Neil Young is using his status as SXSW keynote speaker this week in part to promote a new portable music player he believes is the answer for allowing audiophiles to combat the rise of compressed digital music. Dubbed the Pono Music Player, the device is depicted as being shaped like a triangular prism and will be capable of playing music in an uncompressed FLAC format. It takes up five to ten times as much storage space as the current AAC and MP3 audio formats used by popular digital music stores like Apple iTunes and Google Play, but Young argues that music in the Pono/FLAC format simply sounds better.
With 128 gigabytes of storage space dedicated solely to music, the Pono will be able to hold a few hundred albums worth of music. That’s in contrast to iPhones and tablets, where the overall storage space is divided among music, apps, photos, and other media. But while that allows Pono to make the case for the larger space-gobbling file format, it’s more of an uphill climb to make the argument that music in the larger file format is worth the hassle.
I can confirm first hand that when it comes to headphones costing less than a hundred dollars, or any any bluetooth wireless speaker at any price point, music in an uncompressed format like the one Pono plans to use will sound identical or almost identical to that of the 256kbps AAC format currently used by the iTunes Store. The only way to reap the benefits of uncompressed music is to invest in headphones which cost several hundred dollars, and even then the sonic advantage only begins to materialize for certain genres such as classical and perhaps acoustic music. To hear a difference in a Neil Young album, the user would likely need headphones costing five hundred to a thousand dollars.
That means that not only will any potential customers have to invest the $399 for the Pono player itself, they’ll have to ante up even more for the requisite playback equipment in order to take advantage of what it offers. That means the target audience for Pono is not only limited to those who care enough about the most minute differences in audio quality to carry a second device alongside their smartphone, but also limited to those who are wealthy enough to own serious audiophile headphones accordingly.