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Technics Reborn (and the Direct Drive elephant in the room)

Technics Reborn (and the Direct Drive elephant in the room)

Technics was one of the great audio mainstays. It was founded (as a part of the great Matshushita conglomerate) in 1935 as a music-technology brand. It made pianos, and stereos, and DJ equipment, and had a commanding reputation for high quality and value both in and outside of its native Japan. In the 21st Century, Matsushita made a global corporate decision to fold all its subsidiary brands (including National and Technics) into the one name; Panasonic.

At the time, there was good reason for this. This was the time of ‘convergence’ (as a concept, rather than a practical reality), and the idea was a Panasonic customer would listen to music controlled by their Panasonic TV set through Panasonic audio electronics, all the while downloading images from their Panasonic camera, and presumably cooking their meal on their Panasonic microwave oven. Nice idea, but it didn’t happen that way, and Matsushita has recognised that by reintroducing subsidiary brands like Technics.

Fast forward six years since the last Technics-branded product and the name is back. The company has recognised the music world has changed, and not totally for the better, so Technics is going gung-ho into the world of high-resolution audio. Its core products today are formed into two systems, both comprising networked source, amplifier, and loudspeakers. In the top end Reference R1 system, it comprises a €6,999 SU-R1 networked preamplifier, with a €12,999 SE-R1 power amplifier, and €19,999 SB-R1 floorstanding loudspeakers. In the more mainstream Premium C700 system, the network pre becomes a €899 SU-C700 networked player, while the SU-C700 integrated amplifier and SB-C700 standmount loudspeakers also appear to cost roughly one-tenth the price of the Reference equipment. Technics has also joined forces with 7 Music (one of the bigger digital content providers in Europe) to roll out ‘Technics Tracks’, a growing collection of FLAC-based downloads in at least 16-bit, 44.1kHz CD grade quality, and up to 24bit, 192kHz high resolution formats.


Technics people are keen to point out they missed music’s bump in the road, when sound quality took a dip in the first years of the 21st Century, with the world moving from Napster to iPod to iPhone. Technics wasn’t asleep at the switch during this time – the brand simply didn’t exist. Now that people are beginning to view music quality as important again, the sleeping giant awakes!

, Technics Reborn (and the Direct Drive elephant in the room)

I can’t speak of the performance of the two high-resolution systems (demonstrated this week at London’s Audio Lounge), because I’m currently nursing the kind of head-cold that renders any music a little like Charlie Brown’s teacher. What I could hear through blocked sinus cavities sounded pretty good, but I’d have struggled to tell high-resolution from the sound of a broken telephone, so any critical assessment will have to wait. However, I think there’s some good (and some not so good) to be drawn from this launch. From a technical perspective, I’m not convinced that a large 150W per channel chassis with huge VU meters is needed for what is basically a Class D amplifier design, although Technics insist the technology is more complex than a quick scan of the specifications suggests. On the other hand, from a technical perspective, the point source concentric drive units that form the acoustic centre of the loudspeakers is really interesting, and it’s clear this Technics relaunch is something more than just a technological rehash.

The move toward high-resolution by another one of consumer electronics’ ‘big boys’ (following Sony’s recent entry into high-resolution audio) potentially adds further legitimacy to the ‘there’s more to music than iTunes’ cause, and the company linking itself so early in the story with 7 Music is a sign Technics means business here. But I can’t help feel this lacks the ‘hook’ required to grab the attention of a more mainstream buyer today. The entry level Technics system comes in at around €3,000, which puts it somewhere between mainstream music lover (who now buys Sonos, and largely isn’t that bothered about high-resolution) and the audiophile buyer (who already has their own position on high-resolution, even if that relies on abandoning digital for LPs).

This concept might also fall between the cracks of today’s potential market. Increasingly, we’re seeing moves toward high-resolution streaming solutions, such as TIDAL and Qobuz. People have become extremely comfortable with subscription services such as Spotify, often moving away from providers like iTunes as a result (one of the many conspiracy theories surrounding iTunes purchase of Beats is that the company came with Beats Music, and with that MOG, thereby creating a ready-to-roll subscription service). The Technics system can support streaming solutions, but through its asynchronous USB ports, like most USB-ready DACs. Instead, this is a networked system, designed to run from a NAS full of music. However, this seems to be driven by remote handset and there was no discussion of app support during the press conference.

Back to that ‘hook’. Technics as a brand has one significant ‘hook’ in its back catalogue; the SL-1200 and subsequent direct drive turntables in that series. Although the SL-1210 turntable has been discontinued for four years, it manages to retain a loyal following. That’s some considerable understatement; the online following for this turntable is so profoundly loyal to the ‘Techie’, many will brook no criticism of the design. In fact, so powerful is this group that the word ‘Technics’ is virtually synonymous with the SL-1210. And Technics simply cannot make them anymore, because of tooling costs and unavailable parts. I suspect Technics may find itself trying to explain that it now makes digital audio, in perhaps the same way the Hoover Corporation tries to explain that it also makes washing machines and steam irons.

Like high-resolution audio in general, I want this to succeed. I want Technics (and Sony) to return to the audio world with a greater presence, because I want more people to experience the joys of good audio and I can’t shout that loud enough without climbing on the shoulders of giants. I want these products to incite music lovers to derive more pleasure from their music and demand more from their music producers. I want that 45% of music buyers who recognise that their MP3 tracks might be imperfect, and the 70% who think this might be an ‘issue’ (according to Technics) to start discovering the joys of good quality sound.

It’s just that is this too much, too late?


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