Pono – Part Three: The PonoPlayer

I spent the past five days with the PonoPlayer.

On and off, mind you — I put it down for, like, 15 minutes or so, every so often. I didn’t want it to get, like, weird.

It’s just a gadget. Just a gadget. Just a gadget.
The PonoPlayer is Neil Young’s Kickstarted entry into the portable high-resolution file player derby. It can handle almost everything short of DSD. It has 64G of internal memory, plus a supplied 64G microSD card. Kickstarter backers who paid $300 last April are receiving their LE (limited edition and numbered, with no more than 500 of each) artist Players now. Folks ordering it now might see delivery before March 2015.

My Neil Young LE showed up last Friday.

After the unboxing I powered it up, admired the “pono – powered by Ayre” splash screen, and confirmed the Player had enough of a charge (about half way). Then I plugged in my battered Sennheiser HD 280Pro headphones.

I played Neil Young’s “Words (Between the Lines of Age)” from the preloaded 24/192 Harvest and cranked the volume to about 9 o’clock, or 75% of the PonoPlayer’s volume potential. It sounded good.

As I bumped the volume higher, though, the sound began getting harsh, then the music distorted as I approached 11. I hoped this was just a break-in issue.
(The same track at 11 two days later sounded…excellent. So there is a break-in period).

I immediately noticed that the PonoPlayer’s maximum volume setting is considerably higher than that of an iPhone. Late Saturday evening I’d been listening to Pono for about four hours straight, and I realized I was cranking it. Most albums seem to benefit from a volume that lies somewhere between the 9 and 10:30 level. More than that and things can get fatiguing. However, this seems more a product of volume than any digital grit.

To my relatively, uh, elderly ears, the surplus volume is welcome. I’m not sure having the Player turned nearly all the way up is especially….healthy, but I like the extra DBs.

When you double-tap on the album art, the file path, resolution, bit depth, format, track time, and filesize are listed.
Double-tap again and the info goes away and you’re returned to the album art.

As documented elsewhere, loading music onto the Player requires some patience and creativity. The PonoMusic World software is sluggish and buggy,* and side-loading your files to a microSD card reader is a faster and much less frustrating process. I can’t yet vouch for the hi-rez downloads on the Pono Music store because I haven’t partaken in it just yet.

* [update: 11/20/14: To clarify, I’m using PonoMusic World on a Mac. On balance, it’s being reported that PMW is relatively stable on PCs].

The innards: Ayre’s ESS ES9018 DAC chip is supposedly among the best. Ayre haven’t said much about it. I’m curious about how Ayre and Pono’s engineers handled the output stage. Pono’s somewhat goofy Salesforce-centric site isn’t too hot on such details (not to mention deep-linking), so here’s a screenshot of the specs:
Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 8.49.52 PM

After a couple days of headphone listening, I hooked the Player up to my home system. I have no miniplug-to-XLR stereo cables — anyone have a suggestion for some good ones? They seem pretty elusive — so I pulled a cheap old miniplug-to-RCA Y-cable out of storage and jacked the PonoPlayer directly into my power amp (after first swiping left to the Settings menu and Playback, then unchecking the box “Fixed line out level”).

Using an older PS Audio PerfectWave Mk II DAC for comparison, the PonoPlayer sounded excellent over speakers. It held its own with the PerfectWave. I can only imagine a decent pair of XLR adapters would make the arrangement sound wonderful-er. The Player housing gets pretty warm when outputting directly to an amplifier, but not unacceptably so.

One thing about using it with speakers – sometimes there’s a click-pop within the first half-second of pressing play, or switching tracks. The unit needs a timed mute setting in the next firmware update. The problem is there during headphone listening, as well, but for some reason it’s more noticeable on speakers. It won’t wreck your speakers, even at higher volumes, but it’s annoying.

[above: that’s a six-inch ruler, Bubba. Calm down].

The feel: the unit is about 5 inches long and, in cross section, is 2 inches on each side. If you put it in your pocket it’s going to result in about a one-inch bulge (for those who keep track of such things). It feels good in the hand and, after a bit of adjustment, it’s a simple process to thumb through the tracks/menus. The touchscreen is adequately responsive, but my fat fingertips had some initial trouble adapting to the narrow line entries for albums and tracks. The device adapts to landscape or portrait mode as you tilt it, and sits on a desk comfortably in the former. It’s fairly lightweight — enough so that, when it’s placed on a desk, moving around with headphones on tends to drag the player with it, if you’re not attentive.

