Neil Young on MP3s: “We Were Selling Shit!”

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If the MP3 destroyed music quality, can it all be reversed?  “We were selling shit!” Neil Young told a SXSW audience on Tuesday, referring to the compressed format.

And the solution?  Neil Young proudly offered Pono, a music player with a polarizing design.  In reality, the player itself has been around for a while: in 2012, Young introduced a prototype of the player on Late Show With David Letterman.  Now, there’s a Kickstarter set up to fund the player, and Young is trying to drum up support for it.

Digital music is in the crapper, according to Young. and this is his solution.

PonoPlayer is an awkward looking triangle shaped music player.

The player can play music the user already owns, or music purchased through the PonoMusic app.  The app is available on Windows and Mac and packages high-quality FLAC master recordings.

PonoPlayer has two audio output jacks. One jack is designed for headphone listening and the other is designed for plugging into your home stereo.

The player is currently available for $300 via Kickstarter.  Retail value is $399, a price point that probably won’t catch on any time soon… but then again, people pay $300 for Beats headphones.

There have also been questions regarding the PonoMusic business model.  At the SXSW talk an audience member asked what percentage of music sales Pono would keep.  Pono’s CEO, John Hamm, got flustered and changed the subject, saying It surprises most people that everyone who buys music from the record labels pays exactly the same amount”.

When questioned further Hamm refused to answer the question and moved to end the talk.

28 Responses

  1. Anonymous

    “Young blames the MP3 for a decline in music quality”

    And he’s obviously right about that! But what exactly is it that he offers? I haven’t been able to find the answer yet.

    So is it ‘just’ 16/44 wav’s? 24/96? Better? The latter was rumored a while ago but doesn’t add up with the announced storage.

    16/44 wav’s would be great! Better can be discussed. (How many dogs and whales listen to your tunes and how much do they pay?)

    • jw

      They’re FLAC files. There’s different encodings at different price points… cd quality (16-bit/44.1hkz), hd (24-bit/48khz), dvd quality (24-bit/96khz), & full quality (24-bit/192khz). This isn’t anything that’s not already being sold at sites like

      These are standard files that you can play on your computer with a decent sound card, or with most any recording interface or decent DAC (up to 96khz via usb, up to 192khz via optical). There’s also already portable players on the market that play these formats.

      What Pono will hopefully do is draw more attention to the format & act as a catalyst for more albums being released in the format, old and new.

      • Anonymous

        “They’re FLAC files”

        That’s just the compression — are you sure consumers can choose between the options you mention? Where did you find that information?

        Again, 16/44 lossless is great, and 16/48 serves a purpose.

        But the rest? 24/96 is tracking/mixing/mastering standard for editing purposes, but doesn’t make sense for consumers. And who tracks at 24/192… Most of the 24/192 tracks you’re going to hear are old songs tracked on tape — plus a lot of upsampled fakes…

        • jw

          That’s from the Pono website.

          I’m starting to do a lot of my listening at 24/96… sounds great. Noticeably better than 16/44.1. I can’t really speak to 16/48… I dunno why you wouldn’t want more bit depth. I think the bit depth is why hi-hats sound like hi-hats in 24-bit, rather than just harsh chk-chk-chks with no character. But I’m no expert.

          I think 24/96 is going to become the HD standard because it’s the best you can get via USB, plus for most stuff, like you said, the source isn’t even 192. 24/96 solves the distortion problem, & I can turn the volume in my headphones all the way up without cringing. The listening fatigue is all but gone… that’s close enough to vinyl for me.

          However, the format all of the artists are raving about in the Pono kickstarter is 24/192. So if you want to argue the point, take it up with Jason Falkner, Tom Petty, Beck, Dave Rawlings, etc. If you’ve got the gall to do so.

          • Anonymous

            “if you want to argue the point, take it up with Jason Falkner, Tom Petty, Beck”

            No need to argue, nobody can tell the difference between 24/96 and 24/192. Take a blind test, the results will be 50/50…

            You’re right about 24/96, it’s just that very few people can tell the difference. Good monitors/interface are way more important, but nobody wants to spend money on that. Most likely because nobody wants to hear what music actually sounds like; lip smacks, amp noises, fret noises, pops, clicks, bad samples…

            16/48 or 24/48 are for video.

          • jw

            For something that subtle, you can’t do a blind test. No one is going to be able tell unless they’re intimately familiar with both the recording & the stereo equipment. To be able to tell the difference, you need a point of reference in your head. Otherwise you’d have to memorize an insane amount of audio information while you’re listening to a clip before you can compare it to the next.

            But I’ll bet Neil Young could differentiate between 96khz & 192khz when listening to his own recordings in his own car.

            Telling the difference between 96khz & lower sample rates is easy because something obvious is missing (to anyone who knows what something like a hi-hat sounds like in real life). But beyond 96khz, you’re looking for what’s ADDED, not what’s missing. And in a general sense those details can’t really be articulated, & without being able to articulate the details, you can’t do A/B testing. But that doesn’t mean that those details aren’t worthwhile, & that the experience isn’t different & worthwhile.

