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Technics R1 Reference System

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. 

Technology
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.

 

The front panel offers controls for input selection (balanced, unbalanced, and digital), gain (for the analog inputs), speaker choice (the amp supports two separate sets of outputs or bi-wiring a single set), and dimming of the meter’s backlight (which I wish offered more low-light options). There’s also a curious, deceptively innocuous-looking button labeled LAPC. More on that later. In back there are two sets of the burliest binding posts I’ve ever encountered. I flat-out love them. Their size affords tremendous grip. No need for tools to tighten down these babies!

Inside, the SE-R1 is no less impressive. The power supply is fully discrete and utilizes a proprietary choke-rectified circuit said to reduce coloration. The transformer is massive, which contributes to the unit’s overall heft. Also adding bulk, no doubt, is the amp’s 7mm-thick aluminum chassis, a 3mm-thick aluminum inner chassis, and die-cast aluminum columns that connect the two while also evacuating vibrations.  

 The final member of the R1 triumvirate is the SB-R1 speaker. A large, traditional-looking, floorstanding three-way tower, the SB-R1 is designed to act as a point source. Such designs have theoretically ideal dispersion properties, and my experience with speakers like the KEF Blade bear out the approach’s benefits. Like the Blade, the SB-R1 utilizes a coaxial (sometimes called “coincident”) midrange/tweeter, which is a point source by nature. But unlike similar drivers from KEF and TAD, the Technics’ unit is flat. Delving deeper into that intriguing driver, the midrange element is a sandwich of carbon cloth with a honeycombed aluminum core. Meanwhile, the tweeter has a carbon graphite dome and is said to be good to 100kHz. That’s ribbon territory. The whole dual-driver assembly is framed in vibration-dispersing die-cast aluminum.

Technics extends the point-source frequency range by flanking the coax with a pair of long-throw 6.5″ woofers. To supplement bass, an additional pair of these woofers occupies each tower’s lower half. Internal dividers kill standing waves within the cabinet, which is curved to the same end.

By now it should be apparent that each of these components, if not necessarily innovative, is dead serious and uncompromising in both design and execution. Yet there are, indeed, advances, though they’re only evident when viewing the R1 system as an integrated whole. That’s the context in which the intersection between components comes into play, and that’s where Technics found the largest sonic losses in today’s audio systems, and therefore where it focused most attention.     


The first intersection is the connection between the SU-R1 player and the SE-R1 amplifier. Like all streamers and DACs, the SU-R1 spends most of its time in the digital domain. And, like all such products, it can discharge music through either single-ended or balanced analog outputs. In that case, though, the DAC function takes place early in the signal path, employing traditional DAC technology, before an analog version of the signal travels downstream to be amplified.

Technics had two problems with this industry-standard approach. First, traditional DACs involve a complex series of steps, each of which has the capacity to—and frequently does—degrade the end result. Second, since analog signals are noise-prone, it makes sense to keep digital sources in the digital domain as long as possible. Nonetheless, the norm is to convert to analog early on. Far better, Technics felt, to move the D-to-A function to the amplifier. Better still to have the amp somehow accomplish the conversion by a simpler, more “native” means than traditional DACs. 

Digital Amplifiers
As with Class D amplifiers, digital amplifiers use a switching output stage; however, they accept digital rather than analog input signals. These “digital” amplifiers take in the pulse-code modulation (PCM) signal from a music server or other source and convert those audio data to a pulse-width modulated signal. This PWM signal then drives the output transistors, just as in a Class D amplifier. The difference between a Class D amplifier and a digital amplifier is that the digital amplifier accepts digital data rather than an analog signal.

This difference might not seem that great at first glance, but consider the signal path of a conventional digital-playback chain driving a Class D—or any other traditional—power amplifier. Your digital source feeds audio data to a DAC that converts the digital data to an analog signal; the DAC’s current output is converted to a voltage by a current-to-voltage converter; the signal is low-pass filtered, then amplified in the DAC’s analog-output stage. This analog output signal travels down interconnects to a preamplifier with its several stages of amplification, volume control, and output buffer. The preamp’s output then travels down another pair of interconnects to the power amplifier, which typically employs an input stage, a driver stage, and the Class D output stage. In addition to the D/A conversion, that’s typically six or seven active amplification stages before the signal gets to the power amplifier’s output stage.

