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Neil Young PONO player Review

Rate this player:

  • 1. Poor (headless panther)

    Votes: 158 85.9%
  • 2. Not terrible (postman panther)

    Votes: 20 10.9%
  • 3. Fine (happy panther)

    Votes: 1 0.5%
  • 4. Great (golfing panther)

    Votes: 5 2.7%

  • Total voters
    184

amirm

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This is a review and detailed measurements of the discontinued Neil Young PONO "high resolution" player. It is on kind loan from a member. Online prices today range from US $400 to $600 and more!
Neil Young Pono Player Audio half volume Measurement.jpg

The player comes in an attractive wooden box with nice accessories such as a pouch to hold the triangular shape of this player. The LCD display is grainy. I did not like that it would time out to just a bland bar of what is playing instead of staying on "now playing" screen. To get that you need to press the "O" button again and then you see your controls to skip and such.

Music transfer was easy using USB connection.

In case you are not familiar with this player, Neil Young started to rant about poor quality of compressed music online and took out his music of the services of that era. And then partnered with Ayre to introduce this player and music service to go with. The key selling point being high resolution music. I didn't have a Pono player but found their service to have lower prices on CD and high-res music than many other services so bought good bit of music from them before they closed the door.

The purpose of this review is to see the capabilities of the Pono player to deliver better than CD experience. So let's measure that.

PONO Player Measurements
I maxed out the volume and captured our dashboard (into high impedance):
Pono Player Audio Measurement.png

Despite not putting any load on the player, the headphone output maxed out at just 1 volt. This is what mediocre phone dongles output. As a minimum the output should have been 2 volts. Apparently you get this if you combine the line out and headphone out into a balanced output. I did not have such a cable so all of my testing is in the default mode.

The output is fair bit distorted with one channel much worse than the other. Averaging the two lands in the Pono player into the "poor" category of all dacs/players tested:
best portable audio player review.png


As a reference, an Apple phone dongle has SINAD of 99 db, nearly 10 dB better.

Lowering the output to half a volt improves things some:
Pono Player Audio half volume Measurement.png


But we are still worse than performance of a proper 16 bit system (SINAD of 93 dB). Multitone test operates at this level so makes a better showing:
Pono Player Audio half volume Multitone Measurement.png


Dynamic range test shows that even at max volume we barely clear the bar for 16 bit audio:
Pono Player Audio half volume Dynamic Range Measurement.png


Jitter test is decent although a lot of dirt could be hidden under that high noise floor:
Pono Player Audio half volume Jitter Measurement.png


Since my analyzer can't control the player, these are all the measurements I have. But I think we all know the story here.

Conclusions
The pono player would rate at below average for a CD/16-bit player. As such, it cannot have any claim of doing justice to high-resolution audio. Cleary little attention was paid to verifying the device actually performs at the level that was assumed. The late Charlie Hansen was apparently behind this which makes it surprising to see such low level of performance. Measurements in Stereophile magazine were just as awful as mine:

315Ponofig08.jpg

Notice the distortion being much higher in one channel just like mine. The worse channel second harmonic reaches -68 dB making its SINAD just as bad. Yet, JA finishes the review with:

"Even taking into consideration its relatively affordable price, the PonoPlayer measures very well.—John Atkinson"

Measures very well? How on earth can someone say that about a digital player with that kind of measurement in 2015? The thing has copious amount of distortion, far in excess any proper CD player. Such is life of commercial publications. :(

Anyway, we now know this is not a performant player and the fact that it met its demise due to market forces was well deserved.

Specifications:

SCREEN2.5"
OSAndroid 2.3
CPUARM Cortex-A8
RAM256MB
MEMORY64GB (plus additional 64GB MicroSD card included)
PORTSMicro USB, MicroSD card reader, 2 x 3.5mm headphone jacks
SIZE5" x 2" x 1" (13cm x 5cm x 2.5m)
WEIGHT4.6 ounces (130g)
BATTERY"Up to 8 hours"
------------
As always, questions, comments, recommendations, etc. are welcome.

Any donations are much appreciated using: https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/how-to-support-audio-science-review.8150/
 
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SuicideSquid

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I have complicated feelings about Neil Young... I love his music, but he's such a bloody knob.

His comments on hi-res audio have always struck me as disingenuous, if not outright lies. He was talking about the benefits of hi-res audio as a 70-year-old man with admitted hearing loss from decades of performing rock music. It's rare that even people with pristine hearing can hear the difference between CD and hi-res audio. Young probably couldn't hear the difference between hi-res and microcassettes at this point.
 
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Todd k

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I wonder if Neal young is an ASR member. I do like his music though. Gonna assume that if he is he won’t be for long. Amir is not afraid to tangle with the big boys. NY was pretty bullish on the pono. I still use my iPod daily.
 

Robin L

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I recently read Neil Young's "Waging Heavy Peace", the worst of a series of biographies and autobiographies I have read recently. No organization of the materials, no attempt at a linear narrative, lots of rambling leading nowhere. No index, no acknowledgements. Lots of ego. He spent a lot of time beating the drum for his upcoming revolution in sound technology. Took him until nearly the end of the book to cop to having tinnitus. Only heard him in concert once, back in the late 1970s. Shaved off the top octave of my hearing, permanently.

