Paying the Pono Premium: Neil Young’s Exorbitantly Priced Hi-Res Music

I’ve been following the Pono story on this website. For those not familiar with it, Pono is a Toblerone-shaped digital music player backed by Neil Young, which is designed to play high-resolution music. It’s started shipping recently, and, curiously, I haven’t spotted any reviews or even comments of any depth on forums. Also, the Pono music store is not yet open.

But audio equipment review Andrew Everard spotted the pricing for one upcoming Neil Young album in Pono format. Storytone, listed on the Warner Bros Records Store site, is selling for $32.99. To be fair, this is a double album, but you can get it from the iTunes Store for only $15. Even better: get it on CD from Amazon.com for just $12. (Though on vinyl – which many audiophiles think is as good as high-resolution digital files – you’ll pay $70.)

Storytone high res

Neil Young would say that the high-res version is better; many people disagree. High-res music is priced higher than other digital files, but a difference of that magnitude is quite surprising. The Pono premium is $20 for this two-album set. To be fair, we don’t know what a standard single album will cost yet, but it won’t be cheap.

For Pono to have any chance at success, it not only has to bring high-resolution music files to the masses, but at an affordable price. It most likely will not do so, at least based on this first example.

30 thoughts on “Paying the Pono Premium: Neil Young’s Exorbitantly Priced Hi-Res Music

  1. “Neil Young would say that the high-res version is better; many people disagree.”

    Those people who disagree obviously haven’t burnt-in the hi-res files for 200 continuous hours prior to listening.

    If they took that simple step, their ignorance would melt away.

  2. “Neil Young would say that the high-res version is better; many people disagree.”

    Those people who disagree obviously haven’t burnt-in the hi-res files for 200 continuous hours prior to listening.

    If they took that simple step, their ignorance would melt away.

  3. Yes, but do you have an equally good DAC? You can play Blu-Ray film through a standard def TV but you won’t see the improved picture. For some reason people don’t seem to realise this is similar with audio.

  4. Yes, but do you have an equally good DAC? You can play Blu-Ray film through a standard def TV but you won’t see the improved picture. For some reason people don’t seem to realise this is similar with audio.

  5. I am a photographer, and in photography people also tended to say that the maximum resolution of 12 MP is the highest you can see with an human eye, so it had no need to go any higher with a camera. In a way they are correct, but it is also about the way the pixels are recorded, the size of the pixels, the way the pixels are handled, the quality of the sensor, it all leads to something most people can’t really explain called the Material Expression (hope I translated it well from Dutch) You see the same thing as with other camera’s but some how you can tell if something is for instance real chrome or plastic, wool or synthetic material. A higher the resolution combined with better quality on the previous named point will lead to photo’s with more quality (of course excluding the part of the lenses used, the photographer and the material to show the photo)

    IMO it is the same with music. We might not be able to hear all bit’s and bytes, but somehow it seems that switching from vinyl to cd’s made us loose quality in the sound. And it wasn’t just our mind tricking us. The closer we get to the source of the music, the more of the recorded info will be used to complete our hearing experience. Of course it is important to have the complete chain of equipment at its best. Good recordings, a good file, a good player, a good audio system and good speakers will obviously be needed to experience the most. But up scaling one of those pieces will always help to to here the quality of the source better.

    So far people have almost only been downscaling since streaming audio or using mp3’s made us compress the files more and more so we could ad more and more tracks to our devices or downloading faster. A complete generation of young people never heard how good audio can sound.
    Neal Young is making it easy now for everybody to experience audio at it’s best. Yes you need a walled big enough to experience it, but if you like good audio I think your stereo set was much more expensive. And if you don’t have a great stereo, you can do with just great earphones. The price of an album will be more then a cd, but still less then most concert tickets and also less then the price of a vinyl record.

