Neil Young and Phil Baker's Book "To Feel the Music"

As anyone reading this likely knows, over the past 40 years, commercial audio quality tanked. Beginning with the CD’s often sterile blurriness to today’s lossy 64kbps free Spotify streams, the masses’ sacrifice of quality for convenience also coincides with the decline of deep, concentrated listening. Although the two may have nothing to do with one another (after all, work commutes lengthened and other forms of media gained prominence), it’s certainly a possibility.

From the (apparently difficult) development of his hi-res digital PonoPlayer to the adaptive resolution (192/24 on a good network) streaming of his online archives, Neil Young is by far the biggest name to advocate for improved sound quality. Having witnessed the degradation himself, over the last decade he’s tirelessly worked to bring high fidelity audio back to the masses in order to restore the indescribable “feeling” within music. Young, with Pono Music hardware developer Phil Baker, in September published the 250-page book “To Feel The Music: A Songwriter’s Mission to Save High-Quality Audio” (Benbella Books) about exactly that. The musician and developer contribute their own chapters, with Baker writing about two-thirds of the book. With insights into Pono’s development, reception, and collapse, To Feel The Music is bound to be somewhat interesting, right?

While Baker’s dive into Pono’s developmental challenges provides a compelling enough one-time read, Young’s chapters often show that, despite his devotion to the subject, he’s somewhat out of touch with the general public’s “accepted” listening methods. The PonoPlayer, a $399 expertly crafted digital music player, is a relatively bulky triangular prism that, as great as it may be (I haven’t heard it, but it was Stereophile’s digital product of 2015), still only plays music. Unfortunately, “normal” consumers who listen on the go aren’t going to carry an additional music-only device, much less buy it for $399. Still, Young isn’t to exactly blame for Pono’s failure: upon the device’s release, a spiteful consumer electronics writer published a negative review based on a quickly debunked “study;” and record labels jacked up the hi-res files’ price, making high-quality sound an elite luxury.

Further, Neil Young’s name is no longer significant enough to force a product into the mainstream. His middle-aged and boomer fans (many of whom are also audiophiles) might check out a Young-endorsed/headed product, but he can no longer reach most younger people. Younger consumers are, with few exceptions, immersed in the world of big tech’s lossy files, wireless earbuds, and strong marketing of such. Musician advocacy is always a step in the right direction, although most people aren’t going to buy products because of a classic rock artist’s name. The same applies to this book; its existence raises awareness, but how many audiophiles, much less non-audiophiles, will read it? I doubt very many. The volume provides a good sound quality technicalities primer for the uninitiated; for its niche appeal, is it imperative? Even as an audiophile, I found this book’s subject to be rather mundane, with no reread value. It’s hard to imagine even a retired diehard Neil Young fan who’s not an audiophile reading this book; that is, its audience is quite limited. Here, he essentially preaches to the choir. Beyond some announcement headlines and mediocre reviews, it didn’t make a splash.

The writing quality itself is lazily thrown-together; it often appears as if nobody bothered to edit. Baker at one point uses the improper plural “vinyls,” and many of Young’s chapters redundantly meander. Parts of it read like a Pono promotional essay, even though the brand died two years ago. “To Feel The Music…” is about 250 pages in approximately size 12 font, but could easily be edited to 180 pages. In three nights I breezed through its entirety, totaling 5-6 hours. Here are the mere five parts that make this book worthy, summarized:

1) Pono cost a lot of money. Suppress your hardware development dreams until you have millions of dollars ready.

2) Young writes, “I think if the highest-quality music audio were available at a reasonable price, the streaming companies would stream it, everybody would hear and feel better music, and the world would be a much happier, better place.” Similar to how Jeff Bezos has the ability to end world hunger if he so wanted to, streaming services could near us to world peace with a few minor changes. Seriously: if the increased availability of hi-res music can bring us even the smallest step closer to world peace, why haven’t we done it?

3) Steve Jobs cared about his listening experience, but not his consumers’. Young: “I had met with Steve Jobs in the past, and I knew how Apple would feel [about a directly outboard iPhone DAC - Pono’s first idea]. While he appreciated high-res music and listened to vinyl himself, he had no interest in high res for his products […]. When we spoke together, he told me his customers were perfectly satisfied with MP3 quality. He had one standard for himself and another for his customers. As he said, ‘We are a consumer company.’”

