Pono Portable Music Player Review Highlights
At long last, the full-scale assault on poor quality sound (MP3’s) and digital music monopolies (Apple) launched by Neill Young and Ayre Acoustics has come to an product launch. The $400 dollar Pono player plays multiple digital formats and connects with its’ own ‘ecosystem’ – the Pono music store (ponomusic.force.com).
I found the sound of this player to be excellent indeed, but music availability and support leave a lot to be desired. In the end, the versatility and quality of the player make it a strong contender for anyone who doesn’t mind carrying another device around.
Pono Portable Music Player Highlights Summary
- Great sound
- Reasonable cost
- Multiple digital formats supported
- Versatile, can be connected with home stereo via balanced analog connections
- No digital out
- Support is slow and questionable
- Favorite music not always available on Ponomusic
Introduction to the Pono Portable Music Player Review
We’ve been waiting for this player for so long. Mr. Young was first pitching this thing on Letterman in 2012. The kickstarter campaign, which raised nearly 15x the initial goal of $800,000 ended on Tax Day 2014 with delivery promised by October.
I received mine just after Christmas, 2014. Somewhere along the way, the development team was switched from Meridian to Ayre, and that might account for some of the delay. Pono is not just a player however. It comes with an associated high-res music website and a pledge to sell only high quality downloads. That is an enterprise unto itself.
So the player is here now, how did they do?
PONO PORTABLE MUSIC PLAYER REVIEW SPECIFICATIONS
- Music Formats: FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, AAC (unprotected), MP3
- Music Resolution: Lossless Playback at up to 192kHz/24-bit
- Storage: 128 GB total – 64GB Flash Memory plus SanDisk 64GB microSD Card Included
- Expansion Slot: Supports MicroSD Cards of up to 64GB
- DAC: SABRE ESS ES9018M (2-Channel DAC Made for Mobile Devices)
- Battery: 2900mAH Li-Ion Rechargeable for up to 8 Hours of Playback Time
- Charger: AC Universal Adapter (100 – 240 VAC)
- USB Cable: USB-to-Micro USB Cable
- Screen: 2.5″ Color Touchscreen
- Audio Output: Two 1/8″ (3.5 mm) Stereo Mini-jacks, Supports Four Listening Modes
- Weight: 4.6 Ounces (130 grams)
- Dimensions: 1″ H x 5″ W x 2″ D
- MSRP: $400 USD
- SECRETS Tags: Pono, Music, Portable Music Players
Design and Setup of the Pono Portable Music Player
The special edition PonoPlayer comes pre-loaded with two albums from the sponsoring artist. I chose the Patti Smith version, and thus had Banga and Horses already on my player when it (finally) arrived.
Part of my attraction to this player was based on the assumption that I would be able to easily load files I had obtained from the download cards included in most new vinyl. In looking at the available documentation on-line, I was starting to get worried, but I eventually found this: “Audio files can be loaded onto the PonoPlayer using the Pono Music Center desktop application (soon to be released on Windows and MacOS). The PonoPlayer can also be sideloaded as a USB storage device (Windows, MacOS, Linux).”
I had never heard the term ‘sideloaded’, and even Google isn’t so clear on the meaning, but it sounded like what I wanted. Indeed, when I plugged in the player via USB, my Windows 7 computer seemed to recognize it as my ‘G’ drive. But there was a problem: when I clicked on that drive, Windows said, “Please insert a disk into removable disk G”. Excuse me? I just did that, that’s why there was this thing labeled ‘G’. To err is human, but to really screw things up requires a computer (programmers).
I kept fiddling around and found that if I powered up the Pono while it was plugged in via USB, Windows would reliably give me the option to “Open a Folder to View Files”. If I happened to close that folder before I was done, I had to turn the Pono off and back on again to get it back. With this folder, I could simply drag and drop as needed. That was easy (ahem).
If one had the requisite adaptor to plug the micro SD card into an SD slot, I would think that that would work as well.
The prescribed way to transfer music to the Pono is to use the Pono software, which I could not obtain at the time. When the player connects via USB, a window on the player popped up asking, “Transfer Music Now?” Answering, “Yes” resulted in an immediate “Done” response. I presume that the issue was that I didn’t have the Ponomusic World ‘app’ installed on my windows machine. So, I tried to do that and found that I needed to update my player’s firmware in order to accomplish this, but even that is done through the Ponomusic World app, of which there was no download available. The button was there, but it didn’t work, so, another no-support support event.
Question: What is the issue here? When is the desktop app going to be released? The firmware upgrade video says that app is the method to update firmware.
Answer (3 weeks later): “Thank you for contacting Pono support. Please download Ponomusic World 20 on our home page by logging in (or creating a new log in with your SN number). The download is on the first page of our site. Your PC is improperly reading your PonoPlayer, and your Mac can see your Pono as a drive/device in finder as well, so we recommend you test the recognition for your Mac and download Ponomusic World. Please connect your player to your computer and hit “yes” but do not hit “done” unless you are ejecting.
