(Pocket-lint) - We're sat in Audio-Technica's downtown Tokyo headquarters, peering through a one-way window overlooking the company's professional music studio, sat with Keisuke Kobayashi, the company's director of marketing and engineering. For this isn't just a headphone brand: Audio-Technica is an audio company with deeper-reaching roots.
But while the company's headphones sales are in the number one position in its native Japan, the brand hasn't proliferated the European market to the same extent. Eyes are on the prize, though, with the company having recently moved most staff to its impressive new Machida base, with new products - including the DSR9BT over-ears and Pure Digital Drive technology - making in-roads into never-before-released technologies.
Here's what Kobayashi had to say about how the headphones market will move forward, whether Hi-Res Audio is widely understood, and what's next for digital audio technology.
Q. There's a lot of talk about Apple's wireless AirPods and Lightning connector headphones lately. Can you see the sense to their ecosystem?
A. "It's a point of interest. The iPhone has a very strong influence over the market. At the same time, Lightning is not the only solution. And sometimes it becomes a little more cumbersome to specific people. Having a wire is a little bit of a nuisance, perhaps, but Bluetooth and that approach - which we also cater for - is convenient."
Q. Where do you see the headphones market going then? What can Audio-Technica offer to stand out?
A. "We look at many different opportunities in terms of technology. However, we tend to believe that by using innovative components in reproducing sound that what really counts is the core ability; and Audio-Technica has strength in transducer production.
"From that point of view we might be a little slower in trying some of the newer available technologies, but sound quality is always paramount."
Q. Does having a free and open work environment provide the opportunity to explore and create defining new products?
A. "What we can do within the world of sound it is very much limitless. Everyone at the company is very committed to sound. That's the basic drive."
It's led to the creation of the company's DSR9BT headphones, the first over-ear headphones to ditch the digital-to-analogue (DAC) conversion process to deliver a true digital signal from source to drivers.
Not available until 2017, it's technology like this that sees Audio-Technica try to separate itself from the competition; to further cement its high-end appeal.
Q. What comes next for wireless technology? Does Audio-Technica have the time to experiment, or is that for other companies to approach you with?
A. "Audio-Technica tends to be rather straightforward in the historic approach, but we are not rejecting newer technologies. In DSR9 - with its Pure Digital Drive technology, which you have seen and heard - that's one of the approaches we are taking.
"That's not just new digital electronics squeezed into a headphone: it's a fundamental new technology introduction into the voice coil. Companies have struggled to get this to work before, but Audio-Technica has the necessary expertise in transducer technologies.
"But if we are talking about wireless technologies then there are many potential options [aside from Bluetooth]. But we have balance the cost of making such technologies available and the actual result it will bring.
"Bluetooth still has room for improvement. We are also looking at the use of aptX HD and those newer technologies which provide upgraded user experience."
Q. How can Audio-Technica make more of an impact away from native Japan?
A. "Audio-Technica has held the number one market share position for the last seven years. We've made good progress and steps to establish ourselves in the US and EU also.
"We tended to focus more on the professional side of the business, so we were a little bit late in cultivating the consumer side. Now we've started to do that and we've got exciting new products coming.
"At the same time I don't think there is a quick remedy. Audio-Technica has been in the headphone business for more than 40 years. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail - but that's the basic nature of business."
Q. Is part of the challenge succumbing to the way some competitors sell? Say bigger bass and other options?
A. "Audio-Technica produce the Solid Bass range, for example [not available in the UK]. However, we try not to just push heavy bass boost, but to have a fair level of balance between the lower bass and also the other content in the spectrum. That subtlety is important. Whether for electro music or classical music - the key is to deliver a level of enjoyment for the listener."
Q. Is selling Hi-Res Audio a challenge? Especially when lower quality streaming is widely available. Do you think consumers understand?
A. "It might be confusing. Streaming gets popular due to the ease of the experience and it's a really convenient offering. I don't think we should ‘downgrade' away from this trends. From a popularisation standpoint it's not a bad thing. "But it is the manufacturers' duty to let the general public have choices. Sometimes you won't really get what artists wanted to express when you have some limitations. And that, today, is where Hi-Res Audio fits in - if you don't experience it, you don't really have an idea of what it is and how it sounds."
Q. What is Audio-Technica's stance on Hi-Res audio? How do you sell that to customers?
A. "The industry needed to provide some wording to promote this new higher-quality material. Hi-Res Audio-labelled products are supposed to provide higher-resolution and a higher quality of sound.
"However, some companies really abuse the Hi-Res label. ‘Now at this price point we have Hi-Res this and Hi-Res that' [when it's not true].
"If we were to have a clearer established standard it might be a very good sign for customers to look for a certain level of quality. Audio-Technica is still redefining what is hi-res; re-qualifying the standards. Through those efforts and activity I think we are more clearly able to establish a certain level.
Q. So if some are breaking the value of the Hi-Res label, will Audio-Technica create a different badge to sell in a different way?
A. "There is always a business reality. In the market places people wish to know ‘is this really a Hi-Res product?'. So we need to provide that information [using the badge]. So we will promote Hi-Res, of course, but not to abuse the system."
"We're also exploring other technologies, to convey the purest sound, such as Pure Digital Drive in the DSR9. These are also Hi-Res capable, of course."
Q. At the opposite end of the scale there's the resurgence of vinyl? Why do you think this is happening now?
A. "The reason for the resurgence is helped by two factors: the older generation is one, coming back to experience what they had in the past and they want to enjoy it again; but also the younger generation find it fascinating that this kind of thing can actually make sound, and also be a tangible material - it's not just one single thing, but kind of a multi art object.
I am very old - so that's why I'm using this example - and in order to enjoy music years ago you had to have decent audio kit. If you were lucky to have parents or grandparents who were into music then you might have had such equipment at home. If you didn't then you would have to try very, very hard to get the money together to buy the components. When you do that the actual level of involvement with the listening experience is that much more engaged. If everything is too easy to get then maybe it limits the experience."
A good job, then, that we get to experience the company's high-end listening room – complete with a wide range of speakers, turntables and, of course, the company's reference cartridge, the £4,450 ART1000.
It's an eye-closing experience and the perfect moment of reflection while we digest not only the sushi, but all that's been said, shown and heard during our visit at Audio-Technica towers.
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