Pioneer CEO Reflects on 80 Years of Audio Excellence
A lot has happened in the past 80 years in the consumer technology industry. During that time, essentially every piece of modern tech that consumers interact and play with today—TVs, radios, computers, gaming consoles, the smartphone—was introduced to the consumer. Also during that time, we’ve seen the launch and growth of Pioneer one of the leading brands in the audio and entertainment market.
In 1937, Nozomu Matsumoto introduced to the world the A-8 dynamic speaker and named it the Pioneer. The name, he said at the time, represented his pioneering spirit and dedication to excellent audio reproduction.
During the eight decades since the launch of that speaker, Pioneer has grown into one of the world’s largest manufacturers of speakers, speaker components and a technological innovator in the ways to produce sound. As the company preps for the next 80 years, Dealerscope had the unique opportunity to sit down with Susumu Kotani, CEO of Pioneer.
The celebratory year presented a unique opportunity for Kotani to reflect on where Pioneer has come from. But much of the Pioneer story has yet to be written as the company prepares for a world of autonomous driving, bigger and better in-car sound, and much more.
Dealerscope: 80 years is a long time in the consumer electronics business. What have been the keys to continued success for Pioneer over that time?
Kotani: The key to our success has been our unrelenting pursuit of the fundamental goal of our founder, Mr. Nozomu Matsumoto, to share our passion for music and the entertainment experience. We have combined this passion with innovative and often daring engineering and a flexibility to listen to the changing wants of our consumer and adapt to the evolution of the consumer electronics market.
Those first speakers—the A-8 dynamic speakers that Nozomu Matsumoto developed in 1937—what influence have they had on Pioneer throughout the last 80 years?
Mr. Matsumoto’s A-8 was the first dynamic loudspeaker developed and produced in Japan. The innovation and craftsmanship required to produce this product continues to drive the Pioneering spirit of our company today. Although our products are driven by technology, we do not create technology for technology’s sake. We continuously develop and evolve our products with advanced materials, engineering and technology to evoke an emotional experience within our consumer.
That first speaker was called the Pioneer, and that name eventually was carried over to the company. What significance does that name carry? Where does it come from?
The significance of the name today is evident in our continued effort to “pioneer” and reinvent how people experience their entertainment, for example through Pioneer loudspeakers, audio components, video components, internet connectivity and more.
Pioneer continued developing speakers into the 1950s, and even started to expand into other audio categories. What influenced the decision to expand the product portfolio?
Our Pioneering spirit has allowed us to identify and pursue opportunities throughout our history. Some of the earliest examples of this spirit was the expansion of Pioneer into practically each stage of the audio signal path. This allowed Pioneer to redefine the consumer experience while also expanding our product family. Ultimately, the goal was to reproduce as closely as possible the original recorded performance, as the artist intended.
Part of that expanding portfolio included a dive into video technology. Many in this industry still talk about the LaserDisc, a technology that came to the fore in the 1970s and 80s. Pioneer jumped into that segment in the 80s with the introduction of the first in-home LaserDisc player. What impact did that decision have on the company?
LaserDisc is another example of Pioneer enhancing the consumer experience through advanced and proprietary technology. As more consumers started to enjoy the experience of watching movies in their homes, Pioneer saw the opportunity to improve upon the existing technology. Many of the challenges associated with video recording and playback from magnetic tape were overcome with laser light and the optical storage disc. With LaserDisc, picture quality and sound quality were improved and more consistent, capacity was increased, degradation was practically eliminated, and for the first time high speed access was a reality.
LaserDisc technology really helped usher in the era of optical disc technology. How is that still influencing Pioneer to this day?
Pioneer was the first in the world to support optical disc as a format. Our immersion into LaserDisc development established the company as a leader in laser and optical disc technology. This leadership continues today, evidenced in the advanced optics used in Pioneer Head Up Display (HUD) devices for the OEM and aftermarket automotive industry and in the Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) solutions Pioneer is developing for autonomous vehicles.
Pioneer was the first to introduce an in-car CD player to the market, and we were one of the six original patent holders of DVD technology, which allowed us to help create and define that format.
The performance and quality of our optical disc products is quite renown: Pioneer drives have been used extensively by computer manufacturers and Pioneer optical transports have formed the foundation of millions of home and car LaserDisc, CD, DVD and Blu-ray products sold around the world.
You can’t talk about optical disc tech without mentioning the CDJ, which was introduced in 1994. How important of a development was that for Pioneer and for the DJing profession?
Within the music industry, many have mentioned that the Pioneer CDJ has single-handedly created an entire music culture and has established Pioneer as a mainstay brand in electronic dance music. The CDJ, with features that include scratching, mixing and looping, is the musical instrument of the modern DJ, providing a tool for their creativity.
Pioneer DJ is yet another example of our passion for both the creation and reproduction of music. The development and growth of this industry has kept Pioneer in touch with the younger consumer and the evolution of their listening tastes.
You mentioned that Pioneer helped bring CD technology into the car. That’s not the first time that your company has helped innovate the in-car entertainment experience though. Some of the other industry firsts include the one-piece chassis AM/FM in-dash CD player in 1988, the single CD player with a detachable face in 1990, and single-color OLED display tech in 1998.
