The PONO Player: Worth The Hype?

Disclaimer & Editor’s note: I jokingly asked Joe if he was interested in doing a PONO guest review for us and he accepted. We did not get the PONO for review ourselves and we won’t be reviewing it any time soon. This is a guest review and not the official point of view of Headfonia (Nathan and Lieven). The text is unedited. Enjoy!

PONO – Play in six Acts

PREFACE

The stage was set and something got kicked and started. Promises were made before.

2014 was a good… no it was a great year for audio Kickstarter projects. LH Labs came up with a whole bunch of components, the PS Audio Sprout hit the goal within days and then there was that one project, which sent shock waves through the audiophile community: the Pono. Backed by a big name in business, Neil Young announced the “new old way to experience music” and promised to bring back the quality in listening habits.

Now, several months later, the postman rang twice and handed over a package: The Pono Player arrived before 2014 ended. Quite late but I was expecting the delivery after seeing reviews pop up on blogs and in forums. The Player should be the link between the music in a “new” quality and the store, which will provide well-known FLAC files on mastering level.

ACT I

We meet our hero. There is a box – without any cat. Form and function will follow. Will the design hit the ground? Something is rotten in the state of power.

Unboxing and a first impression

As I opened the cardboard box, I found a wooden box inside that was pretty nice! Inside that box everything was cheerfully sorted and simple: In the middle there was the player itself, next to it on the right side a leather pouch and on the other side a USB cable. The power plug was hidden under some kind words from Neil Young.

I backed the campaign and chose one of the limited edition players – they had several bands like Beck, Foo Fighters, Norah Jones and others in a so called “Artist Signature Series”. My Pono comes out of the Pearl Jam edition and like all the others it looks like brushed aluminum.

Taking out the player I noticed its surface was made out of plastic. What really surprised me was the form. Alright – I did know, it would come as a triangle shaped player, but this one does fit my hand just fine. Disadvantage of the unusual design: I would never even think about putting this player into my trousers’ pockets.

Let’s look at the design some more for a moment. There is a touch display and three buttons: a “+” shaped one, an “o” shaped one and a “-” shaped one. They are simply made of plastic, you can feel the button right with your fingertips and the pressure point is well implemented.

On top there are two jacks – one with a headphone symbol and one line-out. They can be used for balanced output or for two stereo headphones at the same time. I like this solution.

On the other end there is a USB jack and a little plastic cover which hides the microSD slot. To be honest, it looks so fragile I’m afraid to touch it. The leather case is a fine accessory. You can put the player in it and close the zip. Done!

The USB cable is a type A to micro-B connecting USB standard cable as far as I could see. Unfortunately the power plug is useless for me as it does not fit the power plugs here in Austria. It looks like a US/Japan 2 pole version and I wish they would have just asked before sending the player with a wrong power supply. Other Kickstarter campaigns just do exactly that.

ACT II

The hero sets out. Companions become friends. Someone called Eddie will sing. Clash of headphones – there can only be one!

Ready to listen

Notice: I want to hear the pure player. Therefor I never used an external or additional amp, DAC or anything else to enhance the sound/power of the Pono player. This part of the review will show the differences of listening to the Pono with three headphones. Can the Pono deal with their characteristic sound signatures?

Will the player sing a new song? As I mentioned, I got the Pearl Jam edition, which includes 2 albums of the band preloaded on the Pono. Ok, it is not really “preloaded” but I found “Vs.Expand Version” including some bonus tracks and the latest album “Lightning Bolt”. In addition I discovered another song on the player: Neil Young’s “There’s a World”.

I go for the “Vs.” album, as I know this one since the grunge times (omg, this is long ago…) and grab the Grado RS2 – not a bad choice for some rocking stuff. First of all – Pearl Jam sounds like Pearl Jam. But how is the Pono doing? Well, the combination of the Grado and the Pono immediately took me back years in the listening room at school, where we were used to listen to vinyl and CDs. The third song “Daughter” shows some great sounds. It’s warm and smooth. In this moment I wish the Grado would give me more stage to feel like being live at an unplugged session of Pearl Jam. I can hear Eddie right next to my ears, the guitar sings, the accords come straight through, the bass line is there. This has atmosphere, this has soul, as Neil promised.

But is it the player or is it the Grado, doing this great job? I changed headphones to the HE-300, and started again. First thing I notice is I had to level up the volume. Again, the guitar started the song, and Eddie steps in “Alone,… restless”. But the feeling changed. It does not give me goose bumps anymore. But still the sound is good. It’s clear and natural. But it has lost some of its magic.

