When Pioneer Professional Audio emerged as a loudspeaker brand during PLASA’s final years at Earl’s Court, it was both a revival and a debut. It was enough of a departure to regard the new passive speaker series launched then as effectively products of a new company: GS-WAVE and XY, a 3m-high groundstacked assembly for the dance floor and a compact version for elsewhere.
From the beginning, even though the dance system was coproduced with club sound guru Gary Stewart, ambitions lay beyond the nightclub. But it was also something of a revival because the founder of the original Pioneer Corporation, Nozomu Matsumoto, began in the late ‘30s by building loudspeakers: specifically, the highly successful A-8. It was this product that laid the foundations for the consumer audio behemoth we know today, which first tasted modern professional success with speakers in the fondly recalled and briefly state-of-the-art guise of Technical Audio Devices (TAD): studio monitors from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that won many admirers and flirted with the Proper Big Time by getting installed at George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound facility in California.
In recent years, Pioneer has found fresh pro audio feet as the DJ industry has matured. As a distinct entity, Pioneer DJ Corporation drew venture capital to embark upon a different path to the Pioneer Electronics mother lode, and eventually established Pioneer Professional Audio separately as a vehicle for loudspeaker products that divided the cake even more finely: as we’ll see, interpretations of ‘professional’ are now becoming tricky and subtle, requiring different strategies according to context.
Since the setting out of that stall, Alex Barrand has been Pioneer Professional Audio’s technical manager, having cut his sound engineering teeth at London’s Ministry Of Sound. He it was who installed the custom Martin Audio system at the club in 2008, working closely with Martin Audio’s Jason Baird, and it’s his deep working knowledge of that market that now informs his challenge to build Pioneer Pro’s reputation beyond it.
“If you go to a bar or club anywhere in the world the chances are it will have a piece of Pioneer equipment somewhere,” he begins, “which does open a door because there will have been some interaction with one of our sales or rental partners. It helps us get involved with tenders, which is quite hard with a brand new proposition. “But it can be a hindrance if you’re working with installers or rental companies who put the Pioneer name in a DJ pigeon hole that they consider somehow less professional than the pro audio brands. On the other hand – and this has happened in Dubai recently – the customer has not known the famous pro audio names because he’s the food and beverage manager! He’d rather sign a cheque to Pioneer because, having seen the name on DJ products, he knows there will be support and he believes it will be a stronger investment. That’s nice to know, but it doesn’t help us find new distribution among the rental and install community.”
The budget-conscious XPRS Series contains Powersoft amplifier modules, Barrand’s relationship with the Italian manufacturer stretching back to Ministry of Sound days during which, at one point, he specified from them an ambitious 10,000W module for one of the subs. It was a shared vision of scale, and led directly to an OEM deal rubber-stamped by Japan at Barrand’s insistence. At the same time, his passive loudspeakers are designed with the ability to accommodate other brands too, from Crown to XTA, making them attractive to as wide a base of installers as possible. This is key.
Barrand’s challenging brief has been to establish routes to market all over the world that can make the most of the Pioneer name, while at the same time avoiding any risk of being typecast. It’s the same business model in the US, Asia and Europe: one that targets reputable installers and resellers for GS-WAVE and XY, while exploiting the well established MI and DJ channels to handle the XPRS Series. It means Barrand himself has had to make a lot of direct connections in the early phases, with the Holy Grail of effective delegation always in mind, and the hope is that his Olympic accrual of air miles will soon reach a plateau supported by reliable partners.
To ensure a level of quality control that will convince picky installers, Pioneer Pro’s loudspeakers are all built in the UK. Attention to persuasive detail includes BNC drivers, modified constant directivity horns and handpicked Mundorf components in the crossover board assembly, which is regularly shown off in cross section at trade shows. It’s all part of a concerted campaign to establish build quality as a hallmark of the brand. “To win over the pro audio specifiers,” Barrand reveals, “our product has to be beyond their expectations of quality – both sonically and in terms of construction quality. That’s why we build everything in the UK, so we can really assure them that it’s a serious product that’s acoustically at the top level. It’s been quite a journey to get to that point, but we now have some key references around the world to build upon.
“Thankfully we’ve moved beyond the food and beverage managers – although we’ll always welcome their approval! – and we’re talking with serious integrators as well as building up a proper distribution chain. Word gets out among these people, and the enquiries start coming back to you about how they can get involved. We’re at a pivotal point right now between that happening and having to get out there and drive these projects forward: meeting the venues and being there as the manufacturer, in person, talking directly to the technical crews. “It’s expensive to do that, but what we’ve gathered from the beginning is that a level of commitment like that really pays dividends in the long run. You build up trust and a rapport with professional engineers who will carry your reputation into the industry. We have had to do that to overcome some stigma, where necessary, attached to the association with the DJ market. People are naturally loyal to the brands they know, but I certainly feel that we’ve now passed that milestone.”
Barrand has spent much time steering the conversation with his colleagues in Japan towards these new markets, making suggestions not only for product design but also for the handling of sales channels and the navigation of more sophisticated routes to market for such high-end products. One good example occurred in Italy. “We worked directly with the Jazz Café in Milan, a project that has led to other applications too,” he says. “They had a noise issue, so we made an EASE model of the bar area and the restaurant downstairs and had to work closely with the local authorities to satisfy their regulations. We got it right, and so the local installer on the project began to look at Pioneer as a serious alternative to the other brands he’d bought and arranged for his supplier to come and see the venue.
As a result, he’s now buying from us.” One specialist area down this route is retail, including iconic outlets like Emporio Armani. “These huge designer stores in Italy are great showcases. The XY-81 is the smallest enclosure we do at the moment, so it meets the requirements of crowded shops. It’s also shown us a lot about the next chapter of our product development for commercial audio applications – this huge market that’s bigger than nightclubs and touring put together! It already indicates our road map towards smaller, soft-domed solutions and ceiling speakers as well as a long-term commitment to open-architecture networking, DSP and IP configurability.”
This means ticking the box called ‘discreet’ in retail and other spaces, while electro-acoustically pumping into that space the kind of volume you might expect from the brand endorsed by Cameron Leslie, co-founder of reborn London super-club Fabric. For many styleconscious stores and restaurants, this is precisely the kind of association that adds value and kudos to the AV offer, backed up by genuine technical chops. “You can see,” adds Barrand, “as you look around the stores in all the major cities, they’re looking really raw and funky and yet it’s still a retail space. It’s not about high SPLs, though: we’ve been working with the Nike store in London’s Oxford Street, trying out some of the smaller XPRS Series boxes – even so, it’s a bit of a party every weekend! – and because the weekend DJ sessions have gone well they are now planning to fit all four floors of the store with a background system. “This system has to evoke the DJ sound recognised and enjoyed at the weekends, while staying within reasonable boundaries, so it’s about ‘exporting’ the Pioneer reputation to other areas without losing its identity.” There can be few other sectors than this so likely to keep up with the high street Joneses, making the domino effect of store competition such a crucial element of Pioneer Pro’s ultimate strategy.
Elsewhere, though, there will be those for whom Carl Cox cool means very little, and here the priorities focus on networking. “It’s essential to be IP-ready, whatever format that takes,” indicates Barrand, “to patch out to wall panels, displays, audio over the internet and other connectivity. We have some prototypes – OEM because we need to be fast to market with this and we can’t start from scratch. DJ legacy or no DJ legacy… this is our future.”