The Pono Player and Promises Fulfilled

Ed Note: This is going to be a subjective review...or as close as I know how to get. There is a ton of information out there on the technical details of the Pono Player, I'm not going to repeat them here as I really want to talk at length about my listening experience with it. I'll refer you to Michaels Lavorgna's AudioStream Pono review for a comprehensive look at the Pono Player, and John Atkinson's Stereophile Pono Player review, which also includes measurements.)

I've decided to take this approach because the experience I've had with the player demands it. Also because so much of Pono's marketing promise is based on the subjective experience of the player and high-resolution files, and because so much of the criticism leveled at Pono has to do with the audibility (or not) of improvements in performance relative to other players. This is my personal subjective experience with the Pono Player.

First Impressions
By the time the Pono Player arrived I was already sick of it. What a ridiculous curfuffle; it was as if the audio press had decided to play an excruciatingly convoluted game of ideological rugby with the little yellow Toblerone bar. This was not a product introduction, it was an open invitation for objectivists and subjectivists alike to tune up their well-worn talking points and go to war. Let's just say that by the time I was sliding open the top of the bamboo presentation case my desire to add my voice to the fray was closing in on zero. My expectation bias meter was barely bouncing off the bottom end peg labeled "Meh."

Well...that's not entirely true, I did have a couple of expectations that may have biased my first listening sessions.

I'm well aware of Charlie Hansen and Ayre Acoustics and am of the general opinion they make very fine DACs. I do have an older version of the QB9 USB DAC here, and I did use it for a number of years as my reference DAC. It has a very smooth and musical character in my experience. We'll chalk that up as a positive bias.

I was also well aware of the promises that Neil Young was making about the Pono ecosystem as a whole and the Pono Player in particular, and my feeling is he way over-promised the benefits of high-performance gear and high-resolution file formats. Apart from flying bands to play live in my own living room, I don't see how Pono would be able to deliver on the stunning improvements their PR campaign was expressing. The Pono hype was way too strong for my liking. We'll chalk that one up as a negative expectation. In my head there was no way the Pono Player could live up to Neil Young's hype.

Oh well...I went through the motions. Charged up the player; connected it to a computer and just dumped a bunch of test tracks and albums for listening on it (which was fairly easy, but a little slow in the transfer); got out my NAD VISO HP50s; and started listening as I wrote one of the "Headphone Measurements Explained" articles.

I had started with a few very familiar test tracks and quickly determined they sounded pretty good and I should just move on to some casual listening as I wrote. I pulled up an old favorite, Lyle Mays' (keyboard player on many of Pat Metheny's albums) "Street Dreams." Three or four tracks into it I realized that my eyes were closed and my fingers had been hovering over the keyboard unmoved for the last ten minutes...I had been sucked into an old favorite and was way inside this particular album again for the first time in a long time.

"What the...."

I shook it off, and tried another old favorite; this time Carmen McRae's "Carmen Sings Monk". First cut on the album is a live recording of "Get it Straight." There's an instrumental break in the middle of this short 3:55 tune, and a little bass solo that starts at 2:12 that has a spine tingling run of notes starting at 2:28 in which you can hear audience members gasp at the crescendo of notes and intensity. I was swept right along until, as the song wound down, I opened my eyes to see, yet again, my fingers hovering motionless above the keyboard.

"Damit, I'm not going to get anything done with this Pono gadget playing in my ears."

And then it hit me, the Pono Player was delivering exactly what it promised: a deep connection with the music. It pissed me off. I'm a wizened and experienced reviewer with large dollops of skepticism ready to be brought out at a moments notice; I'm not s'posed to be swept off my feet some three-sided marketing gimmick. What the hell is going on!?

I decided to drop Pono Player designer Charlie Hansen a line.

Inside the Pono Player
I told him of my experience with the distractingly musical Pono Player, and asked him what he thought were the technical characteristics that lead to that experience. Here are some excerpted comments from Hansen:

a) Brickwall filtering creates massive time smear. b) The human ear/brain is already known to be exquisitely sensitive to time smear. c) DBT and AB/X are really only sensitive to differences in frequency response. Using these tools for anything to do with music is like pounding a nail with a screwdriver. Ain't gonna work.

Specifically, one of the massive benefits of a higher sampling rate is not extended bandwidth. Instead, it allows for gentler filters to be used. In the case of the Ayre QA-9 A/D converter, the anti-aliasing filters have zero ringing or time smear for double and quad sample rates. (Only one cycle of ringing for single rates -- something has to give somewhere...)

When Ayre designed the PonoPlayer's audio circuitry, we held back nothing. We gave it everything that could fit within the constraints of the budget, physical space, and battery life. Every single secret we discovered went into the PonoPlayer. The digital filter is taken directly from our own products.

I tend to be a black-and-white kind of guy. I don't buy into this mythical "perfect amount of feedback - not too much, but not too little". If feedback is good, then use 1,000,000 dB of it. If it is not good, don't use any.

