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Neil Young evokes Steve Jobs, plans to take on Apple's iPod

March 11, 2014

"My, my, hey, hey, it's time MP3's went away." That's the song being sung by Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Neil Young who believes the iPod may have changed the music business, but not for the better when it comes to the reproduction of sound. That's why he is debuting his PonoMusic service through a Kickstarter campaign on March 12. Also making its debut will be Mr. Young's PonoPlayer (sugg. retail $399), which will be offered at a discount through Kickstarter.

"We want to move digital music into the 21st century and PonoMusic does that," said Mr. Young in a statement. "We couldn't be more excited — not for ourselves, but for those that are moved by what music means in their lives."

The idea behind the PonoMusic service player and service is to give consumers access to the quality of sound they would get playing a vinyl record but in a digital download format.

Mr. Young, as reported by Rolling Stone magazine, has said in the past that he thinks Steve Jobs would have done something similar had he not died. The two met on the idea of a higher quality service before Mr. Jobs passed away.

"Steve Jobs [was] a pioneer of digital music, and his legacy is tremendous," Mr. Young said. "But when he went home, he listened to vinyl. And you've got to believe that if he'd lived long enough, he would have done what I'm trying to do."

The PonoPlayer has 128GB of memory and can store up to "500 high-resolution digital-music albums." Memory cards can be used to store and play playlists.


Discussion Questions:

Are consumers ready for a music service and device that offers higher audio quality than that found in the typical iPod or smartphone today? How do you expect Apple, Google, Samsung, etc. to react to the launch of PonoMusic/PonoPlayer?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

Will PonoMusic spell the end for MP3s?


There is certainly a market for high quality audio. I was involved in the high-end production and post-production music business when the digital format was introduced. The producers and record companies feared digital for reproduction/bootlegging and the fact that they no longer had a higher quality master in the vault. MP3 changed that. The compression used in MP3 definitely compromises the original sound quality. Whether that matters with some types of music genres is valid, but there is a market for these high end reproductions.

This is a limited market and as such I don't see Apple or Google rushing to "compete" if it requires different hardware. They would certainly sell the higher resolution audio files for the people who would pay a premium for this aural difference.

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Adrian Weidmann, Principal, StoreStream Metrics, LLC

There is a segment of the consumer market that appreciates quality sound reproduction, but not all. Many consumers cannot hear the difference in quality. Too many young people have damaged their hearing by playing music too loud and therefore would be unable to hear the difference. Households have invested money in surround sound systems for viewing movies. Many of these systems are just gathering dust.

Improving quality is always good and should be expected, the question is what price consumers will pay for this improvement and how big is this segment.

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W. Frank Dell II, CMC, President, Dellmart & Company

There is always a niche market for something high quality. Nevertheless, I'm thinking we may hear "Sweet Home Alabama" in the background of coming Apple commercials.


It's an interesting idea, but unless I'm missing something, the qualities of vinyl/very wide tape formats (how they were originally mastered) aren't really transferable to digital formats.

If Mr. Young has got there, I'd have to see some commentary on the quality from a true audiophile, and an understanding of the level of system I'd need to take advantage of that quality. Then...you know, I'd be interested.

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Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research

Sure, I mean some of them are. However, one must put things in perspective and to do that, PonoMusic must provide a significant experience. There was a time when music was only a living room experience but today, music is 80% automobile, 18% personal (ear phones). How much more fidelity can be produced through automobile speakers and/or ear buds that can actually be discerned?

While this may be a great move forward for audiophiles I don's see people ditching MP3/4 players in droves to move to a new standard. The PonoMusic player doesn't seem to deliver more convenience, store more material or take up less space. In a world where small multifunctional connected devices dominate, I would think adoption of a new standard by Apple would be a must for it to expand beyond the audiophile segment of the market. As the PonoMusic is digital it would also be a great format enhancement if current digital devices could download and play the new format.

Best I can do is give it a C- as something that will be adopted quickly.

Ed Dennis, Sales, Dennis Enterprises

As others noted, there is a good niche market for these products...but for the youths who have ignored amplifiers and speakers with 12" woofers, and instead rely on the tiny computer speakers that barely rival the transistor radios of the '70s...this probably wont be a game changer. But there is some hope for the poorly misguided youth; see the recent example of higher-end headphones.


Initial reviews from aficionados will determine whether Pono has the potential to make it big, but I don't think that's the end game for Mr. Young. This is a long-tail play from a musical genius and audiophile who no doubt knows many others who share his tastes and frustrations with current formats. That said, if the technology does build a better bridge between vinyl and digital, Apple, Google, Samsung and the like would be wise to license it rather than attempting to recreate Mr. Young's masterwork.

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Carol Spieckerman, President, Spieckerman Retail

Good one Scanner! In the absence of something constructive and in an attempt to delay this morning's dreaded task, I offer the following, sung to Southern Man. My apologies.

Apple man
better read this thread
Don't forget what
Neil Young said
Format change
gonna come at last
PonoMusic's on
Google Glass
Apple man

Vahe Katros, Consultant, Plan B

I think that this will ultimately be a niche market offering. While there is a small subset of the population that are truly audiophiles and will care about higher quality, I believe the majority of the individuals will be satisfied with the current features and quality of mp3 players. I view this similar to HD Radio. While many people may view this as better quality, the larger population didn't even know there was a problem in the first place.

Jesse Karp, Omnichannel Consulting Manager & Loyalty Practice Lead, Cognizant Business Consulting

Sure, Apple and the rest of the music industry could offer an upgraded music format that requires an upgraded music player device, charge everyone for music they already own but in a "superior" sound format than predecessors (vinyl, tape, cd, mp3), and make an obscene amount of money selling the same property for a second or third time--But what are the odds of that?
Btw, I would name it iPod Vinyl -- the url is available. :)

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Larry Negrich, Director, Business Development, TXT Retail

As much as I would like to see Canada's favourite burnout succeed, the general music consumer is not ready for this because they don't perceive a problem in the first place. To adopt a replacement technology the shopper has to accept that the improvement is real and measurable. If we look to the past every successful change in format was making music more convenient/accessible/cheaper (vinyl, 8 track, cassette,CD, MP3) This product certainly doesn't fit this progression which leaves only the Audiofool as your consumer.

If you know any of these guys, you have to admit they are, by and large, fatheads. ("Hey look I just spent $1000 on the cable running to my speakers; no you can't move that chair because it's bolted to the floor because that's where the stereo imaging is best; please don't talk, just listen....") I sold gear to them for years and they are an opinionated passionate bunch (albeit with deep pockets), but to expect any sort of momentum that would indicate a survivable cash flow is short sighted. In my experience, most of these guys aren't using MP3s now anyway "because the FLAC lossless format allows for sound that is so real I can smell the performer's breath." This makes changing to the PonoMusic format even more nebulous. Apple and the others will not react to the launch because it's not going to fly and they won't need to.

Neil, Old man, Don't let it bring you down, You're still rockin in the free world ....

Steve Boultbee, CEO, Impulse TV Networks Ltd.

This is a very exciting development. The audiophiles I know may still focus on vinyl, but for those of us who love the sound quality of vinyl but need the portability and storage capacity of digital, this is wonderful news indeed. I can't wait to try it!

It will not end MP3s though, in the near term. A large portion of the population is just fine with the current sound quality. Long term however, if the price differential becomes insignificant, the industry standard will surely shift to a better quality sound platform. Look for one of the big boys to either acquire Pono or develop their own version.

Mike Osorio, Senior VP Organizational Change Management, DFS Group

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