Technics Premium Class Audio System
by John Richardson
Technics, a subsidiary of Panasonic, Inc. (formerly Matsushita), was established back in the mid 1960s as a high-end purveyor of audio gear. Of course, history tell us that the company went far beyond those boundaries in the last 50 years, and after a brief hiatus, it’s good to see them back.
Many of us were crestfallen when word got out a few years ago that Technics planned to stop producing its last hi-fi product, the SL-1200 series direct-drive turntable. Both loved and hated, there can be no doubt that this ‘table deserves its place in the pantheon of classic vinyl disc spinners, given its lasting popularity among both DJs and audiophiles alike. Word on the street was that you couldn’t kill this turntable if you tried, and it even sounded pretty good. I’ve never owned a 1200, but I’ve heard a few, and I concur that they can sound quite nice.
Unfortunately, my recollection of the Technics name in the ‘80s was more that of a low-fi brand that could be found in the (now defunct) big box stores such as Circuit City. Better than SoundDesign and Emerson, but not by much, as I recall. I didn’t know that the Technics brand was at the same time crafting killer turntables such as the SP-10, SP-15, and SP-25 for the “professional” market. I acquired an old radio station SP-25 motor/platter assembly a few years ago, gifted by a friend, and I had it installed in a custom plinth, along with a bunch of other upgrades. It remains my reference ‘table to this day, and it continues to satisfy me with its ability to produce an uncolored, “master tape” sort of sound. And I could probably beat it with a baseball bat, and it would continue to run like a champ.
When Technics re-formed and decided to reenter the realm of high-end audio in 2014, it did so with a splash. On offer were two complete audio systems for the listening enthusiast: the top-quality Reference Class and the more affordable Premium Class. Both offer a combined integrated amp/DAC, network audio player, compact disc player, and speakers. Offered to me for review were three pieces from the Premium Class: the SU-C700 integrated amplifier/DAC ($1600), the ST-C700 network audio player ($1100) and the SB-C700 speaker system ($1700 per pair). The CD player was not included as part of my particular ensemble.
Buyers have the option of purchasing these components individually or as a system. Each piece of gear can play well with other non-Technics system components, as I found out by inserting them individually into my system to get an initial feel for each. However, my recommendation is to run them together as a system, as that’s how the folks at Technics designed them to be used. Even though each worked nicely on its own in my home rig, there’s a certain synergy that brings the best out of each component when performing together as a family, so that’s how the review will be conducted.
Let’s start by introducing each piece one by one.
SU-C700 Integrated Amplifier/DAC
First off, the SU C-700 chassis is solidly built from aluminum, with a semi-vintage overall look. The lines are clean and classic, somewhat reminiscent of the look of vintage “silver-faced” amps of yesteryear. I really enjoyed watching the prominent analog VU meters on the front panel, which I think add a degree of class and flair to the piece. The amplifier is hefty enough to instill confidence, and the fit-n-finish seems appropriate for the asking price. However, there’s something to the overall look of the amplifier that reminds me of inexpensive gear from the 1980s era. Somehow, the SU-C700 looks cheaper from a distance than it does when you get up close to it to really examine it. That’s a first in my book. I’m not saying that this would keep me from buying the unit, but it does put me off just a bit.
User interfacing is convenient, with everything you need accessible from the supplied remote control. The more old-school part of me also appreciates that all functions can also be accessed from the front panel controls as well. There’s a lot going on on the rear panel, but it was well-organized with individual interfaces reasonably accessible. Digital inputs include USB, optical, and three S/PDIF coaxial jacks. I was also pleased to see a high-output moving magnet phono input, as well as a pair of analog line inputs. There are also two control ports which allow direct communication between the SU-C700 and external components such as the ST-C700 network player. As the SU-C700 is a stereo amp, only two channel’s worth of speaker outputs are included; these are decent quality plastic insulated binding posts.
On the inside, the amplifier unit is powered by a Class D module putting out 45 watts per channel into eight ohms and 70 watts per channel into four ohms. A great deal of effort seems to have been put into the digital processing section, which boasts such refinements as the JENO (jitter elimination and noise shaping optimization) engine and a battery driven clock generator. The DAC module can handle decoding of both high-resolution DSD and PCM files.
ST C-700 Network Audio Player
The job of the ST C-700 is to grab digital files from any number of different “locations”, digitally process them, and either send the data to its own DAC for conversion, or on to an external DAC, such as the one found in the SU C-700 amplifier/DAC introduced above. The device is poised to receive digital data from a multitude of sources, including smart phones/tablets, computers, and NAS storage devices. Digital files can be received via Ethernet, Bluetooth, or USB (over a type B interface). Digital signals are then sent by way of optical or coaxial interfaces, and processed signals are run through the internal Burr-Brown PCM1795 DAC, offered by way of a set of RCA analog outputs. Again, all operations are controlled using the multifunction remote.