EVERYTHING from DAC to jacks is DC coupled. No coupling caps anywhere.

Everything is TRULY balanced from the DAC chip all the way to the output jacks. There is no virtual ground needed, as we have true +/- rails from the switching power supply. The raw rails go to SUPER low noise regulators, of which there are a TON.

The audio circuitry has their own dedicated +/- regulators. All of the digital circuitry runs off of positive voltage only, but three or four separate dedicated regulators there -- one for the audio master clocks, another for the digital side of the DAC chip and a third for the rest of the digital circuitry.

NOBODY builds portable players that are fully-discrete, fully-balanced, and zero-feedback. This all makes a huge difference.

To sum up, Hansen claims the sonic performance of the Pono Player is due to:

  • Gentle digital filters with no pre-ringing.
  • Discrete components.
  • Zero negative feedback.
  • No capacitors in the audio path.
  • Audio circuitry with dedicated +/- supply regulators.
  • Balanced headphone drive.

I like the idea of all the above items, but somehow the answer wasn't satisfying. What was it about the sound that I found so appealing? I decided some blind testing was in order.


Blind Testing
I've put together a fairly simple system for blind testing sources. One of the most important things you need to do with blind testing is to set all the output levels exactly the same. To do so, I listen to a variety of my test tracks and set a good level on one of the players. I then play a 500Hz test tone on that player and measure the output voltage. I then set the same voltage on the two other players using the same test tone track. I use a passive three-way switch to route the outputs from the three sources to a pair of headphones.

The trick is I use a short headphone extension cable before the 3.5mm to RCA cable that goes into the switch. (All cables were relatively inexpensive, but identical.) The cables are long enough, and tangle enough, that it's impossible to visually tell which cable is going to what source on one end, and which switch input on the other. By simply grabbing the bundle of wires with hands to either side of the coupling connectors I can pull all three cables apart, and then, without looking, I scramble the cables in each hand. When I look back to reconnect the cables I have absolutely no idea which is which. I can then switch between the three sources blind.

The one flaw in this system is that the players take differing amounts of time to loop back to the start of the track, so I would have to take the headphones off when the end of the track came.

In my experience there are two ways to go about blind testing: objective evaluation and subjective experiencing. In objective evaluation you try to listen carefully for differences in the signal you are hearing. With subjective experiencing you don't evaluate the music but rather evaluate your experience while you are listening for enjoyment. The problem with objective evaluation is that you may end up knowing what sounds different between each player, but you'll usually not have a clear idea which you'd actually prefer. And the problem with subjective experiencing is you might know which you prefer, but you are likely not going to know why. It's kind of like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: you can know where something is or how fast it's moving, but you can't know both simultaneously.

Most of my blind testing with the Pono was of the objective type, I wanted to know if there were any identifiable characteristics that were different than the other players (and sources) I had. (Astell&Kern AK100, AK100II, and AK240; Fiio X5; Samsung Galaxy Note II; Apple iPad latest generation; Auralic Vega and TaurusII; and Simaudio Moon Neo 430HA.) Most tests were done with Audio Technica ATH-MSR7 (reviewed here), but I also used the Philips X2; NAD VISO HP50; Sennheiser HD800; Westone ES5; and Jerry Harvey JH13FP.

I did about six hours of blind testing over the course of three days testing the Pono against a variety of other sources, and sometimes with various headphones. Sessions usually proceeded like this: First attempt with new devices would start me getting familiar with the new sounds. I would often misidentify the Pono in the first test. Second test would be about 50/50 getting the Pono right. Usually by the third test I would be able to rightly identify the Pono Player and by the fourth test could identify all three players and would generally get it right four out of five times thereafter.

By the time the third day of listening was done I hated that little switch box. When I said above that once I got used to the sound of the three pieces of gear in the test I could identify them correctly four out of five times I need to add that it was usually only after I had sat with my forehead on the table for 5-10 minutes flicking the switch between sources. I could do it, but it's not easy. The point is that the differences are subtle—but, in my opinion, important. More on this later.

Pono Player Vs. High-end Portables
The first test I undertook was the Pono Player against a couple of high-end portables: Astell&Kern AK240 ($2499) and AK100II ($899). Obviously these players are much more expensive than the Pono Player, but Pono's claim of a superior sounding product warrants comparisons with the best available. In this part of the review I'm going to limit myself to comments about sound quality and will address the relative value of features later (these players are extraordinarily feature rich).

Once able to reliably identify blind these three players, I found the Ak100II hit harder in bass, and the treble level was about same but sounded slightly dirtier and less refined than the Pono Player. The AK240 was more dynamic and hit harder in bass, and the treble was slightly more emphatic than the Pono.

Though the Pono Player might sound slightly rolled-off compared to the AK240, I also felt it's treble had superior resolving power and was less, what I can only describe as, digital sounding. High frequency transients with the AK240 seemed to have a slight additional "ting" sound to them making them seem more artificial compared with the more organically smooth but resolving sound of the Pono.

