The term ‘flying visit’ was true in both the literal and metaphorical senses, writes Andrew Everard: in order to spend a day and a half with Onkyo’s engineers at their base in Osaka, Japan, I spent the better part of 20 hours travelling, door to door, each way.
Yet the time spent in the air and in airport lounges, plus the furious jet-lag I’m not entirely sure I’d shaken off several days after my return, was more than worth it: far from being a company all about the ‘crash bang’ world of thrill-ride home cinema, Onkyo is getting back to its roots by turning its attention to equipment able to deliver ‘HD’music to a very high standard.
The company – in rough terms, its name means ‘sound harmony’ in Japanese – could have been forgiven for sticking to the AV arena.
It’s the AV receiver market leader in several European countries – including the UK, where it has held that position for the past four years, has a market share of 34.5%, and last year sold some 34,000 receivers, increasing its sales 5% in a sector down 12% due to the current economic unpleasantness.
Neither is it doing too badly globally: since launching its first surround receivers back in 1987, it has shipped some 6.7m units, putting on a bit of a spurt in the past five years.
It has a tie-up with guitar-maker Gibson, which it hopes to use to improve its market penetration in the USA, and recently formed an alliance with TEAC, which will see the two companies pooling resources in distribution and – in all likelihood – production.
A side effect of this last move should be greater prominence for TEAC’s high-end Esoteric brand in the UK where it has been something a well-kept secret for far too long.
e-Onkyo music portal
However, there’s another string to the Onkyo bow: it’s called e-Onkyo, and it’s a music download service currently only available in Japan, but with global ambitions.
Launched in 2005 – ‘we were beaten by iTunes by three days,’ says e-Onkyo’s Taku Kurosawa – the service started small: ‘ITunes had millions of tracks; we had eleven!’
Since then it has grown to the point where it now offers some 60,000 tracks: 15,000 of them in various forms of high-resolution, from 96kHz/24-bit and 192kHz/24-bit FLAC through to SA-CD quality DSD downloads, which can be played by many models in the company’s recent ranges of AV receivers.
Now it’s adding Dolby TrueHD audio-only downloads to its arsenal, allowing high-quality surround sound to be purchased, downloaded, and played via Onkyo’s latest midrange receivers, the TX-NR717 and TX-NR818.
The demonstrations given by the Onkyo engineers, using a laptop acting as a server, the TX-NR818 and a system of Monitor Audio speakers, certainly sounded impressive: we heard some music from some of the smaller specialist labels the company intends to offer via the service, which is already ‘live’ in Japan.
These included tracks from Norwegian audiophile label 2L, whose catalogue should be familiar to regular readers of these pages.
And while the team says it’s in talks with major labels, it’s likely that e-Onkyo will only have the big-label stuff for Japan. It has the will to make e-Onkyo happen as a global portal, but the licensing nightmare that is the music industry could well halt progress.
That’s something acknowledged by company vice-president and chief operating officer Hiroshi Nakano, who suggests that, desirable though it would be to have big names and major labels onboard worldwide, it’s more likely that the e-Onkyo offering will involve smaller specialist labels.
These include 2L, Japanese classical label Octavia and Germany’s Nishimura, with Nakano saying it’s likely the service will have a stronger classical bias simply because ‘the copyright situation is easier’.
That won’t get any argument from this quarter: in a market with limited classical music downloads at ‘better than CD’ resolution, any extra sources of content are more than welcome.
And while Onkyo clearly has an agenda to complement current and forthcoming hardware with downloads its products can play, the fact that the portal will make available music in a variety of formats, with performances both familiar and unfamiliar, can only be good news.