Special Report: The Japanese Audio Industry

Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio,
USB interfaces, clocks, and soundcards,
Loudspeaker cables,
Digital cables
Special Report: The Japanese Audio Industry

Something is definitely afoot in the Japanese audio industry. For a country whose culture encourages cautious evolution, there have been a whole lot of big changes in a short time. The first was in 2011, when Sony, that quintessential mass-market brand, released the SS-AR1 speaker. At $27,000, this product was decidedly not intended for the masses. Shortly thereafter Panasonic, another company traditionally focused on the heart of consumer electronics, revived its premium Technics line, which had been dormant since 2000. Its inaugural offering was the $53,000 R1 Reference Series, pointedly launched in the hallowed high-end halls of the Venetian during CES.

These unexpected moves represented a dramatic increase in interest and investment in the high end from two of Japan’s largest corporations. In the same timeframe, additional investment was coming from outside the country. In 2013, for instance, guitar giant Gibson purchased TEAC along with its Esoteric subsidiary.

Another area where Japan’s audio landscape has changed is market positioning. Recently, all three of Japan’s high-end stalwarts—Esoteric, Accuphase, and Luxman—introduced lower-priced models. Esoteric simultaneously pushed further upmarket with its cost-no-object Grandioso series. In another context, these expansions would be business as usual. But when the companies involved have spent literally decades cultivating a much narrower market niche, such changes take on greater significance.

Perhaps the industry’s most intriguing tack lies deep within the new components themselves: a focus on technical innovation. Consider the aforementioned Technics R1 Reference series, which deploys a bevy of technical advances to grapple with some of audio’s most entrenched challenges. In an industry that built its reputation on traditional design and quality production, placing such a high priority on technology represents a seismic shift.

I’ve been wondering for some time what’s behind these developments, and I knew that the only way to find out for sure was to visit Japan. Besides understanding why large companies were suddenly so interested in the high end, why established players were breaking out of their comfort zones, and why innovation had become not only permissible but encouraged, I hoped to learn whether there was some overarching technical or sonic philosophy that translates to a Japanese “sound.”

To cover all that ground, I’d clearly need considerable in-country support. So I began looking for a host company willing to guide me through Japan’s labyrinthine corporate structures (and city streets), arrange meetings, and handle other logistics. To my delight, not one but two firms, Technics and Esoteric, stepped up to support this project. As a bonus, both companies have spearheaded the changes I’d observed, making them valuable information sources. I can’t thank Technics and Esoteric enough for offering their time, people, facilities, and knowledge. Everyone I met was genuinely intent on helping me get the answers I sought. You can’t ask for more than that.

And so my Japanese audio odyssey began. I allotted one week, which wasn’t enough time, but was the most I could spare. Still, with the help of my hosts, I packed in visits to corporate HQs, factories large and small, a museum dedicated to audio, several elaborate listening rooms, a “dojo” (training center), and a Tokyo high-end dealer. I met with founders, executives, designers, storeowners, importers, trainers, and factory supervisors. Going into the trip, I thought the answers to my questions would come quickly and easily. As it turned out, I needed every one of those site visits and meetings to fully grasp the remarkable complexities of the Japanese audio industry.