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

Craftsmanship Goes High-Tech
Despite its audio industry’s newfound enthusiasm for innovation, Japan’s culture of craftsmanship and honoring the past isn’t going away. These disparate forces are leading to products that are both innovative and traditional. Examples were everywhere on my trip. Lyra cartridges are highly advanced designs but are built in a decidedly low-tech environment. They’re voiced by ear by one man. The drivers and crossovers in Sony’s speakers are similarly progressive; yet they’re mounted in a cabinet built with maple harvested in November (that being the month in which the wood is the hardest) from a single forest in Hokkaido. Technics’ new SL-1200G turntable features a state-of-the-art direct-drive motor but looks identical to the venerable SL-1200 it replaces—S-shaped tonearm and all.

To get a sense for how Technics converts this duality of old and new into componentry, I visited Panasonic’s Manufacturing Innovation Center, or MIC, a one-hour bullet train ride north of Tokyo. Here, on an eight-building campus, the company builds Panasonic TVs, set-top boxes, LCD products, and the top Technics components. Established in 1967, the MIC is the only remaining Panasonic TV factory in Japan (the rest are overseas). As such, it’s reserved for the highest-end models, such as 4K HDR sets. In 2014, the facility took on production of the Technics R1 Reference Series and SL-1200G turntable. (Other Technics products are made in non-Japanese factories, but Technics always has its own line and staff.)

As with sushi chefs, training is taken very seriously here. One of the campus’ buildings is a dedicated “dojo,” or training center, that teaches new employees everything from the requisite skills and safety procedures to company etiquette. Once graduates have completed their training, they’re rated on skill level. This rating is indicated by their belt color, with red being the most skilled.

Although Panasonic builds both its top TV and top audio components under one roof, the two production operations are physically separate and starkly different. Those distinctions begin in the training regimen. Employees destined to work on the TV assembly line receive two to three days of training; those who will be building Technics components receive a month. Further, only red-belted employees may work on Technics gear.

The TV assembly area is exactly what you’d expect from a volume-oriented facility: lots of machinery making quick, efficient movements. Humans play a supporting role—for instance, lining up sub-assemblies properly so that the machines can do their thing. Everything in this area is designed for repeatability, quality, and speed.

The Technics assembly area is a contrast in every way. Here, speed isn’t a priority; the pace is leisurely. As at IT Industry, most of the work is done by people, and those whom I saw worked carefully and convivially. Machines provide support. For example, I saw a worker, whose job it is to fashion SL-1200G platters, use a machine only to identify minute imbalances that would escape a human eye. He exemplified how Technics is melding the seemingly mutually exclusive: craftsmanship and advanced production techniques.