Although names like Sony, Technics and Pioneer are synonymous with specialist Japanese separates hi-fi here in the UK, Onkyo is something of a mystery to most British audiophiles. There are various historical reasons for this, not least the discontinuity of its British marketing operations over the past few decades, but in Onkyo’s home country, it’s an extremely well known name to audiophiles and mini system buyers alike. Indeed, the company has an extremely avid fan base over there, thanks in no small part to some seminal classic hi-fi designs over the years…
Central to the company’s culture is music; no hollow boast as even today, prospective Onkyo executives have to be able to demonstrate a practical aptitude for playing a musical instrument before they are allowed to join the company! This harks right back to 1946, when Takeshi Godai founded Onkyo (literally translated as ‘sound harmony’) to make high end pickup cartridges. The marque soon established a reputation for itself as an innovating, design-led organization. In 1950 it patented ‘non-pressed cone’ drive unit technology, and just ten years later had become one of Japan’s leading loudspeaker manufacturers, making 100,000 speakers monthly. In 1966 it launched the ST-55 tabletop separate component stereo system, laying down the foundations of its massive ‘mini-compo’ business today.
In 1969, Onkyo’s glory days began, as the high end ‘Integra’ brand made its debut (ten years before Toshiba’s ‘Aurex’ or twenty before Toyota’s ‘Lexus’ imprimateurs). The PX-100M turntable from 1982 [pictured] was one of the finest ever Japanese direct drive decks, and a range of superb high end Integra amplifiers followed. Growth continued apace (the CE division alone has grown by 70% between 1993 and 2003, and Onkyo has more than 50% of its home Japanese market share of mini-component audio.
Onkyo is considerably smaller than the likes of Sony or Panasonic, but has punched far above its weight in terms of technological innovations in the mass market, including the world’s first motional feedback loudspeaker in 1960(!), the world’s first Dolby Surround Receiver in 1987, the first THX Certified receiver in 1993, the first THX Select Receiver in 1999, the first THX Ultra 7.1 receiver in 2000 (using the Integra Research marque), the first DPLII AV Receiver in 2001 and the first AV Receiver with Audio Networking.
At his office in Onkyo’s Osaka headquarters, the company’s chief design Sekiya san looks a happy man. He’s a laid back character who suddenly becomes animated when discussing the theory and practice of audio engineering. He’s also particularly interested in classic hi-fi, and relishes the chance to talk about the McIntosh tube amp in his listening room, whereupon his face develops an appropriately warm glow. Although not a showy personality, it’s obvious that here is someone who lives and breathes high end hi-fi, and then works hard to translate his passion into affordable modern machines…
Sekiya san tells me that his favourite hi-fi product is the McIntosh MC2105 solid-state power amplifier. “This product was which was launched at the advent of the transistor amplifier back in the nineteen sixties,” he tells me. “It had a great transformer at the output and it sounded incredibly warm and mellow. The sound was completely different from all other transistor amplifiers at the time. By chance I met Gordon Gow [executive vice-president of McIntosh and the driving force behind the amplifier] some time later and recall thinking, ‘that’s where the amp’s sonic personality came from!’ That man’s warm, fundamentally generous personality shaped the sound of McIntosh. That’s why I have so much affection for the MC2105!”
In his view, the most important part of the hi-fi chain is the loudspeaker. “They have been around for a long time and are a relatively mature product. However, conventional loudspeakers work by combining obvious pistonic motion and partial vibration for high frequency range. Partial vibration extends the upper limits at high frequencies, but at the same time, adds coloration to loudspeakers. This fundamental problem makes it tricky to correlate the way a speaker measures with the sound it actually produces. We are expecting to see much more improvement in this area as time goes on…”
He says that, “the signal-to-noise ratio of an analogue source is much worse than that of digital source. But while measurement equipment merely detects the noise as just that, our human ears can distinguish important musical information hidden deep within it. That’s why ultimately analogue sources offer much more musical satisfaction than digital sources. Sixteen bit digital signals recorded on CD cannot generate the sort of dynamic range that we ideally need. Also, analogue signals, at the A/D converter, in the recording process, and at the D/A converter (at the playback stage), are always surrounded by pulse noise radiating from surrounding digital circuitry. The biggest problem? The fact that this pulse noise masks the tonal colour in music, even at very low levels – that really affects music badly unless you find a way to deal with it.”
