Canadian music legend Neil Young believes its about time for a music revolution, and he’s been working hard behind the scenes to achieve that with his new ‘iPod Killer’.
Pono is the realisation of the 67-year-old’s plan, which will deliver a “high-resolution, studio-quality, cloud-based digital music ecosystem,” through a digital download service and a dedicated portable music player, as Young publicly revealed on American network television last year.
Details on the new service had been slim until recently, when it was revealed that Pono could be launching before the end of the year, but a statement from Neil Young himself has confirmed that the service will instead roll out in “early 2014”, as IT giant Sony coincidentally emerges with its own high quality music format and dedicated players, signalling a looming battlefront over high-definition audio.
“I’m very happy to bring you some good news. All of us at Team PONO have been focused on getting everything right for our early 2014 launch of Pono,” wrote Neil Young in a Facebook post this week. “The simplest way to describe what we’ve accomplished is that we’ve liberated the music of the artist from the digital file and restored it to its original artistic quality – as it was in the studio,” adds the musician. “So it has primal power.”
How exactly? By delivering high definition audio in stark contrast to the compressed mp3s that the common music consumer is used to through the likes of iTunes and streaming services like Spotify and Deezer. Pono plans to change the attitudes of the average music listener by providing ‘lossless’ audio (re: better than CD/mp3/stream quality), with Young reasoning that once people really hear the difference, they won’t be able to go back.
“Hearing PONO for the first time is like that first blast of daylight when you leave a movie theater on a sun-filled day,” explains Young. “It takes you a second to adjust. Then you enter a bright reality, of wonderfully rendered detail. This music moves you. So you can feel. That’s why so many musicians are behind Pono Music – this is important work that honors their art. This is the way they wanted you to hear their music.”
Young confirms that the official launch early next year will include the line of Pono music players “an updated version of the one I showed on David Letterman’s program” and the online library of music available in the high-definition ‘PonoMusic’ format.
Beyond the optimistic rhetoric, Pono already has significant backing from music industry figures and record labels. High-end audio manufacturers Meridian are on board after Young met with them last June, while Atlantic Records chairman and analogue music enthusiast Craig Kallman has been developing Pono with Young since mid-2011.
Warner Music Group has confirmed it has up to 8,000 songs in its catalogue ready on standby for launch, while the other two of the ‘Big Three’ record labels – Universal and Sony – have also backed Young, with a total “three to five thousand albums” already converted into the high-end PonoMusic format.
However Sony has also cottoned onto the idea of giving the jaded music listener a high-quality sonic experience and is looking to beat Pono to the punch, announcing the launch of its own line of products that plays a brand new format called Direct Stream Digital (DSD) downloads, as USA Today reports. “Now is the time to offer high-resolution audio products that bring music enthusiasts closer to their favourite recordings, and allow them to experience those recordings the way the artists intended.”
Sony announced the new format on Wednesday, which is due to launch in “the fall” (re: September – November), that could potentially upstage Pono; offering a range of ‘High Resolution Audio’ players, and while there’s no strict iPod-style audio player, it does include a set of ‘Hi-Res Audio’ headphones which will play (on selected audio systems) the new DSD format, which is “downloadable music that improves on MP3 and other compressed formats… [that] surpass CD-quality sound and deliver a vinyl-like listening experience.”
The new Sony products also come with a pre-installed 18 song playlist, as Noise11 points out, intended to show off the audio quality through a series of classics from the likes of The Beach Boys, Santana, Miles Davis, Sting and more.
“It’s been more than a decade since the first MP3 digital downloads and music players were introduced to the public,” says Sony President and COO Phil Molyneux in a statement regarding the new DSD format that echoes Young’s sentiments. “Now is the time to offer high-resolution audio products that bring music enthusiasts closer to their favorite recordings, and allow them to experience those recordings the way the artists, producers and engineers always intended.”
Molyneux pointed towards figures from the Consumer Electronics Association that showed consumers had a a growing interest in high-resolution music, noting that for nine in 10 consumers, sound quality was the most important element of a quality audio experiences, with nearly 40% of those surveyed noting they were willing to pay more for high-quality audio electronics devices.
Sony’s got a potted history when it comes to introducing new formats, with just as many misses (Betamax, MiniDisc, UMD) as hits (DVD, Blu-Ray), but only time will tell if the new DSD format is just another niche format, such as DVD-A, SACD, and 16-bit/44.1 Khz CD, and if reading those format titles means something to you, then you’re exactly the kind of person Sony – and Neil Young’s Pono – is aimed at.
Conversely if reading about audio bit-rates and digital to analogue conversion bores you into a coma, then Neil Young and Sony have some major hurdles to overcome.