TOKYO/BERLIN Panasonic Corp unveiled a new line-up of audio products on Wednesday, reviving the Technics brand made famous by DJs after a four-year hiatus, as a growing number of fans seek out high-resolution audio instead of compressed digital music.
The Japanese company showed off new speaker systems and amplifiers, controllers and even CD players at the IFA consumer electronics fair in Berlin, marking the first products to be released under the Technics brand besides headphones since 2010. However, turntables were conspicuous by their absence.
Laurent Abadie, chief executive of Panasonic’s European business, said that customers have been demanding the company revive the Technics turntable line for years, but declined to be drawn on whether this was still on the cards.
The new products will go on sale first in Europe, in December, and elsewhere later, the company said.
"We didn’t (revive the Technics brand), because until now the sound quality sources were not good enough: CDs and MP3 are not the right sources to enjoy Technics’ legacy,” Adbadie told Reuters in Berlin.
However, Abadie said a new generation of digital audio was coming soon that amounts to high-resolution audio, sometimes known as high-definition audio, among music fans craving the richness of analog quality audio with the convenience of digital.
"New audio files which are almost the same as analog in terms of quality ... will be available soon online,” he said.
Other firms have picked up on the recent trend for better quality sound, too: Sony Corp released a high-resolution audio Walkman in February that can play uncompressed files, pricing it at 549 pounds($906). And Pioneer Corp released a new turntable earlier this year, the PLX-1000, as vinyl sales boom.
Sources said on Wednesday that Pioneer was looking to sell its DJ equipment unit for around 60 billion yen ($570 million) as it focuses on its auto electronics business.
NO ENCORE ?
Panasonic spokeswoman Megumi Kitagawa in Tokyo said the company aims for revenue of 10 billion yen ($95 million) from Technics by the 2018/19 business year, although some of that will come from areas beyond high-end audio. It anticipates the market reaching 100 billion yen in that timeframe, she said.
The Technics unit brought in around 50 billion yen ($477 million) in annual sales during the 1990s, and a total 1 trillion yen ($9.5 billion) for Panasonic from its birth in 1965 up until 2010.
Panasonic's decision to resurrect Technics comes as sales of CDs continue to slide and consumers listen increasingly to MP3 files or streamed music. Data compression of digital music means those formats take up less space on shelves or hard drives, but at the expense of audio quality.
Many music fans are now hankering for higher-resolution sound, spurring a resurgence in vinyl albums, with sales soaring 52 percent to $171 million in 2013, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.
At Technics, however, there is no sign of a comeback for the brand's much-coveted SL-1200 MKII record player, the industry standard for DJ turntables ever since its release in 1979 and one that is fast becoming a collector's item as fans clamor for its return.
"I don't want to talk about the competitors but let's just say they didn't come close to the real Technics machine," says Moni Daniel, a 33-year old DJ from Israel whose online petition asking Panasonic to revive manufacturing of the SL-1200 has collected more than 21,000 signatures since January.
When Panasonic asked on its English Facebook page, "What was your favorite Panasonic product ever?" the overwhelming majority of hundreds of answers pointed to the SL-1200.
The SL-1200, first released in 1979 to update a model used by Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc -- credited with inventing hip-hop and the "scratching" technique -- became a permanent fixture in nightclubs and DJs’ bedrooms around the world, earning the nickname "The Wheels of Steel" for its unmatched precision.
After Panasonic pulled the plug on production in 2010, citing changes in the audio market, the price of second-hand models shot up. Now, with few DJs prepared to part with the deck, they go for up to $5,000 on online auction sites, almost ten times the original retail price.
Although Panasonic says it has no plans to put the turntables back into production, Abadie said he recognized that many fans of Technics still feel strongly about the older devices.
"Everyday I find top customers, important people, saying, 'I am still using Technics equipment. It is still working fine'. I get a lot of questions like that. It shows the attention is back on hi-fi audio."
(1 US dollar = 104.8800 Japanese yen)
(Additional reporting by Reiji Murai; Editing by Eric Auchard and Greg Mahlich)