Neil Young's $400 Pono hi-def music player loses to Apple's iPhone in blind audio test

Posted:
in iPhone edited October 2015
Though it has the backing of legendary rocker Neil Young, the new Pono music player for audiophiles doesn't actually sound much better, or better at all, than high-quality MP3s played from an Apple iPhone.






Funded through a high-profile Kickstarter effort a year ago, the PonoPlayer is now shipping to some early backers. For everyone else, the uniquely shaped triangle device carries a retail price of $399, and it comes in colors of yellow or black.

Young originally said in 2012 that he had been working with late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs on a new music format that would improve audio quality. Those plans apparently fell through, however, which helped lead Young to publicly support the PonoPlayer, which supports high-fidelity audio up to 192kHz/24-bit resolution.

The hardware includes two 3.5mm audio jacks that can be used in a so-called "balanced mode," separating left and right channel outputs across both jacks for use with high-impedance headphones, high-end home stereo systems, or professional equipment The PonoPlayer also supports more traditional manners of listening with regular headphones.

But tests conducted by Yahoo Tech's David Pogue, who used to be a professional musician, found that there was essentially no difference between the sound quality of the PonoPlayer and Apple's iPhone. Not only could Pogue not tell the difference, but the journalist also found that tests with others did not bode well for the high-end portable media player.

In a blind trial using identical songs on identical headphones, Pogue found that listeners actually preferred the iPhone playback with high-quality MP3s. The iPhone won out over the PonoPlayer when using both earbuds and headphones.



"Pono's statement that 'Everyone who's ever heard PonoMusic will tell you that the difference is surprising and dramatic' is baloney," Pogue wrote. "When conducting the test with today's modern music files, I couldn't find even one person who heard a dramatic difference."

Another review at ArsTechnica had a slightly less negative spin on the PonoPlayer, but even there reviewer Sam Machkovech had to admit that 192kHz/24-bit FLAC audio files played on the Pono did not sound noticeably better than high-quality MP3 files.

Switching to Pono also requires users to re-purchase their music library, at a cost of $2.50 per song. The device also has a sluggish touchscreen, an awkward triangular design, and offers eight hours of battery life, performing worse than Apple's discontinued iPod classic.




Still, given that the iPod classic is no more, there are likely many on the market who would like a high-capacity, high-quality dedicated portable media player. And with 128 gigabytes of storage expandable to 196 gigabytes, the $399 PonoPlayer might fit that bill for some.

And some audiophiles, like Young, may swear by the PonoPlayer, including a Pono owner who was part of Pogue's blind test. That person actually preferred the sound of the iPhone when comparing the two side by side, but later argued that the iPhone could not deliver the "emotion" of the sound from the Pono.

"It's like saying that wearing a crystal or a magnet makes you healthier: There's no scientific or measurable basis to the statement, but then again, if it works for you, nobody can argue with you," Pogue said.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 179
    Seems to boil down to personal prefrence. I still use lp's as the sound better imo but again, this just me
  • Reply 2 of 179
    davegeedavegee Posts: 2,765member

    OF COURSE this study was flawed from the start, they CLEARLY they didn't use the $90k speaker wire OR the $250k speakers... 

  • Reply 3 of 179
    slurpyslurpy Posts: 5,154member

    Not fucking surprising. I bet these same same "audiophiles" that were so excited about this, and that bashed the iPod/iPhone for their quality couldn't even tell the difference in a blind test. 

  • Reply 4 of 179
    It's main fail is that it's useless for pocket use, as it has no hold/lock switch.

    The second reality is that quality 256kbps files are about the highest the human ear can really appreciate. Which happens to be the format of iTunes Plus music.
  • Reply 5 of 179
    boltsfan17boltsfan17 Posts: 2,161member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Lord Amhran View Post



    Seems to boil down to personal prefrence. I still use lp's as the sound better imo but again, this just me

    Probably. I can tell the difference between a AIFF/FLAC file versus a 320 kbps mp3. I was curious to see which headphones they used in the Yahoo test, so I read the Yahoo article. They were using a pair of  Sony MDR 7506, which are good headphones. 

  • Reply 6 of 179

    Blind is right, this 'test' is completely ignorant. It's like someone evaluating a high-definition television signal on an old black and white standard definition television and then saying that HD looks the same as old black and white/SD. Cheap headphones going through a cruddy Radio Shack switcher throws away precisely all the extra fidelity that a player like Pono provides in the first place.