In this test the AK240 was the easiest to pick out with it's bass and treble emphasis fairly obvious. The Ak100II was a bit more difficult as the treble levels seemed similar and the slightly dirtier sound compared to the Pono a bit harder to identify. The increase in bass punch was usually the tell-tail sign.

Pono Player Vs. Consumer Handheld Devices
This test pitted the Pono Player against a Galaxy Note 4 and an Apple iPad Air. This was actually the hardest test to get a reliable grip on identifying the various players. Primarily, I think, because the tonal balance and dynamic authority was very similar between the three. Where in the previous test it seemed the high-end players had good power supplies and output amplifiers giving them stronger bass response and, in the case off the AK240, strong treble articulation, in this case the two handheld devices had about the same amount of bass response and dynamic puch as the Pono, and the treble level was similar as well.

Because differences were so small I had to rely more on a subjective approach—just relaxing and sensing how the music was affecting me. Usually it would take me 5-15 minutes of listening and slowly switching back and forth between sources before I could determine which was the Pono Player. It would happen all of a sudden in a moment of cognitive groking when I just felt "that's the musical one" and would stab at the Pono's pause button to see if I was right. The music would stop in my headphones and I knew I had got it, but there was always surprise and relief when it did because there was no objective characteristic identified. Though I could reliably tell which was the Pono, I did not get to the point in this test where I identified the difference between the iPad and Note 4. It's my feeling that your average contemporary hand-held device is pretty darn good these days.

Pono Player Vs. High-End Gear
My last test was to compare the Pono Player with some high-end gear. In this case against the Auralic Vega DAC ($3499) and Taurus II ($1899) headphone amp, and the Simaudio Moon Neo 430HA ($4300 w/DAC). In this case it was very difficult to tell the difference between the devices by the treble response—all were articulate and natural sounding. Even though it wasn't the identifying characteristic, by the end of this test I did feel that the Pono upper-treble was slightly lower in level than the other two.

The place where the difference was obvious was in the dynamic impact of the bass and mid-range. Where the Pono sounded sweet but slightly loose, the two other devices were tight, punchy, dynamic, and simply a more faithful reproduction of the original. I did not attempt to peer into the differences between the Auralic and Simaudio products as I will leave that for a future review of the Moon NEO 340HA.

Blind Testing with Mutli-Balanced Armature Driver In-Ear Monitors (BAIEMs)
As I mentioned previously, most of the above testing was done with an Audio Technica ATH-MSR7 headphone with a nominal 37 Ohm impedance. I next did a little blind testing with two custom in-ear monitors, the Jerry Harvey JH13FP and Westone ES5.

Now, this is going to get a little complicated for folks who are just coming in here to read a Pono review and aren't audio enthusiasts who have some familiarity with these kinds of issues, so I'll try to make this simple and quick. What I'm talking about here is in-ear monitors that have multiple balanced armature drivers. They work kind of like speakers with woofer, mid-range, and tweeter drivers and a crossover between to put low, mid-range, and high-frequency components of the incoming signal on the appropriate drivers. The problem with these types of headphone is that they tend to have very low impedances and will have very strong swings in impedance due to the reactance of the various driver and cross-over elements. In the plots below, the green line is the impedance plot and the scale in Ohms is to the left.


As you can see their impedance swings all over the place. The K3003 has a rather simple impedance plot that goes from about 8 Ohms to 16 Ohms; the Shure SE846 is more complex and ranges from 16 Ohms to 5 Ohms; the Westone ES5 is a little higher overall but swings wildly between 20 Ohms and 50 Ohms, and the Jerry Harvey JH13 also sees significant swinging between 10 Ohms and 43 Ohms. The reason I want to show you these plots is that they can react with the output impedance of the amplifier driving the headphone effectively changing the EQ of the headphone. The general rule of thumb is that the amplifier should have less than 1/10th the impedance of the headphone in order to keep the interaction between the amp and driver below an audible level. This ratio, of 10:1 in this case, is called the damping factor.

I measured the output impedance of all the devices used in blind testing. They were: Pono Player, 3.27 Ohms; AK240, 3 Ohms; AK100II, 3.47 Ohms; Fiio X5, 0.52 Ohms; iPad Air, 0.8 Ohms; Galaxy Note 4, 0.9 Ohms; Auralic Taurus, 0.9 Ohms; and Simaudio Moon Neo 340HA, 0.35 Ohms.

It's my general feeling that a headphone amplifiers for general portable use should have an output impedance of under one Ohm. This is easy to achieve if you use negative feedback, but since Hansen doesn't want any negative feedback there's a limit to how low you he could make the output impedance of the Pono Player.

The point I'm working my way toward here is that if a 10:1 or better damping factor is desirable, and if in the case of BAIEMs we're looking at a type of headphone that commonly has an impedance swing below 10 Ohms, then you'll really want the output impedance of the amplifier well below 1 Ohm in order not to have any tonal changes. Obviously the Pono and the Astell&Kern players have too high an output impedance, and will suffer some tonal changes when using multi-balanced armature earphones. How much tonal change? I've prepared the following two plots that calculate tonal changes for four BAIEMs with the Pono Players 3.27 Ohm output impedance and the iPads 0.8 Ohm output impedance.



