A Survey of Digital Audio Players Part 2 Pono


Pono Player ($399)
The OnePlus One may have been somewhat polarizing due to the company's marketing tactics, but it didn't come close to the level of ire drawn by Neil Young's Pono. Some people just loved to hate this thing on a conceptual level. Tyll summarized it well when he called it a "ridiculous kerfuffle". I attribute some of this to run of the mill celebrity-bashing, and some to the rise of anti-audiophile sentiment on the various tech sites. But I'm willing to admit the Pono folks brought some of it on themselves with stuff like this and this. I'm not sure if Neil Young himself had any say in those images...I'd like to blame them on some overzealous intern running on nothing but coffee and enthusiasm.

If we distance ourselves from the marketing and celebrity distractions, as well as PonoMusic World (which I'll discuss shortly), Pono as a device really isn't all that unique. Sure, it has some cool design aspects, but really...it's a DAP, much like the dozens of other DAPs on the market. Well, that's not necessarily a bad thing. It does, however, make Pono's claims of being "revolutionary" seem a little odd—which probably explains some of the initial backlash it received. But again, I'm ignoring the marketing stuff and simply judging Pono on the same criteria as other devices.

Now, about that music store. PonoMusic is billed as being "an important part of the Pono Ecosystem". It may well have been an error on my part, but the initial picture I had (based on press releases) was that Pono would merely offer a new site for buying lossless music. In reality, PonoMusic World is bigger than that. There is indeed a website for buying music, which is something like an HDtracks alternative. But there's also a dedicated app for Windows or OSX which ties the experience together. Think of it as a stand-in for iTunes—you can buy music and play it back, but also manage an existing library, rip CDs, and of course manage content on a Pono Player. In this way Pono actually does stand out from the pack—it's the only brand out there (Apple excluded of course) offering its own software for music purchasing and library management.

Pono users can get by just fine without the PonoMusic World software, and folks using non-Pono devices can still shop PonoMusic. So does the software really add anything to the experience? I suppose it depends on your perspective. If you already have a preferred source for music downloads, and already use software like JRiver Media Center or Audirvana, I'm not sure PonoMusic World will be of any value for you. It seems more oriented toward someone who would otherwise be using Windows Media Player or iTunes; perhaps a first timer into the world of higher quality audio, who didn't already have something in place. But, as is often the case, software is a very personal choice, and it may add enough to the Pono experience to make it advantageous for some users.

External Design
Pono again stands out in the crowd due to its unusual triangle design. The review unit in yellow very much reminds me of a Toblerone chocolate bar. I suspect another color choice would be more pleasing to these eyes. Pono currently has black and yellow available on the web store, but they have offered other colors in the past and may do so again in the future. The outer shell feels like a sort of rubberized plastic. It doesn't scream "luxury" like much of the competition, but it's probably more resistant to scuffs, and certainly more light weight.

Despite the unusual shape, I can see what the designers were going for here. With just three hard buttons and a touch screen display, the front panel keeps it simple, unlike some others in this roundup. Unfortunately the display is not all that great—at 2.5" it's a bit crowded for these big fingers. Resolution and contrast both fall behind what I consider average for this group. And the touch controls seem just slightly less responsive than I'd like. There's a lot of empty space on that front panel, so it seems to me a larger display would be beneficial. That, or use a small but very high quality screen. Pono does neither, probably to keep the price low. Keep in mind Pono sells for $399 when some here go for double that or even more.

The shape makes Pono difficult to stash in a jeans pocket (depending on how baggy your jeans might be). But, it does allow for solid placement on a shelf or desktop, where the user has better access than would be the case in a more typical flat design. The display automatically rotates to landscape mode which makes it easy to view and operate without having to pick it up. So the same shape that makes it awkward for pocketing, makes it ideal for stationary use. Your particular needs will dictate whether this is a good trade-off or not.

Internal Design
The initial press from Neil Young touted design by Meridian Audio, a respected player in the high-end audio space. That was later changed to Ayre Acoustics—there's sure to be an interesting story behind the scenes there. Whatever the case, Ayre is also highly regarded in audio circles, so street cred remains solid. Ayre uses an ES9018K2M DAC chip along with their proprietary minimum phase filter, zero negative feedback, and a discrete output stage. Pono also gives the option of fully balanced headphone output which is somewhat rare but not unheard of. All in all it's a solid feature set from an experienced designer, which may be key to Pono's appeal. Many other devices come from brands who have never released anything outside the DAP segment. While many of them use quality parts in their designs, very few have a legacy of high-end gear to draw on, and fewer still use their own custom filters. Does any of this actually matter in the end? We'll see.

