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Neil Young raises $6.2 million, releases a portable music player called Pono, and my 4-year-old can’t tell the difference


“A tall refreshing drink of snake oil.”
“The emperor has no clothes.”

The headlines are in. Has Neil Young finally managed to make something worse than “Trans”? The general media consensus points to the Godfather of Grunge’s new portable music player being a stiff.

The Pono, which Young says takes its name from the Hawaiian word for “righteousness,” is one of an emerging generation of high-end machines meant to make your music sound better. The argument: Consumers in the iPod age have had to make a deal with the sonic devil. Our tunes are easy to get through streams and downloads, but they’ve been dramatically reduced in quality. And this could get dangerous! The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, a man who should know a little bit about these things, claims those paper-thin MP3s can attack your nervous system.

With a list price of $400, the Pono could theoretically be a bargain. Sony’s new, high-def Walkman is likely to sell for three times that when it debuts.

So is the Pono really as bad or, more specifically, as ordinary as the critics say? I admit I had been procrastinating to find out. I paid $200 last year as part of Pono’s $6.2 million Kickstarter campaign and, in return, got one of the first players to roll off the line – and at half price. At the time, I opened the box and realized it might take some mental effort to download programs, figure out memory capacity, and tinker. I put the box under my desk.

Then David Pogue ran his excellent, Pono-crusher of a musical taste test.

I decided to pull out my Pono and give it a whirl.

Let me say, I deeply respect Pogue and admired how he tested the player.

But I wanted him to be wrong. I’m primed to embrace a new sound gadget, particularly with Apple having killed my beloved iPod classic. The Pono – bigger than even the largest iPod and with less memory if you stuff it with high-def files – promises superior sound largely by using files not compressed like those on CDs, MP3s and streams. A colorful bar graph in the Pono store promises that the difference in formats is dramatic, kind of the aural difference between Whopper meat and Australian Wagyu.

And the Pono site is stuffed with celebrity testimonials from Norah Jones, Beck, James Taylor, and Flea, among others. In what is either charming or exceedingly creepy, Neil sneaks these celebs into his white Eldorado to listen to, what else, old Neil Young songs rigged to a Pono.

“Well, I got my drug of choice,” Vedder says after emerging from the Caddy. “It’s now potent again.”

Except it isn’t. Or maybe it is, if you’re with Neil or using one of those Ayer integrated amplifiers (list price: $9,950) or Grado RS1e ($695) headphones. I wasn’t and spent much of Wednesday frustrating everybody – even my four-year-old, who wanted me to just play “Sir Duke” all the way through, without togging between gizmos – during our testing session.

My test was not scientific. I clicked onto the Pono store and slapped down $24.79 for “Songs in the Key of Life,” $23.99 for the first Crosby, Stills and Nash album and $9.99 for “Kind of Blue.” (I now have purchased that Miles Davis masterpiece on tape, record, CD, reissued CD, MP3 and high-def.) These files were all uncompressed 24 bit, 192kHz downloads, meaning they offered the highest level of fidelity, according to all the stuff I don’t understand. Then I loaded my iTunes versions – 44.1 kHz – onto both the Pono player and my iPod Nano. Then I just kept playing one, then the other, then asking people what they thought.

They thought they wanted the testing to end.

“I don’t like it,” Cal, 4, complained when I played “So What.”

“You liked the sound of the other better?” I asked.

“No, this is boooorrrrrring,” he said, revealing a real grudge against modal jazz.

When I popped “Sir Duke” back on, Cal began to jump over the couch, which is technically not allowed, except during audio tests.

Lila, who is 12, said she loved the Pono. “Can I have it?”

Why? Because she liked the design. The Pono is shaped like a Toblerone chocolate bar. It is also brand new. Lila felt the same way about her water speakers. Until they were boring.

I played “Freddie Freeloader” on both devices and she selected the Nano as sounding better. Then I played “I Wish” and she chose the Pono. Then I forgot which one I had played each time.

After the kids went to bed, I threw on my $150 headphones still hoping to do right by Neil. I wanted to say that I’d heard the horns come alive on “Sir Duke” like never before, that Kenny Buttrey’s snare on “Old Man” hit me somewhere special or that the CSN harmonies had a special warmth never previously recognized by these amateur ears. Truth is, all of what I played sounded good, especially if turned up. Because these were great songs. The Pono, however, didn’t strike me as any better sounding than any of the multiple playback options in the house.

What does Young make of all this? Unclear. He raised all that money on Kickstarter and made himself Pono’s CEO, but he’s about as accessible as one of his 37-minute guitar solos. I’ve made a dozen plus interview requests since October and he’s never available, the press guy tells me, despite Young’s occasional pop-ups to slam folks for buying vinyl or to enjoy a vegan juice with new chum Daryl Hannah.

As for the Pono, the latest reports are that Paul McCartney’s working toward a deal to get the Beatles catalog gussied up for the player. Which, for a format sucker like me, means only one thing. It will soon be time for another round of testing.