Listen to Neil Young talk about the transformative power of high-resolution music and you just may never press play on your MP3 device gain. The rocker, activist and of late businessman took to CES to tout his Pono music player, which debuts at retail this week.
"Music makes you feel. You have goose bumps, you cry. You have a visceral reaction. And that's what's been missing. We are in a downward spiral and it has to end somewhere. We're hoping it ends with devices that do what this device does," Young told the audience in Las Vegas.
Young has been bemoaning the quality of audio playback since the debut of the CD. The Pono player, priced at $399 and debuting at select retailers this week, is his answer. Young is undaunted by cynics who question the release of Pono in a market dominated by multi-use devices and streaming services. "The rest of the world can do what they want to do. Music lovers always want to hear the best they can, if they have the chance to compare."
Unlike the new audiophile-targeting Sony Walkman, the Pono player does not show the change in audio output frequency for a song. "I chose not to include that," Young said. But the lack of a visual representation made no difference to his test group of 100 artists, including Elton John, Metallica, Portugal the Man and Bruce Springsteen. "Every musician went to 192," he said of the frequency. "Only the scientists went to 96, and who cares about science? This is music. We're talking about how you feel."
With a library of 2 million songs and growing from the three major labels, Young said he's also now talking with indie labels and wants to spread the accessibility of Pono (which means "righteous" in Hawaiian).
Calling his company's role as sole manufacturer of the player "a temporary situation" he said, "We're going to make this technology public. We would like to be more open about it." Manufacturers that pass a Pono certification program will be able to license the brand, he said. "We want to start a community of music lovers worldwide so future generations will be able to hear today's classics in a way that's representative of what music really is, instead of having a museum of MP3 files."
The Pono retail debut is limited -- only 80 stores including some Fry's locations will carry it, but there are some plans in the works to expand the experience. For one, Pono is partnering with Harman to bring the technology into the vehicles equipped with Harman.
Referring to the professional investor community as "a complete joke," he said Pono "is not about a fast thing. It's not going to make you a hero next week to get behind Pono this week. This is a long-term reawakening, and it's not gong to go away."
But the artist did cede one point. "I don't think it can sound better than vinyl. It can sound as good as digital can sound, and vinyl sounds like vinyl. It's apples and oranges."
In a nod to the tech crowd, Young said Steve Jobs understood the power of listening to music in its purest form. "He loved music and he had a really good phonograph system in his living room, listening to vinyl -- just sit and think about that for a minute," he said with a sly grin. Young said Jobs told him he considered music just another feature of the multi-use general consumer-focused iPod. "He told me, 'I'm surprised at how many people went for the music on the iPod.' "
Should Apple or another tech company decide to create their own high-quality playback option, Young's all for it. "We're just saying it can be a whole lot better. And the music world has taken a huge dump, so maybe there's a connection. If Apple wants to do it, it's a home run for music, as long as they don't screw it up."
But don't expect Young to take the existing iPod for a spin. Ever. "I don't listen to streaming 'cause it sounds like shit to me," he said. Is there any redeeming quality to an MP3 file? Queue the sarcasm. "Yes. You can recognize the song you're listening to and it matches the title on your player. That's technology, that's a great thing. If people can't hear the difference between an MP3 and a Pono file, I say bless you, you're doing great. You don't have to have anything else."