To reiterate the contrast with a true digital amplifier, PCM data are converted by DSP into the PWM signal that drives the output transistors. That’s it. There are no analog gain stages between the PCM data and your loudspeakers. The signal stays in the digital domain until the switching output stage, which, by its nature, acts as a digital-to-analog converter in concert with the amplifier’s output filter. The volume is adjusted in DSP. Digital amplifiers are usually not just power amplifiers, but also include a range of inputs, source selection, and volume control, effectively giving them the functional capabilities of an integrated amplifier.  Robert Harley

Putting this plan into action meant, first of all, giving the SU-R1 a digital output and the SE-R1 a digital input. That enabled moving D-to-A conversion to the amp. The natural course would have been to enlist SPDIF as the conveyance between the SU-R1 and the SE-R1, but Technics rejected that approach. For one thing, standard SPDIF lumps both channels onto the same cable, raising the potential for inter-channel effects. Technics could have used two SPDIF links, one for each channel, but that wouldn’t address a separate problem having to do with volume control.

Normally, when a traditional DAC is connected directly to a power amplifier, volume control (assuming the DAC supports it) takes place at the DAC—usually in the digital domain. But the optimal place to control volume is right before the D-to-A conversion, which in the Technics scheme occurs inside the power amp. So why not put a volume knob on the amp? Because in systems where there’s no linestage or integrated amp, users expect to control volume at the source—in this case the SU-R1. The solution was to allow users to set volume on the SU-R1—via either its front panel knob, the remote, or the Technics Music App—but for actual volume adjustment to take place in the amp.

But that, in turn, meant that the SU-R1 had to send the SE-R1 not only music data but also metadata about the desired volume. SPDIF can’t do that. So Technics developed a proprietary interface called the Digital Link. A pair of Ethernet cables—one per channel to minimize inter-channel artifacts—carries both musical and level information from the SU-R1 to the SE-R1. (Note that the Ethernet protocol itself plays no part in this scheme; Technics chose the interface for its bandwidth.) This approach allows the user to interact with the system in a familiar way yet places volume control circuitry at its optimal location.

It’s worth pointing out that that big knob labeled “Volume” on the SU-R1’s front panel is deceiving. As noted, the SU-R1 doesn’t really control volume; it merely transmits volume commands to the SE-R1. As a result, if you connect the SU-R1 in the traditional (analog) way to a traditional power amp, you’re going to get maximum volume. I learned this the hard way. To quote Forrest Gump, that’s all I have to say about that.

 

So far, the Technics scheme I’ve described successfully relocates volume control and digital conversion to the amp. But what about overcoming the inherent complexities and sonic degradations of standard DACs? The SE-R1 solves this issue by rejecting traditional amplifier topology altogether. Indeed, this is not a traditional Class A, Class AB, or even Class D amplifier. Rather, it is a rare breed known as a “digital” amplifier.

Digital amplifiers are designed to be fed directly by digital rather than analog signals. They make direct use of this signal—without any DAC circuitry whatsoever—to drive the power stage. (See Robert Harley’s sidebar, which explains the operation and benefits of digital amplifiers.) In effect, the amp “natively” converts digital to analog as an inherent part of the amplification process.

As already noted, the SE-R1 also has analog inputs, allowing its use as a traditional power amp. In that case, the first thing the SE-R1 does to inbound analog signals is to convert them to digital. This is handled by the same high-quality, 192/24 A-to-D converter that’s used in the SU-R1 to take in analog sources such as phonostages.

The R1 Components Independently
In the main review I’ve described the R1 system as a whole because that’s how it’s intended to be used. However, I was curious about how the individual components would fare. So I compared each to its counterpart in my reference system. Other than the speakers, this was—based on price, at least—an unfair comparison. What I found was that each element of the R1 system can hold its own against far more expensive gear. 

