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Neil Young tackles iTunes with Pono player, music service

updated 06:15 am EDT, Fri September 28, 2012

Neil Young continues crusade to improve digital music

Neil Young has made an appearance on the David Letterman show to promote a new music player and digital music service branded Pono. The new Pono players will support the playback of audio master files stored digitally in high-resolution, 192kHz/24-bit sound, reports Rolling Stone. The new Pono service, which will launch next year, has the backing of Warner Music Group with Meridian and Dolby involved as well.

Warner Music Group has already converted its libray to the high-resolution format in readiness for the launch. Young has received backing from Craig Kallman, the chairman and CEO of Atlantic Records, who helped to put together the Pono team. The pair has also been in talks with the other two key industry players in Sony Music and Universal Music Group. Flea, of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers is also a huge fan of the sound quality that Pono has achieved. "It's not like some vague thing that you need dogs' ears to hear. It's a drastic difference."

Young says that he has many times tried to talk to Apple about the quality of the music it delivers on iTunes, before deciding to take matters into his own hands. Apple uses the AAC (mp4) format, which is said to be 'near CD-quality,' although trained ears can tell the difference. Lossless formats like FLAC and ALAC improve the listening experience, providing more definition and clarity to the sound, although Apple does not support FLAC media playback. Its media players do, however, support WAV playback, which is often used as a format in media production and which sounds markedly better than AAC recordings.

However, for reasons likely to do with bandwidth and the efficient serving of music to customers, Apple has continued to serve up AAC in its iTunes Plus format, which is 256kbps AAC encodings. These, while an improvement from the original 128kbps AAC recordings Apple initially served customers, is still not on the same level as lossless encodes, or better still, the digitially uncompressed recordings as the Pono service promises to deliver. Taking things one step further, the Pono players will also include a digital to analog conversion technolgy to make the music sound even more organic.

The Pono music players will also support recordings already purchased from iTunes and other digital storefronts, however, users wanting to upgrade their recordings will have to repurchase their music through Pono when it launches. Young actually hopes that Pono will help to spur Apple "to be better and to improve quality at a faster pace." [via The Verge]

by MacNN Staff



  1. cgc

    Professional Poster

    Joined: 03-25-03

    That Pono player looks like a POS. Look how fricking thick that triangular thing is. Gotta do better than that...maybe start with home theater components as I doubt travelers have the same high-quality requirement as home listeners do. If you're going to make a new mobile player let's make it under 5 lbs and smaller than a cinderblock.

  1. sammaffei

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 09-04-04

    Only an old, washed up, drugged out loser would think that triangular behemoth is what the kids want today. Have you seen the size of the shuffle or nano, Neil? They sell like hotcakes. Most people can't tell the difference between CD and 256 AAC or even care. I come from the era of 80s dub tapes. So anything Apple is selling now is way, way better than that.

    Yeah, you can argue audiophiles will buy it. But, as other formats have shown, audiophiles are not enough to sustain a marketplace.

    Neil, you've lost before you started.

  1. coffeetime

    Senior User

    Joined: 11-15-06

    That is so goofy carrying that thing around. Carrying a Walkman cassette player looks cooler than this.

  1. chukb1605

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 09-28-12

    I beg to differ folks. I started listening to music in the late 60s and, 9 times out of 10, I can tell the difference between what iTunes offers and that of a CD. 90%, or more, of what is on all of my iPods is stored in Apple Lossless. Nor do I care about what this thing looks like as long as it delivers. I hate to break w/ Apple, but if the price is within reason, this, to me sounds like a "killer app" and I may well be in line to get one. Way to go Neil! I hope the whole CSN&Y catalog is available opening day!

  1. Eldernorm

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 09-26-07

    Just a thought here, I think you guys are missing the whole point. Ok better quality is nice, but only if you have a home stereo to play it on. Ear buds in downtown traffic cannot do it justice. So, what is the point. ????

    Warner Music and the others ....... just want to sell you the same music you already own ......again.!!! Same music but higher quality and different format. PAY US AGAIN...... OK, it can only really be appreciated at home on a great stereo, but who cares..... PAY US AGAIN. We need a new Lear Jet.

    Apple took you from the original quality, and even got the music people to allow you to upgrade to the 128K level, now its automatic off iTunes.

    Again, quality is great, but only if you can use it. Paying for it again, is just a ripoff. Just a thought.

  1. Eldernorm

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 09-26-07

    Oppps make that 256K not 128K.. Its a friday typo. Have a great weekend.

  1. DaJoNel

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 08-14-10

    You're kidding. That would have been cool in 1990. Whatever he's holding makes Windows XP look like a next-gen product. At least it meets all the key requirements of a device.