Worst case changes for the Pono (upper plot) are the Shure SE846 that has a wide dip that produces a roughly 3dB reduction in level centered in the mid-treble. The Jerry Harvey JH13 the shows a rise in the same region of about 2dB. The same headphones when driven by the iPad's 0.8 Ohm output impedance (lower plot) exhibit only 1dB or less of frequency response change for the same BAIEMs.

When I did blind tests with the JH13 and ES5 I was readily able to tell when I was listening to a high output impedance device or a low output impedance device.

It's worth mentioning at this point that the BAIEMs we're talking about here can typically range in price from $800-$2000. With that type of investment one should take care to find a player with a very low output impedance, or it may be worthwhile to consider a separate low output impedance headphone amplifier after the player for quality listening.

Pono and Difficult Headphones
It's worth noting there are a number of low efficiency headphones out there. For example the Mr. Speakers Alpha Dog and Mad Dog; HiFiMAN HE-6, and Beyerdynamic T1 (among numerous others) all require more than 200mVrms to achieve 90dBspl at the ear. When I tested the Pono with headphones that are difficult to drive I felt the sound tended to slide from musical to a bit mushy. It's simple really, the Pono makes all it's power from a single 3.7V battery—it's not a desktop unit with unlimited juice available from a wall socket. In a portable design something's got to give, and in the case of the Pono Player, once headphones become hard to drive it begins to loose it's sonic composure.

In the case of tough headphones, it is possible to use the balanced drive ability of the Pono Player that will effectively double its driving power (more about balanced drive shortly) but the fact remains that at some point the Pono Player (and indeed most portable digital audio players) will need help from an outboard portable headphone amplifier.

Here is a way to check whether a particular headphone will mate well with your Pono Player. First go to the InnerFidelity Headphone Measurements Datasheet Download page. Find the headphone you're interested and click on it to bring up a headphone measurement .pdf. It will look something like this.

Pono_Player_Graph_DenonD5000 First look at the impedance plot—it's the purple plot circled in red in the second graph down on the left. If this plot is above 30 Ohms you are good to go. In the plot above, you can see that this headphone is actually below 30 Ohms. In that case you want to make sure it doesn't wander up and down more than about 5 or 10 Ohms. Like with the discussion of multi-balanced armature IEMs above, at low impedance levels the EQ of the headphones will be changed in a way similar to the shape of this curve.

For the headphone above, there is a peak in the impedance curve at about 25Hz. Because it's only slightly below 30 Ohms, we can assume there will be only a slight boost to the 25Hz area as these headphones interact with the output impedance of the Pono Player. (This is true of any player with a similar 3-4 Ohm output impedance.) If the impedance plot above had the same shape but was generally aligned at 10 Ohms, the effect of the bump would be more. In the case of the Denon D5000 above, the slight boost in the bass at 25Hz will probably be helpful as in the frequency response plot above it you can see that the bass starts to roll-off with these headphones at about 35Hz. This impedance bump interacting with the output impedance of the Pono will have the effect of providing a little extra extension in the bass.

To reiterate: If the impedance plot is above 30 Ohm there's pretty much nothing to worry about. If it's below 30 Ohms you'll have to do a little interpreting to determine whether it will be problematic or not.

The second area you'll need to look at is the voltage efficiency of the headphone. Also circled in red in the lower right corner in the above data sheet is the RMS voltage needed to achieve 90dBspl at the ear. A low number means the headphone needs only a small amount of voltage to play loud.

I would say that any headphone under 0.100Vrms would be comfortably driven by the single ended headphone output (non-balanced headphone jack) of the Pono Player. If the number is between 0.100 and 0.200Vrms it will likely be worth while considering rewiring the headphone for balanced operation. If the number is between 0.300 and 0.500Vrms you will almost certainly need to run the Pono in balanced mode to get satisfactory listening levels and performance from the Pono Player. If the number is above 0.500Vrms the Pono is likely not the way to go at all. You might be able to get some useful low-level listening volumes with balanced mode, but you'll almost certainly get much better performance with a dedicated headphone amplifier.

That's a lot of information to you really need it? Well, the truth is that 95% of all headphones will work just fine with the Pono Player. The place to be careful is with balanced armature IEMs and with expensive headphones that might get recommended by headphone enthusiasts, every thing else is likely just fine.

Balanced Mode
I did run the Sennheiser HD 800 and Audeze LCD-3 from the Pono Player in balanced mode. In addition to getting more volume range from these headphones, I also heard improvements in performance very much along the lines of what I've come to expect from balanced drive: a greater sense of ease; deeper blacks between the notes; and better articulation in clarity. I would say the improvement is subtle but clearly evident.

