A Dozen Things About My Visit to Sony in Tokyo

In a global economy convulsing with change, middle-level journalists in my dusty corner of the technology sector don't get many invitations to board a plane for Tokyo. Especially when the ticket is business class. But that's where I found myself a few weeks ago, in a luxurious seat with four different points of adjustment, on my way to visit one of the world's great audio companies: Sony. True, Sony isn't the first company most American audiophiles would think of in connection with high-end audio, or even the second or third. Yet I've been consistently knocked flat by demos of its two new loudspeaker lines in recent years. And it looks as if Sony is also looking to improve its game as a maker of surround receivers. Following is a brief summation of what you need to know about Sony's rebirth as an audio brand.

Sony has new leadership at the top. Kazuo Hirai took over as CEO a year ago, replacing the Welsh-born American, Sir Howard Stringer. Stringer's ascension at Sony turned heads: He was the first westerner to hold the top job in a company that always valued its ties to the west. But during his term in office Sony was increasingly overshadowed by its Korean and Chinese rivals. Hirai spent much of his career at the Sony Computer Entertainment division where he was a key figure in the success of the PlayStation. If Apple is the new Sony, Hirai's job is to make Sony the new Apple.

PlayStation is a major factor in Sony's survival. Sony is to a large extent (though not exclusively) a video game company. The impending debut of PS4 is a big deal. Reports Business Week: "As Hirai culls ancillary business such as chemicals and display-making, he wants to generate 70 percent of Sony sales and 85 percent of operating profit by 2014 from just three businesses: digital imaging, mobile devices, and games." This story is about a small slice of the other 15 to 30 percent.

Sony is also a movie and music giant. Entertainment industry observers scoffed when then Sony CEO Norio Ohga acquired Columbia Pictures and Tri-Star Pictures in 1989. But Sony Pictures was the highest-grossing studio in the world in 2012, buoyed by successes like Skyfall. Sony Pictures Television controls everything from Seinfeld to Breaking Bad. While being in the music industry is a mixed blessing these days, global music sales and streaming are finally on the rise after a long decline, so Sony Music's rich back catalogue may start adding more to the bottom line.

Sony makes everything. Sony is omnipresent. It doesn't just make video games and movies. I saw its Experia smartphones in the hands of the Sony people who shepherded our small group around Tokyo. Sony has all bases covered with Android tablets, Vaio laptops, a diversified camera line, and industrial digital cinema camera and projection products, not to mention all those consumer audio and video products we cover. Sony doesn't lead in every category of consumer electronics, but given its current strengths in games and entertainment, combined with its long tradition of innovation, only a fool would underestimate this company.

TVs were not the theme of this trip. There were no presentations on television or video technology. So if you're wondering whether OLED will help Sony rebuild its long-ago success with the Trinitron, you'll have to keep wondering.

Audio is still key to Sony's identity. This was the theme of the trip. True, audio makes up only a fraction of revenues. Sony's role as codeveloper of the Compact Disc (with Philips) is a distant memory, as is the Walkman's transformation of the low-fi audiocassette into the iPod of its day. Our hosts didn't discuss the Super Audio CD, though it is still unsurpassed as the highest-quality audio format ever available to consumers; and DSD, its underlying file format, is quietly becoming an underground sensation driving high-res downloads and high-end DACs. Instead the categories addressed with in-depth presentations and demos were staple components: loudspeakers, surround receivers. We also got a sneek peak at next-gen soundbars and HTiBs.

The next generation of soundbars and HTiB systems will take a new shape. We saw prototypes unified by a cosmetic theme that literally takes a page from Sony history. Our hosts asked us not to disclose what we saw before these products hit the market. But when they do, people will notice, and it's possible that Sony's credibility will rise in these categories.

Sony's next receiver is dressed to kill. Sony claims to be the only audio/video receiver manufacturer that's gained market share recently, largely thanks to the Sony STR-DN1030, which offers a wireless trifecta of AirPlay, Bluetooth, and built-in wi-fi for just $499. My review awarded it a four-star performance rating (out of five) and commended it as "an excellent all-around performer," though I did have reservations about its "dynamic assurance" and lack of "airy highs." Takashi Kanai, the chief engineer in charge of developing Sony receivers, rethought the forthcoming STR-DN1040, starting with the main circuitboard. He held up a sample of the outgoing board, actually breaking pieces off the corners with his fingers (which bear the signs of constant physical work). The new board is made of tougher stuff and that in turn allows it to be more tightly packed with larger and higher-quality capacitors and other discrete parts. The parts are built to Sony specifications following extensive testing, listening, and tweaking. Prototypes for the power capacitors were rejected, one after another, till the designer was satisfied with what he heard. (They're pictured, with the new ones at right.) Even such prosaic parts as the pressed-metal chassis bottom have gotten attention, with the vent holes varied in size to reduce resonance. While I don't like to predict the outcome of a review before I've got the product running with my own reference speakers in my own room, the STR-DN1040 may well do better than the model it's replacing. It costs $100 more and Sony put most of the price differential into sound quality. Even with the price hike, the new model is still affordable at $599. It hits in May.