The SU-R1 streamer/DAC sounds remarkably similar to the CH Precision C1 (about $40k). Both offer deep resolution, great timbral detail, and snappy rhythms. Also like the C1, but unlike several other units I’ve reviewed recently, the Technics fares very well in streaming mode. Though it is not quite as tonally colorful as its other inputs, networked music sounds every bit as incisive and dynamic. Compared to the C1, the SU-R1 gives up a little refinement, but is more open and lively. Similarly, the Technics isn’t as dynamically boisterous as the C1 (not much is, really), but it boasts tighter, more convincing imaging. Still, unsurprisingly, the SU-R1 always sounded its best when routed through the SE-R1. 

For its part, the SE-R1 exhibits the same bold dynamics, staggering detail, and sheer volume of musical information I’m used to getting from my reference CH-Precision A1 monoblocks. Remarkably, this is true even when the Technics amp is being driven by its analog inputs. The sound from both amps is gloriously rich, pure, and grand when the music calls for it. The biggest difference is actually in the Technics’ favor: a more realistic-sounding midrange, thanks to a dollop of sweetness.

The SB-R1 speakers are a somewhat different story. Although lovely sounding, admirably extended and as dynamic as you’d ever want, as I’ve already noted they benefit significantly from LAPC. Furthermore, I tried driving these speakers with other amps and quickly ran up against their capacious thirst for current. Even the CH A1 monoblocks couldn’t drive them fully. For these reasons, I recommend the SB-R1’s be used with their intended power companion. In that setting, although not as lively as my reference speakers, the SB-R1’s are more refined and offer more extended lows.

Digital amps haven’t taken hold in the high end, but as Robert describes, they have major advantages for digital sources. Perhaps, given the rise of hi-res material and streaming, their time has come. In any case, once Technics settled on such a device, the company set out to build the most advanced version ever made. An example of that advancement concerns jitter. A digital amplifier’s direct signal path means that the incoming signal’s purity is paramount. And, as with all digital signals, jitter is the bane of that purity. Accordingly, Technics developed a proprietary module, called the JENO Engine, to clean up jitter and move noise out of the audible band. JENO is the first thing the incoming bits hit. 

Another gain involves the driver stage. Typically, popping the lid on a high-powered solid-state amp reveals banks and banks of output transistors. As it had with so many industry-standard approaches, Technics found fault in this one. Those parallel transistors are prone to noise associated with timing differences, capacitive imbalances, and stray inductance. To eject this noise source, the SE-R1 incorporates a gallium-nitride (GaN) FET drive stage that’s so efficient it requires just one “push” and one “pull” transistor for each “+” and “-” terminal. No parallel output transistors. 


The second “intersection” between components is bookended by the amp and the speakers. This is where we can turn our attention to that mysterious button labeled LAPC. Load Adaptive Phase Calibration sounds gimmicky, but it’s actually a succinct description of the button’s function. LAPC is intended to counteract the fact that a speaker’s impedance varies by frequency, which in turn generates phase shifts and presents a less than ideal load to an amplifier. The situation is all but unresolvable with an analog amp; but, conveniently, the SE-R1 operates in the digital domain. There, it can use DSP to optimize the amp’s amplitude and phase characteristics for the specific speaker attached.

Setting up LAPC is a breeze. Hold down the button and the amp begins squirting out sonic bleeps, blips, and bloops into one speaker at a time. The entire process takes a couple of minutes. When it’s done, the sonic transformation is not subtle. The exact nature of that transformation depends on the particular speaker attached. For instance, before LAPC, the Technics SB-R1 speakers struck me as too mellow, with bass that was bit plummy for my taste. LAPC straightened them right up, adding snap to attacks, which yielded greater rhythmic drive, and neutralizing the plump bass. On the other hand, my reference Metaphor 1 speakers had the exact opposite problem: too edgy. LAPC addressed that issue, bringing composure to the highs. No wonder Karl Schuster took to calling LAPC the “magic button.” 