    Since the downloading of music was possible and it was possible to do it even for free, I didn’t enjoy listening to it less. It wasn’t special any more to hear new music, I only listened to tracks I knew and didn’t take the time any more to sit down, relax and enjoy a album I waited for.
    Now with pono music I think that’s about to change. If you own or are able to own almost all albums there are available, it gets so normal you forget to enjoy it.
    Now it will be special again, to go shopping for music and listen to a special album over and over again.
    And not less important, it might help artists to be better paid for the music they make and inspire them to make great music that is best enjoyed when people sit down and listen to it on a great audio device.

    • Well, you’ve bought into the hype. You say, “The closer we get to the source of the music, the more of the recorded info will be used to complete our hearing experience.” That’s just not true. The logic here suggests that if you have the original studio source, this is what the music should sound like. But this sounds nothing like the original music. It has been treated, processed, compressed (using dynamic range compression), reverbed and more. There is no such thing as an original studio source. This may be true for live music, but, even then, there is compression and reverb added.

      This is all a chimera; the music you hear is never the music “as it was recorded,” and not even “as the artist intended.”

      And vinyl? It doesn’t sound better; it’s the imperfections in vinyl that give it the “warmth” that people cite.

      But, hey, if you want to pay more for some imaginary “perfect sound,” I just hope you end up buying records that are well mastered, because that’s probably the biggest problem these days: the crappy mastering, and the excessive dynamic range compression that make them sound terrible.

      • I’m not meaning the studio version is just better, but the problem often is that when information is lost by compressing the file, there is no way to get this back, even if you remaster it a thousand times. To heat the breathing of the artist, the smallest cracks in the in the instruments it has to be there to begin with.
        Like with a camera, I think you get the most out of mastering the RAW file (or isn’t there such thing in music?)

        There are a lot of poor cd’s on the market that sound much worst then vinyl. Guess you’re right about the imperfection making it sound warmer, but if I listen to vinyl it gives the feeling of sitting right next to the artist in the studio, where when I listen to a CD or a mp3 it mostly gives me the feeling that there is more distance and you are missing the small details. It is like having all the ingredients but so mixed up that you hear everything but you can’t tell one ingredient from the other. If you like food, you’ll know that the in the best food, you can taste almost every ingredient separately and together they are magic, but if you do it wrong you will miss the finesse, it has all ingredients but you will miss the real story.

        Yes I don’t think there is a way to tell you will hear music in a way a artist intended it, the same goes for photography. Is it meant to show on screen, a small print, or a very large print? Is the noise in film (also a imperfection) really better then digital noise, or is it better to get all the noise out? Maybe it’s all about what we want to see or hear, how we grew up. Does a burger taste better in a fancy restaurant, then at a fastfood restaurant, or is the psychological element of a better ambiance and higher expectations making us enjoying it more and therefore making the experience better, even though it’s still the same?
        Should we care? As long as you are enjoying it more you will get what you paid for.

        But with the technical facts, I guess you know more about it then I do for sure, but I think the proof is in the pudding, of how people will experience it. Vinyl did sound better to me and a lot of people (yet I don’t own a record player) and I used to enjoy a recording much more when it was special to get one. I hope to get that feeling back, and the way Pono player is set up so far, I think it will bring that joy back to listening to music.

        • If you don’t hear the artist breathing in one version of recording, and you do in another recording, that has nothing to do with compression. Compression does not delete sounds; it reduces the amount of data used, and will reduce very high frequencies that humans can’t hear, as well as some lower frequencies. That’s another trope that people cite when discussing high-res music, as if CDs or compressed files somehow subtract actual sounds.

          If “listen to vinyl it gives the feeling of sitting right next to the artist in the studio,” that’s a placebo effect. Yet you say you don’t have a record player; so how do you know this? As you say with food, the context certainly makes a difference.

          “As long as you are enjoying it more you will get what you paid for.”

          I’m not sure I agree. I’d rather find out why I react differently, and correct that, than pay more for a product that is falsely described as “sounding better.”

          One thing that surprises me these days is that no one complains about the terrible quality of films in cinemas, which essentially just project a 1080p stream onto a screen. In the past, we had film, which had depth and grain, and a much, much higher resolution (as you certainly know, being a photographer). Yet people are satisfied with the crappy images, as long as the sound is VERY LOUD. Yet they get all detailed about audio quality and compression.