Pono can also handle pretty much every file type you throw at it, including DSD64 and DSD128. So the budget price doesn't seem to hold it back compared to many of its competitors.

With an output impedance of around 3.2 Ohms, Pono is not far off from many of its contemporaries. Just like the OnePlus One or the Sony A17, it can handle most low impedance headphones on the market without impedance related issues. And many IEMs work fine too. Just be careful of designs using multiple balanced armature drivers with wacky impedance swings and you'll be fine.

User Interface
Pono runs a customized interface based on the rather ancient Android 2.3 (circa 2011). Not that you'd really know it, the customization is such that it isn't recognizable as any variety of Android. We get dedicated hardware buttons for volume up and down as well as a play/pause combo button that can be held to access the power menu. Aside from that, everything goes through the touch screen. This is both good and bad depending on your view: it definitely helps the device achieve a certain visual flair with the minimalist front panel, but at times Pono feels hampered by the lack of buttons. I miss having dedicated transport controls, to name just one example.

The touchscreen display is not the most responsive thing I've ever used, but it gets the job done reasonably well. Again, I wish it was somewhat larger, as I find it a bit cramped. Parsing a large library can be something of a chore—browsing by artist, the display is only tall enough to show 5 artists at a time. Album view only fits 4 cover thumbnails at a time. So there's lots of scrolling involved. Yes, we can jump around by letter easily enough, and the auto rotate to landscape mode is sometimes helpful. But there's just no way to pull off the same experience we get from the larger screen of the Astell & Kern players, much less the big OnePlus One. Even the diminutive Sony NWZ-A17, the display of which is actually smaller than Pono, somehow feels more information rich.

Size complaints aside, I must admit the interface is usable enough. I acclimated to it without much trouble and after about a half hour I knew everything there was to know. It lacks the sophistication and grace of the Calyx M or the AK players, but gets the job done nonetheless. It doesn't hold up well to direct comparisons but when used on its own I find it sufficient, and less irksome than the original Fiio X5. On the other hand, it lacks any sort of EQ whatsoever, which the X5 at least does give us. So pick your poison.

Pono has solid connectivity with a single exception which I'll discuss shortly. It's got a standard microUSB port for charging which, as I keep saying, should always be the norm (but sometimes isn't for reasons which escape me). It comes with 64GB built-in memory along with a micro-SD slot for adding up to 128GB and likely more when the spec allows it. The fairly generous onboard storage is welcome—lots of devices give us a paltry 16GB or sometimes none at all (HiFiMAN) so this internal memory is appreciated.

On the audio side, we get the usual 1/8" headphone out along with another 1/8" jack for line-out. This is a good start, but Pono gives us options. The line-out, while normally having fixed volume, can be used as a second headphone out if desired. I personally have not used this but can see how it might be handy in some instances. We also get the option of balanced drive—this requires use of an adapter combining both 1/8" outputs and terminating in the balanced connection of your choice. I used a Cardas cable which Tyll sent over, terminating in 4-pin XLR. Balanced drive is also found on the Astell & Kern devices as well as the HiFiMAN models, all of which cost significantly more than Pono. Each brand has their own connector type which is something to watch out for.

So far so good, but notice I haven't mentioned anything about digital out. Pono doesn't have anything of the sort. I guess Ayre Acoustics figured their sound quality was good enough that an external DAC wouldn't be necessary. Be that as it may, digital outputs are somewhat expected by now, even for budget devices. So this omission stands out and could be a problem for some people. Pono also omits any sort of wireless connectivity which is not surprising at this price.

I've been getting anywhere from 6 to 9 hours on the device based on volume levels and resolution. As always, hi-res tracks are more CPU intensive and thus drain battery more quickly. Surprisingly, using balanced drive doesn't seem to drain battery much more quickly than the standard headphone out, which is appreciated.

Overall a rather average performance in this category which is a little disappointing considering the size of the device. Seems like there should be room on board for a more substantial battery compared to other more slim designs, but it just doesn't work out that way.

