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"If you can’t hear the difference or don’t want to, I don’t force this on anybody." Neil Young talks MP3, high-resolution audio, his Pono Music project and what Steve Jobs would be doing now.

Neil Young's Pono project is gathering momentum, with the PonoPlayer going on general sale as the Pono Music store launches in the US.

So it's no surprise Young is ramping-up the rhetoric around the high-res music system, too - even if some of his own company's executives reportedly aren't quite so convinced.

Young, speaking at CES 2015, was bullish about the performance of his portable player (to put it mildly), but revealed he didn't mind if people said they couldn't hear the difference.

"Truly if you can’t hear the difference or don’t want to, I don’t force this on anybody. I just think what we’re doing is playing real music for as many people as possible," Young said.

"If you don’t care and you don’t want want to hear this music and ask, ‘Why’s he doing that, we got MP3s and iPhones?’, then I feel good for you people, you have nothing to worry about. Congratulations, all those MP3s are yours."

More after the break

Young suggested MP3 was from a bygone age and that high-res audio had meant he's been able to listen to music again.

"MP3 is doing OK considering it was designed for dial-up modems but we just couldn’t stay there. Pono is the same as the iPod but it sounds like God," Young said, while praising the skills of Charles Hansen of Ayre Acoustics and designer Mike Nuttall, who have worked on the project.

"When people ask me ‘do we need high-res music?’ I really don’t know. I can’t tell you but I know for me - I can listen to music again. I didn’t listen to music for the last fifteen years because I hated the way it sounded and it made me pissed off that I could not enjoy it anymore."

However, we're not sure why he couldn't have been listening to vinyl all this time, seeing as he also professed his love for that format - which has seen a well-publicised revival in recent years - while also squeezing in a dig about CD.

"We had vinyl and that was good, then we went to CD. Wow, that was an amazing drop – it was like, ‘What happened to the air, where did it go? What happened to the magic? What happened to the warm fuzzy feeling?’. Well, I’ll tell you what, some people thought CDs were better because you could play them louder."

This touches on the issue of mastering and the quality of the recordings, which many people argue is more important than the bitrate.

MORE: High-res audio: the science behind the numbers

While many remain sceptical about Pono, Young says he's prepared to play the long game - and he's confident.

"We don’t have to have success in three hours and make billions and retire in six months. We need to slowly absorb the process of letting people hear real music through a real music player. I think people are going to love it."

And the final confirmation? He's sure that Steve Jobs, who knew a thing or two about how to sell digital music players and digital music, would be on board.

"I’m convinced Steve would be doing this now if he was still here because he listened to vinyl in his own house, he had a nice set up in his living room."

You can read our PonoPlayer hands-on review for our initial impressions of the player - look out for a full review soon.

MORE: High-resolution audio - everything you need to know


[via StarScream Communications]


Robert Nasr's picture

I do agree: Pono does sound really good.

I've received my Pono more than a month ago. Since then I've been using it with my two year old Shure 535 to play HD and Standard (Wav) files.

In a nutshell: Both standard and HD files sound great.

 I personally can't tell if HD files sound better than standard CD due to the hightest bit rate or better mastering of the albums but in most cases the difference can be heard.

Again for my ears some genres of music benefit more than others from higher grade players and speakers. Jazz and classical music lovers will be delighted by the Pono performance.  Worth mentioning here that the Pono can really go loud, in fact Pono has enough power to drive the Sen HD650 to a decent volume. 

Graham Luke's picture


Robert, is there any hiss through the Shures from the Pono?

This is something that plagues most DAPs but neither my iPod nor iPhone.

Robert Nasr's picture

re:Graham Luke

Sorry for the late reply 

No hiss whatsover . They work perfectly and Pono can drive them really loud.


Norris Cole's picture

"It sounds like God"

What a stupid, meaningless bull!@£t thing to say.

WHF - maybe you should consider removing this statement in the current climate.

Personally, I'm not offended by the reference to God, but by the sheer idiocy of what he's said.  The rest of it is just patronising guff; perhaps he's just a bit too 'close' to his own project. 

Neil Young hasn't listened to music for the last 15 years.


happy_hifi's picture


You wouldn't be one of those politically correct (read incorrect) little Norris's, would you.


testpilot4321's picture

I have yet to listen to Pono but I am sold on high res music.