I will shortly write a "Headphone 101" article on balanced drive. It's a subject that I would write about eventually, but with so many Pono Player users freshly being introduced to the topic I think it would be good to cover it soon. In the mean time, you can read one of my old articles on it at HeadRoom's website.

Wrapping up this First Bit
I started this page stating my initial subjective impression that the Pono Player was a distractingly musical device. I then went on to do a bunch of blind testing to see what the details of performance were, where the Pono player was strong and weak in various areas relative to some other sources; and which headphones were most suited to use with the Pono Player.

I found the Pono had an very smooth and artifact-free treble response and a sweet sounding bass and mid-range that, at times, fell a little short of the dynamic authority of some other devices. I also found it a more musical player then the consumer hand-held devices I tested.

The real question, the important question, the question of whether the Pono Player meets the brand promise or not is:

Is the Pono Player PONO (righteous in service to you and the art of music)?

Turn the page for my thoughts....

1501 Mariposa Street, Suite 312
San Francisco, CA 94107
(800) 611-0580

Jazz Casual's picture

Really. This is an audio review well worth reading imo.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
What is it that seemed worthy to you?
Dreyka's picture

This truly is an exceptional review and I cannot thank you enough for spending what must have been a huge amount of time on this. I wish all DAC/Amp reviews were like this and it would really give validity to the high end market if more people would take the same approach as you. A balance of blind ABX testing with subjective opinions is the way forward for reviews and I wish more professional reviewers would take the time to do it.

Jazz Casual's picture

That's not to suggest that your other reviews aren't because they are, but I found this one especially so.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I'll take that to heart.
Tyll Hertsens's picture
Having thought about this for a day now, I think one of the important differences about this review is there's a frigging huge story attached to it. I'm going to very positively review the new Noontec headphone next week....but geez, Neil Young isn't behind the thing.

This is basically an amazing story to see unfold.

IRL's picture

So what about hi-rez files. Does gentler filter help at all? ofc a $400 player got to sound good even with 320k mp3 but people are bashing it mainly because they are trying to make 16/44.1 seems worthless and getting people to buy hi-rez files from their store, not the player itself. so is there an audible difference with hi-rez files using pono?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Unfortunately all my test tracks that I've regularly used for 20 years are 16/44.1, so I did al the blind listening tests between gear at 16/44.1. I'll have to edit the article to add that soon, sorry. I did listen to a number of hi-res tracks in casual listening and heard the type of things I always do---smoother, more organic, more pleasing/less annoying than 16/44.1, but by objectively subtle amounts.

I'm going to have to work on solidifying some high-res test tracks. The trouble is it's very difficult to get tracks of the same music at legitimately differing bit rates that are known to come from exactly the same source master. But I will...well, I already am working on it. Just not quite completely equipped yet.

Also, the gist of your question is about the nature of hi-res files, not the Pono Player per se. I will, however, make comments on that some time in the future. I don't think I'm done with Pono yet.

bernardperu's picture

How about converting hi rez to cd-quality? Or just converting 24/96 to 24/48 or 16/48?

That way you make sure you have the same master.

veggieboy2001's picture

Commendable (IMHO) that you would ignore all the hype (both positive & negative) and take the time to actually LISTEN...and to go to such extensive lengths to make it a blind test. This seem to be truly a "synergy" player, where all the parts make up the whole, so I wonder how it would be effected using other amps...would it kill the musicality?
As always, a great review...thanks.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

Howdy Tyll...first up: outstanding review! Thank you for taking the time to outline your test rig..always cool to better understand test methods.

Question: do you have thoughts on Pono vs Fiio? The test rig photo shows the X5 but i didnt see it listed in the summary section. Fiio is a pretty interesting contender to me for this market. Their upcoming update to the X3 is getting solid reviews on headphone sites. Wondered if Pono Pono'd it or not?

Have a blast at Camjam! Cant wait to hear/see reports from it!!!

Peace .n. Living in Stereo


potterpastor's picture

Would the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 be a good match for the Pono, or is HP50 still better?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I've got the Momentum 2 Wireless---which I like quite a bit as a BT headset---but haven't heard the wired only version yet, so I can't answer the question.
ednaz's picture

Reading about your testing process made me start to feel sorry for you. It sounds like a process that would squeeze the joy out of listening to music, something you clearly love to do. That said, glad you are willing and able to take it on, and I hope you've got some kind of "purge" process for you to get out of forehead on the table eyes scrunched closed mode and back to "ahhhh, lovely music" mode. Better you than me.

Really good analysis of the Pono, and as a former big band touring musician, the big band analogy connected for me. I like my music to sound like I'm IN the band or orchestra (sitting behind the violas...) I like speakers that sound that way (dipole or open baffle), ditto headphones. As my headphone and player collection has grown, I'm starting to experience what you described about player/headphone pairing issues. My first customs were Westone ES-5, and I love them with iPods, and with a couple old Sansa and Microsoft players, also with my computer. When I got a Fiio X5, they suddenly seemed a little more harsh and sharp edged. I got a set of ACS triple-drivers for travel, and they pair beautifully with the Fiio, but with iPods they don't sound as good to me as the Westones. But very good with my computer and new iPhone. Humph. Complexity is not what I was hoping for.

