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PonoPlayer: High-Fidelity Audio at a (Relatively) Low Price

Sony currently charges $1,100 for a mobile device capable of playing high-quality audio files. Upstart music company Pono thinks that's a bit much. Created by singer/songwriter Neil Young, the PonoPlayer plays all the same music files as Sony's premium player and is just $399. But can such a reasonably priced device really deliver audiophile-grade sound?

Design

When I saw the PonoPlayer, I almost wrote the device off as as kid's toy due to its triangular shape and bright mustard color. However, I'm a sucker for the soft-touch finish that made me change my mind. Pono created one of the nicest feeling players I've had the pleasure of holding. Weighing 4.6 ounces, the 5 x 2 x 1-inch device had a nice heft, though its shape makes it a little awkward to stuff into your pants.

The front of the PonoPlayer features a 2.5-inch touchscreen above a set of three dark gray buttons for volume and power. The touchscreen is functional, displaying album covers and menus, but colors were muted and details -- particularly text -- appeared very grainy.

The top of the player is made of glossy, black plastic with a white Pono logo. There are two 3.5mm stereo output jacks that can be used with headphones, home stereo equipment or with your car. A microUSB port at the base of the device is used to connect the player to a computer to drag and drop files. Beneath a small port cover is a microSD card.

If mustard yellow isn't your flavor, the PonoPlayer also comes in a sleek-looking black.

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Performance

T he player is designed to deliver high-quality audio via FLAC, ALAC, WAV, unprotected AIFF files as well as MP3s. However, the device's real mission is to get people to reconnect with their music. I can't say that I felt the connection listening to the Doobie Brothers on the noisy Showstoppers floor, but I did hear crystal clear vocals and rich instrumentals despite the din. I would need to listen to the PonoPlayer in a quiet setting before I pass final judgement.

Features

The PonoPlayer offers a couple of standout features. Balanced mode delivers professional-level performance for people that know their way around a soundboard. The PonoPlayer has a digital-to-analog converter, and can split the left and right channels between the two jacks, which comes in handy when you want to share the high-fidelity goodness.

PonoMusic

A music player is only as good as its music catalog. This is especially true when it comes to a high-performance device such as the PonoPlayer. To that end, Pono created its own music store, dubbed — you guessed it — PonoMusic. To stock PonoMusic catalog's coffers, Neil Young and company went to record labels and artists to secure the master recordings, ensuring listeners will hear the music as the artist intended.

Authenticity doesn't come cheap. Marvin Gaye's classic album costs $21.29 on PonoMusic with single tracks priced at $2.49 a piece. Compare that to $5 for the same album on Amazon. However, Pono is offering the music at the highest quality (192.0kHz/24bit), while Amazon has compressed MP3 files. While it might sound divine, shelling out that type of money for an older album might be a hard pill for even the most die-hard music lover to swallow.

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Storage

When it ships, the PonoPlayer will have 128GB of storage. Half of that will be onboard, while the remaining space will reside on the included 64GB microSD card. The player can support up to a 128GB microSD. Pono reps estimates that device's 128GB can hold approximately 1,000 high-quality files, compared to 5,000 CD-quality titles.

Battery

The PonoPlayer has a 2950mAH-battery that the company estimates will last up to 8 hours.

Bottom Line

The PonoPlayer is a compelling alternative to Sony's ultra-premium player. For $399, you get a player with fun, vibrant design that can play audiophile-grade audio with headphones, a home stereo or even your car. The dual audio jacks also listeners to share the fun with a friend. Ultimately, the price of the accompanying music tracks from PonoMusic will be thing that gives many music lovers pause. With albums costing upwards of $20 a pop, using the PonoPlayer can become really expensive, really quickly.

Sherri L. Smith is a Senior Writer at Tom's Guide. When she's not testing out the latest headphones and speakers, you'll find her gaming on her Xbox One, PlayStation 4 or PC. Follow Sherri at @misssmith11. Follow us @TomsGuide and on Facebook.