Neil Young on His New Digital Music Player and Why MP3s Are Subpar

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Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images

Neil Young wants to change the way you listen to music. This week, the rock legend introduced Pono, a new high-definition digital music player that he says will finally offer consumers the sound quality he hears in his studio. (The device, which Young is selling for $399, was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign; some audioheads are dubious about his claims.) Young spoke with John Horn, host of Southern California Public Radio's new arts and entertainment show “The Frame,” about audio quality, taking on Apple, and whether MP3s have made musicians complacent. (Listen to part of Horn and Young's interview below, and subscribe to “The Frame” at iTunes or Stitcher.)

What was going on in your musical or professional life that made you want to create Pono.
Just satisfaction with what my product was sounding like by the time it got to consumers.

Now, it has sounded like this for a long time. Did something change? Did something evolve?
What do you think a long time is?

MP3s have been the standard for a number of years. Everyone’s been listening to your music on Apple devices. Maybe they haven’t enjoyed it, so —
Okay, a number of years. I think MP3s are too much of a compromise. As an artist, I look at it that way. They are handy and you can store a lot on a player, on an iPod, because the MP3 has very little information in it. That is a feature that allows it to store many, many songs that you can actually recognize as being a song, that matches the writing on the iPod.

But people have become so accustomed to that format that it’s kind of a dumbing-down.
You know, people being accustomed to these things is not a reason to not change things.

If I listen to "Heart of Gold" on MP3 and then listen to it on Pono, what would I hear differently?
Well, when my daughter did that — which I like to talk about what other people think and what they say — halfway through the song she’s turned it off and she looked at me and said, "Why have I never heard this?" And she wasn’t talking about the song. She was talking about the sound because we played the same song on both systems. And she just looked at me and said, "Why have I never heard it? Why?" And I said, “Well, honey, it’s just never been available. What you get is pretty dummied down compared to what we make.”

Why did that become the standard?
We got there because people became really impressed with convenience and a number of features available on smartphones and on devices made by Apple. And they were pioneering devices and they were great. It’s fantastic what Apple’s been able to accomplish. However, it was not envisioned by Steve Jobs that the MP3 was going to be a standard for music. And I don’t think it is a standard for music. I think it’s the low bar for music. Although it has been exceeded on the lower level recently by streaming and other things like that.

People should listen to music no matter what they listen through, but if you want to hear all the music, there hasn’t been an opportunity to do that. And now there is. This gives music lovers a chance to actually come together as a group, as a community, worldwide. Because they’ve had nothing to rally against or around for years, there’s been nothing. A little bit vinyl, a little vinyl resurgence, you might point to that, but let’s face it: This is a convenience-oriented society and vinyl is not a convenient thing. It’s a niche and it’s a great niche and it’s a wonderful thing and I hope people continue to enjoy vinyl and it continues to grow because it’s a good thing. However, a lot of people that buy vinyl today don’t realize that they’re listening to CD masters on vinyl and that’s because the record companies have figured out that people want vinyl. And they’re only making CD masters in digital, so all the new products that come out on vinyl are actually CDs on vinyl, which is really nothing but a fashion statement.

So, what we have in this device that we’re looking at right now — I think people have made it sound like it looks like a Toblerone chocolate bar — it’s a highly digital devices, but what you’re saying is that it’s a digital device that creates analog-quality sound?
I’m saying that it’s a high-resolution digital player. It doesn’t create an analog sound; it creates the best digital sound. It’s capable of creating the best sounds that people can create in the digital realm in the recording studios. There are many different levels that people choose to record at and to mix at. The thing about this player is that it allows anything to play on it. It’s the mother of all formats.

If you’ve got a bunch of CDs, there’s programs for ripping the CDs and putting them onto this player. You already bought the music. If a CD quality is what you want, you’ve got it. It’s there. However, on things like the iPod, you can’t buy CD quality, you can’t get that. You can’t get that quality. The player is not what this is about. What it’s about is the files. It’s the master files that we sell. We have over 2 million of these that we’re selling right now. So, we’ve made deals over the last three years with all the major record companies in cooperation with them with the idea of raising the bar of music to the place where it once was, so that people — consumers, not audiophiles, but music-loving consumers — can actually enjoy music the way it was created, which is the way it was during the heyday of music. And when you look at music now, which is greatly reduced to wallpaper by the quality of it and you go, "Well, music isn’t what it used to be." You’re right! It isn’t what it used to be. That’s why people say it isn’t what it used to be. People are very perceptive.

But it seems as if artists, I mean, in your Kickstarter video, you have artists like David Grohl, Marcus Mumford, Norah Jones, listening to the device and saying, "Oh my God, my music sounds so much better or different." So, have the artists become a little bit complacent.
Not different. They say better.

But the artists themselves have become accustomed to and satisfied by —
No, that’s wrong. They are not satisfied. Show me an artist who is satisfied with the sound of an MP3 and thinks that’s the way their music should be made and I’ll show you a hundred artists who disagree.

So, they never had a chance to hear what it could have been?
Well, recently, the consumers have never had a chance to hear it. And the new artists have had to deal with what’s available. But why should we stay where we are, at the bottom, with 5 percent of what’s possible in the 21st century when technology is supposed to make life so much better for us? Why would we want to compromise and just take this lowly signal and put it into our ears? It’s like, "Well, oh wait, I don’t want to go to Whole Foods. I think I’ll go to Jack in the Box." Now, if that’s the decision you have to make and you want to make that decision, there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re still going to get food.

When I was growing up, a lot of my music choices were dictated by what was in the cutout bin. There’s a lot of David Gates and Bread because those were the 99 cent albums. You’re talking about a price structure here that for people in their teens who love music is going to be a little bit out of reach.
I don’t think it’s out of reach. I think it’s a different structure. It doesn’t eliminate the MP3. The MP3 and all of that is still there. If that’s what you want, you can buy that and you can pay 69 cents for a song.

But how much is the player? How much is the device?
The player, this player here, is $399. How much is the iPod?

You can get a Nano for maybe $150 bucks.
Yeah, but we only have one model. What’s a model that equivalent to that one?

It probably doesn’t exist.
What in size and structure and everything? Like a three or four hundred dollar iPod?

Yeah, because Sony has a $1,200 Walkman.
Right, and it doesn’t sound as good as a Pono player.

Did you give it a listen?
No.

So, how do you know that?
All the reviewers said so. People listen to the reviewers, they don’t listen to the people who make them. I mean, how could I be saying anything bad about my own product?

If we paid you enough, you could.
No, no. I don’t think you could pay me enough to do that.

What’s going to happen next with Pono? And we should say, what does Pono mean? What does the word mean? How did you come up with it?
Pono is the one righteous, the essence, the beginning.

It’s Hawaiian, correct?
Hawaiian word, yeah. It’s a good word. One word for all of those ideas.

What happens next to Pono?
It’s anybody’s guess. We’re in uncharted territory, really. All of the questions that you’ve brought up. They’re all still there. No one knows. Investors won’t invest. We don’t see big investors swarming towards Pono to invest in it because why? Well, because we have Apple. Everyone’s scared of Apple. Everyone thinks Apple must be it. They’re the biggest. They’re the best. Well, they’re the biggest and they’re a consumer company and they do a great job of making consumer products.

What’s going to have to happen for people to adopt it? Do they just have to listen to it?
That’s it. Bingo. That’s why it’s not a fast thing and we’re not in a hurry. We’re not in a hurry to dumb ourselves down to make it better or easier for people to get to a lower-price product because we’re defining what it is and it’s not that outrageously expensive that people can’t buy it. So, if they want it, they have to pay for it. There’s nothing wrong with that.