The Friday Morning Listen: Neil Young – Are You Passionate? (2002)

Let’s talk about the Pono. You’ve never heard of it? Well, you’re not alone, though if audio (and its quality) really aren’t your thing, then you really can’t be blamed. The Pono is a portable music system, developed by Neil Young, that wants to be the answer to the iPod. Well, that’s not quite right: it wants to be the answer to the mp3.

For many years, Young has been complaining about digital playback. About how the mp3 in particular, which is stripped of so much of the recording’s original information, has drained the soul from the music. His answer to this is the Pono. It’s not just a music player, it’s also a new ecosystem, one in which lossless, high bit-depth versions of recordings will be offered. Does anybody really care about this in the year 2014? Probably not. That didn’t stop over 17,000 people from jacking up his Kickstarter campaign to nearly 6 million dollars.

There have already been quite a few article written about Young’s system, some of them shockingly ignorant. Writers have confused sample rates with sound frequencies, made pure conjectures based on the fact that certain study results do not exist, and worst of all: “reviewed” a device that they have not actually listened to. The “arguments” range from the old nugget “the human ear can only hear up to 20Khz” to “nobody is paying attention, so they won’t hear any difference.” A few writers seemed to get the nuances of this project, but they appear to be in the minority.

Sadly, the “nobody cares” idea has more than a little truth to it. I’m not sure this is a big change. Yes, we’ve sacrificed sound quality over convenience with the adoption of the mp3 and portable digital playback. Does that mean that at some point a huge majority of music consumers just stopped caring? No, because they never cared at all. It’s true. People manage to forget that we were perfectly happy listening to “My Baby Does The Hanky Panky” back in 1966 on that cheap plastic transistor radio. This is a sore point for the audiophile community, but it’s true. We’re freaks in that way, sometimes driven by the smugness of the naysayer, who is sure there’s no difference between the low and the high end: and that we’re all just fooling ourselves, because hey, gotta justify buying that expensive equipment!

I don’t know that the Pono system will survive, though I really can see a future for higher resolution playback. The mp3 is an artifact of a time when bandwidth was a precious resource. In the future, when we’ll be able to download unimaginable amounts of data in the blink of an eye, the need for saving space will vanish. We shall see. I wish Neil Young well. His heart and ears are in the right place.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he writes several weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.