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ANALYSIS: Streaming & Multi-room

Big audio dynamite

With multi-room sound systems and Bluetooth speakers topping sales charts, the audio business looks set to boom. Steve May asks those with the beat how best to capitalise on this surging category

Any doubts about the new-found vigour of the audio sector should have been washed away by the wave of innovation at this year’s CES.

From next-gen wireless multi-room to classic and high-res hi-fi, it’s clear there’s no shortage of exciting new audio products heading into retail this year. So how can dealers make the most of this rejuvenated market?

Ross Durr, director of premium audio at Computers Unlimited, suggests the best retailers should not just demonstrate products, but show how they can change the way consumers listen. “The key to growing multi-room sales is to educate consumers about the versatility of today’s streaming services,” he tells ERT. “For example, the Sonos app supports multiple streaming services, internet radio and locally stored music, with the ability to search across all sources to find exactly the music you want to hear. Sell someone into the ease and enjoyment on offer, then explain it’s simple to add this musical marvel to every room of the house, so everyone in the family can enjoy the same or totally different music.”

Flexson VinylPlay
Flexson VinylPlay

Another key selling opportunity is to dovetail the two biggest trends in audio – multi-room music and the vinyl revival: “A digital turntable, such as our acclaimed VinylPlay deck, is simple to fit into Sonos or any streaming system,” notes Mr Durr.

As a consumer invests in the technology, he adds, you’ll then have the chance to sell more profitable accessory items. “Our Flexson for Sonos and SoundXtra for Denon Heos ranges demonstrably enhance end-user enjoyment and usability within the home,” says Mr Durr. “The opportunity also lends itself to custom installers, too, as chargeable accessories and installations allow for a bigger increase in margins.”

James Drummie, product manager at AWE, concurs: “Multi-room sales come hand in hand with install opportunities. How many customers are comfortable with cutting holes for ceiling speakers? More importantly, are any of them aware of the building regulations regarding fire compartmentation? To take full opportunity of this, retailers need highly-trained staff. As part of AWE’s Smart Home Academy foundation workshops, we train retailers and installers how to safely and professionally install ceiling speakers.”

Says Owen Watters, chief executive of Roberts: “There’s no doubt that multi-room in particular is an investment piece. Your customers will have plenty of questions and are likely to seek a demonstration. No one is better placed to provide this essential service, and maximise this lucrative opportunity, than the independent retailer.”

Leema Libra DAC
Leema Libra DAC

The opportunity is not only in an initial premium sale, there’s a real chance of enticing customers back for additional business, suggests Mr Watters, as they expand and improve their system with additional components.

He suggests: “Our advice is to set out your streaming/multi-room stall with enticing window and in-store displays that highlight different price points. Ensure your staff are familiar with the product, you have a wide selection of demonstration material to hand… and the appropriate internet connection.”

Reflecting the growing significance of streaming and multi-room, the Roberts R-Line is a first for the brand, in that its primary use isn’t radio. R-Line is a collection of wireless speakers, in different sizes with different features, that can be used individually or as part of a wireless system.

“R-Line signals our entry into the premium audio sector,” explains Mr Watters. “Our customers expect the very highest quality and intuitive operation on all our models and this is exactly what we will deliver with the R-Line series.”

Owen Watters, chief executive, Roberts

There’s no doubt that multi-room in particular is an investment piece. Your customers will have plenty of questions and are likely to seek a demonstration. No one is better placed to provide this essential service, and maximise this lucrative opportunity, than the independent retailer

Owen Watters, chief executive, Roberts

Another familiar brand entering the multi-room space is DTS, which is licensing its Play-Fi ecosystem to a variety of CE partners. The idea is that consumers will ultimately be able to mix and match from a range of interoperable brands.

The first Play-Fi-enabled products to launch in the UK are Phorus-branded speakers sold online via Finlux and Amazon UK, however they will soon be joined by a range of step-up sound systems from Polk, Definitive Technology and others.

Eclipse TD-M1
Eclipse TD-M1

Dan Lau, general manager at DTS’ Play-Fi division, explains: “There will be products launching soon in Scandinavia from our partner Ace Audio, and Paradigm and Martin Logan have broad distribution in the region as well for their Play-Fi line-up.” He anticipates these products will enter distribution no later than Q1. The key point here is that the standard embraces everything from the high-end to the very affordable, he says.

“We can’t speak for all consumers, but what we hear loud and clear from our partners, retailers and users is that customers want simplicity, compatibility and flexibility from their systems,” says Mr Lau. “First and foremost, the products have to be a breeze to use and set up, they need to support the streaming services that consumers care about and the devices they have in their pockets, and they need to allow consumers the option of how to bring those products into their homes. With Play-Fi, we offer the features they want, from audio brands they know and trust.”

