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An Interview with Neil Young and Pono CEO John Hamm

An Interview with Neil Young and Pono CEO John Hamm

With all of these music lovers shelling out thousands of dollars to spend a week listening to thousands of bands, one would think that high-end audio would have its place amid the chaos of South by Southwest—but that’s not the case. There are the rare exceptions, but for the most part hi-fi manufacturers stick to the more predictable high-end shows.

All of that changed this year, though, with the launch of Pono, Neil Young’s new music service and portable audio player. Neil gave us a sneak peak of the Pono portable music player back in late September, 2012 when he appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, and since then we audiophiles have waited with bated breath to learn more about not only this yellow, triangular high-res music player, but also the PonoMusic service, which seeks to “save an artistic medium.”

But how is PonoMusic, and the Pono Portable Music Player, different from the other high-res music services? Is there room in the market for another high-res music Website and portable player? Absolutely. Even though “high-res music” is nothing new to the readers of hi-fi magazines like TAS, the vast majority of people have never heard of high-res music, simply because no alternative has been presented. All of the streaming services are stuck in the low-quality spectrum, and giants like iTunes haven’t seen a need to upgrade to at least CD-quality downloads; for most of them, the old adage stays true: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But the system is broken, and Neil Young recognized this. As he puts it, “Everything in the digital world has progressed—improved the user experience—except for music. Digital photography has improved, and has pulled the consumer along with it. Computers have improved, but music has been chopped and sliced and served to the consumer in a stripped down package, and it’s stuck there. It’s a disservice not only to the consumer, but to the artists who obsess over every note of music in each and every song.”    

Of course, we at The Absolute Sound couldn’t pass up an opportunity to speak with Neil Young and John Hamm, CEO of Pono. No, John isn’t the Hamm from Mad Men, but he’s every bit the determined businessman—and he’s a hardcore audiophile, to boot. The setting for the interviews was at a beautiful boutique hotel in South Austin in a converted 1920s house nestled among towering live oaks and pecan trees. The atmosphere was jovial with an air of excitement as several journalists chatted and tried out the new Pono music player. There was also a demonstration room with the Pono music player as a front end, which was connected to the Ayre AX-5 125W integrated and a pair of TAD Reference Monitors. For a room with hardwood floors and no acoustic treatment, the sound was superb. It was here, before my interview with Neil Young, that I had a chance to pull John Hamm away from everyone and talk candidly about Pono, hi-fi, and the future of digital music.

The Absolute Sound: What kind of hi-fi system do you have at home?

John Hamm: I’m a huge audiophile, and actually made many of my purchases based on recommendations in TAS, specifically Robert Harley and Jonathan Valin’s. I have a full dCS Vivaldi front end, the Magico Q5s, Soulution and ARC [Audio Research Corporation] components, and a Brinkmann turntable.

TAS: Originally there were reports that Pono and Meridian had partnered for the design of the Pono Portable Music Player. Why the switch to Ayre?

JH: “Partnered” might be too strong of a word in this situation. There was no official partnership between Pono and Meridian, but there were some initial talks. Bob [Stuart, of Meridian] is, in my opinion, one of the geniuses of digital audio, and I hold him in high regards. In the end, things just kind of fizzled—simple as that. When I met Charlie [Hansen, of Ayre], we didn’t know if things would even work, if it was actually worth the resources for Ayre to design a [small form-factor] music player. But things worked out, and the results have been great. Ultimately, Ayre identified with Neil’s mission.

TAS: How has the music industry received the Pono music player and PonoMusic?

JH: The support has been overwhelming and 100% positive. Everyone that we have talked with is on board, especially the artists. They work hard to create the music that we love, and by compressing it their artistic creation is diminished. We want consumers to be able to hear the music as it was intended. Music fans pay good money for theses creations, so why not give them exactly what they paid for, the music as it was originally recorded?

TAS: What file types and resolutions will PonoMusic sell?