4) Neil Young met with both Lincoln and Tesla about installing Pono in cars. Car audio nowadays is all-digital, mostly with cheap parts and unnecessary “extras;” it’s all features, little quality. With the PonoPlayer’s output through an analog amp, the Lincoln engineers were impressed, but Young gave up after noticing their eight-cylinder engine-replicating background sound. Elon Musk and his Tesla engineers were highly skeptical of the Pono’s quality versus their built-in system and turned down a demonstration upon learning the necessity of a connection wire. Guess we’re not getting lossless versions of Elon’s SoundCloud tracks anytime soon. “A lot of people [don’t get it],” Young writes. “They can be brilliant in electronics, brilliant in software, and just very brilliant people. [Elon] is. But they sometimes don’t get [good sound].”

5) Apple purchased the Pono download store’s provider, Omnifone, in 2016, with the requirement for Omnifone to cease all operations. Pono got four days’ notice. Speculation swirls that Apple intentionally bought Omnifone to kill Pono, but the motive can’t be verified. After 7digital’s backend services proved too expensive, Young’s company admitted defeat.

I greatly appreciate Neil Young’s efforts; after all, everyone should have easy access to heightened music appreciation. Lossless streaming should be cheaper (Amazon’s $15/month Music HD service hopefully being a wake up call to others), portable devices’ audio processing should be carefully engineered, and the rising stigma against wired headphones and earbuds should reverse course (wireless can be nice for portable purposes, but not for real listening). Despite its appealing message, his and Phil Baker’s book is a sloppy, disjointed mess that isn’t as good and won’t be as big a seller as it should be.

(Malachi Lui is an AnalogPlanet contributing editor, music lover, record collector, and highly opinionated sneaker enthusiast. He’s soon anticipating a case of Light Wallet Syndrome, induced by an assault of Iggy Pop super deluxe box sets. Follow Malachi on Twitter: @MalachiLui.)

pessoist's picture

I don't know about the book quality and I don't know about the multi-hundreds of thousands $$$ analog sound kits. Well I know some and wasn't impressed, which doesn't mean there isn't some holy grail somewhere.

What I know, regardless of what headphone I used on the Pono and on NYA website, which I pay for listening or how I connect this to my larger hifi kit in the living room. It's nothing like NY wants to make me believe, although it doesn't hurt like some others either.

NY's message is cool, his efforts honest, I believe. But he always mixes things up things, especially if you listen and try to stay objective and validate the "facts" stated or referenced facts behind the statement.

I concluded to like him as a musician and accept a little bit of his preacher thingy he has going. But it has nothing to do with the real facts. too much voodoo, snoberism and stubbornness in it.

His offers aren't as great as he claims, nor are the "bad" things as bad. It's all a bit artistically exaggerated.

My (maybe not yours and I'm not saying this because I'm on this audiophilistic analog site) best personal, not scientific, sound experience moments I have had was listening to old gear type kits from the 60s and re-created "old quality listening kit on improved technology" late 90s. All key moments came from old vinyl recordings, some even dirty, as I was too lazy to clean them. No I don't love cracks, dust and noise or warm valve tube fluppy stinking sock quality music play and I never loved tape for that same overcoloring manner beyond the slight personal "color" layer that I may accept or love, kitsch is kitsch, instead I prefer sound as is sound, bar's, rock, wood, wine...

None of that can be found on NYA or on my Pono. I often even get a feeling as if an MP3 has been treated and upsampled to pseudo HighRez on NYA. But there are far worse, so I use them still. Heck, I paid for it (mobility reason, for when I'm not at home, juggling black memory media).


Tom L's picture

I could go on and on about Neil Young, whose music I've followed since Buffalo Springfield, but this isn't the time or place. He has charged many windmills, some correctly and some apparently at random.
I must admit that I'm amazed and confused by his apparent ability to discern good, natural sound from bad crap, given his heavy exposure to EXTREMELY LOUD music for all these years. I've heard him with Crazy Horse several times and only my habitual use of ear protection saved me from hearing damage.
Thank you for the cogent review, Malachi.

Trevor_Bartram's picture

Tom L, you beat me to it, I have previously thought the exact same thing (but kept my mouth shut in case of haters).
And it was pretty obvious many years ago that broadband internet and local storage would provide a Hi-Rez audio solution. I wonder why Neil Young didn't think of that. It would have saved him a ton of money.

Chemguy's picture

...and I enjoyed it for what it was. Don’t let Malachi dissuade you from an informative read.

Anton D's picture

"....the masses’ sacrifice of quality for convenience also coincides with the decline of deep, concentrated listening."

My first thought was, "Yeah, kids these days."

Then I realized it was you and not Mike!

I'm used to "old man yells at cloud," but I will have to find a meme for "young man yells at cloud." (Which is also a streaming joke, playing with the term 'cloud' like I did there.)

