Hiroshi Kowaki, Eclipse TD

Hiroshi Kowaki“Most consumer audiophiles don’t know our brand,” says Hiroshi Kowaki, Eclipse TD’s design supremo. And those who do, I would submit, struggle to understand it. Launched in 2001, the Eclipse TD 500-series was way ahead of its time. Lest we forget, this was before Apple indelibly stamped Jonathan Ive’s beautiful designs on the world’s collective consciousness, and styling wasn’t considered such a priority. Yet those first Eclipse TD eggs were gorgeous to lay eyes upon, despite the audiophile market of the time being particularly unreceptive to things of beauty…

Aside from radical aesthetics, Eclipse TD speakers also went against the grain in terms of sound, too – and this was the greater challenge for the new company. They sounded strikingly different to what almost everyone was used to; they didn’t sound ‘good’ so much as ‘accurate’. Indeed, the whole concept was completely different to that of other loudspeakers, as Kowaki-san explains. “Music consists of tone (described by the frequency domain) and rhythm (which works in the time domain). Most audiophiles tend to focus on the former, while musicians include both, and many of the best of them are very interested in the latter. I believe that if people think that high fidelity is their priority, then the time domain has to be the priority because humans sense the sound by listening to the sound waveform which consisted by time domain.”. This view is not universally held, but explains perfectly why Eclipse TD loudspeakers sound as they do.

The company is a sub-brand of Fujitsu Ten, a vast Japanese manufacturer headquartered in Kobe whose core business is producing OEM car electronic components. Around 10,000 people work for it globally, and there are numerous offices around the world, with a turnover of over 300 Billion Yen. In hi-fi terms then, Fujitsu Ten is massive and has huge engineering resources, but hi-fi is not its core business, and nor has it ever been. Indeed, the Eclipse TD brand effectively came about when Kowaki-san pitched the idea of making a radical new type of loudspeaker to the company’s top brass.

“I started at Fujitsu Ten as an electronics engineer working on Vehicle Engine Control, but kept telling my boss that I wanted to move to the Audio Development Division. So I moved to work on digital signal processing in 1989; I specialised in DSP surround sound systems for consumer car audio. One of my jobs involved trying to reproduce concert hall acoustics with car loudspeakers. This was considered important because we are an innovating company; we were the first to develop car CD players, and also the first to produce DSP systems for cars, for example. Indeed, Fujitsu Ten’s involvement in car audio started as far back as 1955”.

The chain of events that led to Kowaki-san pitching the idea of Eclipse TD first came about after he visited eight famous European concert halls including the the New Philharmonic Hall in Berlin and the Musikvereinssaal in Vienna in 1989 and 1990. “I tried to design a system to produce an authentic acoustic in cars by digital signal processing,” he tells me. “I developed an algorithm which could map the vehicle’s frequency response automatically, but I wasn’t satisfied because it didn’t sound like real instruments. I realised the problem was actually the phase response, so I went to Michigan University in the USA and we developed an automatic signal processing algorithm which could not only produce a flat frequency response, but the correct phase response too. But still the sound didn’t satisfy me…”

Given the accuracy of the algorithm, he concluded that the loudspeakers themselves weren’t giving a properly phase-coherent sound. “Signal processing engineers are always thinking about the sound in the time domain, but speaker designers are always thinking about the sound in the frequency domain. I realised that if the speaker doesn’t work well then the signal processing can’t compensate for it; if the speaker’s time response isn’t correct then it means nothing. At that time our business was only for vehicles, so I proposed to our president that we design speakers for the audiophile market, with the focus on time domain response. At that time, I didn’t think there were any loudspeakers around that were accurate in the time domain.” Thus was born Eclipse TD.

Kowaki-san identified the problems of conventional loudspeakers as coming from four fundamental factors; cabinet resonance, the fitment of multiple drive units, the resonance of the drive units themselves and the phase anomalies in the crossover network. Well it isn’t impossible to get real musicality from a multi-drive unit loudspeaker, but it is very difficult”, he tells me. “Transient speed and the frequency response is a trade-off in practical terms; it never comes as a perfect package. If we want to achieve a better frequency response, then we must compromise the time response. Therefore we must choose our priority; we cannot have both.”

He’s right of course. There’s no denying the purity of a single driver speaker; everything arrives at you at the same time and there’s no crossover to muck up the phase relationship between multiple drive units. Sadly the laws of physics dictate that there is simply no way a single drive unit can be flat from 20Hz to 20kHz, or indeed anywhere near it. Because of this, conventional speakers are forced to use at the very least separate mid/bass and treble units; there’s no other to achieve their objective. In short they rob Peter to pay Paul; phase purity is sacrificed in the name of a wider frequency response.