All Sony receivers are tweaked with B&W 801 speakers. A stable frame of reference is a good thing for product designers and reviewers alike. Sony evaluates and tweaks its products with the B&W 801 Matrix Series 3. This particular version of the 801 predates the latter-day Nautilus and Diamond series. While Sony now has equivalently high-performing models in the AR and ES lines, Kanai-san sticks with the old 801 as a stable frame of reference. This is also why I stick with the Paradigm Reference Studio 20, the fourth generation, from 2007, despite the fact that the line has moved into a fifth generation. The newer version has an improved woofer and a curved enclosure, which probably does a better job of defeating internal standing waves, but the older version is still an excellent speaker, and the value of the upgrade would not justify disorienting my frame of reference. I'm sure Kanai-san would understand.

The AR speaker line is awe-inspiring. I've heard the AR speaker line a couple of times since it surfaced in 2008 and it's always left an indelible impression, relaxed yet revealing, a palpable sensation of having been touched by music. It consists of two towers, the SS-AR1 ($27,000/pair) and slightly smaller SS-AR2 ($21,000/pair). At those prices, these products of an independent development arm led by Yoshiyuki Kaku are cost-no-object designs. Baffles are two inches of maple laminate hand-selected and harvested from Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost major island, in November, when growth slows and grain is tightest. To avoid a rigid sound, this hard material is complemented in the 1.25-inch side and rear panels by a slightly softer cold-climate wood, Scandinavian birch. As with a musical instrument, the design imperative was not to eliminate enclosure-related harmonics but to make them conform to musical values. Cabinets are built at a Hamamatsu-based company that supplies parts to pianos, and reportedly are so precisely crafted that the prototypes held together without glue (though production models are glued anyway). Drivers from Denmark's Scan-Speak include aluminum woofers, paper midrange drivers sliced and glued by hand, and soft dome tweeters backed with six concentrically arranged neodymium magnets. Sony sells the AR speakers through nine select dealers. There are no center, surround, or subwoofer models to complement the two towers, but Sony addressed that omission with the new ES speaker line.

The ES speaker line is almost as good. Whereas AR is cost-no-object, ES is for real-world budgets, and offered in surround-friendly configurations. In its first demonstration at the 2013 CES in Las Vegas, I complimented its "super silky sweet top end, fatigue-free and convincing midrange, and controlled bass." The line includes the SS-NA2ES tower ($10,000/pair), SS-NA5ES monitor ($6000/pair), SS-NA8ES center ($3000), and SA-NA9ES subwoofer ($4000). Enclosures are the same Scandinavian birch, though without the maple baffles, and are constructed by the same Japanese cabinet maker. Driver materials are the same, but the ES speakers include a unique three-tweeter system, with two 0.75-inch tweeters flanking a one-inch tweeter, all soft domes. Sony calls it the I-Array and says it delivers the original ambience in a recording with wide dispersion and no artifacts. The subwoofer has a Q control that offers higher output for movie applications and greater precision for music. Demoed with a virtuoso bass guitarist, it offered musically adept pitch control either way, but the movie position was more aggressive. We expect to get a 5.1-channel set of the ES speakers in for review soon.

Someone had to say yes to better sound. Every product designer has a patron. For every inspired engineer, there's a hard-working executive above his head who says yes or no and has to live with the consequences. For Kanai-san and Kaku-san, that man is Satoshi Yamamoto, who heads up Sony's Video & Sound Division. Designers have the opportunity and freedom to create these products because they are supported by executive decisions. And it appears that at some point in the past several years, Sony decided to use its deep engineering resources become a high-end audio company again. No doubt these new products will add less to the bottom line than the PlayStation 4 or the next Bond blockbuster. But they still just might change someone's relationship with movies and music. And that can change someone's life.

MatthewWeflen's picture

Great report, Mark. I envy you the trip, and I hope Sony can reclaim a profitable, successful space in consumer electronics. At their worst, Sony is a bloated, misguided colossus that isn't very consumer friendly. But at their best, they are innovators who make sexy, high quality products. Here's hoping they can pare down their offerings and increase their quality, all while making things easier for consumers to use.