     

    I've been using an Audioquest Dragonfly digital to analog converter hooked up to audiophile speakers on my Mac for the past year. It frequently sounds like a live concert is playing right in front of me on high bitrate FLAC tracks. When I listen to MP3 and tracks from iTunes they often sound like a child's pull-string toy by comparison. Pogue literally has no idea what he's talking about and should be embarrassed to claim otherwise.

  • Reply 7 of 179
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Boltsfan17 View Post

     

    Probably. I can tell the difference between a AIFF/FLAC file versus a 320 kbps mp3. I was curious to see which headphones they used in the Yahoo test, so I read the Yahoo article. They were using a pair of  Sony MDR 7506, which are good headphones. 




    That's the reality, getting a better set of headphones will do more for people's listening experience than going from an iPhone to a Pono player. That's something that Beats has done well, it's gotten people to be willing to spend real money on headphones. I have the older brother to the phones they used in this test, and they do make a difference.

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by vfx2k4 View Post

     

    Blind is right, this 'test' is completely ignorant. It's like someone evaluating a high-definition television signal on an old black and white standard definition television and then saying that HD looks the same as old black and white/SD. Cheap headphones going through a cruddy Radio Shack switcher throws away precisely all the extra fidelity that a player like Pono provides in the first place.

     

    I've been using an Audioquest Dragonfly digital to analog converter hooked up to audiophile speakers on my Mac for the past year. It frequently sounds like a live concert is playing right in front of me on high bitrate FLAC tracks. When I listen to MP3 and tracks from iTunes they often sound like a child's pull-string toy by comparison. Pogue literally has no idea what he's talking about and should be embarrassed to claim otherwise.


     

    Sure, dude, tell us about how your MONSTER CABLE XT AWESOME EDITION makes everything better. :rolleyes:

  • Reply 8 of 179
    bdkennedy1bdkennedy1 Posts: 1,459member
    I'm a lossless audio guy, and you are not going to notice the difference between an MP3 and lossless audio file unless you have top quality headphones/speakers. If you have those then you will notice a huge difference.
  • Reply 9 of 179
    apple ][apple ][ Posts: 8,680member

    I believe it uses a fork of Android, no wonder it's sluggish! <img class=" src="http://forums-files.appleinsider.com/images/smilies//lol.gif" />

     

    The shape also doesn't make any practical sense. Who wants to walk around with that yellow Toblerone in their pocket?

  • Reply 10 of 179

    I have a pair of Genelec 1029a studio monitors (same ones on Steve Jobs' home desk) that I inherited. They were about $550 each new. Ordinary music sounds like crap on them. The reason is simple, music is mixed to sound good to the average listener on average speakers. A good recording technician knows this and purposely mixes for this. If you have a perfectly flat speaker and player and try to play common music without playing with the equalizer, it's going to sound bad.

  • Reply 11 of 179

    The article didn't mention: did Pogue level match the two signals?  It's well documented that people will consider louder audio to be "better" and if the iPhone happened to be louder (even a small amount) it could explain the test results.

  • Reply 12 of 179
    It would appear Mr. Pogue did not consider the fact that the cheap Radio Shack switcher he used might itself be more colored than what he was seeking to compare.

    While it is certainly possible that some folks will not hear a difference between mp3 and high resolution digital, other folks will hear clear differences that are not at all subtle.

    It isn't even a question of which might be truer to the original source or even which any given listener might prefer. Unless someone can point me to facts that say otherwise, I am not aware of anyone being forced to purchase a Pono player or high resolution files.

    With this in mind, I have to wonder at the backlash against what some of us feel is what digital promised in 1983 but which finally arrived only in the past few years. I have used all sorts of recording formats over the years and while many are good, each lends a certain "color" to the final results. It wasn't until I heard properly done 4x rate digital (24/176.4 and 24/192) that at long last, I heard a recording device which delivered output I have not yet been able to discern from my direct microphone feeds.

    Audio is a strange pursuit in that some folks feel that what they hear or do not hear must reflect what everyone else will or will not hear. So they write articles and "white papers" attempting support their assertions and quote others who also lack the confidence to simply say "I don't hear it" and leave it at that.

