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Denon is celebrating its 110th anniversary in 2020. Seizing the opportunity to celebrate this milestone, we are publishing a series of articles on Denon's history, its sound philosophy, craftsmanship mindset, notable products, and interviews with key people on our official blog. The first article in this series will be an interview with Shinichi Yamauchi, the Denon Sound Master, who is ultimately responsible for the sound of all Denon products.
Since 2020 marks the 110th anniversary year of Denon, we asked Shinichi Yamauchi, the Sound Master, about the Denon brand.
First of all, I would like to ask you about yourself. Have you always loved music?
Yamauchi: Yes, I listened to music because I liked it. I was more interested in analyzing the structure of music, and I would wonder why it sounded that way, I would explore the voicings if there was an interesting sound in a chord. Maybe I was a bit top-heavy with information.
What kind of music were you listening to at that time?
Yamauchi：Bands like The Beatles. There were some quite interesting sounding chords, so I liked to play them, trying to recreate those sounds on the piano.
So that is when you fell in love with audio at the same time?
Yamauchi：Yes. When it comes to audio, I loved analogue record players. I really liked the feeling of the turntable turning and the mechanical feel of the stylus tracing the groove of the records.
So that is why you joined Denon?
Yamauchi: Yes. Back then, Denon was the audio equipment division of Nippon Columbia. It was a unique company which had a combination of divisions that made both music content and audio equipment.
I think it is amazing that Denon has been in business for 110 years as an audio equipment manufacturer. What kind of brand do you think Denon is?
Yamauchi：I joined the Professional Audio Division, which existed when I started. That is why I think Denon is a technology-driven brand. Since audio is a hobby to most of the people, it is important to "keep up with the latest trends,” but it wouldn’t last more than 100 years if we only aimed to do that. I think we have been able to do this for 110 years because we have always valued "technology" as the core. I guess you could say we simply kept plugging away (laughs).
In its early days, Denon created Japan's first phonograph, the world's first commercially successful digital recording system, and the world's first CD player. Is there a spirit within the company of not willing to be outdone by other companies in terms of technology?
Yamauchi：I think there is. We have a corporate culture that encourages engineers with a strong desire to be proactive, and there is also another one that also allows them to be free to a certain extent, so they can work without feeling too constrained. The company is not too big, and the management understands that we need freedom to achieve the extraordinary.
Denon’s new Hi-Fi flagship model SX1 Limited Edition (sold only in Japan) was released last year, in 2019. This product was not developed in a conventional way, but rather, it was brought to market from your own prototype. Was this possible because there is a lot of freedom in making decisions at the company?
Yamauchi：I think so. In the general product development process there is usually a product planning meeting, and once the plan is approved a prototype development schedule is set up for further development. However in the case of the SX1 LIMITED EDITION, it was a series where I advocated Denon's new sound philosophy of "Vivid and Spacious” for the first time since I became the Sound Master. The SX1 LIMITED EDITION was a prototype series designed to demonstrate internally the concept of “Vivid and Spacious” sound. In the meantime, I was asked the same question, “This is interesting, why don’t you market it?” This was the first time we developed a product without a product plan, schedule, or marketing materials.
It proves that Denon has a corporate culture that says "do whatever you want for the sake of good sound.”
Yamauchi：That's right. They make it easy to a certain extent... (laughs).
As a result, the SX1 LIMITED EDITION became Denon’s new flagship model in the Hi-Fi category.
Yamauchi：As the SX1 was the base series, we assumed customers would see it as a minor change of a signature series, but the critics and audio fans found it very refreshing. I was a little surprised, the reaction was much warmer than expected.
The fact a product painstakingly developed by the Sound Master without a standard development process became the new flagship feels very “Denon” to me.
Yamauchi: I think the sound had an impact on me first and foremost. However in reality, it was an embodiment of the sound philosophy “Vivid & Spacious” that I had been working on since the NE series. Perhaps its warm reception among audiophiles was the result of our uncompromising pursuit of Vivid & Spacious sound, without setting a specific date that had to be executed against. The limited edition PMA-A110 and DCD-A110 reference anniversary models also took advantage of many technologies and components used in the SX series, extended even by the Ultra AL32 processing and the quadruple DAC configuration and of course are following the sound philosophy of “Vivid & Spacious” as well.
Do you have any personally memorable Denon products?
Yamauchi: Yes. Right after I joined the company I took a part in the development of the CD player of the S1 series, which made use of all of Denon's technology and sensibilities to create the best possible product. The actual products I took part in developing were a CD transport "DP-S1" (1994) and a D/A converter "DA-S1" (1994). The mechanism that actually turns the CD is the transport, and the D/A converter that converts the digital signal to analogue was a single-standing product. I was impressed by these, and soon after that I was involved in the development of the DCD-S1 integrated CD player.
DP-S1 CD transport (top) and DA-S1 D/A converter (bottom)
The S1 series is exactly what Denon's "Technology First” is all about.
Yamauchi: The S1 series reflected that aspect of Denon very strongly. At that time there was a Sound Master two generations above me—we didn't call him a Sound Master back then—but he was responsible for the Denon sound, and we would often clash with him. But in the end, he would let us handle the process.
The S1 and the RCD-CX1 receiver amplifier made an impression on me. That model was the first one I used custom parts on.
Why did you use custom parts?
Yamauchi: I thought that I should make something original at the parts level to bring out my own flavor.
Does your ‘flavor’ mean 'Vivid & Spacious'?
Yamauchi: Yes. I had that aspect of determination from the beginning. I've been involved with Denon sound quality since the S1, and I knew all the best features of Denon sound, as well as all the deficiencies, so I was honestly frustrated by the discrepancy in my own orientation when I was an engineer.
When I became a Sound Master, I didn't have a vague idea of what I wanted Denon to sound like, I had an exact image of what I wanted the Denon sound to be like from the beginning. That was "Vivid & Spacious.”
Nowadays, Denon sound is becoming new with the concept "Vivid & Spacious.”
Yamauchi: The traditional Denon sound can be characterized as "delicate and powerful,” "precision and stability,” and the ability to express sound texture and detail, and is overall very good. While preserving these qualities of Denon sound, I would like to achieve my vision of "Vivid & Spacious" sound as well. To me, this means sound that is vivid and lively, for example, with a sense of space that can be expressed in a vast sound stage.
Denon will eventually celebrate its 120th and 130th anniversaries. As the Sound Master, what do you think the sound concept of Denon will be like in the future?
Yamauchi: This is a bit abstract, but I think the quality of Denon sound is universal, or in other words, consistent: a sense of stability and the enjoyment of long hours of listening. I think these essential qualities will continue in the future.
Thank you so much for your time today!
Find out more about Denon's 110 year legacy in audio here.