In this digital era of MP3s and streaming from YouTube, Pandora and Spotify, most people don't put much thought into how they're getting their music, and perhaps even less into the format it comes in.
But Neil Young -- the folk rock veteran and longtime Woodside resident -- isn't most people. As one might expect from a career musician who has spent decades listening to vinyl records and mixing in recording studios, Young seems to care deeply about the quality of the music he listens to.
"Good music -- well represented and well recorded -- makes you feel," Young said during a taped interview this week at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. "You have goosebumps, you'll cry, you'll have a visceral reaction, and that's what's been missing."
This passion for high-quality music drove Young to embark in 2000 on a process of talking to industry professionals, engineers and investors to figure out how to bring recorded music out of a "downward spiral" since the introduction of CDs in the 1980s.
Then, about 18 months ago, a business and product emerged. And after a successful 2014 Kickstarter campaign (that pulled in $6.2 million, though only $800,000 was sought) and a launch in August on Crowdfunder, the portable PonoPlayer is ready to hit the market.
Thousands of supporters have already received their devices; the online PonoMusic Store, offering more than two million songs, went online this week; and the product is available for preorder, with delivery in February.
Tech news website The Verge also reported on Jan. 6 that the product will be available in 80 retail stores nationwide on Monday, Jan. 12, including in some Fry's Electronics locations.
The PonoPlayer is a rounded triangular prism, available in two colors, yellow and black, and is capable of playing a wide range of music formats -- including FLAC, ALAC, WAV, IFF, AAC and MP3 supporting up to 192 kHz/24-bit. Put in layman's terms, the more sophisticated of these file formats are able to contain much more data, which when played produce a richer and more textured sound than CDs or relatively low-data MP3 files, according to Young.
The device can hold 64 gigabytes of music, which can be doubled to 128 with the insertion of an included micro SD chip. It also sports two output jacks, one for personal listening on headphones and the other for plugging into a car or home stereo. The PonoPlayer is currently priced at $399. Some will no doubt find the cost prohibitive, but the product's popularity on Kickstarter evidences a niche among audiophiles willing to shell out the extra cash.
In his interview at CES, Young admitted that some consumers might very well stick to their MP3s, as the difference between the formats isn't easily audible to them. But for the many artists he introduced the product to over the last few months, the higher quality pumped out by Pono was the clear choice, Young said.
To all appearances, Pono is more a labor of love for Young than a lucrative business opportunity. At CES he expressed his startup's willingness to share the technology they've developed with other companies, with the purpose of getting music, as it should be listened to, into the hands -- and ears -- of more people.
Young's mission of sharing his love of music was apparent in a Dec. 31 letter posted on Pono World Times, a news site for the product, startup and community.
"The biggest joys for me," Young wrote, "are the genuine Pono smiles; the looks that come across new listener's faces as they hear more than they have ever heard from their favorite songs, songs they have enjoyed hundreds of times before and are now discovering anew."