    1. Ergonomics? Check. Probably feels like a Fisher Price block, so all the two year-olds will LOVE their Pono.
    2. Cutting edge design? Check. Might even have a cutting edge from the looks of it.
    3. Great color? Check. EVERYONE likes a nice, yellow/golden/what color is that...
    4. Latest technology? Check. Color screen with 50 dpi!
    5. Intuitive controls? Check. Just press the plus twice to get to the music, the minus button three times to begin scrolling, and the circle button while pounding it against the table to start playing a song.
    6. Smartest brains behind the project? Check. I think he had the entire bingo club help him design the thing!

  1. DiabloConQueso

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 06-11-08

    Aesthetics aside, and looking solely at what the device has to offer, Pono and Neil Young must realize that this is a niche product geared toward a very specific and small set of consumers: true audiophiles. Not audiophiles in the sense of "people who like their music to sound great," but audiophiles that understand sound theory and the difference between audio formats and resolutions.

    That's not to say that this Pono player won't be successful -- it very well may be successful -- but I see it being wildly successful in a very small, niche group of people... meaning widespread adoption amongst the common consumer is probably a pipe dream. In that sense, Neil Young is probably not "tackling iTunes," as their target audience is a different, much smaller, group of consumers.

  1. rexray

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 07-15-02

    Competition is a good thing, folks! I a fan of Apple's products, but I agree that the audio quality of iTunes default audio format (256 kbps AAC) needs to improve, and without competition, what motivation does Apple have to do so? I hope Neil Young succeeds in pushing digital audio quality forward.

  1. Orbifold

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 08-05-10

    Apple should simply put both quality formats in their data centers, and let me download either. That should be easy, intuitive to use, and not expensive.

  1. elroth

    Junior Member

    Joined: 07-05-06

    What a bunch of funny people on this thread. You don't have to buy one, you don't have to use Pono, you can listen to a transistor radio if you want. I don't know if I will get one myself (my iPod Classic is all lossless music, and I play it through my car stereo - BIG difference in sound playing compressed music there).

    Anything that improves sound quality is a good thing, even if you personally don't care about it. If this leads Apple into an option for better sounding downloads, that's great. Why rag on Neil Young for trying to improve sound quality for people who want it? Why call him names? Is your life that miserable?

    @sammaffei: why so bitter? You're missing the whole point - it's to improve music, not to sell a billion units. It's not for kids, except that they may come to appreciate better sound. You can sit there anonymously and call one of the most creative musicians ever a "washed up drugged out loser" - what does that make you (besides a moron)?.

  1. Jesse Guthrie

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 09-29-12

    You guys don't understand. First, this device is a prototype. Second, Neil was always a critic to sound quality. 3rd, he wants you to hear what the engineers heard (Studio Quality). Nothing will be down-sampled or down-converted. He wants you to hear 24bit 192Khz (or higher) sound files. This will definitely compete with So, to play these files, you will need a BIG battery (Bigger than any phone or iPod battery today). Studio Quality at the standard that he wants will be a battery sucker. So, expect a larger and thicker device than an iPod.

  1. cgc

    Professional Poster

    Joined: 03-25-03

    Wasn't this tried with DVD-A, SACD, DAT, and other niche high-quality formats? There's a small home component system market for them and an even smaller mobile market. I wish him luck but think he should work with existing digital music retailers and help them work on improving the quality. "Lossless" is meaningless unless the source is also very high quality (e.g. "lossless" from a CD is CD-quality but that suffers from the digitization process) so I'm curious what real effect users will see. Lossless from a record is impossible but that'd be the goal...get an extremely high sample rate & sample size from an analog source. What format is music archived in at the record labels?

    Any mention of the headphones that come with this? It'd be funny if this high-def audio player came with low-end ear buds. The most important component of the audio system is the speaker or headphones.

    Originally Posted by DiabloConQuesoView Post

    ...Not audiophiles in the sense of "people who like their music to sound great," but audiophiles that understand sound theory and the difference between audio formats and resolutions....

    So you're saying if you don't understand the theory of sound and how to digitize it you can't appreciate the quality improvements? That sounds a little pompous/arrogant.

  1. Titanium Man

    Forum Regular

    Joined: 03-09-01

    192kHz, 24 bit and lossless. I'd really hate to see the file sizes on these songs. The one figure I've been able to find seems to quote Young as saying 30 minutes to download one song. Are you kidding??? I can grab 2GB in that time. So people might be able to squeeze 8 or 16 songs on a device with the capacity of an iPhone?

  1. Nergol

    Dedicated MacNNer

    Joined: 05-03-08

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