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Neil Young states his case for Pono’s high-quality sound

Peter Blackstock

Editor’s note: This article was originally published March 11, 2014

Neil Young’s 5 p.m. session was officially billed as an “SXSW Interview,” but it felt more like a keynote address, given that the completely full house in the Convention Center’s largest ballroom buzzed with anticipation and adulation for the legendary rocker. Young’s label, Warner Bros., even sent out a press release Tuesday afternoon about a live stream of the event, reminding people to “watch Neil Young deliver the keynote address at SXSW.”

Ultimately, Young’s appearance was mainly a sales pitch for his new Pono high-quality sound system than anything else, but it was an entertaining and effective one. He began with a half-hour solo address to the crowd in which he outlined a decades-long devolution in sound quality (from LP to CD to MP3) that motivated his desire to bring Pono to the marketplace. A 10-minute testimonial video featuring dozens of major artists – including Eddie Vedder, Tom Petty, Jack White, Bruce Springsteen and Mumford & Sons – followed, after which Young sat for a brief chat with USA Today reporter Mike Snider. The hourlong session concluded with Pono CEO John Hamm joining Young to answer a few audience questions.

Young stressed that the idea of Pono is to give listeners a chance to hear “exactly what the artist made” in the studio. Claiming that modern formats such as MP3 often capture just 5 percent of the sound actually recorded by musicians, Young suggested that today’s listeners typically don’t have the same experience he had when he heard records many decades ago. “Inside their soul, they’re just not getting what we got,” he said.

Pono is a triangular device, slightly bigger than an iPod but still portable, though Hamm carefully referred to it as “a small piece of audio gear, NOT a mobile device.” Young and Hamm showed off test models from the stage, though when an audience member from Holland asked if he could leave SXSW with a Pono in-hand, they made it clear the process isn’t that far along yet. Pono launched a Kickstarter page Tuesday through which donors can reserve devices that are scheduled to be shipped this October.

Retail price is $399, though the Kickstarter page offers patrons a chance to get a basic model for a donation of $200. A $400-level donation includes a customized Pono inscribed with a laser signature of a well-known artist. (Those units include models signed by the likes of Willie Nelson, Lenny Kravitz, Norah Jones and Arcade Fire.) The Kickstarter page was poised to meet its $800,000 goal in its first day, passing 2,000 donors and $600,000 in contributions by 7 p.m. Tuesday evening.

Hamm said the Kickstarter page was launched largely “to connect with fans,” though Young voiced some disdainful surprise that venture capitalists had passed “because they couldn’t see the opportunity to own this.” Both men spoke confidently that a renewed emphasis on the quality of sound is already happening. “We hit the bottom a while ago,” Hamm said.

If that’s true, Pono may take off. “But if it doesn’t work for us, it’s going to work for somebody,” Young said. “Because the cat’s out of the bag.”