Monday, April 7, 2014

A more interesting anti-Pono screed

Yeah, I'm talking about Pono, the silly $400 audiophile music player that makes the typical silly audiophile claims about why it's better. I could write a typical anti-audiophile screed and denounce their marketing copy as pseudoscience. I already did this on a G+ post and feel sort of silly about that, not because what I wrote wasn't true but because it wasn't very interesting. I have much more interesting things to say about the Pono than, Your claims are silly and you should feel silly!. Here they are:

  • Pono might actually sound better than your phone. But less due to the expensive hardware in the Pono than the expensive hardware in your phone. The worst audio fidelity problems encountered in the real world are much more prosaic than those Pono talks about in its ad copy. One of my old computers, the dearly departed talkingcookie, suffered from noisy interference in audio I/O during hard drive, mouse, and keyboard activity. This sort of thing is caused by simple board layout and shielding problems that could just as easily occur on a phone. If I had to guess, though, iPhones have probably never had this problem.
  • Pono is Prius-shaped. Some people have commented on Pono's weird triangle shape, speculating that it wouldn't fit well in your pocket. They weren't buying one anyway. Driving a Pontiac Aztek sets you apart as someone that bought an ugly car. Driving a Toyota Prius sets you apart as someone that bought a green car, at least to people soft-headed enough to think the environmental difference between a Prius and a typical car is anything but incremental --- fortunately for Toyota Americans are notoriously soft-headed about cars. To those that are soft-headed about audio fidelity the Pono's wacky shape sets them apart as discerning, and fortunately for Pono Americans are notoriously soft-headed about music.
  • Pono isn't straight-up elitism, but it's sideways elitism. Neil Young said something about wanting to take the experience of listening to music back to his beloved 1970s. In the 1970s the parts of the audio chain the Pono represents really made a difference. They were the quality and condition of the vinyl disc and of your turntable. Today the other parts of the audio chain vary as much as ever: the mixing and mastering of the music on one end, and on the other the amplifiers, speakers or headphones, and listening environments. But the fidelity of the record from the master copy to the DAC is solid for everyone. This must gall the elitist, who subconsciously sees ubiquitous access to high-fidelity audio as desacralizing it somehow. If there's a case to be made that recorded audio quality is worse today, it's about the loudness war, and how the listening environments of loud cars, buses, and trains have contributed to it. Of course the Pono doesn't try to elevate the living room as the preferred environment to entice tomorrow's engineers to master for nice, quiet spaces. It instead promises flat frequency response (hmmmmmm...) no matter what kind of lousy headphones you're using (their ad copy elsewhere dares to utter the word earbuds, so... hmmmmmmmmmmm...) by virtue of its... low output impedance? Well, I said I wasn't going to harp on the pseudoscience, so...


(EDIT: formatting derps)