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
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.
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.
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.
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!