“From the point of view of specifications and performance, digital amplifiers are definitely better”, says Sekiya san. “However, the warmth of a tube amplifier conveys music with an incredible humanity. My mission is to imbue the amplifiers I’m designing today with those qualities… that’s my goal. A well developed and designed digital amplifier should have a superior driving capability to an equivalent analogue amplifier. The reason is not just down to the high efficiency of a digital amplifier, but also the fact that system that the current to drive the loudspeakers is directly and instantly supplied from the power supply through the MOSFET switches. The quality of the power supply used for a digital amplifier is of paramount importance.”
He continues, “the digital technology employed by the designer has to be of fundamentally superior quality than the equivalent analogue technology. You also have a situation where digital and analogue signals have to coexist in a digital amplifier, and therefore, you need to be very familiar with analogue amplifier traits as well. One of the biggest problems with digital amplifiers, however, is that the amplifier itself generates pulse noise which can affect the quality of the sonic output. Therefore, one of the keys to success is what measure(s) are chosen to overcome that issue. In general, A/D conversion circuitry converts analogue values at predetermined sampling points. However, in my designs I convert the analogue signals to the timing axis by integrating between the two sampling points. Using this method, pulse noise radiated into analogue signals is averaged and largely removed. Noise generated in the power supply section is also eliminated by noise-canceling circuitry. Moreover, the power transformer we use is much, much bigger than one strictly needs to satisfy the rated output power. That helps too…”
Sekiya san says that, “the choice of components definitely affects the sound. It’s a fact that electrical components, especially capacitors and semi-conductors, can work as microphones, something that directly affects the tonal colour and causes ‘reverberation’ sound. It’s widely known that the sound becomes worse if amplifier is set just in front of the speakers. If you look into electrical components, you often find that audiophile components have thicker outer skins and/or are of heavier weight, that’s the main reason. We pay attention to this when selecting parts but we look just as hard at ways of ensuring that the amplifier’s components aren’t affected by spurious vibrations.”
“We’re also well aware that higher frequency vibrations affect the sound of digital amplifiers more,” he says, “so we attach a great deal of importance to finding ways to counteract them. Wiring can affect the sound tremendously, especially where used in the power supply line, at the speaker outputs and in the earthing circuit. Our approach is to avoid wiring itself wherever possible rather than having to get into the need to select special types – we always design an amp’s layout for the shortest current signal transmission paths. We also use solid copper plate at critical points on the PCB, such as the earthing circuit and power supply to the power CMOS.”
1946 Osaka Denki ONKYO K.K established, begins manufacturing phonograph pickups
1948 ED-100 loudspeaker introduced, becomes bestseller
1950 revolutionary non-pressed cone introduced
1960 world’s first motional feedback (MFB) speaker launched, the MX-8P
1966 ST-55 separate-component stereo system establishes the ‘mini-compo’ market
1968 MC2200 multi-channel stereo amplifier introduced
1969 Integra marque launched
1970 Onkyo wins first prize preamplifier in First Stereo Component Grand Prix
1974 World’s first digital synthesizer tuner with quartz oscillators introduced
1977 Onkyo enters the high end hi-fi market with the P-303/M-505 pre-power amplifier.
1981 TA-W800 – the world’s first high-speed dubbing, double-cassette tape deck – on sale
1982 PX100M turntable launched
1984 Grand Scepter GS-1 high end loudspeaker launched
1985 C-700 launched – the world’s first CD player with optical data transfer
1987 TX-SV7M launched – the world’s first Dolby Surround receiver
1990 bio-hybrid cone diaphragms containing fibre extracted from sea squirts!
1991 Onkyo launches the world’s first 6-disc CD changer