TENDO CITY, Japan—I’m sitting behind the wheel of a Subaru Impreza about 250 miles north of Tokyo listening to Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” on the latest Pioneer audio system. I’m not a huge fan of the pop star, but I am suddenly a big fan of the new Pioneer Z series speakers.
Thanks to a healthy amp, tweeter, mid bass, and a 400-watt subwoofer, Mars sounds like he’s singing in the backseat. The high-performance TS-Z65CH speakers produce a rich, clear, and dynamic sound inside the Subie, far beyond the simple Pioneer speakers you might have had in your old ’80s Camaro.
The car is actually parked in a carpeted garage inside the Tohoku Pioneer Corporation’s test center. Engineers and technicians take us from car to car to sample a range of sounds, from pop to classical.
If you are like millions of Americans, you’ve probably listened to Pioneer speakers in a vehicle at some point. Pioneer founder Nozomu Matsumoto handcrafted the his first speaker in 1937 in his Tokyo garage; the company was founded the following year.
Pioneer’s research/test facility and plant has been located in Tendo City in the central Yamagata Prefecture since 1966. The area is surrounded by mountains, and the summers are hot and sticky and the winters cold. These conditions are useful for growing fruits, rice, and producing sake. And for crafting speakers.
The company has made car stereos since the 1970s, car navigation systems since the ’90s, plus home stereos, plasma TVs, monitors, DVD players, and more. But high-end aftermarket car speakers as well as OEM speakers (Ford, Honda, Lexus, and more,) and home speakers are the corporation’s mainstay.
In Japan, they also sell aftermarket car speakers under the Carrozzeria brand and the Technical Audio Device (TAD) brand for seriously high-end speakers that sell for more than $200,000 per set. “The car will always be one of the most enjoyable environments to listen to music,” says Hiroyuki Mineta, Pioneer President and CEO.
Pioneer employs 561 locals, with more than 6,000 employees worldwide. It has plants in Vietnam, Thailand, and China, and is in the process of opening a new one in Leon, Mexico, to help keep up with North American demand. But soulless robots don’t churn out the speakers.
Visit Pioneer’s Tendo factory and you will find floors filled with real human beings building your sound system. You might even be able to build a speaker for yourself. (As we did when Automobile paid a visit. It’s not easy, and we may have overdone it on the glue.)
All of Pioneer’s speakers must survive the rigors of the reliability test room where rows of thermostatic chambers check speakers and other equipment for temperature and humidity endurance testing.
These tests evaluate changes in appearance, structure, and sound of the products caused by temperature changes expected in general use.
Other inspections include vibration endurance, UV resistant, water spray, and sound frequency tests in an anechoic chamber—an echo-free room that looks like a padded cell from an insane asylum.
The chamber eliminates constructive and destructive interference caused by reflected sound waves, allowing engineers to precisely measure a speaker’s acoustic and electrical characteristics.
The company also uses lightweight materials within its speakers to help vehicles reach their mileage numbers. Pioneer uses aramid fibers in the subwoofer cones of the Z and D series speakers, which keeps the sound booming while reducing weight. Its latest lineup includes 14 new aftermarket models that were introduced this fall.
The Z series includes 10-inch shallow subwoofers, 6-and-3/4-inch coaxial speakers, and a component package. Prices start in the $300-$400 range.
The more economical D series offers a new 12-inch and a 10-inch subwoofer plus several coaxial speakers and packages of various sizes designed to fit in most vehicles. Prices start at $200 and go up to $260.
Back at home in Southern California, I’m driving a 2018 WRX on the freeway. As I scroll through the satellite channels via the car’s standard six-speaker Starlink system, Bruno Mars again streams into the cockpit.
But this time it sounds flat and tinny, as if a tiny Mars is crooning hits from inside an old can. I adjust the equalizer controls, but it still sounds weak. This is not high-resolution audio, so it may be time for an upgrade.
Conveniently, Pioneer’s new D and Z series speakers and subwoofers are on sale now. For more information visit Pioneer’s website here.