Neil Young was at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, showing off his new lossless music platform. Think iPod/iTunes with higher quality music. While I have the utmost regard for Mr Young, I’m not sure if he’s onto the next big thing in gadgets and music technology, or a white elephant.

Neil Young showing his Pono music player at CES 2015

Neil Young showing his Pono music player at CES 2015. Image from theverge.com.

Disgusted with the quality of MP3 compression, Neil Young conceived of this music player as being a handheld device which plays the highest quality music so that he can hear music the way it was recorded to be heard. “I didn't listen to music for the last 15 years because I hated the way it sounded and it made me pissed off and I couldn't enjoy it any more. I could only hear what was missing” quoth Young.

I can only think that it’s Young that’s missing out: ‘cutting off the nose to spite the face’ comes to mind.

While it’s laudable – and typical of the great man (yes, I am an admirer of Neil Young and his music) – to stand behind such an idea and see it through to completion, I’m not sure I agree with Pono’s raison d’etre.

My major problem with Pono is that it’s a personal music player, and as was the idea with the Sony Walkman, the iPod, and now the consumption of services such as Spotify and Rdio on smartphones, one can only presume that Young envisages people walking down the street or sitting on public transport using Pono – situations which surely have background noise pollution. Or in a car – is it really worth paying extra for lossless audio in a car?

There’s obviously a spectrum of changes which can be made to audio by means of an equaliser to modify the balances, treble, bass, etc., but I have real doubts about how many people can distinguish a difference between a high-quality MP3 and a FLAC (lossless) audio file when played through the same equaliser and headphones.

And if people are listening to their Pono while walking down the street, is this triangular device expected to comfortably fit in their pocket? There’s a good reason why smartphones are becoming thinner.

Ongoing Costs

Eamonn Forde, writing in the Guardian, points out that

its high-res audio files could be upwards of 20 times the size of the same song downloaded from iTunes and 150 times the size of a file played over a mobile network to a smartphone. We are really talking about hundreds of songs being stored rather than thousands, so that is one of many compromises potential Pono customers will have to accept.

And aside from the storage penalty, there’s also the difference in the music’s cost.

Young’s ‘After the Gold Rush’ goes for $21.79. The Who‘s super-deluxe version of ‘Quadrophenia’ sells for $43.29. And AC/DC‘s new ‘Rock or Bust’ is a relative steal at $17.99, but still almost twice its iTunes’ cost.

One might argue that a wider range of poorer-quality music would encourage a greater love of music than a narrower collection, albeit a lossless audio collection.

So the major question is: are people really prepared to may more to store less music – more expensive music at that – when they may well not hear any difference?

Living Through the Technology We Own

I’ve written before about how many people nowadays express their personal identity through the technology they own. I’ve always been quite amazed at the amount of money some people are willing to spend on items such as Beats Audio headphones. These retail for a few hundred dollars and although they do have quality, you’ll find it hard to find an audiophile website which recommends them. Nonetheless, people are willing to pay to be seen with these oversized cups on their ears.

It’s not about the quality, it’s the image.

Are people willing to pay more for a music playing device that either looks conspicuous in their pockets or they have to carry in their hand, an device whose very ownership shouts that you’re serious about the music and that you’re willing to pay whatever it costs… whether you can hear the difference or not? Yes, I think they are. For one thing, Pono’s Kickstarter campaign asked for $800,000 and was given $6.5M, so their is a market for it.

Are people willing to buy a Pono music player and carry it along with their smartphone? To be honest, I don’t know; I’m torn between thinking it’s a fairly pointless idea without sufficient justification, and thinking that there’s a sizable portion of the gadget-buying public who will happily pay hand-over-fist for something which outwardly says something about them, something new which couples them to something as perpetually cool as great music.

If the Pono music player does become a success and shifts in the millions, I believe this will not be down to a genuine desire for tremendous-quality audio (of course, they’ll say that this is why they bought it) and will instead be down to people wanting to be seen with such a device.