Sound Quality
After putting up with the somewhat underwhelming display, the bulky shape, the lack of digital output, and the modest battery life....is there anything positive to say about Pono? Actually, yes, there sure is. It sounds rather enjoyable...depending on your circumstances. I find the sound a little bit laid back, relaxed, smooth, whatever term you prefer. It's something of a midrange-oriented sound—bass doesn't hit as hard as warmer players like the HiFiMAN HM-802 or the Calyx M, being perhaps more in line with the Sony A17. Not to say it's recessed or rolled off by huge amounts. "Polite" is the term I'd choose. Listening to most jazz and classic rock, this was not so noticeable, but it did present itself more obviously with other, bass heavy genres.

The top end is also somewhat relaxed. I hear similarities to the Calyx M though each has its own flavor, which is interesting as both use the supposedly "sharp" sounding Sabre DAC yet both sound very smooth and refined. Pono is certainly not a detail monster, yet at times it feels more resolving than some of the other players. There's something "right" about the top end—a lack of digital glare, a focus on tone rather than leading edges. This is not an ultra-quick, nimble sound, nor does it have any trace of etch, which is appreciated. For average or poor recordings, played through potentially sharp headphones from AKG or Grado or Ultrasone, I'd much rather have Pono as a source than any of the Astell & Kern players to name just one brand. Which I guess is a compliment until you consider Neil Young's stated goal of bringing out the original recording through the use of better (aka hi-res) tracks. Pono is fine with those too but its strength seems more focused on making lesser recordings palatable. It's a bit soft, a bit polite, and will therefore appeal to certain listeners more than others.

What can I say, I guess I'm still conflicted about Pono's sound. See Tyll's review for his take on it—he seems enamored with the experience, which is likely related to his sensitivity to bad treble. I can totally see where he's coming from on that. I do enjoy Pono more than Fiio's original X5 due to Pono's vastly superior handling of treble. At the same time I feel like some other players (Calyx, Cayin) are just as smooth in the treble department, while being less colored overall and therefore more faithful to the original recording. Or maybe those are equally colored and I just like their particular coloration more. I dunno.

A key aspect of all this is matching Pono with the right headphones. It's not the most powerful thing in the world, and the output impedance is high enough to cause trouble in some cases. Factor in the somewhat polite, mid-centric presentation and it's easy to see why certain headphones don't pair all that well. On the flip side, I really dig having balanced mode available for home listening. I think it sound significantly better than standard mode. I personally wouldn't pack an adapter on the go, but then I wouldn't take my full-sized headphones on the road with me either. If you find yourself travelling a lot for business then I could see the justification for taking a good set of cans with you. When I'm at home I get a kick out of balanced mode with the LCD-2, HD650, and HE-400. In all three cases Pono seems easily competitive (sound wise) with the other more expensive players I have on hand. Which is a big accomplishment regardless of any other complaints I can muster.

Alexander Portnoy's picture

Great work, John.
This project will make a good basis upon which to judge the imminent release of Pioneer XDP-100R and the Geek Waves.

John Grandberg's picture
And yes, I suppose I could go on and on... I suspect next year will bring half a dozen (or more) significant releases. We'll see what happens and what I have time for.
ManiaC's picture

Questyle QP1R vs Luxury & Precision L5 Pro

John Grandberg's picture
the Questyle QP1R here and it's pretty great, certainly in the running for Wall of Fame. I tried the original L5 and it was terrible in build and UI, but the L5 Pro is all different so who knows.
Imusicman's picture

HiJohn, Ive read part 1 and part 2 with great interest and eagerly await part 3. Great review and exactly on point with this growing category. I have narrowed my choice for DAP down to the Questyle QP1R and Cayin N6 after discounting the Acoustic Research ARM2. Having spent time with both which would you recommend? Not sure if this swings it one way or the other but I have the opportunity to buy a demo N6 at £270

John Grandberg's picture
because I like them both. N6 has a significantly more powerful amp stage if you intend to use it with difficult full size cans. Some people might like its up/down/left/right control scheme better too. The Questyle can accommodate a far bigger library thanks to dual microSD slots. It also has slightly better battery life, is smaller, and has a more brilliant, detailed presentation - which may or may not be a good thing depending on your preferences. I'll go more into this in part 3 though.
Imusicman's picture

Thanks for getting back to me John. Much appreciated. There's definitely pros and cons to each player depending on what's important to the individual consumer. I have taken the plunge and ordered the QP1R which hopefully should be with me next week :-) Lets hope my leap of faith is rewarded as I haven't been able to find anyone local who is stocking it to give it a demo which is not ideal.

