What happened to Onkyo?

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By Franklin Raff

Onkyo, Japan’s leading maker of high-end amplifiers, filed for bankruptcy on May 14, ending an era for audiophiles and highlighting important lessons for leaders in rapidly changing markets.

The price/value ratio can build a brand and deconstruct it too. Onkyo has built its brand on the quality and relative accessibility of its amplifiers. Sonically muscular, well-built and adaptable to a wide range of speaker types, Onkyo amps have rarely failed to please. They have also made possible rainbows of powerful sound for discerning ears across much of the socio-economic spectrum. Expensive amps like the magnificent M-588 are legendary, but even the humble TX-51, in daily use for decades, shows that Onkyo products punch way above their weight.

Onkyo failed to keep up with technical developments. By 2015, its products were no longer high fidelity for modest prices. Others offered equal or better quality at even lower prices. Amazon.com and Best Buy each announced that they would no longer carry new Onkyo models in summer 2020. Other retailers, including those in the UK, followed the parade.

Although its market is growing, Onkyo is shrinking. Americans are enjoying music at home more than ever. Neilsen’s figures indicate that Americans listen, on average, up to 30 hours a week. Portable devices and savvy streaming services make it possible to discover a wealth of exciting new music, fulfilling the role radio played in the days of the “pre-selector” when DJs and program directors made decisions and the shareholders of the radio companies earned money. Now, thanks to the Internet, HD, Flac and much more, great musical discoveries await you again. All one really needs is a decent sound system.

As the baby boom winds down, the high-end home audio market is expected to continue to grow. Armies of former counter-bodybuilders, now as open to the brands of yesteryear as they were to the cultural authorities they once mocked, breathe the name “Onkyo” with cold reverence. The brand still has weight. Onkyo could have mounted a rebound with the right product-market fit.

What happened?

Consumers have become distracted and confused. Major audio brands have alternately led and followed them. Ours is a decades-long multi-national concern trying to configure our streaming protocols compatible with fiber optic wifi/bluetooth 5G 5.1 surround sound touchscreens. All we know for sure, as we stare at phones and wrestle with vague memories of passwords, is that we don’t know what to do with the stack of RCA cables in the corner. We may feel that we miss the music.

The winners today are a handful of companies that have profited from the mess by creating integrated systems whose core functionality is soft, pulsating light that suggests everything is connected: everything will be fine, say the plastic stuff, empty.

Markets move and can go down. It started in the 1990s, before America even started conforming its tastes to paid influencers and likes. It was then that subwoofers, much to the chagrin of baritone singers and French horn players, became audio’s cause celebre. The market for high-end, affordable audio equipment still exists, and so does the possibility of a return to high fidelity.

Extreme bass was the result pop, deafening production standards and midrange separation. For many listeners, this was the end of full and balanced sound. (That’s around the time Phil Spector lost it). We marveled in our deep dives and ignored the life-rich pelagic environments.

Listeners rediscover the joys of an old school Onkyo. The overall budget for these treasures is small; pleasure is priceless. If the piece is well recorded and mixed, listeners are likely to hear things they didn’t know existed. It has been compared to Winston Smith’s experience of Orwell’s 1984, marveling at the newfound beauty of a crystal paperweight. Purity, fullness and depth without pomp or artifice. Loyalty. It’s a thing !

The market for high-end, affordable audio equipment still exists, and so does the possibility of a return to high fidelity. Onkyo successors such as Voxx could lift many listeners out of the cave of Plato’s bookshelf speakers into a new (old) world of brighter, richer sound.

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