Earbud use: I don’t recommend it (with Pono, or any other hardware). The volume needs to be brought down to about 6 o’clock, or 50%, or the sound quickly becomes (even more) painful. I figure most people shelling out $300 or $400 for this thing are going to have an okay set of actual headphones nearby. When using standard Apple earbuds, everything played on Pono sounds like a crappy lossy file, no matter what the format or resolution.

Connectivity: some folks on the Pono Community forums are complaining about the lack of wi-fi or Bluetooth functionality. The latter, especially, seems nearly standard on many newer high-end digital players. Wi-fi would be good for transferring and syncing music, especially since it would be option for bypassing the unstable PonoMusic World software. The ability to stream music to an amp or powered speaker via Bluetooth is attractive — especially to newcomers to this more expensive niche of home audio.

I’m going to assume that, if Pono is a success (and I hope it is), these might be a features of a future version of the Player.

Another reservation is Pono’s lack of gapless playback. This means your digital copy of Dark Side of the Moon — the very same one you have heard plod seamlessly from track to track thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of times on your iTunes app — will have ghastly, disruptive and entirely unacceptable pauses between songs when played on the Pono. If this sort of thing bugs you, prepared to be bugged, and hope that there’s a firmware update soon that fixes it.

The PonoPlayer comes with a snazzy zippered case. Inside are two small pouches, purportedly for cased microSD cards. But when you put the cased cards in the pouches, the zipper won’t close easily, at least at first. Argh. Yes, the fabric of the case can be stretched over time, like a new pair of shoes. I’m assuming the SD cards could be slipped into the pockets minus the tiny plastic cases, but the cards are about the size and thickness of a small fingernail, and could easily fall out. It’s also necessary to slip the Player into the case carefully, in the correct orientation (face down?) to avoid scraping the zipper against the screen.
Battery life: I drained the battery and fully charged the Player twice. It takes about four hours to charge fully, and the battery lasts about 6 hours with volume at 75%. Swipe down to reveal the thin green battery indicator stripe at the top of the screen.BatteryIndicator

How does Pono sound?

If you feed it a 16/44 FLAC, WAV or AIF file of an poorly-mastered 80s-era CD it’s going to sound like…a crappy 80s CD. Shrill, frail, and hollow.

If you put a well-ripped Redbook file of a well-mastered CD, it sounds excellent. Most high-resolution files sound wonderful. Obviously, the better your headphones, the more delightful Pono will sound. If you can afford it, shelling out about $250 or more on headphones would be a recommended way to get the most out of the PonoPlayer. From my experiences at the listening party last August, they can drive Audeze headphones easily, if that’s the route you want to take.

The design folks at Pono did a good job. The concept was ambitious, and the execution seems more than adequate. The hardware is sound, and the sound is high-quality, given good source files and better-than-average headphones. Is the PonoPlayer worth $400? And will enough customers pony up $400 to make Pono an ongoing proposition? I’d like to think so. I don’t regret my purchase.

For a more thorough take on Pono’s sound and advice regarding matching it to an appropriate headphone, head over to my sometime-editor’s post on Confessions Of A Part-Time Audiophile.

Summing up:

128G of storage, 64G of which is removable
Good, intuitive user interface design
Fits in the hand well, can thumb through tracks efficiently. Shape is less ungainly than it looks.
Support for a variety of formats, with high-resolution support to 24/192
Excellent DAC by Ayre
Sounds great with CD-quality-and-better files after a brief break-in period (provided you’re using good headphones)
Amplifier section seems to drive a variety of headphones easily
Louder (and clearer) than the iPhone!

No gapless playback (yet)
No wifi or Bluetooth connectivity
Click-pop when pressing ‘play’ and sometimes when changing tracks
Mac version of PonoMusic World software is buggy

Music played:
Black Sabbath Black Sabbath 24/96 (Rhino FLAC)
Cowboy Junkies The Trinity Session 24/96 (FLAC Classic Records vinyl rip)
Janet Feder Songs With Words 24/88 (FLAC DVD file)
Ophelie Gaillard Dreams 24/44 (FLAC)
Lisa Germano In the Maybe World 16/44 (AIFF CD rip)
Lubomyr Melnyk Corollaries 24/44 (WAV)
Max Richter The Blue Notebooks 16/44 (FLAC CD rip)
Neil Young Harvest 24/192 (FLAC preloaded on supplied microSD)
Neil Young Harvest Moon 24/96 (FLAC German vinyl rip)

Headphones used:
Sennheiser HD 280 Pro
Apple earbuds

Amplification & Speakers (for non-headphone listening):
Parasound A21 & Paradigm Studio 100 v.5s

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