Much-respected UK hi-fi outfit Arcam has been one such brand to take a closer look at Play-Fi, chief executive Charlie Brennan confirms to ERT. “But we are also looking at other options,” he qualifies. “DTS Play-Fi has an attractive ecosystem and a lot of supporters in North America across many brands. I expect it to make more progress in Europe during 2016.”

Linn Series 5 520 system
Linn Series 5 520 system

While Mr Brennan is understandably guarded about Arcam’s product roadmap, it’s clear multi-room is of interest. He adds: “We’re keen to offer customers a solution that works across many systems and brands rather than one that is brand-specific. I don’t see why customers need to be forced to stay with any one company for their multi-room solution. Everybody can use an RCA phono socket or HDMI connector, so I can see the mass market being driven by the big boys like Apple, Google and Amazon with their audio and video streaming solutions.”

Of course, the new music revolution isn’t just about convenience. Paul Burnip, sales manager of speaker brand Eclipse, says: “Retailers should focus on showing customers just how good high-res and streamed music can sound, reminding them that it’s achievable right across the home.” He adds: “Demonstrations are key: consumers understood SD vs. HD TV demos and the same can be done with audio. Our £799 TD-M1 desktop system, is high-res capable, so hooked up to a laptop, tablet or even a phone, standard definition, high-res audio and streamed music can easily be presented for comparison.”

Tom Harrold, marketing manager EMEA, Audio-TechnicaStreaming services have arguably moved consumers even further away from an active decision on the quality of file they choose to listen to. The real question though is do consumers know enough about high-resolution audio. The onus is on the manufacturer to extol the benefits of the new technology

Tom Harrold, marketing manager EMEA, Audio-Technica

Lee Taylor, founder, designer and the ‘Lee’ in British hi-fi specialist Leema Acoustics, adds: “Retailers should capitalise on the convenience of streaming technology by demonstrating the
dramatic improvements top-quality traditional amplification and loudspeakers can make to the experience, as opposed to lifestyle solutions that tend not to deliver the benefits of high-res material.”

Mike Van Velzen, brand manager for Teac Europe, agrees. “Overall, we’re pretty convinced that the concept of high-res audio is now part of the hi-fi landscape,” he tells ERT, “even if consumers do currently still spend the majority of their time listening to standard-resolution music.”

Roberts R1 from its R-Line range
Roberts R1 from its R-Line range

Linn marketing director Angus Lawrie suggests retailers stress lifestyle solutions: “Consumers are demanding products that are simple to use and designed to fit with their lifestyle,” he says. “We recently launched the Linn Series 5 systems, which offer studio-quality sound reproduction, with software optimisation for the listening environment and the opportunity to fully customise the look of the product with a wide range of acoustically designed fabric covers. These can blend seamlessly with the consumer’s chosen décor or contrast to make a bold design statement.” This chameleon-like ability has even seen its enclosures selected for the premium marine market, with Sunseeker yachts a high-end client.

All electronics are housed within the speaker itself. Series 5 systems use Linn’s acclaimed Exakt technology to preserve the integrity of the original studio recording all the way to the speakers.

“This means that consumers can enjoy the highest quality sound without all the separate boxes that were traditionally required in a hi-fi system,” explains Mr Lawrie.

Tom Harrold, marketing manager EMEA at Audio-Technica, admits: “Consumers are spoilt for choice when it comes to new technologies enhancing the listening experience. We’ve seen a real increase in interest around Bluetooth, active noise cancelling and high-res audio. What we can take from this is that consumers are looking for improved audio performance – not just at home, but also on the go.”

DTS Play-Fi range at CES
DTS Play-Fi range at CES

Mr Harrold cautions that a big shift from low-res convenience audio to higher-quality alternatives isn’t going to happen overnight. “Streaming services have arguably moved consumers even further away from an active decision on the quality of file they choose to listen to,” he says.

“However, with advancements in technology leading to much increased storage capacity on portable devices, there really is no longer a need to compress your favourite singles and albums. Couple that with much more generous data bundles on mobile devices, and the stage really is set for high-res. The real question though is do consumers know enough about high-resolution audio. The onus is on the manufacturer to extol the benefits of the new technology.”

The team at Audio-Technica have adopted a two-pronged sales strategy that combines statistical evidence with the listening experience. “Music is a hugely subjective field of conversation. But it boils down to one thing – and that is how the consumer feels when experiencing the music they love. Ultimately, it’s an emotion-driven purchasing decision.”

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