    If you prefer mp3, by all means, enjoy your music via mp3. But don't take away my high res.
    I wouldn't be surprised to see those same folks next telling diners that the local drive-in burger joint offers fare superior to the steak house in town too.
  • Reply 14 of 179
    boltsfan17boltsfan17 Posts: 2,161member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by TheWhiteFalcon View Post



    It's main fail is that it's useless for pocket use, as it has no hold/lock switch.



    The second reality is that quality 256kbps files are about the highest the human ear can really appreciate. Which happens to be the format of iTunes Plus music.

    I know sound quality is highly debatable, but you can totally tell the difference between a master recording and an iTunes Plus 256kbps file. Listening to the same song as an AIFF file and the iTunes Plus version, AIFF has always been better from my experience. Having said that, I do think the iTunes Plus 256kbps files are actually really good quality. For the majority of consumers, iTunes Plus is the way to go.  

  • Reply 15 of 179
    apple ][apple ][ Posts: 8,680member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by konqerror View Post

     

    I have a pair of Genelec 1029a studio monitors (same ones on Steve Jobs' home desk) that I inherited. They were about $550 each new. Ordinary music sounds like crap on them. The reason is simple, music is mixed to sound good to the average listener on average speakers. A good recording technician knows this and purposely mixes for this. If you have a perfectly flat speaker and player and try to play common music without playing with the equalizer, it's going to sound bad.




    I'm not a big fan of the smaller Genelecs. Even the 1031, which is a popular model, breaks up too easily IMO. The 1032 is alright.

  • Reply 16 of 179
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Apple ][ View Post

     

    I believe it uses a fork of Android, no wonder it's sluggish! <img class=" src="http://forums-files.appleinsider.com/images/smilies//lol.gif" />

     

    The shape also doesn't make any practical sense. Who wants to walk around with that yellow Toblerone in their pocket?




    It's triangular because they used cheap as can be electrolytic capacitors in the back.

     

     

    http://mikebeauchamp.com/2014/12/pono-player-teardown/

     

    Not worth the $399. If the iPod Classic were still around I'd readily recommend it over this. Even then...buy a used Classic, do some internal mods, and you'll have a better player for less.

  • Reply 17 of 179
    ajmasajmas Posts: 557member
    I am no audiophile, so I would make do with the best average. At the same time, a proper test would spell out all components used in the test, including:
    - headphones used
    - music used and mastering condition of music
    - location which the test was performed in

    To be fair you need something that shows minimal external interference. Mastering of music, from what I understand, can shift the audio to something good for one type of source type, to something that just ruins a different source type. Classical, jazz and pop all have different characteristics that can be affected by the equipment used to record, master and playback.
  • Reply 18 of 179
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Boltsfan17 View Post

     

    I know sound quality is highly debatable, but you can totally tell the difference between a master recording and an iTunes Plus 256kbps file. Listening to the same song as an AIFF file and the iTunes Plus version, AIFF has always been better from my experience. Having said that, I do think the iTunes Plus 256kbps files are actually really good quality. For the majority of consumers, iTunes Plus is the way to go.  




    Oh, certainly, which kinda ties into my point. I have high-end midrange stuff (if that makes sense, lol), which works with what I have. I use a G4 Cube as a music server, so I rip everything in ALAC onto the drive (if it's an original CD, that is). But most people use Apple's EarPods at best. They're not bad, but they're not audiophile grade either.

     

    The good news is that with Mastered for iTunes, Apple does have the quality originals, so iTunes Plus is better than it could be otherwise. And they can always sell the originals one day (which I expect they will).

  • Reply 19 of 179
    apple ][apple ][ Posts: 8,680member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by TheWhiteFalcon View Post

     



    It's triangular because they used cheap as can be electrolytic capacitors in the back.


     

    I'm no hardware engineer, but that just strikes me as some real poor designing that's going on there.

  • Reply 20 of 179
    jbdragonjbdragon Posts: 2,135member
    alanshutko wrote: »
    The article didn't mention: did Pogue level match the two signals?  It's well documented that people will consider louder audio to be "better" and if the iPhone happened to be louder (even a small amount) it could explain the test results.

    If that's all it takes, then what's the point? That argument, the last gasping for straws is pretty lame.
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