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iPhone ‘preferred’ to Pono Player in sound quality tests


Pono Player 23

Neil Young’s high resolution Pono Player sounds no better than an Apple iPhone playing high resolution MP3s, according to a recent audio quality test, conducted by a reviewer.

In his review of the expensive, Kickstarter-backed player Yahoo’s David Pogue enlisted 15 test subjects and asked them to blindly choose which audio format sounded better.

Whether wearing the same pair of earbuds or headphones and listening to the same song, the participants chose the iPhone over the Pono player more often, while many said neither sounded better than the other. When identifying differences, the test subjects only identified a variance of around 10 per cent in audio quality.

Former professional musician Pogue also said: “When I bought Pono’s expensive remastered songs and compared them with the identical songs on my phone, I couldn’t hear any difference whatsoever.”

After informing Pono of its findings, Pogue heard back from Neil Young himself, who said: “Of approximately 100 top-seed artists who compared Pono to low resolution MP3s. All of them heard and felt the Pono difference, rewarding to the human senses, and is what Pono thinks you deserve to hear.”

Pogue identified the key phrase in the statement as ‘low resolution MP3s’ which makes it clear the company does not account for the higher quality 16-bit/256Kbps AAC files available from Apple’s iTunes download store.

Read more: What is Hi-Res Audio: HD music downloads explained

So are the limited and very expensive tracks available from the Pono Store really worth the $400 expenditure on a Pono Player?

Of course, this is only one review based on the tests of one reviewer, so it certainly doesn’t write off the Pono Player. During our brief our hands on at CES 2015 we were impressed with the quality and sensed the improvement from smartphone audio.

At the very least, it seems the jury remains very out on the merits of high resolution audio compared with the regular old hi-res MP3, Neil Young wants to dispense of.

David Horn

February 3, 2015, 7:55 am

I think Pono is right to be a bit miffed at the "findings" of the review. If they're simply testing one MP3 file on both players, then they're likely to get similar results. They should really have tested lossless vs lossless.
Having said that, all these things are subjective. I love the sound of Bose products yet most would agree they butcher the original audio to achieve their particular tone.


February 3, 2015, 10:12 am

I'd be more interesting in a listening test compared against popular streaming services. Perhaps we should do that!


February 3, 2015, 10:38 am

Sounds good. If you do that, you should definitely include Tide and Qobuz, which offer CD-quality streaming music.

But I wonder if it's a meaningful test for most people. I wonder if dedicated music players storing local audio files serve a completely different market from streaming music services. I've converted entirely to streaming, and I wouldn't consider going back, no matter the quality.


February 3, 2015, 5:40 pm

Read some of the comments to the original story (hyperlinked in the article here). They're far more insightful than either Pogue's research article or the TR one here.

In short, there are many, many flaws to the research he performed. The results may be reported correctly, but the methodology, in all likelihood, neutralised any objective advantages the Pono player has.


February 3, 2015, 6:59 pm

I wonder if the participants had their ears tested before trying the two systems out. My experience is that the majority of people (especially the younger Generation that go to decibel blasting clubs) have impaired hearing anyway.


February 3, 2015, 7:34 pm

As a music production and mastering specialist / engineer I am not a fan of the pono player and I cannot see why anyone would pay silly money for this device, as I have said on the pono review on here before. That said I think if people think they are going to vastly notice the difference some of which I feel is physiological and it brings enjoyment to them then fair enough as sound is personally unique to any individual, I just think its a very over expensive portable unit that has been exaggerated on a sound quality level.


February 3, 2015, 7:39 pm

It would actually be interesting to see the actual sound oscillations of the compared devices to get an accurate test. For me it is all about justifying the investment for the player when comparing to a few much lower cost but good quality devices out there.


February 3, 2015, 11:11 pm

care to give a quick synopsis of the methodological flaws? I'm interested, but too lazy to read the original!


February 3, 2015, 11:20 pm

I would love that you adopt the principle of blind testing (preferably double blind) much more commonly in all that you do. "sensed the improvement" is exactly where most of your stuff is at the moment, and that is frankly not much cop. Smartphone screens and sound reproduction would lend themselves very nicely to blind or double-blind testing. I think it would add a much more authoritative note to your reputation.


February 4, 2015, 10:12 am

In no particular order (and without re-reading all the discussion to counter these criticisms, and then counter-critique the counter criticisms and, well, you get the idea):

1) The test was done with a low to medium set of headphones. Any chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The headphones may have leveled the playing field by lowering the quality of the Pono sound.

2) A lot of focus was aimed at the switch box. This used RadioShack components, which are low quality and could have degraded the higher fidelity sound from Pono. A lot of people commented on the original author's observation that "copper is copper". Pure copper oxidises, and the oxide doesn't conduct well. Therefore, copper electronic components tend to be alloys, and audiophiles tend to use silver or gold plated components, which don't suffer in the same way.

3) A fair degree of criticism was pointed at the fact that the author was putting himself forward as an authority, because he was a professional musician. However, professional musician does not equal audiophile. It is surprising that a professional musician would write something like "copper is copper" in this discussion. Even if he thinks that the quality of electronic components could not have affected sound quality, he must know that plenty of audiophiles disagree, and there was no attempt to assuage them with an explanation.

4) There was no screening of the participants. Is it possible that people like the iphone sound because that is what they are used to, even though it's inferior? Putting it self-deprecatingly, it requires training to be a snob! Also, irrespective of listening training, how objectively good were the ears of the subjects to start with? Sensitivity to high frequency sounds deteriorates as you get older. Was this relevant? Was it controlled for?

5) The author used shop bought files, for both the Pono player and the iphone. He didn't correctly control for the fact the sound engineers at the mastering stage could have altered the sound of the compressed file, intentionally, in order to bring back some of the "warmth" lost in the compression. A truer test could have been done if the two files were generated by the author himself.

It was an interesting experiment, just flawed. Personally, I have no interest in buying a Pono because, since about 3 years ago, all the music I listen to comes from streaming services. The argument is still of interest to me though because it has a parallel in looking at the merits of the new HD streaming services such as Tidal, as compared to Spotify.

I hope that helps!

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