Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Brand New Way to Experience Music

Recently at SXSW (South by Southwest, a set of a number of interactive festivals in Austin, TX each year), I heard about Neil Young introducing this new music player, called Pono. Yes, this is the same Neil Young that has been making music since the late 1960's, and he's now trying to bring back the experience of music from the past. In today's day and age, most people are listening to music that is MP3 format, whether through online mediums, playing through their iTunes, or on some handheld device, such as an iPod. Neil Young uses the example of "underwater listening" to try to show the differences across formatting for music. This MP3 format is at the bottom of this metaphorical water, blurred by the murky waters and the fish swimming about. The MP3 music is compressed, which allows for easier sharing and movement of files, but it loses a lot of the highs and lows of the music itself. As we move up from these depths, you reach CDs and eventually you scale up to 192K which is finally above water, where you experience this new relief and and "feel good" listening to the music, as he states. The issue is that things like your iPod or through your internet you can't necessarily listen to this higher level format. That's where the Pono idea comes into the picture.

The Pono player

The idea behind the Pono player is, "a new system that was not a format, had no rules, respected the art, respected what the artist was trying to do and did everything that it could to give you what the artist gave." This player could handle any format of the music, whether it was MP3, 192K, or anywhere in between. There are plenty of barriers, with the player being relatively late to the game as far as music players go, and with streaming as popular as it is today. However, unlike many of the current players, which can play up to about the CD level, the Pono player can play without the digital feedback and filter that some formats include. The idea is that the player can play music just as the artist records it, rather than having to compress the audio file in order to play it.

Neil Young at SXSW speaking about Pono (courtesy of Bob Boilen/NPR)
With his history as a singer/songwriter, it is not a big surprise that Neil Young would look to try to create some way for people to experience the music the way he and other artists have intended. While the issue may not have been one to solve some major problem that faced the industry, after all there are plenty of music players out there, a mix of his past experience led to such an idea. In trying to bridge the gap between what the artist creates and what we as the audience hear, he is trying to look at the whole idea in a new light. He as an individual in the domain of the music industry saw the shift from vinyl to CDs to MP3s, and the decrease in the quality of the music along the way. This music player is a way to try to bring back the true experience of music between artist and the listener, especially in a digital age where most people choose to listen to their music through their iPods or streaming online. While the music player has received rave reviews from the artists themselves, it will remain to be seen if it makes any impact on the music player industry or in the way people look to actually experience their music.

For more information:
The NPR stories where I found out about this can be found here or here.
The website and more information about Pono can be found here.


  1. This reminds me of a conversation my roommates and I often have, over the difference between listening to a record on vinyl and listening to it on spotify. Though it's not an audible gap, there is small silence in the music when you listen to digital formats. This space lies between the 0's and 1's that make up the song (every song a has multi-trillion digit code that is a combination of 1s & 0s... i.e. 10101010001011110101010..) and the fraction of a millisecond that it takes to transition from each number is a silence that songs recorded on vinyl do not have. Again, while it is not audible to human ears, it does have an affect on the quality of the song. It also shows that many people who prefer vinyl over digital are justified in their thinking, and not just following a hipster trend. With that said though, I love that there is now a portable and easy device that encompasses all those same vinyl attributes. It is also no surprise that Neil Young would be the man to do it. His creativity has always been untouchable in the musical realm, and now that he is getting older and his limitations on playing music are approaching, he used his same creative knowledge and applied it to a different field. Truly the sign of a "Big C" creative.

  2. I find it very interesting that the Pono, while a revolutionary idea, was designed to look like an early-model MP3 player. If the Pono is supposed to be so much better than an MP3 player, then shouldn't it have a unique design that would alert consumers that they are not looking at an ordinary music device? I wonder if Neil's design will attract buyers hesitant to leave their comfort zone, or if it will turn off people who do not want to spend money on a device that looks very similar to something they already have. I would love to try this out, but I can't justify they $399 price tag.


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