Neil Young’s PONO Matches the Raw, Analog Sound of Vinyl

Competing with Apple is a daring move — one that only the cockiest of silicon entrepreneurs would think of making. You wouldn’t expect a 68-year old musician known for his earthy folk sound to be the person to try to one-up the iPod, but Neil Young is, in fact, trying to restore that very earthiness to digital listening. At SXSW yesterday, Young unveiled PonoMusic, the complementary music player and online store with such impeccable performance that it promises to make you “feel” music again after years of lackluster digitization, claiming to transcend the shortcomings of MP3 compression and the underwhelming quality of streaming sites and listening devices.

For PONO’s promotional video, Young enlisted an army of celebrity endorsers, with Flea corroborating that “listening to a CD is like twanging on a rubber-band compared to the full scale of music” and Elvis Costello expressing that MP3s are like “Xeroxes of the Mona Lisa.” At SXSW, Young griped that the venture had taken over two and a half years to bring to fruition because “rescuing an art form is not something that really is of a high consideration to too many of the people in the investment community.”

While the cause is both a noble and exciting development in music consumption, partaking in this revitalization of an art form is inextricably linked to privilege; while the device itself isn’t prohibitively expensive, it stores up to 1,000 to 2,000 albums, and at $14.99 to $29.99 per album, it would cost between $14,990 and $59,980 to fill a player. While it’s enticing when Elton John suggests that PONO’s sound is so immediate you’d think “Bob Dylan was playing harmonica in your ear,” it simultaneously leads one to wonder whether they might, for the same price, be able to pay the physical Dylan to do the same thing.