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.
The fight is over: Nothing else matters and the winner takes it all.
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.
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.
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.
Editor’s note: And I would like to thank Joe for writing it for us. Thanks!