JH: All of the music on PonoMusic.com will be in FLAC, because FLAC is a universal audio codec that can be used by anyone. But users won’t even need to know that it’s FLAC, they will just download it and load it on their portable music device [presumably the Pono]. Resolutions will stay true to what the label recorded. Whether the label records in 44/16, 96/24, or 192/24, we will sell that file in its original form.

TAS: What are the price points for music sold on PonoMusic.com?

JH: Labels will set their own pricing. Most music will sell for $14.99–$24.99, depending on resolution and other factors.

TAS: So why would consumers purchase music via PonoMusic.com versus the other high-res sites?

JH: Simplicity and availability. With the other sites, the user has to choose between AIFF, ALAC, WAV, or FLAC files, and needs to know why they are choosing it. Most people don’t know the difference, or simply don’t care. They just want high-quality music, and that’s it. PonoMusic will be easy to use. Plus, it will encourage labels to no longer allow their music to be compressed, diminished. Pono will help the entire music industry by saving music from compression.

After our conversation, there were cheers and handshakes at the news that Pono’s Kickstarter campaign had just reached two million dollars. To help raise the necessary capital and build excitement for the Pono Portable Music Player, Pono has taken the burgeoning crowdfunding route for its launch. As Neil Young gave the SXSW 2014 keynote speech on Tuesday, March 11, the Kickstarter campaign launched, and before his hour-long talk was through they were already half way to their $800k goal. At the time of writing this article, they are already at $2.5 million. And the money flowing in isn’t from ultra-wealthy donors, either. Most of the funds are from $400 “donations,” which gets the donor a special, limited-edition Pono player engraved with the signature of select artists, including Neil Young. This broad support for not only the portable music player, but for the high-quality music on PonoMusic is indicative of things to come. With a music legend like Neil Young taking the lead, Pono is poised to bring high-res music to all music lovers, not just audiophiles.

Finally, Neil Young was ready to talk with me, and I stepped into the room where he sat relaxed on a sofa: His iconic hat was tilted slightly forward, and his trademark boots, black pants, and leather jacket rounded out the ensemble. He smiled, we shook hands, and then we jumped right into things.

The Absolute Sound: When you’re at home, vinyl or digital?

Neil Young: Both. Depends on my mood and the quality of the digital. Old vinyl is great, but Pono is great. Pono through a good system is really great. In my car I use Pono.

TAS: How do you convince the younger generations to adopt Pono when compressed music services like Spotify, Pandora, and iTunes have such a stronghold?

NY: First of all, young people are interested in doing new things, and very few aren’t interested in trying something new. Young people aren’t just looking back, they are also looking forward. I have a lot faith in the younger generation of music lovers. Youth isn’t living in the past; if somebody tells them that there’s something better than what they currently have, they’re going to check it out. And if they like it, they’re going to get it. I’m not worried about the youth.

TAS: What about the diehard vinyl fans? Will they use Pono?

NY: If you can take your vinyl into your car and put it in your pocket, then you should do it, because it would be a miracle and you should be on TV [laughs all around]. Vinyl is great, I made a lot of vinyl, but I don’t want new vinyl that’s from digital sources, because that’s a rip off. 44/16 is ok, but I’m not happy with it, and I don’t want vinyl sourced from it, either.

TAS: How did Pono initially start? Did you lead the charge, or did someone come to you?

NY: No, no one came to me and asked to partner. People actually ran away from me. No one said that they wanted to rescue an art form. An old buddy and I just kept working at this, and we never stopped. The people working with me here have been working with me for over a year without getting paid. They just love music. I explained what I wanted to do, and they saw the vision. We built this thing called “The Revealer” that would play various resolutions in real time, no A/B comparison, and it allowed people to hear the difference between MP3 all the way up to 192/24. It was really jury rigged, but it was real.

TAS: Did people notice the difference?

NY: Instantly. One artist heard 192/24 and didn’t want to go back. And that’s the key. We didn’t have to do anything, the quality did all the work.

TAS: What about the people who say they can’t hear a difference in file resolution?

