in the late ’80’s. CD’s got everyone buying up copies of albums they already owned. Ever since there’s been an almost cyclical attempt to peddle “upgrades” to your music collection. There were the original records, the vinyl box sets, CD’s, box sets on CD, the remastered stereo and mono box sets on CD and vinyl,  iTunes, “Mastered for iTunes”… now Pon-ified?

Albums on the Pono store will cost $14.95-24.95, well above the prices set by iTunes, Amazon, and most other online distributors.

first-edition-ponoplayer-640x0Swiss Chocolate Anyone?

File format and (yet another) online music marketplace aside, I am really puzzled with the decision to make the Pono Player itself. Why, in this day and age, would you introduce a device that’s dedicated to only playing music? It’s been labeled as an iPod stuffed in a Toblerone package – a form factor you’ll have to think twice about before stuffing in your pocket. I can just see the hashtags like “#ponoboner” already.

I can barely recall the inconvenience of carrying around a phone, a PDA (remember those?) and an MP3 player every time I left the house. Now that everyone is used to having all of those things on one device, the introduction of something that requires you to unbundle music from your phone seems counter-intuitive and backwards.

Where Are They Now?

The Guardian’s assessment of the market niche for Pono seems accurate:

The audience is a niche (people who pay for music) within a niche (people who want digital music) within a niche (people who care about the sound quality)

I couldn’t tell you whether or not pursuing this niche with the Pono model makes business sense, but I can’t see this niche being sustainable for a company attempting to establish an e-commerce marketplace, sell hardware and push a new (restrictive) format.

I applaud the desire to elevate fidelity in music, but this really seems to be an bass-ackward way of doing it. I’ll be more than happy if this somehow gets FLAC (or other lossless codec) to be adopted as a common audio file format, but tying it to a specific brand and proprietary distribution channel really smacks of pipe-dream-induced ulterior motives.

The reality is that much of music listening (recorded music) is a passive activity. High-fidelity and sound quality are trumped by convenience – convenience in the terms of quantity, variety and timeliness. True active listening these days is a rarity. The implied hypothesis that Neil and Pono make – everyone will forgo their current habits and conveniences in order to listen to higher-fidelity music – seems a bit … naive.

In addition to listening habits, the consumption of music is shifting away from purchasing music (or rather purchase a license to possess a copy of that music) – evidence by the fact that 2014 is the first year that not one artist has achieved platinum-level record sales. Streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora have gained significant footholds with more and more consumers of music. Much like on-demand video services have supplanted DVD and Blueray sales/rentals, audio streaming services appear to be gaining as a substitute for physical and digital sales of music.

A Head-Scratcher

To me, the Pono model all just doesn’t make sense. If getting the world to listen to higher fidelity was the goal, then why didn’t Neil and the Pono team just appeal to existing digital music distributors and device manufacturers. If that didn’t pan out then championing companies and channels that already offer high-fidelity audio would also make sense. Sites such as Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and HDtracks all offer audio in FLAC and other formats (such as ALAC, AAC and Ogg Vorbis).

Creating an entire distribution chain – for both hardware and digital content – seems like the most difficult and expensive route for the stated goal of Pono.

Is it ego, bad business advice, too many yes-men surrounding poor Neil? I don’t know, perhaps I’m missing something…

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