PonoMusic: Rediscovering Music in Potrero Hill

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Sami Kamangar (left) and Randy Leasure of PonoMusic are dedicated to changing the way music is heard at their Potrero Hill startup.

I leaned forward on the couch and waited for “Heart of Gold” to play over the sound system. As a lifelong Neil Young fan, I’ve probably heard the song a few hundred times, or more. It’s one of my favorites, along with “Sugar Mountain” and “Cortez the Killer” and “Like a Hurricane” and…the list goes on. But as the music started, and that familiar laid-back beat kicked in, I realized that something was different. I hadn’t really heard the song before. Not like this.

As the song played on, I felt like I’d embarked on a trail of musical discovery. The acoustic guitar caught my attention; then the harmonica; and the drums. Each instrument came through the speakers in richer, fuller tones than I’d heard before. When the backup singers joined Young on the chorus, I could imagine being in the studio as they were recording the vocal tracks. I was hearing the song as the artist intended. 

Indeed, hearing the song as the artist intended is the goal of PonoMusic, a Mariposa Street-based startup that’s embarked on an ambitious mission to change the way we hear music. Pono, which comes from the Hawaiian word for “righteous,” is the brainchild of Neil Young. In addition to being a legendary figure in the history of rock-n-roll, an author, filmmaker, and activist, Young is the chief executive officer of PonoMusic. 

“It’s been Neil’s longtime vision,” said Randy Leasure, vice president of business development and content marketing, “to bring back the high-resolution listening experience. Audio quality has really been lost over the last few decades as formats have gotten smaller and smaller in size and lower in resolution. You have artists in the studio spending all this time and effort to produce something that hasn’t really been available to most people until now.” 

Pono released its PonoPlayer in early 2015. The triangle-shaped device, which can be described as looking like a Toblerone candy bar, plays high-resolution music files, as well as music files in other formats. Pono also offers PonoMusic.com, an online store and community. Taken as a whole, the PonoPlayer and PonoMusic.com combine to form an ecosystem that delivers high-resolution music into the hands – and ears – of music lovers.  

Pono’s store features more than two million songs available for purchase. The online community provides a place for anyone – not just PonoPlayer owners – to talk about high-resolution music. “It’s really been great to see the community grow,” said marketing director Sami Kamangar. “And to see people engage in discussions about their favorite music, whether it’s classic rock, jazz, or new bands.”     

While visiting the Pono office I listened to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” toggling back and forth between compact disc-quality resolution and high-resolution audio. Once again I heard a familiar song come to life in ways I hadn’t heard before; the difference in audio quality was loud and clear. As the team at PonoMusic would say, it was righteous.   

Potrero Hill resident Greg Roensch owns an editorial services business.

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