Throughout Pioneer’s history, we have continued to adapt to the listening environment of our customers, including entering the car electronics market in the early 1960s. The automobile represents one of the most challenging and varied environments: nearly continuous movement, excessive vibration, extreme temperature and humidity ranges, and the need for electrical efficiency are just a few of the obstacles that must be overcome. Pioneer’s expertise integrating technology into the car has had a positive influence on all areas of our business and achieving the reliability standards required in the car ensures that ALL our products are among the world’s best.
Beyond in-car audio developments, Pioneer helped bring GPS-based car navigation systems into the car in the early 1990s. What was that moment like for Pioneer, and what significance did it carry?
Although not commonly known, GPS or the Global Positioning System, is based on a network of satellites broadcasting radio signals that are used to identify geographic position. Pioneer’s famous SuperTuner had established us as a leader in receiving radio broadcasts in a moving vehicle. Applying our tuner expertise to the emerging GPS industry was a natural next step in providing usability and peace of mind to our consumer. In 1990, Pioneer launched the world’s first consumer market GPS-based car navigation system, the AVIC-1. To ensure the highest quality consumer experience with this new technology, we simultaneously began creating digital maps for car navigation systems, which led to the establishment in 1994 of Increment P Corporation (IPC), a Pioneer map subsidiary. In the decades since, we have accumulated indispensable mapping data and information, establishing this as one of Pioneer’s core strengths and assets.
Turning to 21st century car tech, which inevitably integrates the smartphone—Pioneer has continued to evolve the in-car audio and entertainment experience with plenty of other industry-firsts with satellite radio, Apple CarPlay integration, Android Auto integration, and now with other smart car technology. How was Pioneer continued to evolve right along with the advancements in in-car technology?
Pioneer historically has developed and designed the majority of our technology ourselves. The emergence of the smartphone and its potential as a gateway to the user experience ushered Pioneer into a new era, one built upon technology partnerships. Instead of integrating the features and processing power of the smartphone into our in-dash receivers, significantly increasing the cost, we chose to create products that connect with the driver’s smartphone and harness the processing power, storage capacity, and network connected capabilities of the smartphone. Establishing partnerships along the way with Apple, Google, and those made through our AppRadio unit have become invaluable to our future and allowed us to maintain our leadership when it comes to in-car entertainment.
We talked a little about Pioneer’s role in the video market with the LaserDisc, but there was also a time when the company was a major player in the TV market, right?
The development of flat panel displays in the 1990s is yet another example of Pioneer’s adaptability to address the evolution of the consumer’s entertainment experience. Home theater was an established product category and HDTV resolution was on the technological horizon. People wanted larger screens, but not everyone—particularly those living outside of the U.S.—had the physical space or desire for a large, rear-projection display or front-projection system. Plasma television was the answer—creating the best picture quality in a form factor that could simply be hung on the wall.
So, Pioneer created the first flat HD panel for consumers, and our plasma technology was recognized for having superior blacks, which enabled some of the most vibrant colors the industry had seen up to that point. That flat panel TV completed the Pioneer ecosystem and created the ultimate home theater experience.
What influenced Pioneer’s decision to back out of the TV market?
The 2008 recession and its effect on the global economy made it a very difficult era, particularly for premium and ultra high quality products. When the economy rebounded several years later, the HDTV display and television market had shifted away from premium displays.
What other markets has Pioneer stepped into recently?
During the last several years, Pioneer has begun reflecting on the engineering and technological expertise we possess and considering alternative applications for this intellectual property. Although still in prototype form, we have begun developing products that utilize the laser technology originally developed for optical discs and re-purposed it for use in the medical device industry as a through the skin blood sensor. Additionally, advanced sensor technology originally developed as a part of our GPS-based car navigation products form the backbone of the Pioneer Cycle Sports high performance bicycle power meters.
At the core, though, Pioneer has been and remains focused on producing powerful sound. Thinking about where you've come from as a company 80 years ago with the A-8, how has Pioneer's focus on sound evolved over that time?
"Sound" is much more than just data, music inspires every one of us and is indeed something most of us cannot live without. At our core we are a speaker company. While the desire to enjoy sound has moved from the home, to the car, to the club, Pioneer has been there every step of the way to design and develop speakers perfectly suited for these distinct environments. We are one of the world’s largest manufacturers of speakers and speaker components and we’ve never stopped working to improve sound. Pioneer has pushed boundaries, positioning ourselves as a technological innovator in the development of new ways to produce sound. We never stop thinking about new ways to apply our acoustical and mechanical engineering expertise, advanced materials research, and manufacturing resources to deliver sound to create exceptional speakers.
As you look ahead to the next 80 years, what are some of the market segments that you’re most excited about for Pioneer? Where do you think those segments are heading?
Anticipating the coming age of autonomous driving and amid great changes in the car electronics industry, Pioneer’s has become very involved in the development of 3D-LiDAR sensors, maps for autonomous driving and the process of creating the larger data ecosystem which is necessary for autonomous driving. By developing these technologies together, we have positioned ourselves as an essential company integral to the realization of autonomous vehicles.
Our first 80 years have been built on a foundation of adaptation and fulfillment of the vision of our founder, to deliver inspirational experiences to every customer by pushing the limits of sound, vision and information. During our next 80 years, Pioneer will become a leading company in comprehensive infotainment that creates comfort, excitement, reliability and safety in vehicles, providing a superior customer experience – the “Pioneer experience.”
Our future begins today.