Edit: I guess I should note that there's some of his music I really appreciate such as "Tonight's the Night", "On the Beach" and "Zuma". The biography "Shaky" by Jimmy McDonough is one of the best biographies of a rock star I have read, giving a lot of insight into the sometimes troubled life of Neil Young.

I've got a Fiio M3K and it really works for me. It's a low powered DAP but also very low cost. It can store up to 2 TB of music files, has limited eq settings. Probably not the ultimate in fidelity but pretty good for cheap and tiny:

 
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617

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What's next C.W. Mcall's Dante interface

Gordon Lightfoot and Robbie Robertson watching us with sadness
 

kemmler3D

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I remember being very angry about this marketing campaign because it directly conflated raw bitrate and sound quality. "Oh, you throw away 90% of the bits with MP3, how can it sound good? Buy our overpriced audio player to solve this." It was absolute bullcrap through and through, the fact that the device measures poorly is just one more slap in the face among many.
 

Dmitri

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My angst Dmitri persona loves rocking in the free world, but not gonna be doing it with the Pono Player.
Kind of a fun retro tidbit though. Thanks for the review Amir!
 

respice finem

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This is a review and detailed measurements of the discontinued Neil Young PONO "high resolution" player. It is on kind loan from a member. Online prices today range from US $400 to $600 and more!
View attachment 329388
The player comes in an attractive wooden box with nice accessories such as a pouch to hold the triangular shape of this player. The LCD display is grainy. I did not like that it would time out to just a bland bar of what is playing instead of staying on "now playing" screen. To get that you need to press the "O" button again and then you see your controls to skip and such.

Music transfer was easy using USB connection.

In case you are not familiar with this player, Neil Young started to rant about poor quality of compressed music online and took out his music of the services of that era. And then partnered with Ayre to introduce this player and music service to go with. The key selling point being high resolution music. I didn't have a Pono player but found their service to have lower prices on CD and high-res music than many other services so bought good bit of music from them before they closed the door.

The purpose of this review is to see the capabilities of the Pono player to deliver better than CD experience. So let's measure that.

PONO Player Measurements
I maxed out the volume and captured our dashboard (into high impedance):
View attachment 329389
Despite not putting any load on the player, the headphone output maxed out at just 1 volt. This is what mediocre phone dongles output. As a minimum the output should have been 2 volts. Apparently you get this if you combine the line out and headphone out into a balanced output. I did not have such a cable so all of my testing is in the default mode.

The output is fair bit distorted with one channel much worse than the other. Averaging the two lands in the Pono player into the "poor" category of all dacs/players tested:
View attachment 329391

As a reference, an Apple phone dongle has SINAD of 99 db, nearly 10 dB better.

Lowering the output to half a volt improves things some:
View attachment 329392

But we are still worse than performance of a proper 16 bit system (SINAD of 93 dB). Multitone test operates at this level so makes a better showing:
View attachment 329393

Dynamic range test shows that even at max volume we barely clear the bar for 16 bit audio:
View attachment 329394

Jitter test is decent although a lot of dirt could be hidden under that high noise floor:
View attachment 329395

Since my analyzer can't control the player, these are all the measurements I have. But I think we all know the story here.

Conclusions
The pono player would rate at below average for a CD/16-bit player. As such, it cannot have any claim of doing justice to high-resolution audio. Cleary little attention was paid to verifying the device actually performs at the level that was assumed. The late Charlie Hansen was apparently behind this which makes it surprising to see such low level of performance. Measurements in Stereophile magazine were just as awful as mine:

315Ponofig08.jpg

Notice the distortion being much higher in one channel just like mine. The worse channel second harmonic reaches -68 dB making its SINAD just as bad. Yet, JA finishes the review with:

"Even taking into consideration its relatively affordable price, the PonoPlayer measures very well.—John Atkinson"

Measures very well? How on earth can someone say that about a digital player with that kind of measurement in 2015? The thing has copious amount of distortion, far in excess any proper CD player. Such is life of commercial publications. :(

Anyway, we now know this is not a performant player and the fact that it met its demise due to market forces was well deserved.

------------
As always, questions, comments, recommendations, etc. are welcome.

Any donations are much appreciated using: https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/how-to-support-audio-science-review.8150/
I wonder how many people paid their "church tax" for this piece of youknowwhat :rolleyes:

Yes 2015 is not today - but not 1995 either, and there's no excuse for lies and BS anyway.
 
Last edited:

Keith_W

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It would be interesting to compare to an iPod from the same period. I have no idea how one would inject test signals into an old click wheel iPod though.

Yep, that was my thought too. It's a 2015 player, so we should compare it against 2015 technology. Any comments on that Amir? How does it measure up against contemporary music players?
 

617

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McCall was actually an advertising artist who invented the character we know to advertise a bread company that had recognizable trucks. CW stands for Country and Western and McCall's magazine was on his desk at the time.
 
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