            If you took A Street Car Named Desire & changed half a dozen lines… changed some adjectives, added some adjectives, etc. Most people wouldn’t be able to tell. You’d have to have the play memorized first. But one is authentic, the way the author intended, & the other isn’t. I would choose the authentic version, even if I couldn’t tell the difference in a blind test.

            I’m actually really surprised at the amount of pushback 192khz gets among the music/recording communities.

          • Anonymous

            “But I’ll bet Neil Young could differentiate between 96khz & 192khz when listening to his own recordings in his own car.”

            You’d lose…

            “If you took A Street Car Named Desire & changed half a dozen lines… changed some adjectives, added some adjectives, etc.”

            Disagree — the soul of a song can easily survive mp3s, radio compression, 4th generation casette tapes, pc converters, laptop speakers and under certain circumstances even Apple’s white earbuds.

            But change one note, or one word, and the music’s over.

          • jw

            Agree to disagree.

            Either way, I’m quite satisfied with 24/96. And the more albums that become available to the consumer at this sampling rate or higher, the better.

          • mdti

            24 bits allows more dynamics, ie, the sound has a bigger dimension, the mix is more subtle.
            It will not change the indiuvidual sounds (44.1 is 44.1 whatever you do) but it allows finer equalization and volumes of the individual tracks. going from 16 to 24 bit is indeed a big sound upgrade for anyone who intends to mix his tracks. Most samples are offered in 44.1/24 bits nowadays.

        • Jeff Robinson

          Everyone should track at 24-bit/192 kHz. There is a huge difference. Particularly noticeable in upper harmonics. The increased sample rate at those frequencies really clean up a track and make it ‘believeable and real’.

          • Anonymous

            Unfortunately, it has been proven over and over again that nobody can hear the difference.

    • Jeff Robinson

      Pono is awfully close to Sonos…or is it just me that sees that? Sonos is a great system.

  2. TuneHunter

    Sorry, it looks like emergency exit light battery, no hope, unless he includes HiFi version of Spotify or YouTube.
    At that point $399 for “got it all” device will make sense to Francis Keeling and he will bless it with holy water!

  3. jw

    I suppose it’s all a part of the marketing, but it’s curious that everyone thinks this is some new revolutionary thing. I thought it was going to be a proprietary format, not just FLAC.

    Between now & October (when the device ships), I assume a lot of folks are going to figure out that all you need is a cheap usb audio interface or DAC that supports 24/96 to listen to these files on your laptop, & they’re somewhat easy to come across (and they sound phenomenal… I’ve been listening lately @ 96khz via a Propellerhead Reason interface/Grado s80i headphones).

    I love what Neil is doing, but you might be better off getting a Fiios X5 in April & getting your HD tracks from, which offers lower price points than the Pono store. Plus it’s $50 cheaper than Pono retail & supports removable storage at twice the capacity of the Pono, which might be essential with these huge files. That’s 7 months of portable, HD audio listening that Pono pre-orderers are going to miss out on. I kind of think that launching the Kickstarter with a 7 month lead-in is going to come back to bite them once it gets out that he’s really doing something that’s been done in some form or another since 2007.

  4. zog

    He’s put his mouth ,money and hears on the line along with part of his soul to conviently package a product that he honestly believes mainstream consumers who are not audio and tech savvy will get behind once they realize
    what they’ve been missing.
    I personally wish more artist would back his campaign because it really compliments the producers, engineers and everyone in involved in the art of recording. MP3’s and other inferior products have diluted us and we have come to except this as our norm at least you have a vote here.
    Kickstarter is an an honest approach real people backing real products , the fat cat for once is you it’s your shot at commerce and art and having a real say.
    Put your money up and listen!

  5. i want to like this

    A full-catalog subscription (bundled or not) offering the same offline listening capability you get from premium Spotify/Rdio/Rhapsody/Beats/etc. would make this a much more attractive value proposition.

  6. Willis

    Amazing(ly) unamazing. Just what this space needs – another player and service. Huzzah!

  7. KT

    Delivery format is one thing, but we’ve manged to deliver the most un-dynamic music in history on one of audio history’s most dynamic medium.
    Sure MP3 is bad…but squashed music to begin with is worse…because you can always re-encode the master to a better format.

    Bring back dynamics:

  8. jw

    I’m surprised to learn that so many people in the music industry actually resent music so much. But I guess it explains a lot.

  9. JD

    I think it shows that people in the music industry actually appreciate the music, in the way it was recorded.

    I guess you think MP3’s are just fine

    Why has the movie industry kept pushing the quality of their sound and video upward and the music industry has been pushing the quality down? Music deserves to be heard in it’s best format. I applaud anyone who wants to help push this technology and make it the “standard” rather than a the more difficult ways to hear this sound for most people.

  10. So funny...

    … how thousands $ audio and USB cables snake oil still work ! I should too start this kind of business.

    I have worked with dozen of record engineer, none of them using more than 24 / 48 for recording. So yeah, you’re welcome to believe the hype but at least, you should know where your contents come from before buying players that will do nothing to your musical experience.