Huge debate about whether Neil Young’s new PonoPlayer is a “revolution in music listening” or an audio scam?
You’re hearing from a guy who bought headphones that cost as much as most entry-level Ham Radio transceivers and DAC (digital audio convertor) that wasn’t much less.
Plus I had to have the Astell and Kern digital player which is described in rave reviews as insanely expensive and then I bought a $400 Picollo amp to boost the audio to drive my super expensive headphones and my semi-super expensive in-ear monitors (Shure 535) which require a dead-quiet amp or you can easily detect a background hiss. (Which I can’t with this setup.)
So here we have online tech guy David Pogue who lines up a bunch of “average” folks (who we know nothing about) and asks them whether they prefer the lossless music files that the Pono can play (which contain about 20 times more data than an MP3 music file) as compared to the Apple IPhone which plays MP3-quality audio.
Let’s be clear here. Apple devices in general are pretty good music players. Ask any kid walking down the street with his $10 earbuds plugged into his IPhone and he or she will tell you that they like what they hear. An Apple IPod line-out feeding a small headphone audio amp into decent headphones will astound you with its quality and punch.
And compared to most crap systems that people have in their houses, their cars and in their pockets, the kids have got it right. The Apple system especially if you listen to it through good headphones will be nearly perfect.
I highly recommend the Grado 60s at $90. These headphones are very very good for the price and can be driven by just about any music player including the IPhone or any smartphone for that matter.
And, in general, listening to MP3s with decent headphones at less than nose-bleed volumes will sound to most people just fine. It’s no surprise to me that everyone in Pogue’s online test preferred the sound of the IPhone even when using the cheap earbuds.
It’s a sound that we’ve become uses to hearing when we listen to music. And let’s face it: There are some people (I’d say most) who can’t hear the difference a really great music system playing really high-end digitally perfect lossless makes.
MP3s and CDs can sound tinny especially when listening to symphony orchestras. But who listens to symphony orchestras anymore?
I am listening to Maria Callas being losslessly streamed from Tidal Sweden and her voice is ripping the heck out of my $85 Fiio DAC/Amp which is feeding my Tivoli stereo with a sub-woofer whose speakers are shredding under the assault.
Plug in my Audeze LCD-X headphones and it’s a whole new experience.
Anybody could tell the difference.
Next up is Callas singing Madame Butterfly and if you were listening there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house. Callas and the reproduction I’m listening to is transcendent.
So why did Pogue’s test fail old Neil Young so completely and so badly?
Well first off, as I said we don’t know the listeners and whether they can actually hear good streaming music but what’s worse are the headphones that Pogue dragged out.
Sony MDR 7506 at $140 aren’t what I’d consider Hi-Fi let alone about to resolve the sounds coming out of the Pono. (You’ll notice if you search that the Sony’s aren’t reviewed on any of the high-end audiophile sites but the consumer sites rave about it. I’m sure it’s an adequate upgrade from $10 earbuds but that’s not what we want here. Ignore the word “professional” on the earphones covers.)
Also Pogue used a RadioShack switcher and RCA connections in his test. I can’t think of a worse system and one designed to make everything sound like the same crap coming out of the headphones.
Neil Young’s Pono system isn’t designed for the Dave Pogues of this world or his friends with their hearing issues.
It is designed for people who love music. It is designed for young people who still have the full range of their hearing. (I’ve lost a lot of my top end as I age. Tinnitus doesn’t help either but such are the burdens of old age. A great music system is partially lost to me but the part that remains…well, it is a worthwhile experience despite all that.
So let’s pretend there isn’t a difference between an IPhone with earbuds and Neil’s Pono device and the accompanying lossless downloads. Let’s just say it’s all in the head of the listener.
If the listener’s eyes cross when Maria hits high C, it doesn’t matter which system you’re using so long as you’re enjoying the experience.
And trust me, I am enjoying the experience…a lot. It is the best sound I have ever heard.
My father was into music. He was a musician back in his youth playing trumpet in a band. When he grew older he had one of the first high-end Hi-Fi systems (before stereo) in the neighbourhood. He had hundreds of 78s and 33 1/3 vinyl records. The custom-built furniture filled the dining room and the speakers in the front room were the size of large blanket boxes on stubby legs. My mother wasn’t much amused.
Dad would be amazed to listen to his music through a decent set of headphones being streamed losslessly from Sweden (I have a subscription to Tidal at $20-/month.) out of player the size of a deck of cards.
And I think he’d agree: Old Neil has actually got it right.