John Grandberg's picture
I'm listening to it right now, sounding quite nice with a 24/96 version of Paquito D'Rivera's Portraits of Cuba and the Noble Audio K10. It's not perfect - I'll get into the minor frustrations which you will no doubt notice on your own. But nothing I consider a dealbreaker. I do wish Questyle has better distribution though....
Imusicman's picture

Being a newbie to this hobby I am in the very early stages of my journey to find the holy grail of sonic perfection. I am starting from a relatively low base with my iPhone 5 so I am hopeful of larger gains initially but do expect less as my hardware base level improves and the differences become more subtle. If the QP1R fails to impress I will be looking to test out my suppliers returns policy or failing that stick it on eBay. Given the supply/demand situation I can see it selling PDQ so no drama either way.

silverarrows5's picture

Hi John,

How about the Marshall London Smartphone?

John Grandberg's picture
I'm just not sold on that one as being anything other than a lowish-spec phone with minor customization. I'd stick with the OnePlus or another more established phone if you don't want a dedicated DAP.
tony's picture

Well, this is just plain Brilliant. It's certainly the next thing I'll be concentrating on, I have a very good Main System and a equally useful Wireless Headphone System.

I travel extensively and would love a capable & portable "Source" device. I've seen your JA wandering around using an AK240 (I think) to carry his music to "Field" evaluate gear. I thought and still think his little device would give a useful result ( at least for my purposes and probably the vast World of Music lovers ).
A small LapTop is far to big but more affordable. How can a person get a Laptop's functionality in a portable ( shirt pocket ) package and how could a little device function properly with only a tiny screen? Plus, is there a little player offered by a supportive manufacturer?
So, it seems, you are working to reveal these things.

Philosophically, I think we music lovers strive to build our own "Music Hall Venues" to play the music we buy, own and enjoy!
These tiny Players take our personal Venue down to miniature sizes.

If JA's little AK240 is anything to go by, we are about to have our entire HighEnd music system in the "Palm of our Hands" ( except for our Box Speakers, of course ).
Now, if we can organize our music into little SD Memory Cards we might be able to have a Wallet with our entire collections.
This "Pipe Dream" has always seemed so "Distant Futuristic" in concept and nature but you seem to be revealing that it exists now.
I'm all Ears!
I'll be reading every word you have to say on this matter.

Tony in Michigan

ps. Thank You

Rillion's picture

Hi John,

It is great that you are doing this! Reviews like these of DAPs are to find. Even reviews of smartphones generally have very little intelligent commentary on sound quality if they mention it at all.

On the models that have so-so battery life, it would be nice if you could mention whether or not the device can continue running noise-free while charging. I have a 5V Anker battery pack that can add significant extra power.

John Grandberg's picture
I'll certainly check on this moving forward. I can confirm that the Consonance Suzanne works fine while charging in the dock, as do the AK devices, and also the Cayin. Obviously the OnePlus will (same as any phone) but I'll have to try it to confirm it doesn't add any detrimental noise or other issues. The only one I'm unsure about is the Pono so I'll give that a shot and report back.
Rillion's picture

Cool! Thanks!

echineko's picture

I was hoping to see it included, after you hinted it might be in Part 1. There's always part 3 I suppose, would be interesting to see it compared against the AK 240/380 as well :)

John Grandberg's picture
Sony took a while to send it my way, so I didn't have enough time to spend with it compared to these others. ZX2 is definitely in for part 3 though.
zeissiez's picture

Hi John,

I'm an expat based in China, over here I got the chance to audition various Chinese DAPs. To my surprise, many of them are actually very good sounding, and some of them more so than the A&K in sonic performance. I have heard the Cayin N6, Consonance, ibasso dx90, hm-901, Questyle QP1R, Lotoo Paw, Fiio X5 and many more. One brand that stood out is Luxury & Precision. Their L5, LP5 silver and gold edition are the best DAP I heard regardless of price. The entry level model L5 for example is clearly better than the N6 in sonic performance. Now the latest model L5 pro is said to be a much improved model over the previous 3 models. So I think it's good to include it in your reviews.

