HARMAN Luxury Update
The Significance of Japan to the Luxury Audio Industry
by Dave Tovissi
Vice President and General Manager, HARMAN Luxury Audio
As we near the end of our 75th Anniversary for the JBL brand, I wanted to reflect on how a small country of the world has played a significant role in the product portfolio for HARMAN and many other audio manufacturers.
Earlier this month, our Japan Luxury Audio team was once again presenting products to dealers and audio enthusiasts at the Tokyo International Audio Show. It was the first time in eight years that we were on-site at this prestigious event. Unfortunately, the leadership of this event had concerns about opening of a retail store and whether we were a retailer or a manufacturer. That was resolved in 2019 just before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out and sadly the show was canceled. The 2021 return of HARMAN and JBL was welcomed by the media, our dealers and even our competitors after a long absence. Based on the feedback from the standing-room only attendees it was unanimous that all were excited to see us back and were blown away by the breadth of our Luxury Audio portfolio.
What made this year’s event even more special was the fact that we were celebrating JBL’s 75th Anniversary, and more specifically, 50 years of manufacturing Studio Monitors. It was no surprise that our latest addition to the Studio Monitor line-up won the very impressive "Product of the Year" award from Stereo Sound magazine. To win such awards in the Japanese market is special to us. We have always looked to the Japanese market when we consider any new loudspeaker and especially when we release a Studio Monitor to the market. This was a welcome award after several years of limited visibility, and from such a prestigious organization, it is clear to Japanese audio enthusiasts that JBL is back. In addition to this coveted award, we have also been honored to receive VGP (Visual Grand Prix) for both the SA750 and HDI Series.
So why is Japan a benchmark for our product development? Based on research from the market, Japan is home to approximately eight million self-described audiophiles. Not only does this market have a high percentage of audio enthusiasts, but they also have a higher level of expectations from companies that release products in their country.
The history of JBL in Japan dates to the introduction of Jazz Kissas (Japanese for café) shortly after World War II concluded and the jazz music scene reemerged. It was estimated that there were over 250 Jazz Kissas located in inconspicuous spots across the country. Jazz Kissas were a place where music lovers could go to listen to the latest jazz records from the US. The experience, of going to a Kissa to listen to music was socially accepted by generations of Japanese with the tradition that carries on today. At their peak, the areas of Shibuya and Shinjuku, located in the center of Tokyo, had dozens of Kissas located across the city.
Today, there are about 125 Kissas still operating. They traditionally play '50s and '60s jazz records all day long and it is estimated that 99% percent of them use JBL loudspeakers dating back from the '50s to more current models in their venues.
Earlier in the year, Tom Metzger, Japan’s Country Manager for HARMAN, traveled to the legendary Kissa Basie in Ichinoseki, Iwate, which is about three hours from Tokyo via the bullet trains, to hand deliver the world’s very first JBL SA750 intelligent streaming amplifier to Mr. Sugawara (who goes by the name “Swifty”) with Serial Number 001. This debut, which was documented by Stereo Sound, at this historic club playing on an original pair of 50-year-old JBL Barone speakers, which have been actively used since they were purchased in the 1970s.
“As a 34-year employee of HARMAN and a true JBL fan, I was extremely honored to present the SA750 on behalf of the HARMAN organization. I have been to the club numerous times to listen to legacy JBL speakers using an original SA600 that has been in continuous operation since the club opened in the 1970s. it’s a journey every past President of JBL has made to meet Swifty and thank him for his commitment to the brand that has endured more than 50 years. Having known many of the past legends of JBL personally, including my good friend John Eargle, this was a truly shining moment in the history of JBL and I could not have been prouder to have been the one to deliver this amazing product. This sets a new benchmark and raises the expectation of more to come from JBL and the excellent product engineering team. Way to go team JBL!”
Throughout the year, our Japan team has been commemorating the JBL 75th Anniversary in many ways. Last month, I received a special package from Japan. It was a freshly pressed piece of vinyl that was curated by the teams at Universal Music Group, Stereo Sound Publishing and our HARMAN Japan colleagues. Naoki Hamada described this project in detail to me and stated that he wanted to make sure that he enlisted the Chief Editor of Stereo Sound, Mr. Someya, and our very own principal engineer, Chris Hagen, to help choose the material that would be featured on the album.
Once the tracks were chosen, then the team went to the famous Piccolo Audio Works in Tokyo to press the vinyl for the compilation. This company is well-known for creating albums for Blue Note and other jazz recordings, There, the chief engineer, Mr. Matsushita, laid down the tracks on a Telefunken ½-inch tape recorder and listened carefully to them on JBL Studio Monitors to make sure he captured these tracks at their highest sound quality before cutting them into virgin vinyl.
The team is proud of their accomplishment. They feel that some of the tracks recorded are actually better than their original recordings. The team pressed 1500 copies of this keep-sake and are currently selling a small subset to the public. At the time this article was written there were still a few copies available at https://jp.jbl.com/SSAR-075-.html if you want one for yourself.
This month we are also featuring Max Audio, one of our Japanese customers in the Dealer Profile. Be sure to give them a look in our newsletter or visit their amazing shop if you're ever in Kyushu, Japan.
Until next month, Sayonara さようなら