In Memoriam: Final Audio’s Kanemori Takai

Mr. Kanemori Takai, head of Japan’s Final Audio Design, passed away two weeks ago on June 5th. FAD themselves announced the news via press release, leaving many audio lovers at a loss.

It’s not uncommon that high-end audio companies revolve around the personality of a single person’s vision, but few men have left their mark so distinctively as has Takai-san.

By chance, I met Takai about half a year ago at a high-end audio show in Taipei. It was a rainy, early January afternoon at the Sunworld Dynasty Hotel, and I stopped by the show to talk to some acquaintances; the Final Audio booth was to be my final stop in the headphone showcase.

I hadn’t anticipated Takai-san being in attendance; at that time I’d only heard FAD was holding a DIY demonstration session for the Heaven II DIY kit, but thought it was happening on another day of the show. But there he was. The man had been sitting in a quiet corner of the room, ostensibly idly, but I sensed an underlying air of anxiety with him. He tapped his biceps a number of times in muted apprehension, then got up, notified his fellow stablemates of his desire to take a smoking break, and absconded with the pack of Mild Sevens on top of his table.

He came back not 15 minutes later, Caffè Latte grande in hand, with a far less tensed-up demeanor. I’d been speaking to Jojo, controller at FAD, and had asked her whether I could conduct an impromptu interview with the man audiophiles knew to be synonymous with Final Audio. He’d settled down into his usual seat, again arms and legs crossed, as though he wasn’t to be receptive to some urchin in a blue windbreaker (with nary a sign of a press pass, by the way) asking him random, probing questions. To my surprise, he did consent, and even threw out a smile.

After the usual handshaking and “yoroshiku onegaishimasu“, Takai, Jojo, and I settled down in that little corner of the hotel ballroom. And then it began. He began reading me. Perhaps he’d known instinctively that I was merely a pseudo-journalist, because over the course of the entire 20 minute interview, I was met with disparaging stonewalling and at times outright dismissal. He told me very little, but sparseness of the information was so very revealing.

For instance, when I asked him why he ceased creating speakers, he merely replied that they took “too much energy” out of him to tune, and that headphones were more manageable. Why IEMs? Well, simply because before, he didn’t know the portable in-ear market had existed! What Takai-san saw, he did.

His five pet dogs, one of which is a Golden Retriever, were his inspirations. He spoke of proudly of spending time with them, and enjoying beauty in his world. His involvement with audio was an extension of his lifestyle.

Refusing to comment about market trends in headphones, Takai didn’t want to talk about Beats, or custom in-ear monitors. He pejoratively made fun of the odd shape of the UERMs I had draped around my ears. Perhaps it was to get back at a previous, impertinent question I’d asked about qualifying the differences between his manual tuning method and the response target methods of other manufacturers. He just wanted to create; he liked “beautiful things” and that was how he saw it.

Yet, he seemed cognizant of his mortality — not only did he not have enough energy for speakers anymore, he openly questioned how much longer he could keep going, perhaps prescient of what was to transpire not half a year later.

Thus, in my brief half-hour encounter with a man seemingly closed off and aloof, I came away with the feeling that he knew better, or perhaps only, to share his thoughts, feelings, and vision through his creations.

I got the sense that Takai saw most of the world as mundane and too ordinary, and Final Audio was his conduit for the creation of an imaginative visage, projected into sound.

Listen to any Final Audio earphone, and it’s apparent that each one is an impressionist painting — they reflect his perspective of sound reproduction. Each product, whether it be the Piano Forte, Heaven, or Pandora, evokes a seductive sense of fuzziness — the hazy lily pads of Monet’s garden.

His insistence on artisan craftsmanship to go with his soundscapes was decidedly post-impressionist, however. His scraping away different layers of acoustic damping clay was tantamount to Van Gogh caking on layers of oil paint, and the exaggerated metallurgic forms were like a Gauguin in vivid expressionism — reflecting back the intensity with which he created. The formations were bold, transcendent, and outright expensive.

Since 1974, FAD has been defying conventional pricing strategy, serving up megabuck stereo systems and thousand dollar flower pots. In an era when the next most expensive in-ear was a “mere” $499, Final Audio threw caution to the wind and priced its Piano Forte and FI-BA-SS creations at well over $1000. For Takai, the pricing was not so much about flagship status as it was about obtaining a shape by which he was satisfied with, both acoustically and aesthetically.

