Neil Young doesn’t just hear music, he feels it. He wants you to feel it, too, which is why he developed Pon0Music, a high-end digital audio system that he unveiled last month during a keynote speech at the annual South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.
An early critic of digital audio — he delved into digital waters for 1983’s rockabilly ode Everybody’s Rockin’, but by the end of that decade he’d declared we were living in the dark ages of audio — Young created Pono on the assumption other listeners were as distressed as he was by the format’s brittle sound.
Neil may be onto something: within hours of its March 11 debut, Pono’s Kickstarter campaign — which concludes on Tuesday, April 15 — was fully funded to the tune of $800,000. And it’s continued to grow at rapid pace, reaching over $5.75 million through the support of more than 16,900 backers, which amounts to the third-most-funded Kickstarter project as of this writing.
“We made a low estimate,” Young conceded to Radio.com during a phone interview last week. “But we are very gratified by the results and by the interest and the support and pledges behind us on Kickstarter. It’s great to have the people recognizing what it is we’re doing and why we’re doing it. There’s a lot of people out there that understand this.”
Understanding “this” isn’t necessarily so easy, as Pono isn’t merely a digital music player. To hear Young tell it, either in person or during his hour-plus presentation at SXSW, Pono is a crusade, an opportunity to restore majesty to music, to place music back at the center of a listener’s life. Consequently, whenever Young talks about Pono, he’s not simply raising awareness of his Kickstarter campaign. He’s on a mission: He first needs to explain to listeners accustomed to hearing music through earbuds that they’re missing out on a whole world of aural treasures; then he has to sell Pono as the solution to a problem they didn’t realize they had.
Young insists that, whether they realized it or not, every music lover has suffered from the rise of CDs and MP3s. “I can only say it’s the 21st century, and now digital music can actually be heard the way it was created,” Young told Radio.com.
“The problem is, people made music, and then it got dumbed down so you could have 2000 to 5000 or however many thousand tracks on your little device that was mostly made to play ringtones. The ringtones sound about the same quality as the music, and music is something that stands on its own. It’s an art form, so there’s a lot more depth to music than a Xerox copy of it. The same thing could be said of looking at a Xerox of the Mona Lisa — the difference between that and the Mona Lisa is the difference between what we have been listening to and what we could be listening to.”
This argument isn’t dissimilar to what audiophiles — the kind of listeners who won’t hesitate on spending many thousands of dollars on stereo equipment—have said for years: most of us are ignorant to just how good home audio can be.
Although audiophiles are certainly eager to hear Pono, they’re not the technology’s target market. “This was made for the average listener,” Young said. “The average listener has been listening to stuff that they are capable of hearing a lot better. They just had nothing to listen to so they’d know the difference.”
In a nutshell, that’s the Pono advantage: it makes high-quality audio easy. Working with engineers at Ayre, the Pono team has created a plug-and-play device that will sound good whether it’s heard with a simple pair of headphones or is run through a powerful home audio system. For all the talk of sampling rates — and Young’s SXSW speech did get bogged down in sampling numbers — the idea is to demystify high-quality audio and deliver it in a pure form.
“When you’re listening to PonoMusic tracks, you’re listening to it the way the artist really created it,” Young maintained. “Instead of just being able to recognize what song it is and hear the melody and hear the words, you’re actually feeling all of the music the way the artist mixed it in the studio, and that’s the difference. You’ll get the same rush that the artist got.”
Artists are crucial to the Pono campaign, with their endorsements functioning as reviews at a time when the product has yet to hit the market. Eddie Vedder, Stephen Stills, Beck, Sting and Flea are among the musicians who rhapsodize about the player’s attributes in the Kickstarter promotional video.
“When you hear them all talking about this,” said Young, “like this is the way that they want to listen to music and there’s been a huge void, I think when people hear that, they go, ‘What was I missing? What happened?”
Young stressed that Pono also delivers the best-possible way of hearing the artist’s intent. This is as true for the kinds of lush, big-budget records Dave Grohl romanticized in his 2013 documentary Sound City, as it is for Young’s forthcoming A Letter Home.
Recorded with Jack White utilizing Third Man’s refurbished 1947 Voice-O-Gram machine, Young calls A Letter Home “an art project.”
“People used to record direct to vinyl and then send a record to their friends with a message on it,” explains Neil. “So what I did is, I recorded a whole album on that thing. This is a record that sounds old because it was recorded on a device that was recording music over 70 years ago. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s cheap or that it’s not good. It just means it’s old.”
— Stephen Thomas Erlewine for Radio.com