Neil Young Builds a Boom Box for 21st Century

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- In a press announcement Monday, ahead his interview appearance at Austin's SXSW, Neil Young, the legendary singer, songwriter and innovator unveiled his Pono music system in a press announcement, promising an end-to-end high-quality audio experience for the casual listener. The goal of the system is to ensure that the music that plays back for the consumer is the same high quality that the musicians hear in the studio.

Young has formed a company to support his product, PonoMusic, with himself as president and chairman and John Hamm as CEO. Hamm is the author of the book, Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership, a professor at Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University and former CEO of Whistle Communications, which was acquired by IBM (IBM) in 1999. 

Before we get into Pono, a note about existing music media: Old vinyl albums and tapes were capable of capturing continuous lifelike sound. The vibrations of the music are literally etched into the vinyl or into magnetic patterns on tape, like paint laid in brush strokes across a canvas. Digital music, by comparison, has to quantify that sound into bits that can be stored into patterns of ones and zeros, the same way that a digital image of a brush stroke is actually a collection of pixels.

Because of processing, download and memory limitations, mp3s and most other types of music files involve some compression of the sound, reducing the size of the file and resulting in a perceptible loss of audio quality. But even CDs, which have what is termed a "lossless" reproduction, actually lose a certain amount of the original music, clipping off very high frequencies and stripping out subtle ambient elements that, when included, can give the audio an added sense of depth.

No medium today approaches the universality and the quality that vinyl had at its peak -- markets and machinery for the mass distribution of a physical product and music players capable, at the high end, of rendering a truly lifelike musical experience.

Young's PonoMusic system wants to be that medium. It uses a sound resolution and sampling rate that are both much higher than that used for CDs. While the sound is still quantified, nothing of the real sound experience is lost. 

Young has said he was moved to investigate high-quality digital audio as a recorded musician, disappointed with the quality of sound available through digital media. 

"It's about the music, real music," Young says in the press release. "We want to move digital music into the 21st century and PonoMusic does that. We couldn't be more excited -- not for ourselves, but for those that are moved by what music means in their lives."

Pono consists of a hardware playback device, the PonoPlayer that was announced Wednesday, an online music store, PonoMusic.com, and library software that lives on your personal device, very much like iTunes. The technology for Pono was developed in partnership with the Boulder, Colo.-based audio technology company, Ayre.

The press release promises "major labels and prominent independent labels" will be represented at PonoMusic.com, although it doesn't list them and adds that the catalog will be "curated . . . for discriminating PonoMusic customers" -- a nice way of saying it probably won't have everything most of us want.

Still, it could be a significant improvement over the status quo. There are, already, some very high-resolution formats and stores with existing catalogs, but nothing like what Pono is promising with its integration of a store, sizable catalog, a hardware player and archiving software.

What will this mean to the average Joe on the street with cheap earbuds and Justin Bieber mp3s? Nothing. At least not yet. But if Pono can unite audiophiles -- and it probably will -- then it will have set a new standard for the recording industry, and the cultural expectation for audio quality everywhere will slowly be raised.

Pricey Question Marks

Big questions remain, of course, beginning with the fact that at this moment, most of us haven't heard the PonoPlayer or PonoMusic's audio format. The price tag of the player is $399, although when the product officially launches Wednesday through a Kickstarter campaign, participants will be eligible for a discount.

The price point is probably no accident. When the first Apple  (AAPL) iPod was released in October 2001, it was also priced at $399. As the line of iPod products and their popularity swelled over the ensuing decade, the price dropped. So that price carries a clear implication: the more popular Pono is, the faster the price will come down.

The player is 128 gigabytes and will hold hundreds of albums. Memory cards will let you expand beyond that limitation. Still, you're talking about shelling out hundreds of dollars for a separate music player when people currently are used to getting a player/phone/camera/texting device/flashlight/alarm clock/pocketwatch -- OK, I'll stop -- for less than that. Plus, the new format means the old format is obsolete. 

Cue Agent K in the first Men in Black: "I guess that means I'll have to buy 'The White Album' again."

Then there's the final wrinkle: Even as Young has labored over Pono the last few years, the music industry has moved dramatically toward streaming services. Single album sales have fallen off. Instead, we listen via some ad-based or subscription service like Pandora (P), Spotify, Beats Music or Rdio.

Still, all is not lost. Many people aren't giving up on the ownership aspect of music. As TheStreet's Jason Notte pointed out recently, a significant number are using streaming services for casual listening and buying vinyl copies of the music they really love.

Vinyl sales have been in an uptrend. That alone implies that consumers not only want ownership, they want quality. And that is Pono's wheelhouse.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park, preparing to leave for SXSW

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