Ten Things You Should Know About Cabasse But Probably Don't

by Roy Gregory | May 13, 2015

ou don’t need to spend long at the Cabasse Acoustic Center, Breton, headquarters of the Cabasse loudspeaker brand, to appreciate that this is not exactly your average audio company. For starters, it’s French -- a cultural identity that always seems to bring an air of individuality, a twist in the accepted norms, and new approaches to accepted problems.

But even making allowances for the nation that gave the world Citroen cars and a substantial chunk of concord, Cabasse is a company that’s as different behind the scenes as its products are individual and distinctive. There’s a lot more to Cabasse than meets the eye. The products certainly have a futuristic look and feel, but in many ways that’s just a reflection of the company that built them. With so many companies trying to shape the future, adapt to it, or just second guess it, this is an industry that could learn a lot from what Cabasse are doing now, let alone what they might be doing next.

But like all of the best stories, with this one it’s important to start at the beginning.

1. The Cabasse family started producing loudspeakers as long ago as 1950, but that’s far from the start of the story. The business has its roots in the 18th century, building musical instruments as early as 1742. Walk into the Cabasse headquarters and along with the expected display of loudspeakers and other current products, you’ll see a violin in one of the glass display cases, an example of the company’s origins as lutiers. As with many loudspeaker brands, Cabasse's first products were developed for the cinema, but the company also did significant acoustics work with the French navy, experience that played directly into their decision to move into the high-fidelity market.

2. Cabasse is the best-known speaker brand in France. In international terms, there are other French manufacturers who enjoy more attention and a higher profile, but within the French domestic market, Cabasse is by far the most visible loudspeaker marque, with over 600 dealers/outlets. That situation and that number in particular reflect two things: the sheer range of products produced and price points covered by Cabasse, giving them presence in major department stores and electronics chains across France; and the fact that they do 60% of their business in their home market. That last figure is down from 70% two years ago, reflecting a conscious policy on the part of the company to become less reliant on a single, home market -- and less exposed to all the vulnerabilities that result. For those living beyond the borders of the république, get used to seeing a lot more products carrying the Cabasse name.

3. Cabasse are serious about coincident driver systems. They build their own unique coincident drivers (a process started in 1952) and you’ll find them used extensively across their product ranges. What’s so special about that? After all, plenty of companies produce coaxial drivers -- Tannoy, Audax and KEF to name a few -- and in the shape of the Blade, KEF have done their level best to produce a coincident-source, three-way speaker system. So why should Cabasse get so much attention for being part of the coincident-driver crowd?

Well, as I’ve already observed, Cabasse is nothing if not a French company, and like many French companies, it does things a little differently. When it comes to coincident drivers and coincident-source loudspeaker systems I think it’s fair to say that Cabasse definitely take things not just one but several steps further. For starters, not satisfied with "conventional" two-way coincident drivers like the Tannoy Dual Concentric or the KEF Uni-Q, they produce what is, as far as I’m aware, the only three-way concentric driver in existence. They then cap that off, in the case of their flagship La Sphère and L’Océan speakers, by adding a fourth, bass driver, again on the same physical axis, creating a four-way coincident system.

And it doesn’t stop there. The tri-axial driver is very different in construction and materials to the various coaxial options on the market. Not only do Cabasse employ their own Duo-Cell diaphragm material, they create an almost flat -- indeed, slightly convex -- driver profile to avoid the phase- and horn-related issues that can afflict more conventional conical driver configurations. Cabasse drivers definitely don’t look like any other drivers on the market, and partly as a result, they have the freedom and opportunity to create speakers that don’t look like anybody else’s either, so you can find Cabasse two- and three-way concentric drivers in everything from conventional box systems to spherical lifestyle designs.

4. Alongside the use of coincident-driver technology, Cabasse have also been longtime advocates of active crossovers and interactive systems (speakers with built-in amplification), producing their first active designs as early as 1958. With the growing interest in multichannel systems and home theater, the creation of an extensive range of active subwoofer options was a natural extension of that, but the Cabasse range has always offered both subwoofer/satellite and partially active solutions in the two-channel market.

5. Although Cabasse is a very distinctive company, with its own technological thumbprint and character, it is actually now owned by AwoX, a major player in the interconnectivity, streaming and smart-home sector. They recently acquired control from Canon. Yes, that Canon. The Canon that produces cameras, scanners, printers, and the ink cartridges that go inside them. The Canon with a $46 billion turnover and a massive worldwide share of the electronics and imaging market. These connections to major industrial and technological players create both an interesting back story and huge future implications for Cabasse, in terms of the way they structure their operations and the scale of their ambitions.