If you listen to any Eclipse TD speaker, you can immediately hear the design priority; it sounds radically different in a good and a bad way. Or at least, many audiophiles used to conventional big boxes will regard it as bad. They instantly lock on to the wonderful speed and clarity of Kowaki-san’s designs, but also can’t help but notice the lack of extension at the frequency extremes. This seems to put some people off; others however hear past this. “I recently went to AES in Los Angeles and did a presentation to a number of Grammy Award-winning recording engineers. They came into our booth and I did my presentation using only MP3, but every engineer was so surprised because everyone else there was using hi-res music, yet it sounded so convincing. One extremely famous engineer (who asked to remain anonymous) really loved my loudspeakers!”

Kowaki-san points out the logical inconsistencies of designing speakers around the frequency domain. He argues that this varies greatly from person to person and place to place, but the impulse response of music remains constant. “I have visited many of the top recording studios in the world, and most of the engineers do not choose the sound pressure levels; there is no standard volume that they monitor at. And also there’s no one standard loudspeaker they use, either. So the result is that – as volume affects the ear’s perception of frequencies – there is no one standard frequency response. When the loudness level changes, so the human ear’s frequency response will change, so because of the way music is actually recorded, the notion of a flat frequency response actually means nothing. However, the touch of the pianist’s finger on the piano key, or the pick of the guitarist’s fingernail on the strings, that’s transient information which is everywhere on the recording. This doesn’t change from studio-to-studio. Professional skilled musicians have a special skill with transients, and if the speakers can’t capture this, they can’t reproduce their art.”

The decision idea to use an egg shape for the first (and subsequent) Eclipse TD speaker(s) came from Kowaki-san’s colleague master Mr. Yoshii, he tells me. “To produce an accurate impulse response sound, a single drive unit and an egg-shaped enclosure is the best way. Multiple drive units reproduce multiple sound waves, and that can never be a single sound wave; egg-shaped enclosures don’t have edges so we can avoid diffractions. Most conventional speakers are designed around frequency response; but the frequency response alone can’t tell the difference between the diffractions reverberations from the sound source; it can’t discern between the driver sound and the diffraction reverberation sound. The frequency response is only one measurement, an average at a certain time, it doesn’t include the transient.”

A number of difference materials were tried for the egg-shaped enclosure, but “a certain type of plastic” was chosen for reasons of manufacturing consistency. Inside is a type of cotton to damp the enclosure, and this sits behind the one custom-designed drive unit which is made to Kowaki-san’s specifications by a specialist manufacturer, he explains. “Our speaker sound control point is only the drive unit; other companies can control the sound by many drive units, the network circuit and box resonance. We design and make many patterns of driver before we arrive at the final type. The smaller Eclipse TD models use paper cones, whereas the larger ones use glass fibre. With drive units, lighter is better which is why we think it is right for smaller speakers, but it’s not so strong; it’s easy to bend; so when there is only limited cone excursion then paper is perfect for that purpose, but when more air is needed to be shifted then stiffer glass fibre cones work better”.

Eclipse TD naturally experimented with many types of rubber cone surround before choosing “the one that works best”, although the rubber itself isn’t particularly special apparently. “We compared a large number of magnets too, including neodymium, but we think ferrite is best; it’s not only the Gauss but the physical mass which is important. We think the critical point here is getting the balance right between the two variables. The mounting which holds the drive unit into the cabinet specially designed too. All of this means the speakers take a long time to do, between one and two years per speaker. The new TD-M1 took two years for example.”

In December 2001, Eclipse TD chose EMI’s famous Abbey Road Studios to launch its first products, the (£2,6253,499 at the time) TD512 Monitor System (including the A502 Integrated Amplifier) and the baby PA508PA. They came with a personal endorsement from Brian Eno no less, who used TD512s in his own studio. Both were strikingly good at what they did – which was to give a blisteringly fast, detailed, focused sound, but it’s fair to say that a number of British hi-fi journalists didn’t quite get them. “I liken it to the original Apple iPhone,” he tells me, “it was an excellent product when originally launched, but only more recently has technology made it truly powerful and useful.”

The 712 that followed in 2004 (£5,100) represented the purest expression of the concept, a high end stand-mounted single-driver audiophile loudspeaker. It further polarised opinion, doing somethings amazingly well; its timing and rhythmic fluency was almost supernatural. But again many listeners were saddened by its lack of low bass, and to a lesser extent the mediocre treble extension. Several iterations were produced, with small but effective tweaks being made. The TD712z mkII in 2009 made the speakers much more mainstream in their appeal, adding a little bass extension and sparkle up top. The world seems to have travelled in the direction of Eclipse TD too, with people more likely to appreciate the speakers’ radical styling now. “In the beginning, in some places were we denied because of how our speakers looked. Now it’s more accepted but fifteen or twenty years ago it wasn’t like that”, Kowaki-san confesses.

