Andrew Everard writes I've just spent a few days getting under the skin of Onkyo, seeing the company's new range of AV receivers and the factory where the more upmarket models are being made. And the major impression is of an outfit with the established leaders of the European home cinema market - notably Denon and Yamaha - firmly in its sights.
Through a combination of feature-laden products, solid audio and video engineering and aggressive pricing, Onkyo seems determined that 2007 is going to be its year to make a big impact on the AV market.
That impression was formed almost as soon as we got down to business in the compact listening/viewing room at the company's headquarters in the Neyagawa suburb of Osaka. From the outset we were shown products with features unexpected at their price levels, along with plenty of engineering innovation to back up the facilities count.
I asked whether there was any chance of the company making a 'purist' stripped-down receiver with only the essential facilities, and further enhancements to the audio and video performance - how many people, for example, make much use of all that multiroom capability?
The answer, at least from the Onkyo UK people on the trip, is that such a product is definitely possible, but that the AV receiver market demands each step up the range brings not only even more performance, but also greatly enhanced facilities. So don't hold your breath, but it might yet happen...
There's an honesty to the Onkyo approach, however: other manufacturers may be hesitant when it comes to interoperability with other companies' products, especially in the case of the HDMI CEC remote control system found in models such as the TX-NR905 (seen above in topless form), but Onkyo is more pragmatic. It's making a virtue of the fact its receivers will 'drive' other companies' TVs and players. At the moment, it's only making official claims for interoperability with Panasonic's Viera Link system,but expect more announcements soon.
Product planning manager Koji Harada admitted that the Onkyo RIHD system will control the basic functions - on/off/play/stop and so on - of 80% of most other HDMI CEC-equipped products, but more complex functions are yet to be explored. Clearly it's a priority for Onkyo: unlike rivals such as Panasonic, Pioneer and Sony, the company doesn't make TVs, so it needs to ensure its products will interact with third-party tellies
Oh, and while the engineers weren't initially too sold on the choice of demo material I'd brought along for the listening/viewing session - including Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima and Japanese war movie Otokotashi no Yamato - the room really lit up when we started playing some music DVDs.
Corinne Bailey Rae's Live in London DVD looked and sounded great, and the amazing THX-certified Jean Michel Jarre Live in Beijing DVD had us a) in some awe at the sheer power of the sound delivered by the system driven by the TX-NX905 receiver, and b) wondering whether there was any point in having Blu-ray or HD DVD when the pictures looked so good. And this was on a basic HD-ready projector, so we were only watching 720p pictures.
By the way, it seems the Onkyo people have a similar view of the whole Blu-ray/HD DVD thing: the company will launch an HD DVD player in the Autumn, but the DV-HD805 will pay close attention to audio and SD video quality, making it what the company calls 'a very good DVD player with HD DVD support.' The official word is that the company supports both formats, and is hoping for a viable universal solution somewhere down the line.
Of interest, too, were some of the products on show in the company's display area, but yet to come to the UK. The Onkyo take on the home cinema stand (above) may not have its own amplification built-in, but it does pack left, centre and right speakers - most rival designs do 'phantom centre' - and has space for a conventional receiver to be racked alongside players and set-top boxes.
Meanwhile the company also has a tasty-looking HDC-1.0 'audio computer' (below), which acts as a music server/streamer; it's conveniently micro-system-sized, just ready to slot into one of Onkyo's compact packages, and also does video streaming and all the usual home PC functions. Supplied complete with a cute little keyboard and mouse, it could be a real winner in small home systems. It's a logical development of the company's network receivers - an area in which Onkyo led the AV market.
The second day in Onkyo-land took us on the slow train - well, not so slow but it was a very long way! - from Osaka to the factory in Kurayoshi, near the Japan Sea coast of Tottori prefecture, where the company builds its TX-SR805, TX-SR875 and TX-NR905 receivers, as well as the audio computer.
An amazing 4935 parts go into a TX-SR805, with pre-assembly of circuitboards handled down on the ground floor by an array of board-populating and soldering machines. As well as conventional board-stuffers there's at least one super-fast 'gatling-gun' insertion machine (above), while components for boards are loaded onto carts which can be slotted into the machine with hardly any break in production. The board assembly section runs 24 hours a day, servicing the production lines upstairs with items such as the video processing board below.
At the moment the factory is producing some 200 TX-SR805s a day, with a total of 192 staff. And yet the efficiency of the plant is shown by the fact that labour costs only account for some 20% of the cost of the finished product - not bad when 30-40% of your total staff are involved in inspection and quality control.
We followed the progress of a receiver from the manual loading (above) of boards with components too large to be handled by the machines downstairs, through the assembly of the large power amplifier sections, and uploading of firmware into the processors before final inspection. And everywhere it was clear that there's a lot of quality control going on - every single product is tested and examined, and the stringent controls were clear in the number of products being pulled off the line for checking and rectification (below) at this very early stage of production.
We'll wait to see whether all this close attention pays off in the performance - samples have, as they say, been ordered for review - but on this showing, Onkyo has nothing to fear in quality terms from its Japanese rivals.