      • I stopped visiting cinemas. They used to be a nice night out but nowadays it’s all about getting you in and out a.s.a.p. It’s like I said for me about the complete experience also. Not just the screen and the sound, but also the ambiance you used to get, but couldn’t get at home and the thrill since you didn’t see a movie each night 😉

        By the way, I did own a record player, but like many I switched to cd and later mp3 thinking that was easier and sounding just as good. But lately I hear more and more tracks with digital noise, I got the feeling that even albums sold as being of good quality are not sounding as well as the way they sounded when I had them on vinyl.
        Like I said, in a technical way, I guess you’re right. But with music it is as you experience it.

        By the way, about the placebo effectthat might not be so bad.
        you might want to read these articles:
        http://listverse.com/2013/02/16/10-crazy-facts-about-the-placebo-effect/
        http://www.fastcoexist.com/3016012/the-placebo-effect-is-real-now-doctors-just-have-to-work-out-how-to-use-it

        • CDs sound better than vinyl. But, early CDs didn’t, because record companies were using the masters they made for LPs, which aren’t adapted to CDs. (Notably there has to be a limited dynamic range on vinyl, because otherwise the needle will jump around.) MP3/AAC is fine, if the rips are good quality; in the early days, size was key, not quality, and that’s not the case any more.

          The placebo effect is extremely interesting indeed; especially in medicine, where it’s long been known to have a huge effect.

  6. I am a photographer, and in photography people also tended to say that the maximum resolution of 12 MP is the highest you can see with an human eye, so it had no need to go any higher with a camera. In a way they are correct, but it is also about the way the pixels are recorded, the size of the pixels, the way the pixels are handled, the quality of the sensor, it all leads to something most people can’t really explain called the Material Expression (hope I translated it well from Dutch) You see the same thing as with other camera’s but some how you can tell if something is for instance real chrome or plastic, wool or synthetic material. A higher the resolution combined with better quality on the previous named point will lead to photo’s with more quality (of course excluding the part of the lenses used, the photographer and the material to show the photo)

    IMO it is the same with music. We might not be able to hear all bit’s and bytes, but somehow it seems that switching from vinyl to cd’s made us loose quality in the sound. And it wasn’t just our mind tricking us. The closer we get to the source of the music, the more of the recorded info will be used to complete our hearing experience. Of course it is important to have the complete chain of equipment at its best. Good recordings, a good file, a good player, a good audio system and good speakers will obviously be needed to experience the most. But up scaling one of those pieces will always help to to here the quality of the source better.

    So far people have almost only been downscaling since streaming audio or using mp3’s made us compress the files more and more so we could ad more and more tracks to our devices or downloading faster. A complete generation of young people never heard how good audio can sound.
    Neal Young is making it easy now for everybody to experience audio at it’s best. Yes you need a walled big enough to experience it, but if you like good audio I think your stereo set was much more expensive. And if you don’t have a great stereo, you can do with just great earphones. The price of an album will be more then a cd, but still less then most concert tickets and also less then the price of a vinyl record.

    Since the downloading of music was possible and it was possible to do it even for free, I didn’t enjoy listening to it less. It wasn’t special any more to hear new music, I only listened to tracks I knew and didn’t take the time any more to sit down, relax and enjoy a album I waited for.
    Now with pono music I think that’s about to change. If you own or are able to own almost all albums there are available, it gets so normal you forget to enjoy it.
    Now it will be special again, to go shopping for music and listen to a special album over and over again.
    And not less important, it might help artists to be better paid for the music they make and inspire them to make great music that is best enjoyed when people sit down and listen to it on a great audio device.

    • Well, you’ve bought into the hype. You say, “The closer we get to the source of the music, the more of the recorded info will be used to complete our hearing experience.” That’s just not true. The logic here suggests that if you have the original studio source, this is what the music should sound like. But this sounds nothing like the original music. It has been treated, processed, compressed (using dynamic range compression), reverbed and more. There is no such thing as an original studio source. This may be true for live music, but, even then, there is compression and reverb added.