I use a DAC in my home system and buy a lot of high res music - often as replacements of the CD's I already own, this gives me the opportunity to compare the differences. It's a strange one, sometimes it's obviously better and other times you can't help but wonder if it's just the placebo effect. This I can say, when listening to my CD's for an evening at high volumes I'm always done after a few hours, when listening to high res music for an evening I'm normally still at it 4 hours later and being nagged to come to bed!

I am looking forward to buying a portable high res music player, I'm not convinced it will be the Pono though.

Graham Luke's picture


The music industry would like to thank you for buying 'high res' copies of the music you already own and would suggest you do not stop till you have at least two copies of everything.

Thank you, in advance.

Big Aura's picture

hi-res audio... is this

hi-res audio... is this another way to convince me to buy all my music on a new format?  I own star wars on three formats, i don't want the same for Sgt Pepper...

I think the future is higher-bit rate streaming services, not this.

magicrabbit's picture

Sense of history

We shall not complain, everything is going into the right direction.

But bitrates are not the only concern. Music shall be well mastered at the origin, which is not always the case unfortunately.

People should really try Cassandra Wilson records in Studio Master version. That's impressive.You will never listen to your HiFi equipment the same way after this.

KeyMs92's picture

"Pono is the same as the iPod

"Pono is the same as the iPod...", except it's a frickin triangle! Come back when you invent the rectangle.

Graham Luke's picture

Ha ha! Brilliant!

Thank you for the big chuckle!

Geoff Forgie's picture

Hi-res has been around for a long time!

We've had SACD for yonks without all this hoopla, and it's a proper HD audio solution. All the carry-on now looks a lot like marketing, and I'm curious why it is so restricted to portables. Hipster cred? Anyone who wanted the benefit of HD audio has been able to get it for a long time. Anyway, better speakers and amplifiers are the sure way to better sound; they improve all the very acceptable formats we have available.

Graham Luke's picture


Young should take care where he slings the mud; the iPhone is well acknowledged as one of the best music players around.

Has it escaped the ol' hippy's attention that the iPhone and all iPods are capable of playing 16/44.1 or that mastered for iTunes recordings are simply superb? ('Spark of life' on ECM being a wonderful example of this) His Pongo is really going to have to be good to beat that.

What they were thinking when they designed the shape of that thing escapes me...

AndrewH13's picture

Pono offer anything new?

As said earlier, where has Neil Young been living? Ive been listening to hi-res and DSD for nearly two years now, firstly through a Tag McLaren Hifi via Oppo and the last year through the excellant iBasso DX90 and Fiio X5 DAPs. Its as if none of this existed until the Pono gave opposition to the iPlayers. Hifiman, Sony, Cowen, AK as well as iBasso and Fiio have these players. Is he really ignorant of them?

nick8858's picture

Pono nothing new

Fiio X3 - £150 - does exactly the same thing, budget price etc etc. Beats the sony walkman ZX1 hands down for a third of the price mainly as the Fiio plays music whereas the walkman faffs around with the internet etc and has a puny output amp. And the Pono shape? Bizarre, wouldn't want that in my trouser pocket - might never have kids again if I bumped into someone.

I'm 56 so can't tell the difference between CD Flac and Hi Res BUT I can tell the difference between a superbly recorded album and a badly recorded one which is the nub of the issue. I wouldn't want to shell out a load of dosh to play compressed Coldplay as all I would get would be Hi Res rubbish. Be selective what music you play and the Fiio will reward you very nicely. And by the way its dead easy to use and it doesn't play Spotify (who would want to anyway on a Hi Res player??)

nara's picture

"It sounds like God"

Nonsensical and downright amateurish review of a product that's struggling to find a market.

Leisure_Lizard's picture

Respect for Neil Young

I'm not in the market for a Pono, but I have enormous respect for Neil Young and the way he's shown such integrity over the years (nor is he a saint - also too many ****-ups to list here!). Particularly, he's made great music that has often been recorded superbly. I have a DVD-A of 'On the Beach' (the album was produced by David Briggs) that makes a great case for high-resolution audio. It sounds totally natural and is finely detailed; not to mention (imho) being one of the high points of 20th century music...