Will be very interested in the impressions from the multiple player and headphone testing that's in progress. Would be interested in seeing Pono or Astell&Kern and other players compared to the other option for road warriors like me, which is a nice portable USB DAC and laptop.

tony's picture

Everything sounds superb playing "A" music, even the 900mhz. Sennheiser RS120s ( I own two pair ).

However the vast range of music out there is probably B and C class music. ( I'm using Bob Katz's rating system of A,B,C quality )

If I, or probably everyone else, could see all music being A Class I could then see a clear path to owning a Stax 009/Blue Hawaii system.

I scour the World hunting down A Class recorded music, I probably have one or two dozen CDs arriving per week, maybe 10% are in the A range, another 10% to 15% are B range.

Pono is suggesting ALL music could be Class A which seems nonsense to me. Bob Katz is also shining some light on music quality for you and all of us ( thank you Bob ) .

I just counted up my A Class collection, I own 1,320 A Class pieces of recorded music! , that's more than I've ever owned in my lifetime!!! I won't quit building this library, more arrive every week but that group represents only about 15% of my entire collection. phew, that's a LOT!, no way could a vinyl person have this large a collection, nooooooo way!! Tod the Vinyl Junkie has 12,000 Vinyls, he'd need to add another wall of storage system to expand, I just need a few more TBs.

The "Promise of Pono" mandates/requires every piece of music to have been created by people like Bob Katz and we already know that ain't the case.

Maybe if N.Young was on the Board of Apple with full control of iTunes and also on the Board of Sony with full control of all their library and on the Board of all the other outfits like RCA, DG, etc., maybe then he could make a Promise like he's making.

Great music sounds great on everything, even the iPhone6+. I'm sure that great music will sound good on the Pono player, I don't need a review to inform us of that. I need the reviewers to tell us if the promise of all music being available as "A" Class Recordings is now realized.

Is that Promise realized? Don't answer, let Bob Katz answer that.

Thank you for trying.

Tony in Michigan

Charles Hansen's picture

Hi Tony,

I totally understand your point and would urge you to listen to a (well burned-in) PonoPlayer. One of the main goals of Ayre has always been to let the equipment get out of the way of the music.

Over the decades we've gotten better and better at that. We've reached a point where I feel that one can play any recording and truly engage emotionally with the music and artist, regardless of the quality of the recording.

It's not that the music sounds "good" through some euphonic filtering, it's more a case of just noticing that the recording is not that great and then enjoying the music anyway. My theory is that most high-feedback designs are actually perturbed in some way by poor recordings and add additional artifacts that detract from the listening experience.

I've found that with the PonoPlayer that regardless of the recording quality, one will end up as Tyll found himself in the opening of his review -- unable to type as the music was too compelling to push it to the background.

Naturally I've a dog in the fight here, so please don't take my word for it. Go and listen for yourself and decide.

But it sure makes shopping for music a lot easier when the recording quality is not so important! I will admit that the ultimate experience is a superb recording of an incredible piece of music performed with complete commitment by the artist. So great recording, engineering, and mastering is still an important pursuit. Yet the ability to engage with less-than-stellar recordings gives one a huge freedom. YMMV.

Charles Hansen

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Good to see you here, mate. Thanks for your comment!
Charles Hansen's picture

You seem to have a well-behaved group here, which is a welcome change from many forums. I'm not sure how long I'll be able to contribute as I've a lot on my plate. But it's always fun to meet new people.

Charlie Hansen

tony's picture

Thank you for writing back,

I just had a look at your company and your product line ( thru a Google search ), this may be the first time I've had any encounter with Ayre, you look like a high quality/first rate operation.

I think I can believe your little player sounds good. I suspect you lads only make superb, probably superb is who you are.

If you lads discovered a way to make all that B & C music more listenible I'm definitely interested, I suspect that everyone that manufactures little players is also keen to have a close look at your workings. I'm saying "IF", i.e. if someone ( I know ) calls me up to say your little player is knocking their socks off and I "gotta" hear this thing! Contrasting that with the consistent linage of Audiophile Discoveries the Press have been presenting since the days of 4 Channel ( 1975ish ).

The Pono product packaging isn't consistent with the "performance" promise or the Ayre product line ( in general ) but is consistent with a low price. I saw the slide top wooden box and thought of a $10 Microscope. Hm, well ok, Koetsu packaging is crap too, no big deal. I've sold scads of Koetsu, nobody ever complained about their crappy little wooden boxes, including me.

I suspect that amplification today is quite good, we may be assigning +/- values to shadings of "A" level electronics performances, the transducers ( loudspeakers ) seem far more capable than those of a few decades past. I might ask if anyone still manufactures low quality Audio stuff, they won't last long ( I'm thinking ) .

