I finished Part 4 of my Canon Audio story with the company; a slightly awkward fusion of Japanese multi-national and UK specialist speaker manufacturer, riding relatively high and commercially growing on the twin waves of home-cinema and commercial custom installed sound. The company’s prospects were also helped significantly by a growing export business through the worldwide network of Canon Inc. distributors.
Despite an increasing emphasis on the home-cinema and custom install markets, the more traditional hi-fi sector wasn’t ignored. Improved versions of the S-30 and the original S-70 were introduced. These went by the names S-35 and S-75. The most significant difference between the new speakers and their predecessors was that the parasitic tweeter equipped full-range driver was replaced by a compound driver that incorporated a conventional dome tweeter. The design of the compound driver was complicated by the 1988 KEF launch of the ‘Uni-Q’ dual-coincident driver technology, and the granting of its associated patents. A compound driver had to be designed for the S-35 and S-75 that didn’t infringe the KEF patents. Some unofficial conversations in fact took place between the R&D department at Canon Audio and engineers at KEF concerning the potential use of KEF Uni-Q drivers in Wide Imaging Stereo speakers. The KEF drivers would have suited the Wide Imaging Stereo concept extremely well, however those unofficial conversations never became official and the idea faded. My feeling is also that Canon Inc. would have been reluctant to licence another manufacturer’s speaker technology – such a thing wouldn’t have been seen as compatible with the Canon brand.
The compound driver solution for the S-35 and S-75 was to mount a small neodymium-iron-boron magnet equipped 19mm diameter dome tweeter just off-centre and forward of the bass/mid (mid only in the S-75) diaphragm in a radial grille component. Mounting the tweeter just off-centre was done primarily to ensure that there was no possible KEF patent infringement. The S-35 was the first Canon Audio hi-fi speaker to be reviewed in the US hi-fi press. Here’s what John Atkinson is Stereophile magazine thought.
There were two final Canon Audio hi-fi speakers developed around this time – both developed from concept proposals made by Allen Boothroyd. First of these was the ultra-compact SV-15 utility speaker aimed at home cinema surround roles, 2.1 stereo systems and, in its active version, desktop applications. The active version of the SV-15 was created by adding a small power amplifier module to the existing architecture of the speaker’s integrated wall mounting bracket. The SV-15 was immediately successful and its architecture; a cross between the full ‘Wide Imagine Stereo’ format of the early Canon Audio speakers and the V-100 soon resulted in, effectively, an enlarged version – the S-25. The, stand/wall-mount S-25 was the last product developed by Canon Audio and in many respects the most conventional. It was well received by retailers, distributors and the press but its life was ‘cruelly’ cut short. I’ll get to the sad end-game shortly, but there’s a couple of further subjects to cover first.
In addition to continuing to develop hi-fi, home-cinema and commercial install speakers, in around 1995 Canon Audio was asked to consult on a job for Canon Inc.: designing and developing an add-on audio systems for Canon’s first LCD video display. Although the project didn’t result in a product launch (I’m not even sure the LCD display was ever launched), it was the first sign of the Canon Audio brand and in-house expertise being leveraged with the larger Canon business. Repurposing the full-range driver sourced (from Philips) for the LCD display project also led to the development of two Canon Audio active desktop ‘computer’ speakers. The larger of the two, the ML-1500 (ML for Media Loudspeaker) was developed only as far as a block model and lashed-up working prototype, however the smaller version, the ML-1000 was taken all the way to the point of production engineering, with a batch of 20 working pairs built using the then extremely advanced rapid prototyping techniques of stereo-lithography and low volume silicon mould manufacture. Even the packaging was designed. Sadly however, despite the rapidly growing IT and internet developments of the mid to late 1990s, Canon Inc., in a decision that to my mind ranks with Decca not signing the Beatles, failed to see that there was any potential for desktop audio products. The ML-1000 never saw a green light. I sometimes wonder what happened to the 20 prototype pairs?
The failure to see any potential in desktop speakers didn’t mean however that Canon Inc. and Canon Audio wasn’t focussed on the future of audio and how the Canon brand might be involved. In spring 1996 a two day creative brainstorming event was held that included Canon Inc. representatives, Canon Audio engineering, design, sales, and marketing personnel, and a variety of external designers, technologists and academics. Numerous product concepts were conceived and developed in break-out groups, but one I remember very clearly was, effectively, the idea Apple turned into the iPod and iTunes around five years later. It was dismissed at the Canon event because there was no viable audio data compression, fast download infrastructure or ultra-compact hard-disk storage technology available (all would arrive within a year or two). The main result of the creative event however was a decision that Canon Audio would expand from from its speaker roots to become an audio electronics manufacturer. A concept for an ambitious integrated yet modular amplifier, CD player and radio tuner was conceived and a team of external designers (Allen Boothroyd, Richard Seymour and Stan Curtis) briefed develop it towards a fully engineered and costed proposal…..
And then the roof fell in. I wrote in Part 3 of the story that the Canon Inc. approach to patents had a hand in its demise. I say this because, in common with many a multi-national technology focussed corporation, the Canon policy was to patent anything and everything that might just be patentable. Unless an idea was a bolted-down certainty to be an old one, the corporate pressure was to patent it (hence the somewhat pointless S-30 internal chassis patent I described in Part 3). The patent policy of course meant that Negishi-san’s initial idea for Wide Imagine Stereo, despite the fact that its core concept of an acoustic mirror was an old one, was ‘protected’ by patents. Protection however potentially invites attack, and the Wide Imagine Stereo patents were a potentially lucrative target for anybody who believed that they had had, and had published, the idea first. So almost as soon as Canon Audio speakers were launched in the US, they were challenged. One challenge in particular became a serious threat and despite attempts at mediation, the protagonist was unwilling to back down or compromise.
As far as Canon’s US patent lawyers were concerned, the challenge stood very little chance of prevailing, however going through the US courts to defend the Wide Imagine Stereo patents would be both hugely expensive and potentially a PR disaster (as had, for example, the Walkman patent case for Sony) – one that Canon, with its huge business interests in the US Government and commerce could not risk. The other option was simply to walk away from the whole Canon Audio business, and that’s what came to pass. The patent challenge had the rug pulled from underneath, but Canon’s crazy audio experiment was over, and by the end of 1996 the company closed its doors.
It was of course all a long time ago now, but in writing the story, I’m moved to wonder what might have been, and how that American patent protagonist felt about the way things panned out: the people who lost their jobs and businesses who lost their customers as a result of his patent speculation. If he’s still around, and by chance happens to read this blog post, perhaps he can let us know in the comments.
Postscript: While writing this last chapter of the Canon Audio story I heard the immensely sad news that Allen Boothroyd passed away at the end of February (2020). Allen was undoubtedly one of the stars of the whole Canon Audio ‘experiment’, but more than that, he was extraordinarily influential across the entire consumer audio industry. In fact, it’s hard to overestimate his contribution. Allen was probably best known for being the brilliant industrial design mind behind Meridian Audio, but before that there were his classic Lecson and Orpheus products, and throughout the last 40 years or more, countless other audio products though his Cambridge Product Design consultancy. In particular, his work with KEF through the 1980s and 1990s, pretty much recalibrated how hi-fi speakers could look. I got to know Allen well during the Canon Audio years, working with him and learning immensely from him. He was always unfailingly generous with his time and his ideas, and had a finely honed knack for helping sometimes reluctant folk to see the benefits of investing in careful and thoughtful design. Wonderful, quietly irreverent, company over a drink and a meal too.