Not sure where they got ‘Your Mac’ from, since I never mentioned anything about a Mac, I responded with that and never heard back. I opened several other support tickets on the Pono website, and I would usually get a response within a day saying ‘Pono Support Ticket ## Has Been Resolved’ however that was seldom true.
It turns out you also need the Ponomusic World ‘App’ installed in order to purchase music from the Pono website. Thus, I was prevented from trying a ‘Pono Certified’ music file other than the pre-loaded Patti Smith (which I am withholding judgment on – it’s not a clear winner to me). I do have some high quality FLAC files available though – more on that below.
Even if I were able to purchase and download music, would I be able to find any that I like? Presently I am mad, mad, mad (!!) for Barragon, the latest record by Blonde Redhead. This record is not available at the Pono store. I’d like to say that I’m sure it will be available at some point, as there are presently four other albums by the same band on the site. Careful examination shows that those records happen to all have been released by the same record company, while the ones that are missing are on a variety of other labels.
There is much work to be done yet in the Pono website store. I would think that if Pono reaches a certain critical mass, record companies and artists would be inclined to participate, but at this point, they are probably asking, “Why bother?” They have their own websites and high resolution download capabilities already, so why not cut out the middle-man and keep more of the $$ for themselves. I’m with them actually. While there will be a certain level of convenience from having the Pono software keep track of what I own and sync to in my music library etc, that’s not a huge deal to me, and if I can’t seem to manage it on my own, there will be substitute programs for that.
There is also the issue of high-res. Part of the Pono pitch is that the music they sell will be in high-res FLAC format, perhaps even remastered in some fashion. I went looking through the Bjork selection. About a dozen records are available, and “Biophilia” at 24/48 was the only one available above 16/44. The cost is $21.99 and it had better be good for that price. Nevertheless, 24/48 is NOT high res.
Meanwhile, I found that the Subpop label offered a variety of download choices with my purchase of the vinyl of Dum Dum Girls Only in Dreams. From the Subpop download site, the choices were: 32MB MP3 (uh, no thank you), ALAC, and FLAC 258. I chose the FLAC version and used it in the “In Use” section below.
One other item about the website is that I was forced to change my password every time I logged in. And, the password requirements are ridiculously strong.
So, the Pono website is a disaster in terms of getting apps, questions answered, problems solved, and in fact, some of the music downloads not being high resolution at all. Hey, I thought the whole marketing emphasis on the Pono was going to be that it would sell high res downloads of new albums. All of this is an Early Adopter issue which should be (must be) resolved soon. Also, the Pono is not the only game in town, as there are plenty of portable music players out there that will store and play lots of music at high res. Depite the marketing hype, Pono is a “Me Too” product and had better get its act under control or face oblivion.
The Pono Portable Music Player In Use
There seemed to be at least a 30 min break-in period as out of the box, as initially, there was a profusion of sibilants and mushed up cymbal sounds. After a few hours use, this was a distant memory, but it made me realize that we reviewers are happy to give larger pieces of equipment any amount of break-in period required, but you never hear it mentioned for portables. In part, I suppose this is because it’s much more work to support the break-in period of a battery powered device.
The big round button is multi-purpose and smart, always seeming to do what you need. Press and hold to turn it on, if music is playing, and the round button equals pause. If paused, press again to play. Hold it down to bring up the power-down menu choices on the touch screen. The touch screen is small, but it does all you need. Music navigation is simple and intuitive. The only thing that tripped me up at first was when an album was playing, and I wanted to browse up a level to look for something else. The big ‘X’ in the upper right is the way to do it, but I was hesitant to press (touch) the big X, as it seemed like something would get deleted. Anyway, I’m over it now.
Much has been said about the Toblerone shape – certainly not optimal for sticking in one’s pocket, but it’s not that bad. The overall thickness is maybe an inch. I have mine in my pocket right now as I write this. Also, the Pono is very light, so it’s quite suitable for use while exercising. There is another advantage to the shape, when it’s not in your pocket: it fits nicely in your hand.
I did a lot of my initial listening with Barragon. This came in format typical of most vinyl download cards – 320 kbs MP3. I guess you could say I was diggin’ on the Pono with this album because I listened repeatedly through a variety of headphones. I found that the Pono was able to reveal differences in ‘phones quite readily, but in all cases, the music was completely involving. I would say that the Pono is true to its Ayre Acoustics roots, being highly detailed, with clear sound, and without fatigue. This was so, even with (a high quality) MP3.