      This is all a chimera; the music you hear is never the music “as it was recorded,” and not even “as the artist intended.”

      And vinyl? It doesn’t sound better; it’s the imperfections in vinyl that give it the “warmth” that people cite.

      But, hey, if you want to pay more for some imaginary “perfect sound,” I just hope you end up buying records that are well mastered, because that’s probably the biggest problem these days: the crappy mastering, and the excessive dynamic range compression that make them sound terrible.

      • I’m not meaning the studio version is just better, but the problem often is that when information is lost by compressing the file, there is no way to get this back, even if you remaster it a thousand times. To heat the breathing of the artist, the smallest cracks in the in the instruments it has to be there to begin with.
        Like with a camera, I think you get the most out of mastering the RAW file (or isn’t there such thing in music?)

        There are a lot of poor cd’s on the market that sound much worst then vinyl. Guess you’re right about the imperfection making it sound warmer, but if I listen to vinyl it gives the feeling of sitting right next to the artist in the studio, where when I listen to a CD or a mp3 it mostly gives me the feeling that there is more distance and you are missing the small details. It is like having all the ingredients but so mixed up that you hear everything but you can’t tell one ingredient from the other. If you like food, you’ll know that the in the best food, you can taste almost every ingredient separately and together they are magic, but if you do it wrong you will miss the finesse, it has all ingredients but you will miss the real story.

        Yes I don’t think there is a way to tell you will hear music in a way a artist intended it, the same goes for photography. Is it meant to show on screen, a small print, or a very large print? Is the noise in film (also a imperfection) really better then digital noise, or is it better to get all the noise out? Maybe it’s all about what we want to see or hear, how we grew up. Does a burger taste better in a fancy restaurant, then at a fastfood restaurant, or is the psychological element of a better ambiance and higher expectations making us enjoying it more and therefore making the experience better, even though it’s still the same?
        Should we care? As long as you are enjoying it more you will get what you paid for.

        But with the technical facts, I guess you know more about it then I do for sure, but I think the proof is in the pudding, of how people will experience it. Vinyl did sound better to me and a lot of people (yet I don’t own a record player) and I used to enjoy a recording much more when it was special to get one. I hope to get that feeling back, and the way Pono player is set up so far, I think it will bring that joy back to listening to music.

        • If you don’t hear the artist breathing in one version of recording, and you do in another recording, that has nothing to do with compression. Compression does not delete sounds; it reduces the amount of data used, and will reduce very high frequencies that humans can’t hear, as well as some lower frequencies. That’s another trope that people cite when discussing high-res music, as if CDs or compressed files somehow subtract actual sounds.

          If “listen to vinyl it gives the feeling of sitting right next to the artist in the studio,” that’s a placebo effect. Yet you say you don’t have a record player; so how do you know this? As you say with food, the context certainly makes a difference.

          “As long as you are enjoying it more you will get what you paid for.”

          I’m not sure I agree. I’d rather find out why I react differently, and correct that, than pay more for a product that is falsely described as “sounding better.”

          One thing that surprises me these days is that no one complains about the terrible quality of films in cinemas, which essentially just project a 1080p stream onto a screen. In the past, we had film, which had depth and grain, and a much, much higher resolution (as you certainly know, being a photographer). Yet people are satisfied with the crappy images, as long as the sound is VERY LOUD. Yet they get all detailed about audio quality and compression.

      • I stopped visiting cinemas. They used to be a nice night out but nowadays it’s all about getting you in and out a.s.a.p. It’s like I said for me about the complete experience also. Not just the screen and the sound, but also the ambiance you used to get, but couldn’t get at home and the thrill since you didn’t see a movie each night 😉

        By the way, I did own a record player, but like many I switched to cd and later mp3 thinking that was easier and sounding just as good. But lately I hear more and more tracks with digital noise, I got the feeling that even albums sold as being of good quality are not sounding as well as the way they sounded when I had them on vinyl.
        Like I said, in a technical way, I guess you’re right. But with music it is as you experience it.

