Neil Young’s PonoMusic: Hi-Res Music for All

At this month’s South by Southwest music festival, Neil Young unveiled PonoMusic (type your Google searches for that name carefully), represented for now by a portable digital music player. The player will be joined in October by a high-resolution digital music download service (purchase only, no streaming).

The player doesn’t interest me. As Troy Wolverton of the Columbus Dispatch wrote in his article Neil Young’s Music Service Has No Chance, the player is a step back in time. It’s not Internet-connected for music purchases or streaming, ignoring the way the masses get their music these days. Plus, it’s neither a home appliance like Sonos nor a smartphone, so it doesn’t fit much on the hardware side either.

What intrigues me is the upcoming music service. PonoMusic claims that the major music labels are onboard, and that they’re busy signing up indie labels. That would be unprecedented. Downloads of every major album at CD resolution or beyond (Pono promises up to 24-bit 192kHz at 6.5x the bitrate of CD) is the one thing we’ve never had.

Can you imagine that? If Mr. Young can get all those labels to play nice, the possibilities are enticing. Any music you want, owned by you, on the device of your choice, at CD quality or far beyond? This could spur interest in more standalone home players capable of playing the 24/192 files, as well as development of more capacious storage technologies for portable players such as tablets and smartphones. Showing the big-as-all-outdoors difference between hi-res and MP3 could make the retail audio demo fun again.

Still, it ain’t gonna be easy, so I’d like to help Neil with my two cents before the launch…

My open letter to Neil Young

Dear Mr. Young,

Thank you so much for giving this old audiophile’s life some additional purpose as I await your upcoming PonoMusic service. I’ve been in the audio game just about as long as you’ve been a rock star, so I hope you don’t mind me forwarding you my wish list for the service:

Gotta have everything. If I look for Bob Marley’s Survival and it isn’t there, I won’t be back.

Just because it’s hi-res doesn’t mean it deserves to be high-priced. The PonoMusic website says that albums will sell for between $14.99 and $24.99. Wassup with that? If the master is already hi-res, and you rip a digital file from that, how does that get to cost more than any other digital file? All my home CD rips cost nearly the same (a penny or two for storage), regardless of what bitrate I choose. Plus: An LP or a CD is a physical thing. You can hold it and thumb through the artwork or booklet. You can resell it. How can a digital download, where I do all the work of archiving it, and cannot resell it, all the while gleaning no tactile pleasure from it whatsoever, cost more than a CD or LP manufactured by someone, packaged by someone, loaded onto a truck by someone, and delivered to my door by someone else?

I should be able to buy any single song I wish. The PonoMusic site says that “We will be offering many of your favorite individual songs…” Change many of to all of and you’ll be in line with how music is purchased these days. It’s no longer an album world. It’s a singles world. You will not succeed in putting that genie back in the bottle.

Please get your high-powered friends to record music worthy of the extra bits. There’s a wonderful 11-minute video on the PonoMusic home page. It shows a parade of popular music artists (David Crosby, Norah Jones, Eddie Vedder, Rick Rubin, Sting, Elton John, Tom Petty, Arcade Fire, Flea, James Taylor, Elvis Costello, Dave Matthews, Jack Johnson, T Bone Burnett, Don Was, Kid Rock) exiting a PonoMusic bus outfitted with a car stereo playing hi-res digital files. Every artist is blown away. All claim the sound is a revelation, like vinyl or better. They decry what sound has become. Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters says “The sound has just gotten so bad…Drums don’t even sound like drums anymore.”

Amen to that. Listen to Taylor Hawkins, people. Mr. Young, remarkably, several of the musicians you interviewed are guilty of making the no-highs-no-lows, rigidly compressed music they’re suddenly dogpiling on. You know why we no longer have VU meters? Because they no longer move. I’m betting a lot of audiophiles are tired of going back to 1959 (Kind of Blue by Miles Davis; Take Five by The Dave Brubeck Quartet) to demo music with expansive dynamic range and authentic instrument sounds.

Don’t just upconvert and sell. If you’re just gonna take Justin Timberlake’s congested, range-limited recordings and upconvert them to 24-bit/192kHz, don’t bother. We audiophiles already have the gear to upconvert to that bitrate. Justin Timberlake makes some real entertaining music, but his recordings are still horrible upconverted to 24/192. So if we pay even a dime more for hi-res, the master recording should be hi-res.

The chicken-egg of high-resolution music enjoyment

If the gear is the chicken, and digital music is the egg, we now know the answer to the age-old question. For 50 years, we’ve enjoyed gear with sufficient resolution, authenticity, and realism to satisfy the most hardened of audiophiles. So the chicken came first, because we’re still waiting to see if a truly broad spectrum of music with resolution, authenticity, and realism to match the playback gear can be created and delivered digitally. I will be rooting for PonoMusic to get it right. ♦