The ST C-700 unit is a rather plain-looking box whose brushed aluminum finish and build quality much resemble the SU C-700 amplifier. There is a simple fluorescent status display in the center, flanked by the power switch and iPod interface (USB Type A) on the left and illuminated start, stop, pause, advance indicators on the right such that one would see on a CD player.
I was intrigued by the digital processing technology on hand in the ST C-700, which includes proprietary digital noise isolation architecture, virtual battery operation for lower noise floor, and high-resolution remastering which re-shapes lower resolution waveforms while upsampling them to 32 bit/192 kHz resolution. There’s a lot going on in this little box, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the redundancy of the DAC in this unit versus that in the SU C700 amplifier. It seems to me that much of the interfacing (e.g., Bluetooth) and digital processing technology could have been easily built into the SU C700, thus obviating the ST C-700 altogether. Obviously, the player would be great for anyone looking for a high quality and versatile combined network audio device and DAC for an existing non-Technics based system, but here it does mate beautifully with the ST C-700 unit.
SB C-700 Speaker System
In terms of outward appearance, I found the SB C-700 speakers to be the most impressive part of the whole Technics package. Rather than a throwback to a different era, these things are positively modern. From the flat bass/midrange driver to the integrated tweeter, these speakers just plain ooze coolness. They’re small, but surprisingly heavy, suggesting real attention to cabinet build. And they look great, with their not-so-boxy barrel-like profile.
Technology wise, the SB C-700 duo boasts so-called “point-sound-source” drivers, where the location of the tweeter is in the center of the woofer/mid driver (not a new idea…), and “phase precision drivers” deriving from the flat profile of the whole transducer array. To boot, the cabinet is indeed designed to minimize internal reflections, leading to a greater purity of tone. The speakers are rear-ported, and terminals are of high quality. The white finish on my pair was quite stunning, lending an overall feeling of sophistication to the overall Technics system.
Spec-wise, the frequency range is quoted as 10 dB down at 45 Hz and 80 kHz, with a sensitivity of 85 dB, and a minimum impedance of four ohms. I found that the speakers were easily and effectively driven to more than high enough volumes using the supplied Technics amplifier.
In the grand scheme of things, I found the Technics system easy to set up and use. I ended up initially listening to the amplifier and speakers together as a system, fed by my computer via a SoundDevices USBPre2 digital interface serving as a USB to S/PDIF converter, and then later attempted inserting the ST C-700 network player in place of the USBPre2. Files were fed to the player either wirelessly by way of Bluetooth, or wired using a USB connection right from my Mac Mini. In each case, processed digital signal was sent from the ST C-700 directly to the internal DAC on the SU C-700 amplifier unit.
One nitpick: both the amp and network player went into an energy-saving standby mode if no signal was fed to them for more than a few minutes. I’m not sure if this is something that is user controllable or not, but I couldn’t find reference to it in the owner’s manual. Normally, such behavior wouldn’t bother me at all, as everything came back to life at a quick flip of the remote. However, if Bluetooth was in use, connectivity was lost, and the network player had to be re-paired with the digital source component (e.g., computer). This operation was something of a pain in that it required more than a few keystrokes on the remote, as well as re-connecting on the computer end. Not fun.
On the other hand, I’ll say right up front that the sound of the amp/speaker combination was rather good — but when fed by the network player, it rose to another level altogether. Good sound became nothing less than great sound, exhibiting fuller, more refined bass and a smoother, more analog-like overall presentation (as I’ll address in greater detail a bit later).
Turning to the speakers: the SB C-700s sounded best placed well out into the room (as I would with any small monitor speakers) and firing straight forward with little to no toe-in. I got them up on hefty 22-inch four pillar Target stands, which leave the tweeters just a little bit below my ear level. The sound met my, admittedly high, expectations for a pair of small, high performance stand mounted speakers: huge soundstage, sharply precise imaging, and a sense of the speakers performing “a disappearing act”. Tonally, the SB C-700s are quite neutral and crisp, exhibiting a nice sense of excitement and immediacy, but without ever losing their absorbingly musical character. On Ralph Towner’s solo guitar on the album Anthem (on CD, from ECM), the guitar is incisive, with plenty of detail and energy on both the leading and trailing edges. There’s no sense of artificiality, nor is the sound muffled or dirtied in any way. I closed my eyes and was swept away to that resonant venue, with Towner playing his instrument for me.
