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Pono Player

Michael Sawh



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Pono Player – First Impressions from CES 2015

The Pono player is just one part of the Neil Young-backed company's quest to deliver the highest-quality digital music package for serious audiophiles. Along with the hardware, there's also a dedicated Pono Music store where Hi-Res Audio music albums cost a lot more than they do on iTunes or Google Play.

Raising over $6m on Kickstarter, the Pono Player has already started shipping to its backers and is going on sale for $399 (£240) in a small number of stores in the US this month. That's significantly cheaper than Sony's NWZ-ZX2 high-resolution Walkman, but does the Toblerone-looking music player actually live up to the hype? I spent some time with it at CES 2015 and so far, I like what I see, but it has some issues.

Related: What is Hi-Res Audio?

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Inevitably the angular design and soft-touch yellow plastic is what really makes the Pono stand out. Pono says it's working on a blue version, but the current model actually looks quite nice. It's not something that's going to sit easily in your pocket, but it's light, nice to hold and it's refreshing to see something that's a little bit different and a lot less serious-looking when you compare it to Sony's Walkman.

The layout and stature reminds me of the fourth- and fifth-generation iPod nanos, except there's a 2.5-inch colour LCD touchscreen and three big buttons below for volume control and getting back to the menu screen. The display isn't of fantastic quality and viewing angles are pretty average, but it's a good size and easy to navigate through albums and music.

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At the bottom of the Pono Player, you'll find the Micro USB port to transfer music, and that's the only way you can do it. There's no Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity, so there's no way to access the Internet, and Bluetooth isn't considered suitable for Hi-Res Audio.

Charging the Pono Player is also done via Micro USB, with the 2950mAh battery giving you around eight hours of playback, which is somewhat short of Sony's 30-hour claim for the ZX2. Alongside the Micro USB port is a small triangular flap that hides away an SD card slot allowing you to add up to 128GB to go with the built-in 64GB storage.

Up top is where you'll find two headphone jacks so you can share music with friends and, more interestingly, hook it up to a speaker or amp. Just below the two jacks you'll find a small light that simply glows when the player is running.

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Making the high-resolution audio magic happen is the EES Sabre DAC inside, which hasn't impacted greatly on the size of the player and is the kind of tech you can find inside some home theatre equipment. Its job is to convert the digital music into the analogue audio you can actually hear. It's compatible with a host formats as well including AIFF, AAC, MP3, FLAC and WAV.

The software that the Pono Player runs on is based on Android and it's pretty basic. There's a top navigation bar you can scroll through to access settings, albums, songs and playlists. When tracks are playing, you get the iPod-style cover art pulled in with track information displayed below. It's the type of basic approach that's served Apple well for years on its iPods, so it's no surprise to see the Pono Player taking some inspiration from the leaders in the MP3 player market.

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Sound quality is always difficult to judge in such a small space of time, but I was impressed with what I heard. Pulling on a pair of Sennheiser Momentum headphones, I listened to a range of pre-loaded tracks on the Pono, varying from Daft Punk to the obligatory Norah Jones – hi-fi companies love that lady for some reason – and you can sense the jump up in quality from phone or iPod audio. Bass is rich and not overbearing on more uptempo tracks, while vocals sound detailed with rich clarity. Like Sony's Walkman, the performance doesn't waver when you have to crank the volume up, either.

Early Verdict

The Pono Player, like the Sony NWZ-ZX2, is for a niche market that's usually willing to spend big for the best-sounding music. Its design won't be for everyone, but it certainly turned out better than I expected when I first saw those images for the Kickstarter campaign.

Ultimately, the Pono Store will dictate whether the Pono Player sinks or swims. It's expensive to purchase tracks at the moment and without support for hi-res streaming sites such as TIDAL, the Pono's going to feel very restrictive. If the store continues to grow, there's hope that Pono will be a success. If it doesn't, it could end up being a major Kickstarter failure.


January 9, 2015, 2:58 pm

I really don't quite see the point of this player and its appeal. For such a restricted portable device why bother. Surely you would have a decent set up for a good investment in your home and therefore negating the need to need an expensive not so portable - portable looking device.... I just do not get it.

Why also have they made it look so awkward and ugly! not too mention the name.."Pono" some people would in their native slang be saying a very family sounding certain word to that - especially after a few drinks..!!! It looks like it is made soley for children under 5 yrs age to operate especially with the noughts and crosses type big buttons and something a kid might see as a brick toy to throw about (yikes).

Seriously an over expensive triangle-ish shape with a large screen and well a large screen. As a person who has a professional music studio and an excellent home sound set up I am stuck as to see where this is going. As for the sound quality I cannot comment although I suspect it would not be anything special even at that stupid rip-off price. Ah well....


January 9, 2015, 8:21 pm

i just don't see what is so confusing about this. do you believe that anything sounds better than an iphone? that's where this is going.

the mobile device is taking over and it no longer needs low-resolution. ponoplayer has a simple mission, just sound as pure as possible for a reasonable price. don't do anything else, just play music. it's a purity that hasn't been seen in consumer electronics in a long long time. swimming upstream for sure.

but i have had one for a month now and it's amazing. it does 1 thing and it does it at the highest level, and i paid under $500 once, which is less than iphone and internet bills for just a few months. it's not overpriced at all. you'd need $10k to make your living room sound as good as this $400 player.


