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I Wanna Live With the Digital Girl

by Paul Rapp on April 17, 2014

 

Neil Young has long railed against digital music, particularly MP3s. He once observed that listening to an MP3 was like looking through a screen that only allowed one color through each hole. And of course he’s right. MP3s are approximations of what you get on a CD, which itself is an often lifeless version of what happens in the studio, or for older recordings, what you’d get on a vinyl record.

Being the kind of guy who doesn’t tear down without building up, Young announced last year that he was partnering with some techies to create a device that plays super-high-quality digital music files. It’s called Pono. Seed money for the company was raised on Kickstarer; the initial $800,000 goal was doubled on the first day and the total blew past $6 million this week. Which is great, I guess, although I do wonder about using Kickstarter for what’s clearly a corporate endeavor.

So what is Pono? It’s a small device with three sides (Dave Grohl said it looks like a Toblerone, and it does) that stores and plays digital music tracks. It’s tricked out to play super-high-quality music files, files with more information, higher resolution, and better sound than CDs. As the Pono promo machine boasts, you’ll be listening to exactly what comes out of the recording studio. The cost for this thing is $400.

What’s not to like? Well, nothing I guess, but this isn’t the revolutionary advance it’s being touted as. It’s likely to be a small niche audiophile product that could well collapse under its own weight.

It’s an inevitable product; there’s already plenty of devices out there that are comparable, and if there weren’t there would be soon. It’s also trying to be a train that actually left the station a long, long time ago.

The Pono model is based on downloaded song files. It’s going to have an iTunes-like store where you can download these superfiles; Pono claims that all the major labels are on board with providing music, and that it’s working with indies “to bring a diverse selection of music” to Pono customers. I dunno, sounds to me like the library’s gonna be limited, particularly at first.  Over the last 10 years we’ve gotten used to virtually unlimited music, millions of different tracks, from hits to profound obscurities.  I’m not sure how many of us wanna go back.

Pono says albums will be available for $15 to $25. While it appears that customers will also be able to buy single tracks, the emphasis on albums really underscores how backward-looking this thing is. Albums? Really? We’ve been living in a singles world at least since Napster liberated the music so people could consume it how they wanted. We don’t listen to albums nearly as much as we listen to playlists, or music suggestion services like Pandora. It appears that Pono is aimed primarily at middle-aged white-guy music geeks, the kind of folks who still get baked and listen to Dark Side Of The Moon or 2012 alone in the dark. Which is fine, but it ain’t gonna change the world.

And then there’s the whole download thing. Earth to Pomo: Downloading is going the way of the buffalo, the cassette, and the compact disc. We’ve got Spotify. We’ve got Beats Music. The only thing standing in the way of ubiquitous streaming of music in the United States is its pathetic broadband infrastructure (which I gotta believe is gonna get fixed in the next 5-10 years) and public awareness. Ownership of music is going to be marginalized in favor of convenience and unlimited instantaneous selection, and soon the only folks who will care about “owning” digital files will be the aforementioned geeks, fetishists really, who’ll feel all warm and wet knowing that they own a superfile of Tubular Bells.

Then there’s the technical side. Pono will have 128 GB of storage, which translates to about 800 superfiles. Which ain’t a whole lot. It accommodates memory cards and remote storage, but so what? Who wants to deal with that? And a lot of commentators are saying that most of Pono’s incremental audio quality is undetectable to the human ear. So, while it probably will sound better than CDs to the discerning ear, it’s your dog that’s really gonna party on with Pono.

Add to this the fact that the target demo, the middle-aged white guys reliving their 1978 dorm-room glories, have long blown out their eardrums going to shows, falling asleep with the headphones on, grudgingly settling for ear-killing ear buds. In fact, I could be the poster child for the target demo. Excuse me, what?

Godspeed, Neil Young; I think you’re going uphill backwards. But, damn, I want one anyways.

Paul Rapp is an area intellectual property lawyer and musician who wrote this whilst listening to “Thick As A Brick 2” on 40-year-old audio gear.