Equally remarkable, however, is something LAPC seems to do for every speaker, which is to flesh out the three-dimensionality of instrumental images. Jonathan Valin recently observed—and I concur—that image dimensionality remains one of the last distinctions between good tube and solid-state electronics. Specifically, whereas glass can conjure a convincing 3-D image of an individual instrument, transistor images tend to be flat. Perhaps, then, it is LAPC’s uncanny ability to inflate images like a balloon, combined with the SE-R1’s simple, direct signal path, that explains why this is the most tube-like solid-state amp I’ve heard.

Purity
Notice that all this fancy technology is designed not to enhance sound but rather to remove unwanted artifacts. The SU-R1’s Direct mode clears away extraneous circuitry, while its battery-powered clock eliminates noise and timing perturbations. The Digital Link combined with the SE-R1’s PWM topology completely obviate the need for a traditional DAC. LAPC wards off phase-induced distortion and the JENO engine mitigates jitter. The GaN FET abolishes the artifacts associated with banks of parallel output transistors. Even the SB-R1 speaker, with its flat coaxial driver and point-source layout, is designed to battle dispersion irregularities. In short, the R1 system’s mountain of technology is all directed to the singular purpose of simplifying and purifying the signal path.

And that’s as good a way as any to describe the R1 system’s sounds: direct and pure. Like an inviting pool on a summer day, there’s nothing to obscure your ability to dive into the music. There are virtually no tonal imbalances, no inability to keep up, no slurred transients, no compression, no flattening, no distortion, and no strain. Listen to a recording like Charles Mingus’ Ah Um and hear how effortlessly the R1 system conveys its challenging rhythms, dynamics, and harmonics. On more serene pieces, like the Reiner/CSO recording of Debussy’s La Mer, the system changes character to become—like the music—spacious and ever so gently emotive.

Nor does the R1 system neglect the frequency extremes. Thanks to the SE-R1’s massive current delivery and all those woofers in the SB-R1, lows are solid and assured, with no evident extension limitations. If the music calls for gutsy, air-shoving oomphs, like the walloped timpani on the Pentatone recording of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, this system has no problem delivering. Tonally, the bass is naturally warm.  

 

With respect to highs, the Technics system is smooth and airy. Not as airy, mind you, as my reference system, with its ribbon-tweetered Metaphor speakers and megahertz-bandwidth CH Precision electronics. Those components yield an openness, vibrancy, and lightness that the R1 system can’t quite match. However, this is a limitation that’s only obvious upon direct comparison to a system—probably a far more expensive one—that excels in these areas.

On the other hand, compared to my reference system, the R1 more faithfully captures the sheer beauty of music. Consider, for example, Michael Wolff’s piano on 2am. Both systems offer concise attacks and sure-footed dynamics when Wolff stabs the keys. But the big Bösendorfer piano sounds so much rounder and more burnished through the Technics. That’s how a real Bösie sounds—indeed, these are its defining characteristics. 

Another way the R1 system won’t perturb your musical enjoyment is through speaker incoherence. In all my listening, the SB-R1’s drivers always melded seamlessly and none ever stuck out. The same could be said of the entire R1 system. All the important audiophile checklist items are there. Imaging is convincing and, as already noted, instruments are holographic. Players splay across a wide, deep, tall soundstage. The system dexterously handles big dynamic swings. Detail resolution, speed, and instrumental colors are all, as the name says, reference level. Yet these characteristics draw absolutely no attention to themselves. You can see them if you look; otherwise, they simply contribute to the musical whole. The R1 system is like Japanese lacquerware: smooth on the surface with layers of depth below. 

Before leaving the topic of the R1 system’s sound, I must raise two important points. The first concerns the “link” in the Digital Link. As I’ve already described, in the R1 system Ethernet cables effectively serve as digital interconnects. And as with all interconnects, the cable matters. I discovered this during an early listening session, when I was still using the wire that Technics had supplied me. On a streamed, hi-res version of Blood Sweat and Tears’ “Spinning Wheel,” the sassy horns weren’t as tonally colorful as I’m used to. Swapping in a prototype pair of Empirical Design solid-core Ethernet cables yielded not only a tonal kaleidoscope, but tauter bass and a larger soundstage. Lesson learned.

