Audio Buyer’s Guide Analysis: Opportunities in a tough market
Paul Bray, October 1, 2012
Like a conference or poetry reading, any audio system is only as good as its speakers, so it’s hardly surprising that buyers take pains to make the right choice, says Paul Bray.
As the Eurozone economy continues to falter, loudspeaker sales in the past year have been uneven. Harman (distributed in the UK and Eire by Sound Technology) and Technomad report difficult market conditions with little prospect of improvement.
“The economic situation in Europe has undoubtedly had a knock-on effect on business, especially in the MI sector and large capital projects, although we have had some major successes,” says Paul Chavez, director for systems applications at Harman Professional.
“Russia and some other northern European countries are holding steady or slightly growing, but many of the southern Eurozone countries that have been in the news are shrinking. The European outlook is still not great so it will be another difficult year, although having a constantly developing product line opens new opportunities.”
Other vendors such as Tannoy and Martin Audio are more upbeat: “Germany is strong, and the UK has seen investment with events such as the Commonwealth Games, and also in transport hubs, which has had a positive effect,” says Mark Copeland, product manager for pro audio at Tannoy.
“We hope there’ll be a halo effect in the UK from the Olympics, although it’s too soon to say,” adds Simon Bull, director of sales at Martin Audio.
Sales are split between AV integrators and end users, with IT integrators taking an increasing interest, say vendors. “Some of these IT integrators have become very large and are now interested in capturing some of the AV work,” says Chavez. “Because of their economies of scale they’re often able to offer AV services at lower cost than some traditional AV specialists.”
Price is the driving factor for many projects in today’s straitened times, says Chavez. But other vendors disagree. “Customers want quality sound and a robust and durable system, and they’re prepared to invest in these features, especially if the sound system is regarded as a means of drawing customers into a venue,” says Sue Harrison, business development manager at Bose. “This applies particularly to hotel, leisure and retail environments.”
In many regions commercial sales are growing faster than domestic sales, thanks to increasing customer expectations in entertainment venues and increasing intelligibility standards on transport, in airports and other public spaces, says Chavez.
“Sporting venues are continuing to improve the quality of their systems,” he says. “The trend toward higher bandwidth, louder systems that started in the US is spreading worldwide, so each sports venue that puts in a new system seems to go a little further.”
Adds Harrison: “Loudspeakers for voice reinforcement require clarity, and there’s an increasing requirement for speakers to comply with EN54-24 (the latest European standard for fire alarm loudspeakers) to ensure that voice alarm systems are intelligible.”
Entertaining or informing
As EU noise regulations are tightened, says Bull, there is increasing demand for speakers that deliver even sound levels throughout a space – so that, for example, all the customers in a bar can hear the maximum permitted volume level but the bar staff don’t go deaf.
The old distinctions between entertainment and information are becoming blurred, says Rodger von Kries, vice-president of Technomad.
Audiences at stadia and live venues need to hear the announcements as well as the music, and even a mass notification system on a university campus may be used for background music or entertainment.
“There’s increasingly less difference between the two markets as people expect high quality sound in more and more sectors. Low grade horns are less acceptable,” says von Kries.
Buyers can be pretty demanding. “Consultants are looking increasingly at products and systems that can be integrated with other services, and customers now expect a system that’s simple and intuitive to use but provides a high degree of flexibility,” says Harrison. “Many venues also want a discreet yet powerful loudspeaker that gives excellent sound coverage.”
Martin Audio’s Bull agrees: “Expectations are high in design as well as sound reproduction, and aesthetics can be as important as the sound.”
The ‘big square box’ approach is outmoded, it seems, and today’s products must either blend unobtrusively into the background, or become ‘architectural’ features in their own right by following the latest fashions in industrial design. Often the speakers are considered part of the overall décor – and are ripped out when the venue gets a makeover.
Nonetheless, reproduction quality remains a major focus. “Acoustic performance and high fidelity are clearly critical for music reproduction at the high end,” says Copeland.
“For our customers, the main criteria are sound quality and product durability,” says von Kries. “Durability is particularly important outdoors where the loudspeaker needs to be fully weatherproof, but also for interior spaces, especially where protection against moisture, humidity and direct contact with humans or objects is a concern.”