Third time is a charm. Back to basics. I took the Beyerdynamic DT770AE for a ride. The rock is back. The Beyer let the guitar not only sing but swing. The added bass by the closed Beyer is great for Pearl Jam’s rocking style and the dynamics are there. The stage again is small but intense. Compared to the other headphones, the Pono – Beyer combo is more intimate. It’s not the “unplugged session” of an MTV event but a small recording room.

I do not know what equipment the guys at Ayre used in developing the Pono, but the Grado and Pono combo is magic. At least with this acoustic song it brings up the feeling music should. It is like when you meet an old friend after several years and there still is something special.

ACT III

The hero takes another test. A big orchestra makes a public appearance.

The classic check

With every headphone I listen to “Dies Irae” from Berlioz “Grand Messe des morts” conducted by Sir Colin Davis in the performance of the London Symphonic Orchestra. This version is a 24bit FLAC file in studio master sound quality. Why this piece of music, you may ask? Well it has everything: drama, dynamic deep bass centered parts and high treble. It is absolutely a tour de force for musicians and for listeners.

How does the Pono player deal with it? The Grado is very clear sounding, again the sound stage is too small for the big orchestration with choirs, but still I can imagine sitting in the concert hall and listening to the trumpets, the violins and the flutes. Nearly 15 minutes of power and dynamics, ongoing with fiercely instruments. I never heard the Grado doing classic stuff this well. Impressive.

At the very first start the Hifiman HE-300 really surprises me. The clearer sound signature absolutely adds more space in the dense recording. This is great! The player comes up with fine details without being aseptic or too fragile and the HE-300 translates this directly into my head. The lyrics are more understandable and especially the flutes and female song lines are clearly distinguishable. As I noticed already, the Pono’s volume is nearly at top level with the Hifiman but that’s fine – at least for me.

Both the Grado and Hifiman did a great job and the DT-770 is the only closed headphone in this race. But it is there, it can keep up with both of the others. The sound is not as easy as the Hifiman’s and it reduces the intense recording to: right between your ears. The Beyer misses the dynamics of the Grado and the airiness of the Hifiman but the Pono delivers a fine sound picture which the DT770 can provide in a straight way.

It continues after the click!

The PONO Player: Worth The Hype?
4.3 (85.71%) 7 vote[s]

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36 Comments

  • Reply January 17, 2015

    digitldlnkwnt

    Did i read something wrong or do you start out by saying the Pono Player is triangle shaped? I’m confused because I don’t see any triangles? It does look pretty long though, like a longer iPod Gen 2 Nano
    Pretty good article; I would recommend writing more about the sound from an objective point of view. Describe the bass, mids and treble and their relation to one another, and variances from headphone to headphone while staying away from more abstract analogies. You lost me on the whole “wall building up thing”. Being the reader, thats what i like to see.
    Thanks for taking the time to review. I think you’re off to a good start and I hope you get the chance to do another in the future.

    • Reply January 18, 2015

      Joe Gstettner

      Hi!

      Thanks for your response and feedback.

      @triangle: yes, the player does have a triangle shaped profile. I should have added a picture to show this.
      @size: Have a look at the pictures at the end of the article. There you have some other players to compare the size. It is longer than the iPod Nano G2, yes.
      @point of view: thanks for the suggestions. I am going to try this if I ever get the chance to do another review.

      Cheers,
      Joe

      • Reply January 18, 2015

        digitldlnkwnt

        OHHHH!, NOW i see- it thought you had it propped up on it’s side. Thanks for the clarification.

  • Reply January 18, 2015

    sam

    Hm. I must say, my Pono does spend most of its time in my trouser pocket…

    As far as sound goes, for the first few hours it sounded almost distorted – it needs some running in – but after that it became precise and delicate. Not warm – and especially not as warm as the rockboxed Sansa Clip+ I had on hand, which incidentally seemed dramatically detail-less in comparison.

    I didn’t have much else to compare it with, but found that it sounded better with my Grado RS1i headphones than they do with my Lake People G109 balanced headphone amp & the UAD Apollo acting as DAC. The soundstage was more coherent, and the nasty treble edge the Grado has with some recordings (I’m thinking the Salomon Quartet’s otherwise excellent recording of Mozart’s Haydn Concertos) was gone. While there in general doesn’t seem to be any reduction in treble which may be causing this (I’m wondering if it is due to some interaction between the player and the headphones, possibly the player output and headphone impedances), this may not be the best player to use for absolute tonal accuracy – however, given that you won’t be mastering records on it, I don’t see why that would be necessary – it does sound lovely…

    My Sennheiser HD650 headphones on the other hand were maybe a bit less of a hit with it – I don’t think the Pono has quite enough power to help them give their all. Sadly, I can’t be more elaborate – I’m not well versed enough to describe what might be going on there. With these headphones, the Lake People amp seems to be the winner.