Also impressive is the depth of tone, especially given the quickness of the speakers. Looking at the specifications, I really wasn’t expecting a great deal of satisfying bass, but it’s there for the taking. Put on a well recorded organ performance such as Simon Preston performing Sir William Walton’s masterpiece “Crown Imperial” as transcribed for organ (LP, Argo ZRG 5448, digitally archived). Turn up the volume a bit, and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. The low pedal tones are resonant and meaty (even if they don’t quite shake the room), and are lent plenty of realistic presence via the little SB C-700 speakers. I’ve played this recording numerous times all the way through with the Technics system just because it’s been so enjoyable to hear. I get something of an appreciation for the size of Westminster Abbey just from the sound of the reverberating strains reflecting off its ancient walls. Such performance speaks volumes about the speakers’ ability to retrieve low-level information to re-create the space in which a recording was made.
There must also be something to the coherence said to be provided by the pancake-flat driver system, as it lends a realism and immediacy to the sound that I’m not sure I’ve quite experienced before. I just don’t get that feeling that the bass follows the treble as I often do when listening to other speaker systems. And I keep coming back to how this system somehow seems to pick up tiny detail cues and gets them transmitted back to my listening chair in one piece, but without losing that sense of “listenability” that we all seek in good audio equipment. I suppose that the best way to sum all of this stuff up would be to say that the system sounds exceedingly natural in a wholly modern and not too “hi-fi” sense. In many ways, the Technics speakers remind me of my reference ATC SCM 19 (version 2) monitors, and that’s quite a complement in my book.
Moving on to the SU C-700 amplifier/DAC, the first thing that struck me was how well it mates with the SB C-700 speakers. A sub-100 watt per channel amp driving speakers with specifications claimed by Technics (85dB!) seems like something of a marvel, but boy does it work! Those little class D modules neither wince nor miss a beat, even when driven to what I consider “insane volumes”. At my normal (quite reasonable) listening levels, the VU meters suggested that I was rarely exceeding one watt of power per side at peak volume.
The amplifier has a couple of interesting features that are worth mentioning. One of these is the Load Adaptive Phase Calibration (LAPC) option. Hit that button on the remote, and besides a little LED illuminating on the center of the unit, the following audio goodness is apparently activated (according to the manual):
“Technics has developed a speaker impedance optimization algorithm, using digital signal processing to flatten both the amplitude and phase-frequency response to make the most of your speakers. The result is a sound with better focus, spaciousness, and definition.”
Based on a generated test signal, the amplifier then optimizes the gain and phase for a given pair of speakers. Sounds like a pretty cool idea, and it’s even better when implemented. After playing around a bit with this option, I decided to leave it on and never look back. The effect is somewhat subtle, but certainly noticeable — an overall improvement in focus, with individual images sharpening up that much more.
As nice as the amplifier/speaker pairing was, I was somewhat surprised that the ST C-700 network audio player probably left the biggest impression on me. I really thought of it initially as more of a convenience add-on, but its internal digital processing made it so much more than that. Outside of the unit going into standby automatically as I mentioned before, the Bluetooth capabilities were flawless. Even limited to streaming Redbook resolution material, I was immensely impressed by the sonic effects of the ST C-700. I don’t know how to best describe what I was hearing, but it was definitely less audiophile and more musical.
Let me try here to describe what I’m talking about. I’ve recently started playing around with an older vintage rig I’ve had around for a while. An addition to this setup I’ve been wanting to make was a classic sprung-suspension turntable. A few years ago, I bought an ancient Acoustics Research XA vinyl disc spinner for my daughter, and the guy who sold it to me (for the princely sum of $20) threw in a second identical ‘table “for parts”. This one I kept for myself to be fixed up and restored. This I did as well as I could, and then put the whole hot mess away as a project for another day … er… year. I got back to only very recently, when I had it re-assembled and tweaked a bit by AR turntable guru Steve Frosten. Inserted into my vintage system, this little ‘table (nearly 50 years young) makes real music! Resolution isn’t the best, and it isn’t the most neutral sounding thing in the world, but it grabs my attention, makes me tap my toes, and lets me get lost in the music.
This is pretty much the same feeling I got when I inserted the ST C-700 player into the otherwise excellent Technics amplifier/speaker system. Music is a bit smoother, mellower and more analog-like. I almost forget that I’m listening to CD-resolution digital files. There’s a lovely sense of spaciousness coupled with notes that have real meat on their bones … no digital over-clinical thinness here. I looked back at the features and specifications of the ST C-700 in an effort to figure out where this magic was coming from … Is it the upsampling and signal shaping of the remastering feature? The virtual battery operation? Some fairy dust sprinkled on the oversampling digital filter? Who knows, but the overall presentation is worth hearing, as it’s the icing on the otherwise tasty cake comprised by the speakers and amp/DAC unit.