John Grandberg's picture

Thanks for the perspective. I've only had a chance to mess with the original L5 and it seemed like a prototype (it was a production model though) - poor build, terrible UI, only decent sound. I'll have to see if I can get my hands on the new stuff as it certainly does look improved.

I agree that Chinese DAPs can sound excellent. The HiFi ET MA9 was one of my favorites on sound, but less so on reliability, battery, and UI. Reliability is a big one for me.

whyeme's picture

Please please review the xduoo x3 when you do part 3. It uses the CS4398 DAC chip and Texas Instruments amp chips and sells for only USD110 inclusive of free shipping. Perhaps it could be a budget DAP shootout to get more youth into this hobby.


Bennyboy's picture

It's not a question of age, but of income. Not all of us are loaded enough to drop a grand here there and everywhere on this stuff.

John Grandberg's picture

That makes sense. However - a company saying "we want to appeal to a younger demographic" is a lot more PC than "We want to appeal to poor people" or "people with less disposable info". So you'll almost always see it framed as a "youth" thing.

But I agree, some of these are steep, and I'm glad there are some good options to be had for lower prices.

Bennyboy's picture

Some of these new 'high end' players are just daylight robbery.

I recently bought the Fiio X1 - cost me 95 quid and sounds ACE.

ashutoshp's picture

Thank you for your efforts in scaling the growing landscape of media players. TBH, I have little interest in media players myself mostly from a convenience perspective. But your smartphone inclusion got my curiosity.
Do you think the audio limitations apparently inherent in the smartphone are a DAC or an amp issue? In other words, the DAC is fine but the amount of power it can output is the major limiting factor. The reason I ask is because the choices in amps or amps+DACs are similarly vast and I am confused as to what would work best, an amplifier via the headphone out, or a DAC+amp via USB OTG/Lightning CCK?
Moreover, it seems that (cheaper) DAC+amp 2-in-1s usually trade-off DAC quality for amplifier capacity or vice-versa. If the smartphone DAC is fine then I can go for a high quality headphone amp rather than stick with a compromise, which I feel I'm currently making anyways with a smartphone/tablet. FYI, I only listening to streamed music from TiDAL on an LG G3 and iPad Air. Thanks in advance.

detlev24's picture

IMO there is no definite answer to your question since it depends very much, on which headphones you use. Generally, I would say the amplification circuit around the DAC is the bottleneck of most devices.

Since your question is directed to John, it might be useful for him to know the type(s) of headphones you use and the budget you plan to spend on such a device, since (audible) trade-offs do not necessarily need to be made.

Best regards

John Grandberg's picture

I basically see the amp section of a phone as being the weakest link - on a better phone, the DAC is pretty decent. Not as good as the better dedicated DAPs but good enough to be enjoyable nonetheless. The amp portion, though, is limited in terms of drive (and often output impedance as well) so it becomes the biggest issue.

Having said that, the market seems to focus more towards combo units. So I might go that route anyway. I've had more luck finding good combo units than straight amp-only portables.

The upgrade path will depend on what headphones are being used, as well as your intentions for portability. If "on the go" listening is a must then something small like the Resonessence Labs Herus should do the trick. I also really like the Oppo HA-2. If home use is the goal, you could go for a desktop setup, which then opens things up a little more for separate components.

ashutoshp's picture

I have the Hifiman HE-400i (home use), Sony's XBA-H1 and Ety's HF3 (outside use). Of these, the Etys don't seem to scale with more power but the other two definitely do. the Hifimans are actually too much for the phone, but not for the iPad even though they seem to get limited sometimes.
I was looking at a portable set up not only because of my need for mobility but I can then use it for bedtime listening with the Hifimans. My budget is $300 . I like a fast, clear, hard-hitting sound. But I hate boomy bass or tizzy treble (eg, DT880....ouch). The Sony XBA-H1s are quite boomy in the bass when played through the HP out of my phone but not at home with my desktop DAC/amp set up. The XBA-H1 is also why I started researching amps or amps/DACs like the HA-2 or Alo's new Rx (amp only I think).

detlev24's picture

You can try the two FiiO E12 amplifiers and see, if they suite your needs.