Well, OK, I promise, I'll have a good listen to one of your players, a well burned in player and I will have a look at one of your converters ( DAC ) when I get the chance ( I live in no-man's land, fly-over country ).

If you can make Art Tatum recordings listenable I'll be a convert.

Thank you again for writing,


Tony in Michigan

BarbecueGamer's picture

Very well written! An absolute fantastic review! The amount of work that went into this is stunning. Great work Tyll.

Say, have you seen Linus's from LinusTechTips review of the Pono? I highly recommend it, I think you'd get a kick out of it. Here's the link-

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Saw it shortly after it posted and thought it was pretty entertaining. Unfortunately, I didn't get the sense that I understood the real value of the product.
Chrisg2229's picture

Wow, Linus is annoying; his voice really grates on my nerves.

I couldn't listen for more than a minute or so it was so bothersome, but it's nice that his mom lets him use the kitchen for his reviews.

tony's picture

I did go and have a look,
I did get a kick like you predicted,
I'll give you a thumb up,
Tony in Michigan
Tony in Michigan

jeckyll's picture

I'd commented previous how it's important to know the reviewers bias (maybe especially for them) and also their preferences. In this case, I believe I like similar sounding headphones to Tyll. I bought a pair of HP50's after reading the review here and like them a bunch.

The read the pono review, which answers a lot of the key questions like:
Is there a huge difference? No
Is there a reason to buy it? Yes (depending on your use)
Why would I enjoy it? Because it's going to suck you in emotionally (in a good way)
etc. etc.
And also because it clearly breaks out the analytical and emotional differences.

That's what's been missing for me with all the other 'pono-noise'.

Will I buy one based on this review? No. Because my at-home listening time has been greatly reduced lately, and I don't think I'd want to drag the player around with me at the gym or around town. I'm listening more in environments where I use music to drown out external noise and do work or focus on other things.

However, if that changes and I actually look for a play for the pure joy of listening, I'd really consider picking one up.

Thanks Tyll, really enjoyed the review.

Masltr's picture


Thanks for the review. I'm currently on prolonged overseas trip and set goal for myself to use some hotel downtime to do the exact test you did.

I tested the iPhone 5, ak100 mkI, and pono player. Tested mostly mostly CDs ripped to flac. For me iPhone sounded very digital. Aka and pono sounded more musical with slightly more depth of soundstage to pono player.

I used UERM in ear monitors and didn't notice an obvious failing that your article suggests should occur. It may be there, but not noticeable. Daily wear IEMs are the jha13fp you used as well, but I have balanced cable. This is my preferred combination.

Perhaps most telling fact vote for pono is I have left my ak240 home on this trip as I actually find it lacks bottom end signal - though understand this May be due to poor match with my headphones.

Long winded way to ask is there an IEM that does work well with Pono? Suppose I could sort through your charts, but hoping you have had same thoughts.

Thx again!

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I also mention the Philips S1 as a good choice. Basically, one way around the problem is to look for dynamic driver IEMs---they won't have the same wildly swinging impedance that BAIEMs have.
Chrisg2229's picture

I am listening to one of Charles' converters right now (QB-9 DSD) and I assure you it sounds grand! you need to give one a listen.

Chrisg2229 (aka 7ryder @head-fi)

tony's picture

thanks for passing that along, the Ayre stuff looks to be impressive, I'll keep an eye out for a chance to have a good listen.

Tony in Michigan

lachlanlikesathing's picture

Hey Tyll, a really great and upfront review! I have done the whole switching box thing and it is tremendously exhausting, so props to you for setting up in so many combinations.

I was hoping I could get some clarification on your testing methodology because I'm trying to do something similar when testing the Geek Pulse amp/DAC.

"I did about six hours of blind testing over the course of three days testing the Pono against a variety of other sources, and sometimes with various headphones. Sessions usually proceeded like this: First attempt with new devices would start me getting familiar with the new sounds. I would often misidentify the Pono in the first test. Second test would be about 50/50 getting the Pono right. Usually by the third test I would be able to rightly identify the Pono Player and by the fourth test could identify all three players and would generally get it right four out of five times thereafter."

I'm a little confused about that last past. From your description, you mean that one 'test' is testing with the 3 devices and one particular cable routing configuration. Then do you scramble the cables after each test? Or are you doing 4+ tests on the same cable configuration?

I'm assuming you scrambled the cables, which means that if there was NO audible difference between the players (null hypothesis), you would guess which one was the Pono correctly 33% of the time. Do you know how many times you would have to pick the Pono correctly be statistically confident that you weren't picking out the Pono by guessing? I know for an A/B trial it would have to be 4/5 to get a 0.95 probability that you didn't pick it out by random chance, but for the A/B/C trial how many times would you have to pick correctly?

In your description you suggest that in a typical trial you would pick the Pono incorrectly the first time (0/1), then 50/50 pick the Pono the second time (1/2 or 0/2), then 'usually' by the third test pick it correctly (2/3 or 1/3), then pick it correctly thereafter. (4/5 or 3/5) Honestly I think it may have been better if you just published your raw results because your description is a bit ambiguous. Though again it's great that you even went to the trouble of doing the switching box thing, because I know it's intensely frustrating and tedious.