NY: They Probably haven’t heard high-quality music. They need to be alone with the music, they need to try it out without anybody looking at them and pressuring them. If they take it home and listen, they will hear the difference. People will check it out, and if they like it, they like it.

TAS: Have you had any record labels that don’t want to be a part of Pono?

NY: No, we’ve had success across the board. That’s because they know I’m a record company guy. Most of the presidents and CEOs of record companies haven’t been around as long as I have, so they listen. I’m not a tech company, I’m a musician, and I’m here for the record companies. I want to give them back the power to make all the marketing decisions. I want the labels to decide, not the tech giants. When we give the power back to those who make music, everyone wins.

TAS: What kind of stereo do you have at home?

NY: I have a lot of McIntosh equipment that I use for listening. My studio is full of different stuff, Tannoy and an old pair of Altec [Lansing] speakers with Mac 275s running them. It’s the old Voice of the Theater speakers. They’re ridiculous [laughs]. Also some reel-to-reel gear.

TAS: Speaking of reel-to-reel, how does Pono source its material?

NY: We make sure to go to the Master Tape, right to the original. That’s what our goal is. When we do Thriller, we’re going to get the master.

TAS: So when can we start buying music from PonoMusic?

NY: October. We’re trying to have it available before that, but October for sure.

TAS: Why use Kickstarter to fund this project?

NY: Now that we have some funding, we can actually do this. Before, we couldn’t find anyone that wanted to support this and save an art form. The money is coming from people who actually care about music. It’s the absence of format availability that’s driving this movement, because people didn’t have a choice, they were stuck with compressed, low-res music that was sucking the life out of the art of music.

TAS: You mentioned that everyone understands the importance of high-res photography and other digital media. Why do you think there is a disconnect between high-res music and the general public?

NY: It’s because they’ve never had a choice. When digital music downloads became available, there was only low-res. It’s simply not there. In America, of all places, there’s no freedom of choice when it comes to digital music like there is in France and Germany and elsewhere. There are the niche sites, but most people are handed MP3s, and that’s it. The giants who sell that music have actually created the largest opportunity yet for a renaissance in music.

TAS: The readers of hi-fi magazines like The Absolute Sound are already very familiar with the benefits of high-res music. How do you plan to attract them to Pono?

NY: We build a great, easily accessible platform. We’ve built a player, we’ve built a site, and we guarantee that the music is the highest quality available—no upsampling, no gimmicks, just the original master as it was meant to be heard from the best source we can get. And if it ever gets better, and you’ve already bought it, you will get the best version for free. We will pay the record companies to upgrade the music.

TAS: Are there plans to push record labels to upgrade?

NY: They’re already doing it. Whatever the artist wanted to do, that’s what we’ll do. If they recorded in 192/24, then we’ll sell it at that rate. But we don’t judge it. Resolution is a tool that the artist uses to get a sound, and we support that. We present it how they want, whether hip-hop or classical. We just give people the platform to distribute it.

TAS: How many albums will be available on PonoMusic?

NY: As many as we can possibly get. Record labels don’t want to hold back. If an album comes out, there’s no reason why people shouldn’t have access to it immediately. We want people to buy the music the same day, in the original quality.

TAS: Any final thoughts?

NY: Yeah, thank you music lovers for supporting this. It’s a pleasure and an amazing opportunity to change the music world. We’re signing on as many artists as possible, like Tom Petty, Patti Smith, and James Taylor just signed on. We all want the same thing: For music to be heard as it was originally intended.

We wrapped things up with a few more laughs and some handshakes, and I headed into the beautiful spring weather in Austin, TX. Music wafted through the air from the hundreds of venues I passed, and I felt a sense of excitement for the things to come. Though high-res downloads have gained increasing popularity since their debut in early 2009, the mainstream music lover is still relegated to the low-res music services. But with a music legend like Neil Young spearheading the push for high-quality studio master recordings, the days of MP3s are numbered. And that’s a good thing for music lovers and Audiophiles alike.

By Spencer Holbert

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