    In conclusion, thumbs up to the Pono, assuming your headphones have a lowish power requirement. (I’m currently enjoying my Cardas ear speakers the most with it. Yum)

    OTHER POINT TO NOTE: The software used with the Pono is just Jriver’s Media Centre. So, if you already have and enjoy that software, no need to download the Pono software (and you can ignore all the negative noises about it). HOWEVER, you don’t need any software at all to use the player itself (with the possible exception of creating playlists, which I haven’t yet explored), as the player (and SD card) simply mount as hard drives when you plug them into your computer.

    • Reply January 18, 2015

      Joe Gstettner

      Hi Sam!

      Thanks for this addition information!

      The Pono is a really great match with the Grados… but putting this unit in my pocket all day long is nothing I can imagine 🙂

      @connecting to computer: here on my Macbook it does not work at the first time. Unplug, replug and after several tries, it shows up. There is no such issue with the Pono Music World App, it’s just there. Strange, hm?
      As you mentioned, I should try the Jriver’s Media Center instead.

      Cheers,
      Joe

    • Reply April 2, 2015

      FF_Bookman

      I finally got some deets on the signal chain in the Ponoplayer. It’s compelling and sounds very nice on everything I’ve connected it to.

      In laymen’s terms — very good DAC, subtle filtering on high-resolution, on the digital side.

      Then in the analog stage – this is where its unlike it’s peers: discreet grounds, discreet AC all the way through, silent capacitors, and a focus on removing all distortion every stage along.

      Ayre calls it “negative feedback”. Instead of each component finding a sweet spot w/some distortion, Ayre works to remove it completely, sending a cleaner signal to the next stage in the circuit.

      Then there’s the purity of the build — no radios, no sensors, no power supply on the analog board. No need for 5000 features, just play pure audio in highest quality.

      Every song I’ve played on the PP has revealed more material, even at 16/44, than any other player I’ve heard. I’m not a high-end guy, but I’ve been in some nice recording studios and PP rivals anything they use for playback.

  • Reply January 18, 2015

    dalethorn

    This player interests me if the navigation is fast. Can I put 1000 songs on a card and plug it in and access those songs on the Pono, and can I get to a song like “Neil Young – Ohio” immediately? I need to repeat that – is there a way to get to that track immediately, by pressing a button for tracks that begin with “N” for example?

    • Reply January 18, 2015

      Joe Gstettner

      Hi!

      The players software is quite fast.But I did not tried it with 1000 songs. There are several options for song navigation:

      – Artists (alphabetic list):
      — “Metallica
      — 1 Album/12 Songs”

      – Album (alphabetic sorted album covers)

      – Songs (alphabetic list)
      — “Lightning Bolt”
      — ” Peal Jam 4:13″

      – Playlists

      This is what you will find without any changes in the option menu. In the “Songs” section the touch screen will provide a “scroll bar” on the right side which you can use for fast navigation. The player will show the letter in a “popup” in the middle which starting letter you are reaching now … phuuu thats not easy to explain in words… Does this help you? If not, maybe I try to film the navigation and upload it somewhere, ok?

      Cheers,
      Joe

      • Reply January 18, 2015

        dalethorn

        If you can select another “letter” from the popup, that would be fast. If scrolling is all you have, then it would need to scroll from a to z very quickly.

  • Reply January 19, 2015

    Aaron Goldberg

    Hi there, this is a great review, good to read about the comparisons with headphones other players..I have heard the Pono compared to the AK100 and the Fiio X5..The bad news is the PONO is simply not in the league of the Anstell and Kern – they are still the top of the pack, the question is whether one wants to spend $1000+ for it..The PONO is ‘slightly’ better soundwise than the X5 – more spacious, less bassy – and of course the X5 has DSD, however you need to spend at least $100 on a MicroSD to match the space requirements of the Pono …I haven’t heard the X5 through a hifi system or in a car. I can vouch that the PONO sounds superb in my car via Aux and 3.5mm cable and it sounds lovely directly into my PrimaLuna Dialogue amp, better than the Raspberry Pi DAC running Volumio, as well…. The only gripe I have with the PONO audio wise is it can struggle with hi-mid ranges/treble when you crank it. Hopefully this can be tweaked??? For it’s pricepoint the PONO is pretty good, but you know that in the next 6 months, something will beat it, probably a new Fiio, perhaps?? I would safely say the PONO interface is as crap as the X5 interface.

