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.

12 thoughts on “Canon Audio (Part 1)

  1. Hi
    Great article and helped me decide to take the plunge on ano expensive pair of used S-50. I accept they are marmite in the looks Dept, but I actually think they make more than capable rear surrounds speakers.
    I’m looking for a user / service manual for this model, if anyone can provide a link or pdf it’s be much appreciated.


    1. Hi Brad,
      Congratulations on the S-50 purchase. Are they in good condition? I’m not sure if I’ve got a user manual. I’ll have a look and scan it for you if I do. There was no service manual but I can probably answer any questions you might have. Probably best to contact me with questions via the form on the “about” page:


  2. Hi Phil, how fascinating to read. when I was a teenager I had the pleasure of working for Dennis Ward. Those canon speakers brought a real excitement to the small firm. I remember the name Hiro and I was likely involved in glueing magnets together, magnetizing them, fixing to chassis and packing. I used to really enjoy the job and Dennis was a great employer, a very kind fair man who on reflection I learned a lot from. I still have an ear for a good sounding speaker, nothing else will do.


    1. Hi Matt,

      Great to hear from somebody who actually contributed to building S-50s. Ironically, I’ve dismantled a couple recently and am still amazed at just how well they were put together. The reason for dismantling S-50s is that I’m involved in a project to investigate updating them with contemporary dual-concentric drivers. Watch this space.

      Yes, Dennis was a lovely guy. I had many a good time with him back in those days. He had so many fascinating stories to tell of the early days of the UK speaker industry.



    1. Hi George,

      The Canon branded pendant speakers are a complete surprise to me! They certainly didn’t come out of Canon Audio in the U.K.. My guess is that a Canon company somewhere around the world would have sourced and badged them locally for a specific project. They may or may not have had the blessing of Canon Inc. who knows!



  3. Hello Phil,

    Thanks so much for the wonderfully informative read! I recently purchased a set of S-30 speakers and when I first saw theM I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it but after reading your article I decided to go ahead and buy them. I felt inspired but the whole experience enough to make a video about it. Here it is if anyone is interested in giving it a watch.



  4. Interesting artical. I had the pleasure of working in Mike Jewitts team as audio technician/Dev Eng at Mordaunt-Short. That’s where Mike went after Canon. Also Graeme Foy too. They both told me the story of the S-50, and how they raided the local toy shop to buy all the plastercine, required, to hand mold the reflection contour shape. I recently just bought a pair of System 442s. They were before my time though, up at the Mill where you Phil & Vernon develped it.


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