My higher resolution digital files from vinyl needle drops sounded stunning, providing textural details I normally only enjoy when listening to the analog medium alone. With Bill Connors, performing on his solo album Swimming With A Hole In My Body (LP, ECM, digitally archived), the guitar is organic and woody, ripped directly out of the recording session. Just for fun, I had excellent results feeding this file through the ST C-700 into my Antelope DAC, running into my main system. And again, the sound was superb; so yes, the Technics player can and does interface nicely with a non-Technics system. I also got to see what the upsampling feature was really doing, as the Antelope DAC displays the sampling rate of the incoming digital file. For the 88.2 kHz resolution original file, I saw that it was being processed via the ST C-700 as a 176 kHz file. Which makes sense, as 176 kHz is an even multiple of the original 88.2 kHz file.
As a demonstration of what sort of impression the whole system together gave me, I’ll recount the following: A few nights ago, I found myself listening to a remastered recording of the Modern Jazz Quartet playing a live gig at Music Inn with guest artist Sonny Rollins (originally on LP, Atlantic SD 1299). The remastered CD, from Mosaic Records, is what I have always considered an excellent reworking of a decent old live recording. I also enjoy spinning the original vinyl record of this same performance from time to time, but on this night I was hearing musical nuances on the remastered CD file I’ve never heard before. I can’t say if I was necessarily hearing more detail than I normally do on the disc; it was such that there was just more music and greater presence all around. There were tonal inflections in Sonny Rollins’ sax that I’d never picked up on before. I heard more space around the instruments than ever before; I could get into the interaction of the small audience with the performers, as if I were looking back in time with a magical viewfinder. Was I somehow hearing details that hadn’t been resolved before on this recording, or was I just drawn into the performance more than usual and hence listening for such things with more acuity? I don’t have an answer, but it was a magical 40 minutes or so of listening, and either way, it was a wonderful thing.
These moments don’t happen all that often in audio reproduction, but when they do, I always make a mental note of the system configuration I was listening to at the time. I’ll remember the Technics Premium Class system as a source of one of those moments.
Sometimes in the world of high-end audio, we find gems in strange places and occasionally when we don’t even think to look for them. In all honesty, I really wasn’t expecting too terribly much out of this Technics setup. Perhaps my prejudices against the brand from my teenage days were still knocking about the distant recesses of my mind, or maybe I just figured great sound couldn’t possibly come from electronics not crafted by hand in someone master craftsman’s studio workshop. Either way, I was wrong; I’m glad I took my time and listened.
Individually, each piece of the Premium Class system is a good performer, but when put together as a system, musical reproduction reached new heights. When I listened late at night with the lights down low, all preconceptions about a “puny” Class D amplifier driving a pair of small stand-mounted speakers went right out the window. I reveled in the deep, toothsome bass, palpable midrange, and sweet, yet extended highs. Not to mention the smooth, analog-like tonality offered up by the ST C-700 network audio player calling the shots, even via Bluetooth.
I did a bit of quick mental math to get something of an idea of overall value. Summing the retail costs of the three pieces under review here brings me to a total of $4400. Adding in another grand for some decent cabling and speaker stands gets us to just under $5500. I’m assuming the consumer can supply a computer or other source of digital music files, as we are in the 21st century. Maybe there’s even have a turntable or two on hand to play with. Either way, the overall value proposition is looking pretty good here considering the level of performance and overall musical enjoyment on offer.
I’m glad to see the Technics brand back, and I even read that they are bringing back a new and improved version of the classic SL-1200 turntable. If the quality of this and their other offerings is on par with the Premium Class on review here, then I’d say the company has a bright future ahead.
Welcome back, Technics; it’s been good to get to know you again!
About the Author
John Richardson has been interested in music and audio since his early teen years, or stated another way, as long as he can remember. He has been involved in the audio community in one way or another for around 20 years and for the last five has been a regular contributor to the on-line magazine Stereomojo. There, he has been the resident computer audio guy and “value conscious audiophile” (aka “cheap bastard”).
John is also a professor of analytical chemistry and forensic chemistry consultant in his spare time when he isn’t listening to music or evaluating gear. He tries to fit in plenty of time to hang out with his two teenage kids, his lovely wife, and the family cat, though only the cat also seems to harbor audiophile tendencies. John also enjoys running, cycling, golfing, hiking, or just about any other activity that sucks up time and money.