    • Reply January 19, 2015

      Joe Gstettner

      Hi Aaron,

      thanks for your inputs. AK100 and Fiio X5 are DAPs, which I don’t own… at least at the moment. Using the Pono in the car makes sense as the design does not matter. But than I really would love to see a “button-only” navigation as I don’t wanna use a touch screen (this size) in my car.

      I just checked the Fiio X5 price on amazon… 398€. That’s pretty close to the Pono which I would expect in Europe with 399€ (as the website says 399$).

      Cheers,
      joe

      • Reply January 28, 2015

        lax parsimoniae

        Double press on the middle button forwards to the next track. Triple is back. Yes, there is “button only” navigation – of sorts.

        • Reply January 28, 2015

          Joe Gstettner

          Hi!

          Thanks. Never tried this 🙂 some sort of button navigation, yes.

          Cheers
          Joe

      • Reply February 23, 2015

        Aaron Goldberg

        Just thought I’d add the latest PONO firmware has given it DSD capability, I guess this makes it better than the Fiio X5, although the Fiio has a better build quality, it wasnt designed by Ayre 🙂

    • Reply February 27, 2015

      willy vlyminck

      Sorry, but the AK 100 first generation was so overrated, and God know why ? It simply wasn’t worth the demanded price but was hyped in the so called specialized press, and many were left behind dissapointed, so I think the whole HiFi scene lives from unsatisfied customers.

  • Reply February 26, 2015

    willy vlyminck

    In a blindtest ,the majority liked the sound of the iPhone 6 more than the Pono, some were of course very surprised about their own ears, after hearing the result 🙂

    • Reply February 26, 2015

      dalethorn

      I have the iPhone 6-plus, and it sounds much better than my iPhone5 and 5s, but it seems unlikely it would beat the Pono. I certainly wouldn’t trust blind testing, since well-known blind tests have shown instances where cheap $1 interconnects have been preferred over $1000 cables. A much better test would be a few reliable reviewers.

      • Reply February 27, 2015

        willy vlyminck

        I am pro blind listening tests,why? Simple because one remain more neutral,and not impressed for example by the build quality of a 2400 Euro Dap of simply the brands reputation. The blind test here was not about who is the best, but which sound they actually like more.what is the best anyway? How good can sound be? There are people owning an IE800, a AK240 and a Chord Hugo and even this people look how sound can improve forgetting the recording quality is the main point.

        • Reply February 27, 2015

          dalethorn

          I am not generally in favor of blind tests, for reasons that Art Dudley so elegantly and scientifically explained in a recent Stereophile article.

          http://www.stereophile.com/content/listening-143

          • Reply February 27, 2015

            willy vlyminck

            That is normal, he speaks for his job and existance, no professional reviewer will admit that blind listening have it’s advantages that certainly serve the customer who often spends thousands of Euro’s and still is not satisfied. They are part of the system to hype new players, and the best only remains the best untill the follow up comes. When AK come with a 4800 Euro costing AK 480 , the 240 will suddenly be rubbish , that is how things work , but it is far away from any rational thinking.

            • Reply February 27, 2015

              Headfonia_L.

              I only partly agree but you have a point. AK, might happen sooner than you think…

            • Reply February 27, 2015

              dalethorn

              Actually, no – Art is making sense by providing new information that people rarely read, when most pro-blind testers are dismissive of anything else. I highly recommend that users actually *read* what Art has to say, since it represents my experience and millions of others.

    • Reply April 1, 2015

      FF_Bookman

      Disturbing but true. More proof you should never pay attention to a blind music listening test.

      The PonoPlayer so clearly sounds better than an iPhone that if you even have the tiniest sense of hearing, were born before 1990, and listen to something made by real instruments, it’s like night and day.

      If your ears were as good at picking things out of a lineup as your eyes are, you could pick it 10 out of 10 times.

      ABX tests are completely counter to how we naturally consume music.Thus their results are always total confusion.

    • Reply April 2, 2015

      dalethorn

      As an ordinary consumer who values his time, I could spend $400 or more finding about about that ‘blind’ test, or just spend the money on the Pono. I think I’ll get the Pono, since I doubt that Apple made a superior player on purpose. I mean, just ask Apple sometime — “hey guys, is the iPhone really designed to be a superior audiophile player?” Don’t hold your breath.

      • Reply April 2, 2015

        willy vlyminck

        In the blind test result, they did not talk about absolute soundquality whatever that may be, but the sound the listeners like the most, and unfortunately for the audiophiles here, the majority liked the Apple sound the most, this is my last reply on this matter.

