Canon Audio (Part 1)

I’ve had quite a few people over the years ask me about the history of Canon Audio, the short-lived specialist speaker off-shoot of the giant Japanese camera and printer company. So I decided that, rather than repeatedly answering similar questions, I’d write a few blog posts recounting the story. I worked at Canon Audio in a design and engineering role from 1990 to the closure of the company in 1996 and was Design Manager from around 1994 onward, so I’m probably better able than most to recount the history and describe the products. Before I get on to those products, however, a bit of background is probably appropriate.

Hiro Negishi and Wide Imaging Stereo

It’s perhaps difficult to conceive now that Canon once had a UK based speaker division, and if a few decisions had gone differently it might well still be around today, but unfortunately they didn’t, and it’s not. Canon Audio however burned brightly in the hi-fi and custom install speaker business for a few years in the 1990s and introduced some genuinely unusual and innovative products. There were more of the same under development when the plug was pulled….

Canon Audio began in the mid 1980s as the personal project of one Hiro Negishi. Negishi-san, was an extremely skilled optics specialist and engineering manager who had worked his way up through the Canon organisation to run Canon’s UK research centre, located on a business park adjacent to the campus at Surrey University in Guildford. The work at CRE (Canon Research Europe) primarily covered software projects (computer graphics* and very early attempts at automated translation software), however Negishi-san was an audiophile with a huge enthusiasm for British hi-fi, and a crazy idea to create an audio company that would tap into the skills of the British hi-fi sector and combine them with the power of the Canon brand. Negishi-san was also a visionary technologist who saw, well in advance of many, that the then separate audio and video strands of consumer “media” would likely become much closely intertwined. He felt strongly that if Canon was to thrive in an integrated media world, it needed an audio profile.

Along with his more commercial and corporate ideas, Negishi-san also had a technical concept that he christened Wide Imaging Stereo (WIS). The WIS proposition was that wider acoustic dispersion than was typical of conventional hi-fi speakers through mid and high frequencies would extend the stereo listening sweet spot. Negishi-san’s technical proposal for achieving wider dispersion was the off-centre acoustic mirror (his background was optics so mirrors were familiar territory). Now, the use of a conical acoustic mirror to create omnidirectional horizontal dispersion is an old speaker trick, and a quick Google image search on “omnidirectional speakers” will produce numerous examples of axially mounted conical acoustic mirrors. Here’s a typical one:SR60-Omni-directional-speaker

Negishi’s proposition however was that by laterally displacing the vertical axis of the acoustic mirror away from that of the driver, and by carefully profiling the 3D form of the mirror surface, it ought to be possible to manipulate both horizontal and vertical dispersion. He was fundamentally correct, but as ever with acoustics, things are never as simple as they might first appear (I’ll describe some of the problems in the further instalments of this story).

Appreciating that he didn’t have the electro-acoustic or manufacturing know-how to develop his ideas, Negishi-san began to invite specialist consultants and manufacturing companies from the British hi-fi industry to contribute, and help develop his ides into working prototypes. Dennis Ward (ex-Bowers & Wilkins and no relation to me), Mike Jewitt, Stan Curtis (Cambridge Audio) and Alan Boothroyd (Meridian plus his own independent industrial design consultancy) were just four UK hi-fi industry luminaries who helped out in those early days. At this stage, the project was effectively a skunk-works style undertaking, however when Negishi-san felt he had a demonstrable prototype, he and Mike Jewitt took it to Tokyo and presented it to the Canon Inc. president and senior management team (Mike Jewitt recalled that one of the speakers was damaged in transit and had to be hastily repaired in the hotel room). Perhaps in hindsight remarkably, Canon Inc. gave Negishi-san the green light and, just as vitally, a generous budget to develop WIS speakers and launch the Canon Audio hi-fi brand.

The First Wide Imaging Stereo Speakers

With a blessing from Canon Inc. Negishi-san, with Alan Boothroyd contracted as industrial design consultant, and Mike Jewitt employed to manage the electro-acoustics, took the project from its skunk-works beginnings to become a fully staffed design, manufacturing and marketing operation. The first two products, launched around a year after I joined the company in 1990, were the compact S-50 shelf/stand-mount speaker (left) and the closely related S-70 floor-stand speaker (right). The S-70 was effectively an S-50 mounted on top of a coupled-cavity style subwoofer (the subwoofer enclosure components on the prototype and launch S-70s were actually modified Habitat waste bins). Both the S-50 and S-70 were extravagantly designed and engineered with very few expenses of tooling or component quality spared. The gloss black finished, zinc die-cast mirror component was a particular engineering highlight. Unfortunately however the electro-acoustic performance was compromised both by the difficulties of making the WIS concept work in terms of subjective tonal balance, and by an early commitment to using a relatively primitive full-range mid/HF driver. Despite the flaws however the first year of the S-50 and S-70 was commercially promising for the fledgling Canon Audio company with sales in the first few market territories going well despite relatively high retail prices. It was clear quite quickly however that a less expensive, entry level WIS speaker was  needed. I’ll recount that story in the next post.

* RenderWare, originally developed by Criterion Software, was a product of CRE. Criterion, before it was sold to games company Electronic Arts, was a wholly owned subsidiary of Canon Inc.

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