Thanks for the review, you are an honorary boomer!!!! ;-D

OldschoolE's picture

Wow, this brought back memories: I was actually involved in that “debunked” study from one spiteful consumer electronics writer. I was a main player in the debunking. I wasn’t going to say anything figuring it was just another sloppy experiment conducted by someone who doesn’t really know what they are doing until he started going after Neil’s character (and leaving Mr. Baker out of the picture in errant omission to boot). Neil has his foibles like anyone else, but he really does mean well and at least he tries instead of just sitting around complaining. That’s even more than I can say about myself at times.

I clearly identified the issues with the “study” and wrote to the writer ever so politely pointing out what I discovered with referential evidence. I pointed out a nearly effortless way to do the study again in a more accurate way (following scientific principles), to eliminate more doubt with the results. Unfortunately, our pal Mikey had already gone after him before me in a less tempered manner and the writer was already primed by the time, he got my letter. (In fairness, Michael did warn me that he had already had a heated exchange and I figured to take the risk and try to get things back into perspective while at the same time informing said writer that it is unfair to go after Neil’s character for what he deemed a failed product whether it was true or not). Needless to say, said writer just attacked me in reply, so I had to chalk it up to a lost 45 minutes of work, sadly wasted.

I do agree that Neil did not quite grasp the demographics, but his idea(s) are correct. He really cares about folks listening to music and in good quality. I just missed a chance to meet him shortly after all that, darn, that would have been nice.

I believe part of the reason the Pono player failed was tri-fold:
1)Folks did not want to spend $300 to $400 on an extra device to carry around just for music. The smart phone was already starting to saturate the market and folks are happy just using those for music. (I exclude myself in this, I do not and won’t ever have a smart phone. Can’t stand them personally).
2)High rez was still in infancy and has still yet to take off. (I have huge doubts about its future myself). We can also take into account that Neil’s works were almost the only high rez stuff available at first. So, we can at least tip our hats at his efforts and being one of the pioneers so to speak.
3)Price gouging by the lables, of course.
So essentially, it was also ill-timed.

As for the book itself, while I am not an audiophile, I won’t be reading it, not because of this review, but I’m already familiar. I read Neil’s other book (autobio) and it was a sloppy read as well, but still interesting for what it was. He really does need a new editor if he is going to continue with the books. (Hey, Neil some of us are in your corner, don’t worry your heart is in the right place, but holy sakes, get a better editor). That said, my favorite bit in Neil’s other book was in talking about some of his recording sessions with crazy horse in “the barn”. There was one funny part where during the recording of one LP, Neil went out on his lake near the barn and had the engineer play back some of the stuff. A moment later, Neil yells from the middle of the lake and says, “Needs more barn” to which all had a good laugh!

I’m a vinyl guy myself and I believe Neil is, but he is also into digital obviously. (I wonder if Neil still plays vinyl these days though)? He might, real vinyl folks don’t give up their vinyl that easy and some music just was not meant for CD.

By the by, Spotify (free) streams at 96 kpbs, not 64. For free users, they can go into their account and select “high” setting to get 160 kpbs for free. Premium users ($10 / month) get 320 kpbs by selecting “extreme” setting in their account. *Mobile streaming will be lower rates for both.
320 kpbs is more than adequate for my use since I don’t “listen” to streaming. Great for discovery, research and background, but for actual listening enjoyment, I go to vinyl or CD (depending on the artist and music), that’s just me though.

OldschoolE's picture

I also very much agree that most folks are more into convenience than quality. I also believe that is why folks are not into listening to music now days, it is just background noise for them. The quality of not only today's music (which can be fixed by playing older music), but the "convenient" playback gear and its lack of quality sound is a big part. Convenience has its place, but sometimes it is ill-fitted.

ArcAudio's picture

about anything?

Back in the day many musicians ranted, even wrote songs, about how "the Man" (referring to the labels) rip them off. Now, many wish today's labels were like those "yesteryears" and "nurture" musicians more instead of turning their backs if the first album does not sell.

Many on various forums (including musicians) rant how Apple and others have ruined royalty income for musicians due to streaming. At the same time, many of those same people "bitch" because streaming is too expensive.

I just wish happy Neil and the rest of the sour pusses were more consistent in their complaining.

OldschoolE's picture

This may be news to you, but the complaints you speak of were and are real. I had a toe in that industry you could say and yes, the main goal of the "labels" is to rip off the artists (and the consumer by extension). I've seen some of the "contracts" and false promises. Even back in the sixties they were doing the same thing, but the dollar amounts were a little smaller by direct comparison.
It continues to this day. Why do you think there entities now such as Bandcamp, etc.? Why do you think that at least a decade ago some artists started doing their own recording, producing, etc?

Secondly, "the man" did not always refer to the labels. In Neil's time for example, it often refers to the government and corrupt corporations and the like and still does to this day.