        • Reply April 2, 2015

          dalethorn

          So you’ve posted a lot about this, to what end? To tell us audiophiles we’re wrong, or we can’t hear? Just asking – but then again, you’ve pledged not to answer.

          • Reply April 2, 2015

            willy vlyminck

            Ok,one more, all is relative, and it is not about right or wrong or audiophiles versus the average listener, but simply which kind of soundsignature sounds right to one. I mentioned this test because I believe it can’t be more neutral than that, and the result was a surprise to me too, but it learns us, don’t follow the hype but your ears no matter the brand or price.

            • Reply April 2, 2015

              dalethorn

              All cannot be relative because then your statement would be relative – sometimes right and sometimes wrong – and when wrong, all is not relative. That’s logic 101. There is no ‘versus’ here BTW – we’re audiophiles, and we know that despite your ‘news’ of the blind test, the iPhone will not be the superior sound. And BTW #2, we’re not surprised either.

          • Reply July 25, 2015

            willy vlyminck

            I wouldn´t go so far to say you are wrong as audiophiles, but it is hard to admit when you buy a 1000+ dollar player to accept that some are equal as good as a 400 dollar or less player.The new iPod 6g is finally there, which you also doubt if it would come, and again, the total package is a price/ quality winner, unfortunately it is more a multi-media player than a strict music player, but I am sure those guys at Apple know what they are doing.

  • Reply April 1, 2015

    FF_Bookman

    Good review, I agree with most of that, I’ve had a kickstarter ponoplayer for about 5 months now and I totally love it. I’m discovering my cd collection, hearing things I never heard before. It’s been a lifesaver for me, I’m happily throwing out all low-res versions of music I have made over the years. I only have about 30 of the 128gb full so far, but am planning on having about 1.5tb of music once all my cd’s are ripped to flac. I wrote a long review of the PP myself, check it out here: http://tinyurl.com/qhp3smt. I plug mine into regular, cheap & vintage gear.

    • Reply April 1, 2015

      dalethorn

      I’ve been trying and retrying to connect to this site with little success. BTW, where is the review text?

      • Reply April 1, 2015

        FF_Bookman

        try this: http://wfnk.com/blog/ponoplayer-review/
        i got whitelisted the other day myself, not sure what’s going on with the web server.

        i’m not gonna repost the text here in disqus, too long. maybe dump your cache or try another browser? it’s slow but it just loaded for me.

  • Reply April 1, 2015

    FF_Bookman

    About the shape — I really like it. No joke. Way smarter than a slab. Slab is a horrible shape for a music player. Why is the Pono better? Let me count the ways:

    1 – no stand needed, ever
    2 – no case needed, ever
    3 – sits however you set it and is readable from 4 of the 5 sides
    4 – very comfortable in the hand, completely natural
    5 – does not usually slide across a flat surface like a slab
    6 – headphone cables are protected because they are not on the edge
    7 – sits where you set it in the car, including coin trays, cupholders, and map pockets
    8 – rolls around your bag without much care, now that the button lock in software works
    9 – fits perfectly in inside pockets, jacket and hoodie pockets
    10 – the 3 large obvious shaped buttons let you do the basics from your pocket – play/pause/skip/volume

  • Reply April 2, 2015

    FF_Bookman

    from review: “I really do love simple solutions like the Tera-Player. Put your files on an SD card and put it in. Ready, go, listen. I wish the Pono guys would allow something like this for the player.”

    Isn’t this side-loading? When I plug in my PP and it asks if I want to go into transfer mode, it then mounts 2 volumes on my desktop – Pono and Untitled (the card). Assuming I’m going into the music directory, I can just drag and drop albums right there and the PP sees them fine when going back to playback mode.

    • Reply April 2, 2015

      dalethorn

      So if there’s a particular song on the card that you want to play, what’s the worst-case time to get to that song and start playing it?

      • Reply April 2, 2015

        FF_Bookman

        I’m not familiar with Tera-Player, I’ll try to answer for PP.

        PP scans the music library when it comes out of transfer mode. I suppose if you popped the card in and went into playback mode, it would take about 10 seconds to scan the library then you’d need to scroll to the song or album or artist or playlist and hit it to start playing.

        Maybe 30 seconds or so to get a song from an external.

        I still get the audible pop through the speakers when the amps shut off for transfer mode, and come back on after. I don’t mind it, it’s the analog goodness warming up, but it wouldn’t work for a live sound situation so I hope they suppress that pop.

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