The PONO Player: Worth The Hype?

ACT IV

The hero meets his greatest challenge. Brothers in arms. The battle begins and the hero shouts “Run, Boy, Run!”.

The player vs. player listening competition

For the player comparison testing, I used the Grado RS2 for all the players and listened to “Woodkid – Run, Boy, Run”. This is my favorite album of 2014 and for me it is easy when it comes to details in testing, as I heard this song so often in the last months. Every player was put to standard settings (no equalizers or sound enhancements) and I tried to go for the same file format: either WAV (converted with EAC) or FLAC (24/16bit).

Pono & Colorfly C4

At first glance, the Pono player has nothing in common with the Colorfly C4 – absolute different style, focus and build quality. Here it’s wood versus plastic, oldschool near-steam-punk design versus slick and modern Bauhaus. But then you find some common grounds: both are not small enough to put them into your pocket and both stand out with an unusual appearance. When it comes to sound quality, the C4 is no challenge for the Pono player. I would actually put the Pono far above the Colorfly. It provides much more detail, more dynamics and it is just so much better. No doubt about it: The Pono is the clear winner in this first duel.

Pono & iPod Classic 5Gen rockboxed

The iPod was rockboxed to allow me playing WAV and FLAC files without messing around with iTunes. This is my favorite player on holidays as the hard disk just stores incredible amounts of music. The iPod has the same file as the Pono, so it is a real face to face competition.

This is a close one. The Pono is absolutely there and for my taste, it gained the lead. Not much, but listening to “Run, Boy Run” the iPod seems to lose some details especially in the background. Maybe it is the pairing with the Grado that gives the Pono the advantage as I am used to enjoy the iPod with closed headphones in public spaces. The direct comparison leads to a tough decision: Both are doing great but with this song and the Grado RS2 I choose the Pono.

Pono & SanDisk Sansa Clip rockboxed

The mini-player with rockbox power is my everyday choice as it’s small and handy, easy to handle and provides great music without any effort. Both players are loaded with “Run, Boy, Run”. First the Pono, then a switch to the Sansa. Again from the beginning as it is really hard to get differences in sound quality. After the third listening session I am able to nail something down. After about one minute, the song is going to build up massive sound walls in the speakers and there it is: the SanDisk is using massive concrete with clear edges and the Pono is more doing the same with earth and without any sharp ridges. Can you get it? The Pono is a little smoother and warmer but the difference is so small, it is hard to get it.

If you want an affordable player for day-to-day usage, take the Sansa and rockbox it. The difference with the Pono is so small, it’s hard to justify the extra $$$.

Pono & Altmann Tera-Player

Yes, I do have the Altmann Tera-Player – a piece of audio gear which seems to be one of the most controversial in the audio community. I love it. The sound is incredible, the black background is deep as the Mariana Trench and the playback is awesome.

So this is the one to beat. My king of DAPs. Can the Pono come close? To keep it short, yes it can. But not as close as it is between the rockbox-players. Listening to both, the Pono and the Tera-Player, I could identify the Tera every single time. The challenger itself is doing a great job but could not reach the Tera-player level. The gap is not as big as I expected before. If the Pono Music store comes up with a studio-master quality sound file of “Woodkids” album, there is a real chance to beat the Tera-Player when it comes to sound quality.

ACT V

The fight is over: Nothing else matters and the winner takes it all.

Conclusion

The Colorfly is no challenge for the Pono – it plays more on the level of a rockboxed iPod and Sansa Clip. The Pono provides a good sound but with the design it has clear a disadvantage in terms of handling and practicality. Add the price difference to the Sandisk or to a used iPod and there is no reason to go for the Pono anymore.

I really would love to read about a duel of the Pono with any Astell & Kern player. My guess is the Pono won’t have a chance as it did not win against the Tera-Player.

Will I replace one of my players with the Pono? No. The Sandisk is doing such a great job in offering best file support in such a small device for daily commuting, and the iPod holds my favorite collection of music for holidays. The design of the Pono is just a no-go in both use-cases but when it comes to have a player at the office, it might do a great job.

ACT VI

It is a hard way back home from the battleground. No singing and jubilate. Just another challenge on the sideway.

The only way at the moment to load music to the Pono is the Pono Music Player app. I don’t get happy with this piece of software. It’s a player and a store and should be an alternative to iTunes but it cannot reach the iTunes level by far. The interface is noisy and messed up with messages, banners and content objects without any clear focus. The shop has to improve a lot, most music is still on CD level and not in the promised quality files.

Note:I got the hint to try this: update the Pono, connect to USB, confirm the popup on the player and check the “Finder” on my MacBook. If the Pono does not appear as external drive, unplug the USB, wait, connect again and confirm the popup. Do it several time, till the player is shown. This should work in 9 of 10 times. Looks like a workaround to avoid the Pono Music application.

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. Every one of us does already have digital music and wants a simple solution to listen to it. I can understand that Neil Young and his crew want to have some kind of control to keep the quality up. But does it really need a restrictive piece of software?

Another story is the design. For a portable player it is wrong: you cannot put it into your trousers for on the go. For a desktop solution, it is ok. But it is not sold as a stand-on-your-desk device and therefor I do miss a line-in option. Or at least some connection to use the Pono as a DAC for my office computer.

How is the handling of the player? Well, it is a mixture of touch-display navigation and button-press action. This may lead to some confusion. An example: to shut the player down, you press the “o” button for some seconds. Then the display will show some options: “Shutdown”, “Sleep” and “Cancel”. You can’t choose an option with the buttons, you have to aim with your fingertips. Mainly the buttons “+” and “-” are only for volume control and cannot be used to scroll through lists. It works for me but with bigger fingers it might cause some problems. Personally I prefer any button navigation over touch control as I think this is the better option as it is more accurate.

EPILOG

Our hero is at home again. His world has changed. Time to say “Goodbye”.

The Pono Player is a quite good piece of hardware which does its job: the sound quality levels rockboxed devices like the iPod. But to be something special, sorry Neil, it’s not enough. With some improvements on the Pono Store including more high resolution tracks AND an affordable price, the Pono will find its niche. For 399$ you won’t get something to challenge your top audio gear. And guess what? If you want to leave the Apple ecosystem with its iTunes bondage, you won’t be happy as the Pono comes only with the Pono ecosystem. And there is a lot of room for improvement there.

If you do own and love a Grado headphone, give the Pono a try. The RS2 and the Pono is such a great combination. If you do have a collection of high resolution tracks this might be the combo you have been waiting for. Neither the Grado nor the Pono are the best units for public music listening but at work or at home you might fall in love.

Note by the author: Last but not least I want to say thanks to “Headfonia.com” for giving the chance to write this review and for the great support when it comes to improving the first drafts.

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Editor’s note: And I would like to thank Joe for writing it for us. Thanks!

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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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