I have listened to the E12 on a HIFIMAN HE-500 (which needs more power than your HE-400i) and for such a small package, it sounded good at my listening levels and with the types of music, I listen (classical music, included). I switched "BASS: ON" but I did not use GAIN, since this made noise audible (you may not find it disturbing during playback, depending on the music genre) and with CROSSFEED, clarity suffered (the latter is useless, anyway - unless thoroughly matched to your headphones and music).

On the other hand, I do not recommend the E12 with IEM, since I had noise using UE TripleFi 10 but for a technical aspect, that was no surprise. For IEM, try the optimized E12A!

I think the HE-400i may sound great using an E12 and for IEM, the E12A could just do it.

detlev24's picture

If considering FiiO, also try the E12A on the HE-400i. Might need "GAIN: H" but depending on your taste, you could like it more.

An there is also a E12DIY around (with swappable op-amps, for different sound signatures), as alternative to the E12.^^

Long time listener's picture

I too would like to see a review of the two players above.

Also, just how well do these players compare to separates? For example, an iPod feeding an Algorhythm solo -R plus a Vorzuge Pure II amp? Do they come pretty close? Thanks

John Grandberg's picture

Both are to be included in part 3.

I personally think the better DAPs give up very little compared to separates. Obviously depends on the models in question... but the small improvement brought from lugging a big stack is typically not worth it (for me) compared to a quality DAP.

I might feel differently if I used the stack for home use with occasional portable listening. With big, difficult to drive cans, the dedicated amp could make a more significant difference.

zobel's picture

Been awhile since he has written anything. Thought he might offer a wrap-up on the last project. Hope he is feeling good.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Went to RMAF, I'll be posting the Big Sound 2015 wrap posts this week.
Broman's picture

I played with a OnePlusOne and thought it unexceptional compared to HTC One 9. The new phone I want to try is the LG V10 with ESS DAC. Thank you for including a phone in this survey. I go for long walks in cities and the less I carry the better.

John Grandberg's picture
I like the OnePlus One slightly better than the HTC One M8. Not sure about the latest HTC though. I already have an email in the LG about the V10, I've been keeping an eye on that since I first saw the ESS DAC (and headphone driver) being used. Not sure many big phone companies are actually willing to participate though, we'll see.
elfary's picture

If one take a look at gsmarena frequency plot of the OnePlusOne one can discern that output impedance it's headed to the 10 ohms range. (They measure with AKG headphones that have an impedance bump at the 50Hz).

Hence i was wondering what headphones have you used. I don't think balanced armatures earphones can play as nice on the OnePlus as they play on HTC, Apple or Samsung flagships.

In any case is nice to see smartphones tossed in since their ergonomy is killer.

Just my 0.02

John Grandberg's picture

I use a matched pair of resistors soldered to a Neutrik jack, rather than a headphone as dummy load. I'm fairly certain that my results are accurate for my particular OnePlus One. Can't speak for any silent revisions or manufacturing variability that could explain a different result, nor can I say GSM Arena didn't make some mistake somewhere. In my case I do enjoy IEMs with the OPO, with certain limitations of course. My UM Merlins (which drop into the single digit ohm range at some frequencies) are not a good match, but many other IEMs are.

It makes sense that performance would be on par with the top LG and Samsung models, as they tend to use very similar hardware.

I will say the HTC flagships seem to have the advantage driving full size headphones. More output voltage, more drive, more authority. I personally don't have much use for that but some people might.

elfary's picture

If i have to trust your measurements or gsmarena ones i'll go with yours i heartbeat. In gsmarena they so 't know very well what they are doing. An i know that on certain smartphones z changes from region to region (m8 had 9 ohms in the China market. In Europe it has just 1.

veggieboy2001's picture

This is a really comprehensive survey of DAPs...I'm looking forward to part 3. I'm currently researching a replacement for my Fiio X3 (1st gen) so this is timely indeed! Have you had any experience with Shanling? I've read some good things about both the M2 & M3 and I was hoping they were on your radar...there are so many people getting into the DAP game these days it's hard to keep up. Thanks for taking on this task...I'm excited to hear your final results!

Ranstedt's picture

Any idea when part 3 will be available?

I'm about to get my first great pair of headphones and would like a nice, not very expensive, DAP that has a very good price:quality ratio.