Question: How many high-end audio
manufacturers have appeared on the CNBC financial channel? Neil Young touting
Pono did the day after their Kickstarter launch. As much as I have my
not-so-positive opinions of CNBC and their clowns/talking heads, once you know
CNBC's conflict of and self-interests you can gleam a half decent amount of
information from their promotional Wall Street television broadcast. Recently,
Mat Weisfeld of VPI appeared on the far more respected Bloomberg TV not just
once, but twice! That is very impressive
for our humble industry and I applaud Mat for his rewarding efforts at
revitalizing VPI to embrace the modern marketplace. Yet, in total, that is
basically all the high-end audio industry has achieved recently in the eyes of
this investment/consumer to reach a broad mainstream audience in a substantial manner.
Ok, the Audioquest Dragonfly is an exception to some extent.
How many high-end audio companies decided to
showcase their products at the incredibly popular SXSW 2014 to reach mainstream
consumers? And remember these attendees are not just regular Joe Six-Pack types,
but highly technical, business savvy programmers, app start-ups,
forward-thinkers, visionaries... and Venture Capitalists with deep pockets. Even
RollingStone.com announced the successful launch of Pono when it hit a mere
$800,000 in funding within a few hours of their Kickstarter launch. Looking at
Pono's Kickstarter page they are touting magazines including USA Today,
Billboard, Forbes, Newsweek, The Guardian, The New York Times, Huff Post, etc,
yet not a single 'mainstream' high-end mag. Coincidence on Pono's part? I
As of this writing, only ~60 hours since launch,
Pono has earned over $2,750,000 from their Kickstarter campaign with 32 days
still remaining. Have read various articles from the usual audiophile-type
magazines and writers since Pono's launch three days ago (as of this writing)
and it seems some of them are missing the train. Instead of coming aboard for a
beneficial ride-along and looking at the possibilities, we get the usual
pre-assumed assumptions. Color me not
astonished at some writers willfully wanting to remain on the platform at the
First, Pono is not just about you. It is not
about me either. Pono is not directly seeking audiophile approval as we are
already sold on the idea. Though as an extension, am sure many true
music lovers will be buying albums from PonoMusic when it goes live
online. So who is Pono marketing to? Pono is for everyone! All the recent
bad-mouthing and speculation by other magazine writers is generally just that,
speculation based on their own personal experiences in their life and knowledge
of the high-end audio marketplace. With such a skewed and narrow vision of the
world it is no wonder they do not fully 'get it'. Fact is many audiophiles
will not fully 'get it' at this time because the PonoPlayer is not in
production and thus no one can make sound quality judgments on the PonoPlayer
and the PonoMusic store is not online to comment on the depth and breathe of
their offerings. Speculation based on expert knowledge is wonderful, but can you
wisely leave emotion at the door and look at Pono from a pure business model
point of view?
of the first things I did when first seeing Pono's Kickstarter page was not
to look at the unit specs, not the
price, not even their posted FAQ or the usual promotional blurbs.
What I first looked at was who are the
investors and brains behind this new company. You could have invested
in the best widget within the world, but without the right team doing the right
things in the most advantageous ways in order to make it a success... you may as
well have invented a time portal that goes 15 minutes into the future that no
one knows about. Sure it is a great invention worth millions – trillions
actually if you know how to properly
use it – yet you might never sell a single one because you have no way of
properly presenting and promoting it that resonates with others.
Sure Neil Young is not a youthful hipster living in one of the newfound Dot Com 2.0 hotbed locations. Heck, Neil probably has never danced to EDM at a Las Vegas club. Neil knows music, is highly respected by other musicians, and has an impressive business team who has his back. During Neil Young's SXSW presentation he mocked the whole five speaker surround sound setup and how wives' were perhaps not so accepting of all those speakers in the livingroom. So he is well-aware of some of the problems faced with getting a product into consumer's home. Neil is also a visionary who found a way to get financial backing by some serious and respected business people.