The Canon tie-up started with the demise of the photocopier, vanquished by the emergence of affordable, high-resolution, multifunction scanners. Canon were, of course, world leaders in the lucrative photocopier field, a market that imploded virtually overnight, leaving them with a massive factory in Brittany, which had been supplying the now rapidly diminishing European demand for copiers. But this being France, where the phrase "Liberté, égalité, fraternité is a deep-seated cultural imperative, rather than just closing the plant, they looked at ways of retraining and redeploying the facilities and workforce. Part of that process was establishing the production of ink cartridges for the explosion in inkjet printer/scanners. In fact, if you live in Europe and use an inkjet printer, the chances are that its cartridges are produced at Canon-Bretagne, irrespective of the name on the printer itself.

But even so, that only occupied around half of the available facilities, so Canon started looking for external clients to whom they could offer manufacturing capacity. The first such client was Cabasse in 2004, an association that proved so productive that Canon ended up buying the company in 2006.

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6. Which brings us in turn to the specific technologies that together give Cabasse products their unique character. Although the tri-axial driver is perhaps the most visually obvious example, its convex form and construction are in turn dependent on the company’s Duo-Cell diaphragm material, while maximizing the benefits and versatility of the approach depends on the creative use of DSP to fully integrate and optimize the low frequencies. The coexistence of these complementary technologies is no coincidence, but a natural extension of the developmental path on which the company first embarked back in the 1950s.

7. Visit Cabasse and Canon-Bretagne and what soon becomes apparent is that the two companies shared considerably greater common ground than is immediately obvious -- not least in the field of DSP. With Cabasse looking to extend the performance of their active systems, DSP control of bass equalization, room compensation and active crossovers were obvious directions to take. Less obvious is the fact that Canon have a huge interest (and investment) in image manipulation, which is -- you guessed it -- just another form of DSP. Combine Canon’s existing expertise, capability and investment with Cabasse’s acoustic experience and the results could and should be spectacular.

8. The involvement with Canon also allowed Cabasse to enjoy an unusual company structure. Because the parent company has multipurpose manufacturing facilities all over the world, Cabasse can rely on what amounts to third-party manufacturing whilst enjoying all the benefits of dedicated production staff and in-house oversight. Currently, Cabasse products are made in two factories -- Canon-Bretagne and a second plant in China that serves the rapidly emerging Far East markets, a situation that is set to continue. That means Cabasse itself can concentrate on engineering and development. Over half of the 38 permanent staff are involved in R&D, while the next biggest group are the dedicated in-house production team that build the tri-axial drive units for the entire range. It’s a pattern that seems set to continue and expand under the new regime.

9. Despite this developmental emphasis and concentration/reliance on in-house engineering in all the upper-echelon products, Cabasse have managed to maintain substantial growth (40% in the last three years) despite a French economy that has been flat-lining -- along with the rest of Europe. Part of that reflects the increased emphasis on international markets, but when audio manufacturers as a category are struggling and on the verge of extinction, it suggests a product range that has an uncanny fit for what the buying public actually wants. With three distinct speaker ranges on offer, covering conventional boxes, lifestyle and custom-installation products, it is interesting to note that the box speakers constitute only 40% of the company’s turnover.

10. Take the extensive (and extremely clever) range of custom-installation speakers offered by Cabasse and think about AwoX’s expertise when it comes to wireless connectivity. Is that a light bulb that’s just gone on in your audio consciousness? If Cabasse’s form factor and Canon’s DSP chops are a classic example of complementary technologies, then that happy accident is nothing compared to the opportunities that the involvement of AwoX has opened up in the rapidly shifting file-replay and music-streaming arenas. On the surface, the Cabasse Stream components might look like other offerings on the market, but there are two things that set them apart: what you get and what you pay. What the audio world is rapidly realizing (or if it isn’t it’s rapidly disappearing) is that the emerging digitally convergent customer has serious expectations when it comes to performance and value. The most expensive (non-computer) product in an Apple store is around $1000 and that’s a complete system solution -- a sobering thought for anybody manufacturing high-end separates. The really impressive thing about Cabasse’s Stream components is not that they work so well or look so good -- those things need to be a given -- but that they are priced so competitively. You don’t manage to build a retail structure with 600 outlets in a single market without understanding what your customer wants. Other brands might have brought streaming solutions to market before Cabasse, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion it’s Cabasse that's ahead of the game.

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