I see no glaring inconsistencies in the complaints. Apple is no different from the labels and such. Apple likes to rip everyone off more than just music artists. Do you have an Apple phone? Take a close look and discover it was made nearly for free by slave labor. Cost Apple about $100 after everything, including import/export, etc. and they sell you the phone for $800 to $1000! On top of that, Apple pays zero taxes.
Where I am from, we call it greed and corruption.

So yeah, the complaints are well warranted.
Sour pusses of the world unite!

ArcAudio's picture

LOL. I think I know the difference when musicians refer to labels or the govt.

There is no excuse for musicians to get ripped off today.

OldschoolE's picture

Exactly the point, not with places like Bandcamp and a plethora of DIY methods these days!

analogdw's picture

I stopped reading at the first "boomer" reference...

Glotz's picture

Your comments regarding the target market here are hilarious and completely true... and I'm sure the writing is as you say. I imagine Neil winging this one like he did the process for Pono (or more importantly his relationships with other industry partners).

The whole idea of Pono is stupid as he marketed it to non-audiophiles in the first place. It just shows his focus and original intent were completely misguided. If he worked with Ayre initially, he should've stuck with them and promoted Ayre (or other mfgs.) organically. Outside of a fucking endorsement, he takes on way too much to even come off somewhat sane. Neil's been just too fucking in his head for way too long.

He vacillates on trying to please the audiophile consumers and the value minded consumers. He's gone from loving vinyl to decrying it and he just doesn't have the stamina to fully immerse himself into becoming an audiophile himself, and it shows as half-assed effort with Pono and his vinyl release efforts.

Where's the heavyweight vinyl on the last 4 releases?? 150 gm pressings from what I feel. Where's a re-release on 180gm LP of the Archive box sets that were so well-received?

And lastly- How can any adult's BUTT BE SO HURT by such a silly reference to the word 'Boomer'?? We're so fuckin' triggered-sensitive that people can't read a book review? People act like he's a racist??

Butt-hurt Boomers!?!? Wow. Didn't think it was possible. Maybe it's the enlarged prostates? LOL..

Tom L's picture

Take it easy
Take it easy
Don't let the sound of your own wheels
Drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
Don't even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand
And take it easy...

Tom L's picture


Glotz's picture

Agreed. The Eagles "On The Border" was the first LP I ever owned at age 9! I thought "Old '55" was an Eagles tune until I was 20...

Once again, Kudos to Malachi for the well-written, insightful review.

"Shakey Deal" has been made fun of for almost 50 years! Neil can handle the teasing.

ArcAudio's picture

Does anyone really care what Neil Young thinks? I think it's great Neil speaks about this or that...but really.....98% of the world could care less. I think Neil, along with others, take themselves too seriously. Plus, you get "man worshippers" on various media outlets who praise every word he says.

Glotz's picture

To be included in a video with Neil, Dave and Peter?!? I remember that video! Yes, I am still a Neil (and Peter) junkie...

Like I've said before, Michael has played such a crucial role in the resurgence of vinyl! (...Even if subconsciously!)

I never sold a damn LP my entire life and THAT'S where Neil (and Mikey) deserve unending praise!

Jenn's picture

I can't tell you how difficult it is to get 18-22 year olds to sit and REALLY listen, and this includes college music majors, for crying out loud. Music has become so much wallpaper, to be experienced while doing something else. Some (the best and most dedicated) of these WILL learn, with much encouragement, to do this. OK, on reflection MOST music learn to listen to recordings carefully, but they have to be taught. Getting my general ed students to do it darned near impossible. And I agree that the advent of mP3 sound is partially to blame. I work very hard to get them to hear the difference between this orchestra and that one, or the subtlties of Ry's slide work, but it taks a long time just to get them to see that such things might be worth the effort. For the most part, they simply have no idea how the SOUND of music can be life changing; that listening deeper and with purpose is a whole different experience than what they are used to. But we keep working on, but we know that it's important. The soul must be fed. So bravo to Neil, in my view.

Tom L's picture

The only way to calibrate your ears to hear the subtleties of recorded music is to hear quality performances LIVE. Especially classical and jazz. Every time I attend a St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performance at Powell Hall it reawakens my brain to what real instruments in a great space should sound like. The differences in the quality of recorded music in any format pale when compared to the real thing.
One of the best things my parents ever did for me was to give me two season tickets to the Symphony when I was in high school. We also went to a lot of jazz clubs. Not only did those experiences awaken different parts of my brain, I was forced to find a date every Friday night during the season!
I wonder if there's a way for you to get your students a similar kind of exposure. Some will go to sleep, but some will be amazed.

Jenn's picture

The music majors hear live music all the time. The non-majors of which I write have to do 3 concert reports during the semester. Still, no relationship to recorded music.