His final creation, the LAB I, was a 3D-formed piece of titanium art, made with the expressed desire of “creating something never seen before”. It, like so many creations that came before, epitomized FAD in form, function, and awe-inspiring shock.

Final Audio Design will march on; my assumption is that the helm of FAD will pass onto Jojo Hiramatsu, with whom Takai traveled everywhere in his final years. Though a far more rational, forthcoming person, much more like you or me, she would be perhaps the Final Audio member that best understands the singular vision of Kanemori Takai, and the best suited to carry the company forward.

But the truth is, Kanemori Takai was Final Audio Design. With his passing, so goes FAD. Final Audio will never be the same, if only for the reason that he has been the one person to touch the acoustic tuning of any and all FAD products. His staunch refusal to adhere to electroacoustic targets incensed strict objectivists, but it was his unique way of interpreting sound that garnered Final Audio so many loyal followers.

You will be missed, Takai-san — your capriciousness, visionary scope, and dismissive nature. It is these eccentricities that have come to define Final Audio, and I sincerely hope it continues on in much the same way.

The following is a collection of quotes from fans of Final Audio:

“Having heard the bad news about Mr. Takai’s passing last night, I felt like setting out for a quiet solitary place first thing in the morning. Had my FI-BA-SS on, listened to the Fauré Requiem and quietly thanked the man for having provided me with some of the best musical experiences in my life. Once again, I marveled at how brilliantly these super-sensitive phones convey the subtle shifts that make up good vocal music and thought, this can’t be a coincidence, he must have known and cared about it too. In a world that’s all about loudness and superlatives, moar drivers, deeper bass,… someone cared about subtlety.

And light… I’m deeply convinced he must have known and cared about how music conjures up images in our minds. And, like a master photographer, used lights and filters to shape them to his ideas. From the 1601 and Piano Fortes’ darkish sepia tones to the FI-BA-SS’ blazing whites, you simply don’t create timbres like that by pure coincidence.

And yet I may just be dreaming things up here, I’ve never met Mr. Takai nor talked to him. But more than any other phones I own, the Final Audios have what I’d call “personality”. As such, it’s probably not that far-fetched to feel connected to the man’s thoughts and visions, while listening to his unique creations.”

James444 (head-fi)

“My lasting impression on Takai-san is his persistence in quality and hard work to realize his visions. May this spirit be continued with the Final Audio Design team.”

autumnholy (head-fi)

“He took innovative, even radical, approaches to design but he was rigorous in implementation. Especially for his early products, the results were expensive, exquisite and unique in the headphone industry.”

cooperpwc (head-fi)

“This morning, in thinking about the passing of a man I had never met, I recalled the first time I used the Piano Forte VIII. The cold brass weighed down on my ears as I wondered what was to come. It was soon after I pressed play that my heart inexplicably began to race and I slowly looked around the room with my eyes slightly more open while taking a slow wavering breath. It was the first time that my mind could not reconcile what my heart heard and what I was seeing with closed eyes. In recalling this feeling this morning with startling vividness, I took that same uneasy faltering breath. Before I was finished slowly exhaling as I panned the room, several tears had fallen and, once again, only my heart could understand what my mind could not reconcile about the passing of a man I had never met and the gift he had left behind.”

vwinter (head-fi)

“For decades, Kanemori Takai fathered some of the most unique audio products Japan—and eventually the world—had ever seen. These would form the legacy of his company, Final Audio Design, and at their most extreme they could be called an acquired taste, extravagant, and even bizarre.

Personally I wouldn’t have it any other way. As someone who greatly admires these products, it’s clear to me that this was a man who refused to compromise his vision, regardless of how impractical or cost prohibitive it would become. Yet make no mistake: this vision was indeed about music listening. Kanemori Takai understood that listening was an event perhaps better than anyone in this industry, and it was this event that occupied the heart of his endeavors until his death.

Kanemori Takai was an artist. He made art for listening to art.”

MuppetFace (head-fi)

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Mr. T

Mr. T is an in-ear fanatic by day, and writes SOAP notes by night. He pities the fool who actually has the patience to read through his stuff.

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