Obviously there is a difference in sound between the players, and what your review seems to suggest is that the difference in output impedances can account for some of these differences. But I'd been interested to know how much of the difference between the players can be attributed to that difference in output impedances, and how much can be attributed to other internal hardware differences. It would be interesting to know how easily you could pick the Pono apart from the Note 4 and iPad Air, and HOW much easier it was statistically for you to do that versus picking out the Pono against the other kilobuck players.

It's also a shame that you didn't test any high resolution files.

I'm no hardware engineer but I've been doing some reading about digital filters (including Ayre's own documentation) after getting this Geek Pulse which has a choice of minimum phase or linear phase ('brick-wall') filtering.

As I understand it, even playing a 44kHz file through a DAC that has a higher internal sampling rate allows it to oversample and reduce the introduction of time smearing or phase shifting in the audible spectrum on the hardware side - depending on how you design the filter.

Hansen's comments seem somewhat misleading. "a) Brickwall filtering creates massive time smear. b) The human ear/brain is already known to be exquisitely sensitive to time smear. c) DBT and AB/X are really only sensitive to differences in frequency response. Using these tools for anything to do with music is like pounding a nail with a screwdriver. Ain't gonna work."

Sure, human beings are sensitive to time smear. But I don't think that anyone has actually demonstrated conclusively that human beings are sensitive to the quantity of time smear introduced by the one iteration of 'brick wall' (linear phase) filtering introduced in the hardware stage. If the human ear/brain is 'exquisitely sensitive' to this time smear, this should either show up in an ABX or some other experimental design. Hansen's comments seem to imply that human beings can perceive this time smearing in ways that do not show up in an ABX test. But if he can't point to what these 'other ways' are, then it's an unproven assertion. I've not seen any results that indicate that different digital filters are subjectively distinguishable. The Stereophile article I could find on the topic suggested the opposite:

"If energy smear is a real and significant effect, then these seven very different filters should have made obviously different imprints on the sound quality of the test tracks. But the listening results, described in the sidebar, indicate that the sonic disparities between the filtered tracks and the 24/96 originals were very difficult to pin down. Only Filter 4, the maximum-phase filter in which all the ringing is pre-ringing, introduced degradation that the listeners felt confident in identifying. It seems that energy smear, supposedly a bête noir of digital audio, seems surprisingly reluctant to show its face."

What's funny about this assertion is that other filter designs like minimum phase filtering introduce phase shifting, and you could just as easily argue that the "human ear/brain is already known to be exquisitely sensitive to phase shifting."

Regardless of how you design the filter, it's likely by the time you have the file in your hands (so to speak) it's already gone through many digital filtering stages. The time smearing or phase shifting introduced on the mastering and recording side is baked right into the file and I'm not sure it can be removed in hardware. (Again I could be wrong here, there may be some hardware wizadry that can compensate for it.) If the human ear is 'exquisitely sensitive' to the problems introduced by digital filtering, then obviously the problem is much more serious in the recording / mastering stage - how many cycles of pre-ringing are introduced there?

So the interesting thing would be to get a high resolution recording, and then do the final 44kHz conversion / filtering yourself. You could see how audible the difference is with this one iteration of filtering (the conversion from the master to 44kHz) really is.

Charles Hansen's picture

Hi Lachlan,

Just a couple of quick points in response to your very detailed and thorough post:

1) No, oversampling a 44.1 kHz source does not allow one to use gentler filter slopes.

All that oversampling does is move the burden from the analog domain to the digital domain. When digital was first introduced, all of the filtering was done with analog. Building a 9-pole or 11-pole elliptic analog filter is a real bear -- extremely twitchy and demanding super close tolerance parts.

As CMOS technology matured, it became easier and cheaper to create digital filters than analog filters. All that oversampling does is move the filtering from the analog side to the digital side.

But there is no free lunch...

It doesn't matter whether a filter is analog or digital -- the steeper the filter and the sharper the "knee", the more it will ring when hit with a transient, creating time smear.

2) The reason that the ear/brain evolved to be so sensitive to time smear is because that is how we localize sounds in 3D space. Being able to pin-point the location of a dry leaf being crushed by a stalking tiger conferred a massive survival advantage.

Frequency response is almost tertiary in its importance. Anybody can recognize a familiar voice on a telephone with a bandwidth of 300 Hz to 3 kHz, even if you haven't seen that person in twenty years. (So much for the argument about the "short persistence" of aural memory...)

If you want to play around with different filters, all of the Ayre digital products have a switch on the rear panel that allows the user to select between frequency optimized filters ("Measure", with more ringing and time smear) or time-domain optimized filters ("Listen", with far less ringing and time smear).

It's best to listen for yourself, but you can also read the reviews of our products. I can't think of a single instance when a reviewer preferred the sound of the "Measure" position.

Hope this helps,
Charles Hansen