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Neil Young's $400 Pono hi-def music player loses to Apple's iPhone in blind audio test

Though it has the backing of legendary rocker Neil Young, the new Pono music player for audiophiles doesn't actually sound much better, or better at all, than high-quality MP3s played from an Apple iPhone.

Funded through a high-profile Kickstarter effort a year ago, the PonoPlayer is now shipping to some early backers. For everyone else, the uniquely shaped triangle device carries a retail price of $399, and it comes in colors of yellow or black.

Young originally said in 2012 that he had been working with late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs on a new music format that would improve audio quality. Those plans apparently fell through, however, which helped lead Young to publicly support the PonoPlayer, which supports high-fidelity audio up to 192kHz/24-bit resolution.

The hardware includes two 3.5mm audio jacks that can be used in a so-called "balanced mode," separating left and right channel outputs across both jacks for use with high-impedance headphones, high-end home stereo systems, or professional equipment The PonoPlayer also supports more traditional manners of listening with regular headphones.

But tests conducted by Yahoo Tech's David Pogue, who used to be a professional musician, found that there was essentially no difference between the sound quality of the PonoPlayer and Apple's iPhone. Not only could Pogue not tell the difference, but the journalist also found that tests with others did not bode well for the high-end portable media player.

In a blind trial using identical songs on identical headphones, Pogue found that listeners actually preferred the iPhone playback with high-quality MP3s. The iPhone won out over the PonoPlayer when using both earbuds and headphones.

"Pono's statement that 'Everyone who's ever heard PonoMusic will tell you that the difference is surprising and dramatic' is baloney," Pogue wrote. "When conducting the test with today's modern music files, I couldn't find even one person who heard a dramatic difference."

Another review at ArsTechnica had a slightly less negative spin on the PonoPlayer, but even there reviewer Sam Machkovech had to admit that 192kHz/24-bit FLAC audio files played on the Pono did not sound noticeably better than high-quality MP3 files.

Switching to Pono also requires users to re-purchase their music library, at a cost of $2.50 per song. The device also has a sluggish touchscreen, an awkward triangular design, and offers eight hours of battery life, performing worse than Apple's discontinued iPod classic.

Still, given that the iPod classic is no more, there are likely many on the market who would like a high-capacity, high-quality dedicated portable media player. And with 128 gigabytes of storage expandable to 196 gigabytes, the $399 PonoPlayer might fit that bill for some.

And some audiophiles, like Young, may swear by the PonoPlayer, including a Pono owner who was part of Pogue's blind test. That person actually preferred the sound of the iPhone when comparing the two side by side, but later argued that the iPhone could not deliver the "emotion" of the sound from the Pono.

"It's like saying that wearing a crystal or a magnet makes you healthier: There's no scientific or measurable basis to the statement, but then again, if it works for you, nobody can argue with you," Pogue said.