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Can Neil Young's high-quality Pono music player attract a wide audience?

Neil Young's Pono music player.
Neil Young's Pono music player.

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One of the buzziest debuts at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is Neil Young's high-resolution music player, called Pono.

The pocket-sized device promises to deliver higher quality audio, and the makers say it is designed to be the next best thing to live music. It’s just one of a handful of new devices that hope to corner a market of music lovers who aren’t satisfied with lower-quality MP3 files.

But the device itself costs $400, and each album runs between $17-$25. Will consumers be willing to pay top-dollar per album for better quality sound?

Steve Guttenberg, who writes the Audiophiliac blog for C-NET, joined The Frame to talk about the past, present and future of hi-res audio players. 

Interview Highlights:

There seems to be a growing interest in super high quality sound devices. What do you think is driving that trend?

That old guy, Neil Young, has somehow made everybody suddenly aware of hi-res music. The curious thing is that it's not new. Hi-res music has been around actually since just before the turn of the century, but starting about six years ago, a couple of companies like HiFiMAN and Fiio started making high-resolution music players, and various websites started selling high-resolution files — there's one based in New York called HDTracks, for example. So Neil Young's a little late to this party, which has been going on for a while.

So what is Neil Young proposing? What is his technology and what is it supposed to do?

He's proposing that now you can finally hear what the musicians heard when they made the record in the first place.

And is this something that purportedly has been lost by converting audio files to MP3s? In layman's terms, what's the issue, technologically?

Ideally, what we're talking about with high-resolution music is to give a clearer picture of the recording. To think of it in photographic terms, it's a sharper, clearer picture. More pixels, more resolution, more detail, more depth.

One of the things that high-resolution promises, but doesn't always deliver, is greater low-level, quieter details, like the breath of the singer or the singer strumming an acoustic guitar. You just hear subtle things, not the loud stuff. You always hear the loud stuff, but it's the quieter parts that come through much more clearly.

Sony recently announced its $1,200 Walkman, the NWZX2. Is that a similar technology, or is it kind of the same idea that Neil Young is pursuing with Pono?

Yeah, same idea. That one's going to come out later this year. But they do have a player that I reviewed a few months ago called the NWZA17, which is a $300 high-resolution music player, and for $300 it's pretty damn good.

Where does this go next, and what do you think the future looks like?

This is the tricky part, because one of the things that's happening, parallel to hi-res music, is the resurgence in vinyl. And the funny thing is that vinyl never went away; they were always making vinyl records and they never stopped making turntables, but over the last year or two, vinyl has really kicked it up.

It's definitely a much bigger thing now, and one of the things that's interesting about vinyl compared to hi-res is that you have to be home to listen to an LP. It's hard to listen to them on the bus. So when you're home, it's a much more conducive environment, and presumably quieter than the bus, the car or the train. So you can hear those quieter details more clearly and you're way more likely to be engaged. There's less multi-tasking going on when you're playing a vinyl record than when you're listening to a file.

I guess the hope is that these kinds of players or hi-res files become the standard, like DSL Internet versus dial-up. It will become the new basis against which everything else is measured.

I wish that were true. The thing is, we live in this world where most people get their music for free. You could always get music for free, you could always listen to it on the radio, but now you can listen to what you want, when you want to hear it, on YouTube, Pandora or Spotify, and pay absolutely nothing.

So we have that at one end, which is what most people are using. And I think the idea of getting those people, who are used to getting their music for free, to instead spend $25 for 10-to-12 songs sounds really hard. I don't think that's going to happen so fast.

But I guess the next step might be for Spotify or other streaming services to actually improve the resolution audio quality of their files, correct?

That would be a midpoint, and there's a new company starting up that's called Tidal that's the first lossless — not quite high-resolution, but CD quality — streaming service. Because it's higher quality, or maybe for other reasons, it's not free; it's $20 a month. And right now in the real world that's sort of a midpoint between free and $25 hi-res downloads on the other end.

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