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

To meet its new parent’s mandate for growth, Esoteric began offering both more affordable and more costly versions of its core products. In addition, the company has started moving into new product categories. The first of these is the N-05 network player, designed to ward off revenue erosion as physical media fades. (Though bustling Tower Records stores attest that Japan is behind the U.S. in transitioning from physical media, the trend has begun and will inevitably accelerate.) The goal of this portfolio expansion is not mere revenue protection but, as Katsumura-san put it, to “break through high-end audio’s revenue ceiling.” This imperative has overridden any inclination to remain within a carefully cultivated niche market.

During my visit to Esoteric, I was fortunate to meet Motoaki Omachi, the company’s semi-retired founder and a luminary within the Japanese audio industry. I asked him whether he thought there is a “Japanese sound.” He responded by reminding me that in Japan quality raw materials—or raw ingredients, in the case of food—are highly prized. These ingredients—like the fish in sushi, the exquisite fruit exhibited by Tokyo street vendors, or the wood used in lacquerware—are deemed to need no hyping. Rather, their quality should be allowed to speak for itself. In the audio world, music, as captured in a recording, is the “ingredient” that must be preserved. The Japanese “sound,” therefore, is more of a philosophy whereby audio’s goal is to provide a vessel through which music’s inherent sonic and emotional virtues can flow unimpeded.

Every designer I met subscribed to the philosophy so elegantly expressed by Omachi-san. Naturally this perspective has sonic ramifications. Tetsuya Kato, Esoteric’s VP of R&D, ranks neutrality and low distortion as his highest priorities. Anything that adds flash and hype are anathema to him—just as overwhelming sauces are anathema to a good sushi chef. In addition, I learned, the Japanese place great importance on a system’s spatial capabilities. This is because most Japanese homes are too small to accommodate gear capable of producing full orchestral scale. Thus, it falls to even modest audio systems to create a convincing representation of the original space and atmosphere.

Moving from meetings to manufacturing facilities, I saw first-hand just how serious Esoteric is about its philosophy of purity. The immaculate plant is a “clean” environment. To enter, I was obliged to don footsies (too small for my American feet), a hair cap (too tight for my American head), and a smock (too snug for my American belly). Once inside, I encountered the high-tech, streamlined facility I had expected at Lyra—along with a mind-bending degree of meticulousness.

For instance, unhappy with the sound of every commercial solder it could find, Esoteric developed and now exclusively uses its own version. Discrete components such as resistors do not rest on a PCB, as they normally do; rather, they “float” above the board. Esoteric feels this results in less electrical interference. The plant even has machines that smooth the insides of the PCB holes through which components are mounted, which reportedly improves conductivity.

My visit to Esoteric made it plain that, far from resisting an imposed growth, the company has embraced it. The atmosphere there is one of liberation and excitement. A fortuitous combination of investment and independence has given Esoteric an opportunity to more broadly apply the same philosophy and attention to detail that elevated its transports, and it’s doing so with verve.