Technics R1 Reference System

A Triumphant Return

Equipment report
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Music servers and computer audio
Technics SB-R1,
Technics SE-R1,
Technics SU-R1
Technics R1 Reference System

Time was when Technics, along with Nakamichi and a smattering of others, claimed membership in an elite cadre within Japan’s overwhelmingly mass-market audio industry. These companies aimed higher. Technics, a division of Panasonic, found favor among budding audiophiles through components that mixed equal parts innovation, sonic purity, and value.

Innovation? In case you don’t recall—or are too young to have ever known—Technics’ bona fides include pioneering direct-drive turntables and multi-head cassette decks. Its early amps, all tube designs, were among the first to incorporate high-current power supplies. And the company’s speakers utilized time-aligned drivers, exotic cone materials, and sealed cabinets at a time when those elements were rare.

But Technics never introduced advancements for their own sake. The point was to deliver a pure sound, free of the dark tonality, opacity, and high distortion of mass-market offerings. The Technics sonic character was light, airy, relaxed yet revealing, and musical. Further, perhaps thanks to the purchasing power and manufacturing might of its parent company, Technics was able to deliver these qualities at a fair and modest premium over mid-fi gear.

But that was back in the 70s and 80s. As the last century wound down, Technics turned its focus to the pro and DJ markets. There, as in home audio, it won many loyal adherents. In particular, those direct-drive ’tables came to dominate the DJ industry. At the same time, though, investment in consumer audio dwindled. Before long, the company was known primarily as a DJ supplier. By the early 2000s, Technics had pulled out of home audio altogether.

So it was something of a surprise to see a resurgent Technics at the 2015 CES show. And not at the Convention Center, either. Technics boldly chose the high-end-oriented Venetian as the venue for its relaunch. The message was unmistakable: “We’re back, and we belong here.”

Of course, given that the company had most recently been seen moving in the exact opposite direction, that claim was viewed in many quarters as falling somewhere between premature and audacious. Technics knew that to prove it deserved a place in the modern high end, it would have to proffer an all-new product line that both embodied and updated its proven technology+purity+value formula. That olive branch is the R1 References Series, a complete system that summons every ounce of pedigree, philosophy, and know-how Technics can muster. Now it’s time to see if that system is good enough to quiet the skeptics. 

As its history and its very name indicate, Technics has always emphasized technology as a means to achieve its sonic goals. The R1 Reference Series is no exception. Indeed, with these components Technics goes well beyond deploying the state of the art. The R1 system pushes the current technology envelope in an effort to address some of audio’s most recalcitrant problems. Before going there, though, a brief orientation tour of the system’s elements is in order.

The R1 system comprises three components. The first R1 system member is the source, a network player dubbed the SU-R1. While it won’t spin silver discs, it’ll handle pretty much everything else. The SU-R1 is a streamer as well as an unusually comprehensive DAC. Streams of hi-res PCM or DSD files can emanate from either a LAN-connected NAS or a directly connected USB drive. Once connected to your network, the SU-R1 can also stream wirelessly via DLNA and Apple AirPlay. Additional USB inputs provide support for PCs, Macs, and thumb drives. Inbound SPDIF can be of the coax, AES/EBU or TosLink variety. The SU-R1 even sports two sets of analog—yes, analog—inputs. How often do you see that on a digital network player?

Inside the SU-R1 lies a share of the tech that Technics has lavished on the entire series. The clock is battery-powered, which shields this critically sensitive element from AC line noise. (Why doesn’t everyone do this?) Further, because the degree and nature of jitter differs by input, Technics built a specific jitter-reduction circuit for each source. The USB module is graced with an expensive ruby mica capacitor. Plus, there’s a Direct mode that bypasses everything but the bare minimum circuitry. It works; engaging this mode results in an immediate and distinct uptick in transparency.

Forming the heart of the R1 system is the 150Wpc (300Wpc into 4 ohms) SE-R1 stereo power amp. Cosmetically, the unit is a delightful throwback to Technics’ 1977 SE-A1. As was the case with that classic model, the SE-R1’s front panel is dominated by a pair of huge, backlit VU meters. Meters seem to be coming back into fashion, and I applaud their return. They’re functional and harken back to high end’s Golden Age. The retro style certainly looks good on the SE-R1.