Panasonic Relaunches Technics Brand at IFA in Berlin

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A Classic Line Reborn as a High-End Brand

Brent Butterworth

Technics was one of the best-known mass-market audio brands of the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, but Panasonic pulled the plug on it in the 2000s. At a press event that took place today before the 2014 IFA show in Berlin, Panasonic relaunched Technics as a high-end audio brand, showing two systems slated to sell for €4,000 to €40,000, or about $5,250 to $52,500. The new Technics components are slated to launch in Europe and Japan by the end of the year, and in the U.S. "sometime in 2015," a Panasonic spokesperson told me.

It was clear from the event and the demos that followed that Panasonic didn't forget what it knew about audio because all of the new Technics components offer unique technological twists I haven't seen before.

So why is Panasonic pushing to get back into the higher end of the audio business? Honestly, I forgot to ask, but I didn't have to. It's for the same reason other mainstream companies such as Samsung and Sony are pushing harder into upscale audio products: the margins in the audio business are a lot better than the margins in the TV business.

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The New Technics: Two New Lines

Brent Butterworth

At the press event, which I attended as part of a Panasonic press junket, the company announced two product lines: the R1 Reference Class (shown above) and the C700 Premium Class (shown on the previous page). The R1 is the one that's €40,000, and the C700 is the €4,000 one.

The R1 series includes the SB-R1 tower speaker, the SE-R1 stereo power amp, and the SU-R1 network audio control player/preamp. The C700 series includes the SB-C700 minispeaker, the SU-C700 integrated amp, the ST-C700 networked audio player and the SL-C700 CD player.

Technics chief engineer Tetsuya Itani (shown above) explained some of the key technologies behind the products after Technics general director Michiko Ogawa gave the formal introduction. Ogawa -- an accomplished jazz pianist as well as an audio engineer -- opened with a duet featuring trumpeter Terumaso Hino.

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The New Technics: The Electronics

Brent Butterworth

The core of the new SE-R1 power amp (shown above right, next to the SU-R1 network player/preamp) and SU-C700 integrated amp is a high-efficiency Class D amplifier technology incorporating what the company calls JENO, or Jitter Elimination and Noise Shaping Optimization. JENO combines a clock regeneration circuit that provides low-jitter clocking for the amplifiers' switching circuits; a sample rate converter; and a pulse width modulator that feeds the output transistors. The output transistors are GaNFETs (gallium arsenide field effect transistors), which the company says can switch at speeds four times faster than most transistors used in this application -- up to 1.5 megahertz.

Interestingly, the amps use what seem to be standard linear power supplies with hefty power transformers plus surprisingly large heat sinks on the power supply components.

Another fascinating aspect of the amps is their Load Adaptive Phase Calibration. When the user activates this feature, the amp automatically measures how the connected speaker affects the amplifier's own frequency and phase response, and automatically adjusts to maintain flat frequency and phase response.

The R1 components connect using a new, proprietary technology called the Technics Digital Link, which transfers signals in 32-bit/192-kilohertz resolution from the network audio player to the amp. It also sends volume control data, so when you turn the volume knob on the network audio player/preamp, the actual volume adjustment is done in the amplifier, so the digital signal transfer is in full resolution with no bit truncating or re-dithering needed.

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The New Technics: The Speakers

Brent Butterworth

Both of the new speakers feature a flat coaxial driver that handles the midrange and treble. A 1-inch carbon graphite tweeter sits in the middle of the flat midrange driver. The tweeter is said to have usable response to 100 kilohertz; most tweeters struggle to reach 25 kHz. The idea is that it'll have a flat frequency and phase response at ultrasonic frequencies, which would, in theory, make this system better for ​high-resolution digital music files.

The midrange driver itself uses a honeycomb structure for extra stiffness. Behind the flat honeycomb diaphragm is a ventilated cone which in turn attaches to a conventional voice coil suspended in a magnetic field. You can see the structure in the photo above, which shows a cutaway of the SB-C700 mini-speaker.

The SB-C700 uses one of these coaxial drivers. The SB-R1 tower speaker adds four woofers (they look like 6.5-inchers), with the top two woofers in a separate enclosure from the bottom two.

The company conducted demos of the two systems in elaborately constructed and pretty good-sounding listening rooms. But still, it was hard to judge the audio quality because I wasn't familiar with any of the demo music they played, and the two mini-speakers were placed only a few feet apart for the demo so I couldn't hear much stereo imaging. I will say, though, that the frequency response of both sounded very even, and neither one revealed any readily identifiable sonic colorations.

I'm looking forward to hearing more of these systems at the January 2015 CES, where Panasonic will probably announce formal plans and prices for a U.S. launch.