January 10, 2015, 12:58 am

I agree with what your saying about the iphone type issues and yes quality and purity, I just don't get this device, and yes I do have a serious set up at home and your right to a point in respect of the cost. In fact I have been stupid enough to waste 1000s on certain kit for inferior sound so I get that.

What I am saying all joking aside, that the device for me has no appeal whatsoever, although I believe Sony just released a new super expensive walkman which I think is between $1000 - $1200.

I do think though if you like it and you rate the device then I am genuinely happy for you and I am glad you enjoy it. As said earlier I have not in fairness listened with it so I am not able to really comment on that, and my thoughts were really tongue in cheek.


January 11, 2015, 4:15 pm

signal chain says you will improve your sound by addressing these, in order: source, DAC, amp, speakers/room. Assuming you don't load it with mp3's, ponoplayer takes care of source - DAC - Amp for you, and you can plug it into whatever amount of speaker goodness or cheapness you desire. you will hear an improvement everywhere. even $8 earbuds. but yeah, not much of an improvement at that level.


January 12, 2015, 8:08 pm

I'm using a Sony hi-res portable at the moment, which cost around the same as the Pono. I have to say, the Pono is pretty repulsive looking. This, combined with the awkward size and shape, means that it would have to sound staggeringly better than my Sony to make me want to switch to Pono.

It's also got considerably less functionality. I do most of my headphone listening in bed. The Sony's Android OS and wifi enable me to stream my music directly from my computer, thus removing the need to copy selected tracks to it via USB.


January 13, 2015, 9:21 pm

I have had my Pono for about a month now and I love it! The sound quality is at least everything it has been advertised to be. For me it was a chance to have CD quality and higher quality audio available in my car without having to shuffle CD's or carry a big stack. Car stereo companies (Alpine, Kenwood, etc) for some odd reason have not been FLAC or hi-res audio compatible and this is finally a welcome break in portability and quality for an audiophile like me. After all, I didn't spend the money I did on my high end car system to be listening to MP3's. This thing delivers and it may help to break open the market if we're lucky.


January 30, 2015, 5:30 pm

if you already have a nice setup, how do you take it mobile? just asking, thats the main point for ponoplayer. it does look nice sitting on the living room stereo, but it can be picked up and taken around and you get hi-fi on the go.

i have been playing mine in headphones, in the car, in the bedroom, and in the living room. also playing drums to it is nice.

it's like the iPod "thing" again, but this time it sounds "damn!" not "ok?".

i could stand to have a digital line-in to access the fine analog stage with other gear.

i could also enjoy wireless loading, but I might just spend the $20 on a microsd reader and side load the thing. Also I don't want any radio interference or distortion on my audio chain.


February 25, 2015, 10:08 pm

rock and roll. that's all i'm saying - hear it for yourself and decide. if you don't hear it, if you don't care, so what. it doesn't cancel other people's ability to enjoy it.

i have loaned mine out 2x and both people are ordering one. the inconvenience of going back to 2002-era and loading it over USB is worth it for the pristine digital sound.

David Wendorf

April 10, 2015, 7:36 am

I'm looking for a lossless music player to connect to my Alpine in the car only. I want to use the lighter socket for power and have aux 3.5mm jack for input (can run adapter if needed). Does the Pono have "car mode" - where it turns off with the ignition, and resumes from where it left off when powered again?

Hannes Minkema

April 13, 2015, 2:33 pm

It was the brilliant Roman satirist Petronius who stated that "the world wants to be deceived" (mundus vult decipi). This is no overstatement in the field of so-called 'audiophiles', who are totally willing to spend big bucks on devices that offer mainly illusion - if not totally.

And when challenged, the 'audiophiles' go to great lengths to defend their illusion, up to the point where they state that 'no clothes' actually look quite good - if not 'fantastic' or 'fabulous' - on their chosen Emperor.

They call themselves 'audiophiles' to create a space wherein they can maintain their illusion that only they 'can hear the difference' while neglecting the facts, namely that a) the rest of the world can't (presumably because the rest of the world has bad ears), and b) they themselves can't hear any difference when subjected to a rigorous double-blind test.

What's more: they run to any excuse in order to reject double-blind tests as a rational criterion, because they claim such tests are 'artificial' or 'clinical'. They are like homeopaths who reject 'science' as a criterion to distinguish true from false medicine, because 'science' has no heart. While they, of course, do.

Presently, there are lots of hi-res audio players on the market for only a fraction of the price of a Pono. They are undistinguishable from Pono, except for the price tag. There are tons of quality mp3 players on the market for only a fraction of a fraction of the price of a Pono. Over 99% of the people on Planet Earth, including you and me, are unable to distinguish between a 320 kbps mp3 and a lossless audio file, played on the same quality machine through the same quality headphones.

Yet 'audiophiles' want to be deceived. By themselves, that is. And by the people who take some commercial interest in the deception.

Let me make this a bit more concrete. If I was Neil Young, I would rather advise consumers to spend $100 on a Fiio X1 hi-res audio player and donate $300 to Farm Aid, then to spend $400 on his illusion-loaded Pono.

What would be your advice, Neil? And when do you have time to be subjected to an objective double-blind test, to be published, in real time & unedited, on YouTube?


September 18, 2015, 5:48 am

Nearly a year with the Pono player; for a technojunkie like myself it's quite simple, I've stopped looking at any other player on the market; paired with great source music and my Sennheiser ie800's the sound is sublime.

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