        By the way, about the placebo effectthat might not be so bad.
        you might want to read these articles:
        http://listverse.com/2013/02/16/10-crazy-facts-about-the-placebo-effect/
        http://www.fastcoexist.com/3016012/the-placebo-effect-is-real-now-doctors-just-have-to-work-out-how-to-use-it

        • CDs sound better than vinyl. But, early CDs didn’t, because record companies were using the masters they made for LPs, which aren’t adapted to CDs. (Notably there has to be a limited dynamic range on vinyl, because otherwise the needle will jump around.) MP3/AAC is fine, if the rips are good quality; in the early days, size was key, not quality, and that’s not the case any more.

          The placebo effect is extremely interesting indeed; especially in medicine, where it’s long been known to have a huge effect.

  7. I just did read this blog by another person who was very very critical about Pono player at first, but it seems that testing Pono player hands on, made him think more positive about it.
    I don’t want to convince you, but it would be interesting to know what you would think about if you did a hands on review.
    He is not claiming that the highest bit rate is the best. But like other sceptical reviewers, he is saying Pono player has the best sound.

    You can find his blog here: http://www.digitalaudioreview.net/2014/12/ponoplayer-is-a-wonderful-sounding-dap-for-the-money/

    Also others who have tested the player day, the higher bitrate sounds better. Slightly though, but with the right recording and music fit for the test, and the right equipment comparing different bitrates, the difference can be heard.
    http://wfnk.com/blog/ponoplayer-review/cliff-let-you-borrow-his-notes-ponoplayer-review-section-10/

    I don’t know if they are lying, but it would be interesting to read your findings if you would test the player.

    • What surprises me most is that you have to search to find any reviews of the Pono. After all the media attention the device got, it seems that they’re not sending review units to the audio press; at least I haven’t come across any reviews in the main hi-fi media.

      • The reason might be that it’s not available in the open market yet. Only to people who have backed up the kickstarter project. That makes it still a bit a trial period, and I guess they don’t want to lay it out big until everyone can get their hands on it. Promotion at this time isn’t worth much from a commercial perspective, since most people don’t want to pre-order stuff they can’t try them selves. So why start a promotional campaign (I think that is what most companies would do when they release a new device, send it off to the press to get people to promote it for them as soon as it is available) months before you can really buy it.
        Meantime they can fill their shop and improve the product (mostly when it comes to firmware).

  8. I just did read this blog by another person who was very very critical about Pono player at first, but it seems that testing Pono player hands on, made him think more positive about it.
    I don’t want to convince you, but it would be interesting to know what you would think about if you did a hands on review.
    He is not claiming that the highest bit rate is the best. But like other sceptical reviewers, he is saying Pono player has the best sound.

    You can find his blog here: http://www.digitalaudioreview.net/2014/12/ponoplayer-is-a-wonderful-sounding-dap-for-the-money/

    Also others who have tested the player day, the higher bitrate sounds better. Slightly though, but with the right recording and music fit for the test, and the right equipment comparing different bitrates, the difference can be heard.
    http://wfnk.com/blog/ponoplayer-review/cliff-let-you-borrow-his-notes-ponoplayer-review-section-10/

    I don’t know if they are lying, but it would be interesting to read your findings if you would test the player.

    • What surprises me most is that you have to search to find any reviews of the Pono. After all the media attention the device got, it seems that they’re not sending review units to the audio press; at least I haven’t come across any reviews in the main hi-fi media.

      • The reason might be that it’s not available in the open market yet. Only to people who have backed up the kickstarter project. That makes it still a bit a trial period, and I guess they don’t want to lay it out big until everyone can get their hands on it. Promotion at this time isn’t worth much from a commercial perspective, since most people don’t want to pre-order stuff they can’t try them selves. So why start a promotional campaign (I think that is what most companies would do when they release a new device, send it off to the press to get people to promote it for them as soon as it is available) months before you can really buy it.
        Meantime they can fill their shop and improve the product (mostly when it comes to firmware).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.