Also, as previously mentioned, the SU-R1 incorporates unexpected and highly welcome support for analog sources. True, the player subjects such sources to an A-to-D conversion. But the Technics ADC module turns out to be every bit as impressive here as in the SE-R1. When connected to a phonostage, the SU-R1 easily delivers (among other virtues) vinyl’s unforced detail and transients. For instance, on “The Goodbye Look” from the MFSL pressing of Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, you can hear the rubber mallet heads bouncing off the xylophone keys. To be sure, dynamics are not as pronounced—nor are highs as extended—as going through a top-notch pure analog linestage. But let’s keep in mind the incremental cost to your system of having these inputs: zero.

Value
The fact that the SU-R1 eliminates—or at least postpones—the need for those who don’t have one to buy a separate analog linestage is indicative of Technics’ continuing dedication to delivering high-value products. In the past, the company’s pricing has always been more than fair, and that’s true for the R1 system as well. While none of the R1 units is cheap, each could justifiably have been priced far higher. The complete system goes for $53k. Again, not cheap. But set that against the backdrop of the frequently-excessive prices found in today’s high end. Consider, too, the development costs associated with the R1 system’s cutting-edge technology. Finally, there are very few systems that achieve this level of directness and purity. Given all that, the R1’s price is eminently reasonable.

Conclusion
The Technics R1 is exciting on many levels. On a technical level, it points the way to a future where digital signal paths are much simpler and more direct—and therefore more like analog—and solid-state overcomes the last hurdle separating it from tube-like holography. On a sonic level, Technics has managed to create a system that does virtually everything right, including self-effacement in service of the music. Value is another cause for excitement. True, the price point of the R1 system puts it out of range for audio acolytes. However, this system will—and in my listening room did—satisfy some of the most finicky, hard-core audiophiles, used to listening to far more expensive gear. The Technics value proposition remains strong, even in this price range.

Finally, the R1 system is exciting in that it heralds the return of Technics, a brand that once paved the way for new audiophiles to enter the fold, and for numerous technical advancements that eventually became standard practice. Today, with the R1 system and lower-cost variants that incorporate much of its technology, the company is serving the same twin roles. Technics is back, and its return is most welcome.

SPECS & PRICING

SE-R1 Stereo Power Amplifier
Inputs: XLR, RCA, Technics Digital Link
Outputs: Two pairs of speaker binding posts
Power output: 150Wpc into 8 ohms
Input impedance: 47k ohms
THD: 0.05%
Frequency response: 1Hz–90kHz (–3dB, 8 ohms)
Dimensions: 18.875″ x 9.5″ x 22.3″
Weight: 119 lbs.
Price: $16,999

SU-R1 Network Audio Control Player
Inputs: USB A, USB B, SPDIF (coax, TosLink, AES-EBU), LAN, single-ended analog x 2
Outputs: Technics Digital Link, headphone, analog (single-ended and balanced), SPDIF (AES/EBU, coax, TosLink)
Formats: WAV, FLAC, DSD, AIFF, ALAC AAC, WMA, MP3, DLNA streaming, WiFi streaming
Dimensions: 18.875″ x 4.75″ x 15.4″
Weight:  37.5 lbs.
Price: $8999

SB-R1 Speakers
Type: Three-way, dynamic driver, floorstanding
Driver complement: 4 x 6.5″ LF driver, 1 x 6.5″ flat coaxial MF/HF driver
Frequency response: 20–100kHz (–16dB)
Nominal impedance: 4 ohms
Sensitivity: 88dB
Dimensions: 16.1″ x 49.4″ x 29.5″
Weight: 159 lbs. each
Price: $26,999

PANASONIC CORPORATION OF AMERICA
Two Riverfront Plaza
Newark, NJ 07102
(201) 348-7000
technics.com

Tags: FEATURED

By Alan Taffel

I can thank my parents for introducing me to both good music and good sound at an early age. Their extensive classical music collection, played through an enviable system, continually filled our house. When I was two, my parents gave me one of those all-in-one changers, which I played to death.

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