NY 'got burned' by the poor results from early pro digital recording tools and I guess that's one reason why he's so passionate about high-resolution audio. I'm with him on this and while the Pono may not go on to be a great success, it will certainly make high-res available to an audience, some of which may not have otherwise gone that route. As hi-fi fans I believe we should _applaud_ efforts to get hi-res off the ground, not carp from the sidelines.

The catalysts for hi-res audio (and video - I'm a film fan too) will be greater availability of high-speed internet access (on that note Britain's upgrade programme is woefully lacking in either ambition or effectiveness), and a widely-accepted (industry and consumers) file format. MQA, anyone?

Graham Luke's picture

'MQA anyone'?

No, thanks.

Well recorded and mastered 16/44.1 will do very nicely, thank you.

Leisure_Lizard's picture

MQA anyone - maybe MQA for everyone

And that's the point, Graham - you're happy with CD resolution, and with MQA distributors could supply a single file format that would play at that standard (ish), when there was no MQA decoder in the chain. File size is little different from CD encoding.

To borrow from Tim2010's post: "Hi-res should be the standard, not a niche with a premium price." We're probably going to be arguing about whether higher resolution recordings are necessary for some time (I'm obviously convinced), but at least with MQA there is a chance of a common file format.

Tim2010's picture


The rectangular shape fits perfectly in the hand. People saying that iPhone sounds better don't know what they're talking about. I own 3 i-devices and none of them comes even close in terms of soundquality. It seems like the media try everything to discredit Neil Young, abusing his words, and putting quotes out of context. The only difference lies in the (at the moment) buggy interface of the Pono. Many of the major issues have been resolved already in the first 2 firmware updates. His intentions are good, but he's missing the right persons to make this a success. He doesn't get support from the music industry, because they want to force streaming and vinyl (you can't copy these files). On the other hand there's the powerful Apple. Why do they get superior mastering you think? Kids no longer want to pay for music or movies, so it's a lost battle to convince them. Hi-res should be the standard, not a niche with a premium price. But that's not going to happen due to the greedyness of the labels. You can't blame Neil Young for that, it's him against the world right now. Kids don't want to pay on the one hand, at the other hand you have the diehard-audiophile snobs that think that hi-res audio only should be available for millionaires.

Jan Hauschildt's picture

Loudness War

Neil Young should do an ABX test with MP3 and his highres music. I bet he will not find real differences. It`s placebo effect. I think the problem is the loudness war that many songs sounds not so good.

Graham Luke's picture

Loudness War

I think you may be spot-on.

Robert Nasr's picture

Loudness war

Based on my personal experience I can tell that the sound of a well mastered CD can be stunning . Try to listen to any CD from the label ECM and you will understand what I am talking abbout.

SACDs (DSD) files have something special I don't know if it's the technology used or just because the sound engineering is better , hence the better dynamics and more relaxed sound they Produce. (unfortunately Pono can't play DSD) I do own many albums in both formats and it is  easy to tell the difference from the sound signature ( examples: PF Wish you were here  CD vs SACD. Friday Night in San Fransisco and Somethin' Else.) listening to the SACD version of the above mentioned albums is more engaging and at higher volumes DSD sounds more relaxed and less congested.   

All type of files sound really good on Pono. I got my player  during the Kickstarter campaign because I knew the Hardware (DAC+amplification) will be much superior to smart phones and  I have enough  HD files and CDs in my library so l have no intention in buying the albums I already have.  Luckily I was right as Ayre the people behind the toblerone shaped player have done an excellent job. 

Vinyl can sound better than CD not because Vinyl is a superior format , it's just because at some point in time sound engineers had an eureca moment and started mastering CDs in a way tot make them sound better while played on boom boxes and car radios by making them sound Louder. In the process they crashed all the dynamics and the  silence between the notes. So it's the conversion from analogue to Digital that is to blame not the CD as format. Worth mentioning that some LP versions of digitally mastered Albums sound way inferior to CD because as previously mentioned CD format can handle more details and dynamics than Vinyl and reversing the process doesn't always give good results.

HD sound (due to mastering and/or higher bit rate) can be easily appreciated  while listening to  certain Genre of music . for me  Jazz, vocal and classical  music benefit the most from that.

Last but no least the most important element is how we listen to music. If one is not willing to sit and play an album while doing nothing, other maybe than enjoying a drink,  the sound quality of the recording will not make any difference. 320Kpbs is more than enough  for background music or when jogging.