The opening track on Barragon is a lushly recorded ambient mix of quiet guitars, flute, and street noise. There is a crunchy, warm texture, and the Pono provided that in spades. Vibrato on the flute and the sound of the fingers sliding on the guitar stings, were all there and lovely. Towards the end of the track, I heard a rumbling synth sound and a car door closing. Synth sounds are especially useful for audio reviewing. When rendered badly, they don’t sound like much. If you happen to hear them on a good hi-fi, you’ll find that the musicians have put some effort into crafting a unique and textural sound. Pono is good hi-fi.
Even though I have a small collection of headphones going (do I need this!!?), I visited a local stereo shop (Stereotypes of Portland, OR) to try the Pono with a wider variety. The only set that the Pono couldn’t drive was a high-impedance Beyerdynamic 990. These are not meant for use with a portable player, so no surprise there.
Also, it was no surprise that the best sound was achieved by headphones of the planar magnetic variety, in this case, Oppo. I had to use a Grado adaptor in order to connect the Oppo’s ¼” plug to the Pono. These phones revealed that the Pono was driving lower frequencies than I had realized. Instruments were all separate, and each had a full texture. I did have the volume set higher with the Oppo’s than with others, so the battery would not have lasted as long here.
It was siimilar with Grado headphones. I tried the 325i model. While planar magnetics are all the rage, Grado is really on to something, with its dynamic drivers. It gives up something in the bass, but it had the clearest mids and easiest highs of them all. I Heard more vibrato on flute, for instance, than with any other set. Cymbals sounded like cymbals instead of glass shattering. I wish Grado would come up with more comfortable pads though. I have the oversize ones, which are slightly better I guess, but they are still made from coarse foam, which is scratchy on the ears. The Grado’s also revealed the limits of this MP3 recording, which meant some smearing of the highs and sibilants on drums for track 3.
Listening on ‘phones is an intimate experience. This was highlighted with either Focal Spirit One’s or Classic. While there was a constrained, almost muddied effect on the low end, these guys transported me to that late-night listening experience. I did not want to stop.
The Beyerdynamic Custom 1 Pro’s maintained superior openness as compared to the Focals, so while they might be the least fatiguing of all that I listened to on my trip to the store, they still lacked the involvement of the Focals or even the PSBs.
Did you say PSB? Yes, I tried the M4U1 and 2. These may have been the best overall in terms of instrument separation and extension in both the bass and treble directions, but I kept wanting to go back to the Focals.
For high res, I tried Dum Dum Girls Only in Dreams 258 FLAC, and the sound was much fuller, as well as more relaxed than any of the MP3’s I tried. The Dum Dum Girls fill their recordings with a wall of sound that includes loud rhythm guitar and bass. Listening on the PSB M4U2’s, the Pono did a good job keeping these instruments separate and presenting the guitar chords as chords: a collection of distinct strings vibrating at once rather than a mushed together drone sound. This is a challenge for any system, and indeed the recording could probably be better, but I like how the Pono handled this.
Listening to the vinyl on my home system (at about 50x the cost of the Pono and these headphones) revealed that the original recording did indeed capture much more of that amplified, reverbed guitar, and there were more high frequencies present in general. I really wanted to try the Pono in my home system, but couldn’t because I don’t have the cables. This connection requires a pair of three-band-mini-to-XLR cables. The Pono is then placed into balanced mode, and both the headphone and line-out connections are used – very cool.
One other item, a huge plus with this player is that I never experienced an obnoxious click or pop while plugging or unplugging phones or powering up or down. This is not the case with my current portable player, the V-Moda Vamp, which cradles my iphone. The sound of the Pono is vastly superior to that player. which sounds dim and limited by comparison to the Pono.
I learned the hard way that the Pono will not transition itself from standby to power-down. It only took two or three times of finding a completely drained battery to realize I’d better shut it all the way down when I was done listening. Other than running the battery down this way, I didn’t have any other battery issues, so I can’t tell you how long the battery lasts or if there is an indication of some kind.
Conclusions about the Pono Portable Music Player
Let us hope that Pono can stick it out through their startup problems and the coming competition. As I write this, CEntrance has achieved 400% of their funding goal for their iphone wrapper/music player, called the Hifi-Skyn, and Sony’s new Walkman is available now. The Pono is not listed as supporting DSD but probably will in some future incarnation. We may be entering a golden age of portable players and Pono has a place there. There are numerous portable players out there already that will play high resolution music files, including 24/192 PCM and DSD64. But, they don’t include the SABRE ES9018 DAC for $400. That DAC is reserved for their more expensive models. So, the Pono, which does use that DAC, is unique simply for the price with respect to its electronic contents.
In many ways, the launch of the Pono was precipitated as a reaction to the annoying sound of MP3s. Full applause, congrats and Here Here (!) to that. The Pono is a success, or on its way to possibly being a success (the competition is not sleeping). This player sounds great, no question about it. It might not be the last word in portable players, but it has to be mentioned in any such discussion.