The small TD307 has also helped; it’s a tiny egg-shaped speaker with optional stands, and can be used as a surround rear or as a desktop speaker; it looks great either side of an iMac. Alternatively, the company now has a range of subwoofers designed to partner 300-, 500- and 700-series speakers which dramatically widen their appeal; they’re some of the best such products around, albeit very expensive. Last year, Eclipse TD released its new TD-M1 (£9995); this is the first active speaker system from the company with a built-in DAC. It’s a TD5308-sized design and so is even more suited to computer use.

“This is actually something I always wanted to create from the beginning, back in 2001”, says Kowaki-san. “I have always been a music lover, and always wanted to make something for people who don’t necessarily have to be an audiophile. Audiophiles of course love music, but also love equipment. The TD-M1 isn’t made for these people, it has been designed for the general market. Interestingly, the consumer market as a whole is moving to beautifully designed, highly performing but non-specialist products – you can see that in Apple’s products – and Eclipse TD sits comfortably here. Ultimately audiophiles are hobbyists; we’re not denying this. We would like to focus on bringing our specialist skills straight to the listeners. Our philosophy is to make speakers to do a job – to enjoy the music – rather than being a special gadget for hobbyists.”

The TD-M1 is an interesting crossover product, and should win the brand friends in a market that is a little less wrapped up in tradition. Kowaki-san explains that, “yes, in a way it has been quite a lonely path, but in the music industry I have many good recording engineers – such as Jim Anderson (Grammy Award winning engineer) and Akira Fukada (former Sony Music and NHK chief engineer) – who find it very easy to understand our concept and sound. So I really love to exhibit at the AES, rather than conventional hi-fi shows. People who really know what is a good sound don’t find it different to understand what we do. If audiophiles have a realistic reference loudspeaker, they will appreciate the beauty of the sound that we make. When you listen to a Jennifer Warnes CD, many people have different speakers so their image of Jennifer Warnes is different. Many people can’t separate what part of the sound of her voice is her voice and what is the speaker; everyone has a different understanding of it. Especially at the first encounter with Eclipse TD speakers, people often find it quite unusual. But if people are familiar with what real sound is, rather than their existing loudspeakers, they will understand Eclipse TD.”

Time seems to be pulling the audiophile market – or certainly the high end loudspeaker market (and there is a subtle distinction) – towards Eclipse TD products, not away. Gravity’s pull is making them seem far less odd than they originally did. There will always be a number of specialist hi-fi buyers who insist on a box with multiple drivers inside, but more are interested in change now. Recording engineers seem to be showing more imagination too; Al Schmitt (Paul McCartney, Quincy Jones, etc.), Jeff Jones (Winton Marsalis, Eric Clapton) and Oscar Deric Brown, Fernanmdo Aponte (Jacques Morelenbaum, Madonna, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Herbie Hancock, etc.) have recently started using these speakers. Whatever your sonic or aesthetic preferences, you owe it to yourself to hear the latest generation of these exotic eggs.

FTL studio control

FUJITSU TEN TIMELINE
1955 Starts supplying car radios for Toyota Motor Company
1959 Develops Japan’s first all-transistor car radio
1967 Markets Japan’s first 8-track car stereo system
1973 Supplies Toyota with emissions control electronics
1977 Commences marketing component car stereos
1983 Develops world’s first in-car CD player with Toyota
1990 Acoustics Development Centre opens in Japan
1995 Markets ECLIPSE aftermarket car audio
1996 Starts car audio system production in Europe
1997 Supplies Toyota with world’s first 1-DIN 6-disk CD changer
1988 Markets in-car DAT (digital audio tape) player
1989 Develops the world’s first in-car DSP sound processor
2001 Launches ECLIPSE TD loudspeakers
2006 Jointly develops first car headliner speaker
2011 Develops Sugukuru Taxi (‘Soon-Arriving Taxi’) system
2013 Launches Japan’s first wi-fi equipped car nav system

One comment

  1. never heard of French Elipson loudspeakers who have been doing the same (following the same agenda: frequency AND time phase) with an egg shape, since the mid 50s? Elipson loudspeakers have equipped numerous radio, tv and disc recording studios, concert halls and such since that time. And they have always been cherished by audiophiles the world over.

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