"Pono plays back whatever the artist decided to do... just like the artist made them (in the recording studio)." Yes we can argue that some of what Neil Young says is false, or at least a tiny bit misleading, but it is only because we audiophiles have known certain things for years. Joe Six-Pack has almost literally no clue about high resolution audio FLAC files, and who are we as the high-end audio industry to blame for that fact? Remember that when you point your finger at someone there are three pointing back at you. To bring a wide variety of music lovers the great news about Pono, Neil Young is getting major traction with popular and well-respected musicians and trend-setters to join Pono. When these popular musical artists start to gain momentum in helping to promote higher resolution audio files to the masses, we can hope they extend this desire to their home audio equipment. Because, as I see it, any effort to bring public awareness to the availability of high resolution audio files over MP3 is a great effort we should all be supporting. HDtracks could get a boost from Pono due to a broader audience being aware of the benefits in downloadable high quality music instead of iTunes (and others) lossy MP3 format, which we all know is worse than the now nearly 30 years old CD(!). Like John Hamm, CEO and an investor in Pono said, "People swapped quality for convenience."
MP3 And The 1990's
Not only can we easily prove via measurement that
modern technology is more productive than that of yesteryear, we can see the
results within our daily lives too. So if we can easily prove that PonoMusic and
HDtracks FLAC files are better than lossy MP3, with sound quality backing up the
technical measurements, then what Neil Young said is true in that "Pono is about
the music... about you hearing what we hear." Anyone who has been in a recording
studio in the past, well, forever, knows how much music is thrown away in the MP3
compression process. Referring to PonoMusic's FLAC files, popular
singer/songwriter Beck said "It's how it's supposed to be heard."
"If we fail, we know that people will realize
something is wrong (with MP3)... if this succeeds everyone wins. Support us,"
said Neil Young. Excellent point Neil as many people have made a small fortune
in the high-end audio industry because they started with a larger one. Yet the
fact will remain that many more people will be aware of the MP3's
shortcomings. Audiophile readers will surely agree that any way to get the
message out to the public is better than no message at all.
Here are two more things Neil Young said during
the SXSW event:
"I want to bring music to where it can be. It is
the 21st century. Why should we be suffering [with MP3] at the hands
of some mega-tech company?"
"In audio there's never been such low quality
[music] and the opportunity for it to be so great."
"Kickstarter and music enabled us to get where we are" Neil Young said discussing the successful launch only four hours into their Kickstarter campaign. John Hamm, CEO of PonoMusic said "The last thing we want to do is start a format war" referring to the FLAC files they will be selling. "Pono is a simple mission, on the price convenience curve. We want to bring everyone a simple, easy end-to-end service with the music at the highest quality." When asked about the PonoPlayer's shape, CEO John Hamm said "The triangular shape was to be an iconic design. We chose components for their quality, not their size" He also said "We're building a company and long-term movement... it is building a huge community."
A Few Words About DSD Support
To avoid consumer confusion about high resolution music file types, and since the PonoPlayer already supports all the major file types, there is a financial advantage in only supporting PonoMusic's high-rez FLAC format. Sony's proprietary DSD format could be supported since the internal DAC can handle it, though as a business decision why support DSD if you only sell FLAC files? DSD is still unknown by virtually all mainstream consumers. On the other hand, if there is enough demand for DSD either Pono could offer support via a firmware update or the hacker community could make it happen since the PonoPlayer is based on the highly popular Android platform. For all we know the PonoPlayer will support DSD files when it is released so this whole debate will be moot.
How To Make A Small Fortune
Speaking of the crowd, how many companies have
major leading musical artists actively endorsing their product to their fan
base? Has the high-end audio community admitted we have a track record of being
relatively powerless over our love for music and ability to promote high-end
audio in a meaningful and broad-based way? Are we willing to take the next step
with accepting that perhaps someone outside our direct community could help
restore the discussion about high fidelity versus MP3 back to the masses? And
lastly, will the gatekeepers of the high-end audio industry accept their
personal decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of someone who
can bring this discussion to the forefront?
Pono Gets The Conversation
Who would you bet on to bring about more broad-based consumer awareness concerning high resolution music versus MP3? Remember what I said during a seminar about a year ago concerning marketing? Neil Young's message of consumers choosing convenience over sound quality during the past few decades at the hands of lossy MP3 is true, yet today we have the technology to finally break the stranglehold provided music lovers are aware there is a choice. Thus I resonate with Neil's message of enjoying music as the artists intended and the Pono initiative. You should too... if you love music.
As always, in the end what really matters is that we