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Grading Pono: How is Neil Young's new music concept faring?

Neil Young’s career has spanned nearly half a century, from songwriting to rocking, to filmmaking and environmental causes. Now he is trying his hand at technology, and in doing so, he is taking on the music industry as we know it.

Inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame not once but twice, Neil Young is a cultural force. As the visionary of Pono he took his star power, connections, and money to get the product off the ground. His passion seems real. Now he serves as the leader of the movement, with a business behind him.

Having Neil Young as frontman for Pono: A

Kicking off the project on Kickstarter yesterday, to connect with fans and to gain traction for the manufacturing of the Pono player, was a smart move. Leveraging the popular platform to crowdfund their efforts, Pono shows that it is a grassroots organization in sharp contrast to other tech manufacturers like Apple, Sony, or Samsung. For people who care about purity — and purity of sound is what it’s all about here — that’s important.

Their initial goal of $800,000 was doubled in the first day. Not many doubted that it would go into the millions, but the fact that it happened on the first day is a powerful statement to the willingness of music lovers to get behind something like this. Plus the lengthy video featuring a giant portion of music’s A-list praising the service didn’t hurt. At a certain point the message has been beaten into your head, but you continue watching just to see who else is going to pop up. Only someone with the presence of Neil Young could execute that in the same grassroots way as the campaign itself.

Taking the project to Kickstarter: A+

But the problems begin when looking at the player itself. Stating that they wanted something “iconic,” the makers are confident about their unusual, triangular design. While it is instantly recognizable, design is about more than visuals, there is function too.

The function of design over the past decade has been to evolve towards products which favor portability. Phones and tablets are increasingly sleeker and lighter with every new version. They have also added more features, applications, and capabilities, thus widening the use cases of each device.

Pono has only one use case, and the design is almost incomprehensible. It seems impossible to put into a pocket, severely limiting it’s portability. While it might be nice to take out and hook up to a car or really banging set of speakers, a device like that is meant to be listened to when on the go. Imagine trying to take that running with you. Where would you put it?

The screen looks like the old versions of the iPod, a generic way to access music. The buttons look toyish, almost like a K-pop microphone prop. Really the only benefit of the design and function is having two outputs, one for headphone jacks and one for heavier equipment. That’s nice for musicians, but probably irrelevant for the vast majority of the population.

Then there is the issue of storage of the device. Coming with a total of 128 GB (with half of that on a removable micro-SD card) it’s got a lot more space than most phones. But the ultra-high-quality FLAC files run around 70MB each. That means that the Pono player is limited to less than 2,000 tracks. A device made for audiophiles should be able to hold more music than that.

Pono Player & Design: D

The economics of Pono as a business are a bit of a gamble. In the Pono store, FLAC albums run from $15 to up to $30 each. It is clearly a premium product, with one album capable of costing the same as 3 months of an unlimited Spotify account. And there is a big problem with that: most people can’t tell the difference.

Music thinkers have been writing about this extensively already, but most people have some form of hearing loss — and more importantly just aren’t trained enough musically — and therefore cannot tell the difference between MP3s, WAVs, or FLACs. Why on Earth would that person pay multiple times more for the same thing?

But Pono thinks that there are enough people out there who want to have “real” and “pure” music. These are music professionals, hardcore music lovers, and anyone who wants to feel a bit closer to the music scene. That’s the message from the Kickstarter video: it sounds just like being in the studio.

The big iffy here is the creation of the device itself. Phones are capable of playing FLAC files, and with good enough headphones and enough storage inside, you could have the same Pono experience on hardware that was actually designed to be taken with you. When rumors for Pono first came out, people assumed it would be a music service, maybe where you “rented” FLAC albums (streaming 70MB tracks would be impossible even in the near future) on your phone. The news of the physical device seems almost like someone designing a device just to send tweets in 2014.

But, on the other hand, having a device means that you have a bit of a built in market, people who will most likely be loyal to the Pono store, and not download FLAC files from torrents (as often). That looks a lot like their biggest competitor, the bitten fruit.

Apple’s dominance in the music business is starting to erode. Spotify, Pandora, and other music services are slowly chipping away at MP3 sales, and despite Apple’s iTunes Radio service making inroads in the US, a lot of people in the music business are hoping that the rise of competition will weaken Apple and make it easier for them to negotiate. Pono is clearly the most visible part of that effort, looking to take away not only download sales, but device sales from Apple too.

Even though Pono is a niche product, there seems to be enough support to get it off the ground, and make quite a few audiophiles’ ears a little happier.

Pono’s economic viability: B-

Extra credit for taking on Apple: A+

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