Canon Audio (Part 3)

Part Two of my Canon Audio story closed once again with a promise to write about the S-30, the fledgling company’s first attempt to launch a Wide Imaging Stereo (WIS) speaker system at more competitive retail price. And this time I’ll be good to the promise.

Though is was relatively, and perhaps surprisingly, successful, S-50 sales were constrained by the high retail price that resulted primarily from two elements of its design and construction: firstly, its gloss black finished, zinc die-cast acoustic mirror components, and secondly its UK assembled, Alnico magnet equipped, full-range driver. The UK retail price at launch for a pair of S-50s was, if memory serves me correctly, £349 (or was it £399?), and it became quickly apparent that if Canon Audio was ever going to grow beyond a very small hi-fi niche, it needed a product that provided all the performance and design appeal of the S-50 retailing in the UK at £150 or less per pair (remember, we’re talking early 1990s prices).

It may be missing its Canon logo, but it’s an S-30

Hitting the £150 price point meant that the painted zinc die castings and UK sourced driver would have to go. Allen Boothroyd and his Cambridge Product Design (CPD) consultancy colleagues were tasked with developing a mechanical and industrial design solution to the problem, while Japanese based OEM drive unit company Foster Electronics (parent company of Fostex) were supplied with examples of the S-50 driver and asked to propose a significantly more cost effective version. The project was christened S-30* primarily I think because there were no other suggestions.

Cambridge Product Design’s proposal for the S-30 mechanical and industrial design was to create front and rear shell components, injection moulded in ABS, with a separate injection moulded ‘slipper’ component that would form the acoustic mirror surface. In a significant change from the S-50, the air volume beneath the S-30 mirror was engineered to be part of the driver’s acoustic load. It was proposed by CPD that the front and rear shell components would be finished in a matt textured paint but that the ‘slipper’ mould would be polished – which would result in a high gloss finish on the part itself.

S-30 Patent Doc
The Canon S-30 Patent Application

The design proposal in aesthetic terms was agreed very quickly, however it had a major problem in acoustic/mechanical terms because it was severely lacking in structural rigidity. The solution, developed in-house and with CPD, was to engineer an internal aluminium die-cast skeleton component that would tie the driver and the two shell components together to create a far more rigid structure. The internal skeleton also provided some useful attachment points for floor stands and wall brackets. The internal skeleton was also, somewhat pointlessly I think, the trigger for a patent application covering the S-30’s mechanical architecture. It was corporate policy throughout Canon that any remotely unusual or innovative technology or engineering solution was patented and, without wishing to spoil the story, there’s an argument to be made I think that this policy actually played a role in Canon Audio’s demise….

The S-30 driver developed by Foster did exactly what it needed to do in terms of creating a far less expensive alternative to the S-50 unit, however it still relied on a parasitic tweeter element to extend the high frequency response. Alternative strategies for extending its high frequency bandwidth (light-weight cone and voice-coil, reduced voice-coil inductance, etc) that might have been more fruitful weren’t pursued primarily because the project timetable was too tight. The Foster driver’s conventional magnet system also meant it lost the distortion benefits of the S-50’s Alnico system, which was a shame.

It was a close run thing but the S-30 just about hit its retail price target and was enthusiastically received by the retailers and even, in some cases, the hi-fi press. It not only provided a significant boost to Canon Audio’s UK sales but also provided a product that could realistically begin to be distributed to markets outside the UK, and so began perhaps the next chapter of the story.

* The S-50 was originally to have been blessed with a name rather than a number. It was to be called the ‘Domus’, but worldwide registration of the name became too difficult so it was dropped.

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