Industry debate: Making the most of wireless multiroom home audio systems

posted on Friday, 17th July 2015 by Steve May

Multi-room  High Res Audio  Hi-fi  Streaming 

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It’s being called the audio renaissance. After years of stagnation, sales of pure audio equipment are booming, thanks to a massive uptake in multiroom and wireless technologies. Wireless speakers now account for over half the global sales of hi-fi hardware, according to market researchers Futuresource. Looking forward, audio shipments are set to increase from 17.3 million units globally in 2014 to 33.5 million units in 2018, with wireless speakers accounting for 22.9 million units.

So what are the key trends driving the business and what can UK integrators and system sellers do to ride the boom. Inside CI gathered industry leaders around the office water cooler to talk about the new sound revolution...

The streaming audio market looks like the classic overnight success - it suddenly appears to be ubiquitous. Just how important has the wireless/multiroom sector become to business?

Robert Taylor, Home Entertainment Product Manager, LG: “By the end of the year multiroom will be over 50 per cent of the total audio market in the UK – and we will be a significant part of the market!”

Nick Hucker, Senior Director of sales and marketing, Pure: “There’s little doubt that smartphones and mobile audio will continue to drive wireless speaker demand, as well as fuelling the consumption of music streaming services. We expect Wi-Fi streaming to grow significantly as consumers realise the experience is more immersive, connected and user-friendly.”

Kulwinder Singh Rai, Product Development Consultant, Onkyo: “There will be an increasing degree of overlap between traditional and wireless audio, especially for modest systems where wireless systems will probably dominate, but the performance/reliability benefits of wired versus wireless connections will still hold sway for large scale projects in larger properties. Successfully integrating diverse wireless solutions with wired networks will be a key challenge in the future.”

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The traditional stereo music market has been characterised by inertia rather than innovation, but the streaming market is moving apace. What should trends should the trade be looking out for?

Taylor, LG: “One of the key factors, just as with TV, is going to be resolution. Streaming services will offer different layers, levels of audio resolution. And the standard option is always the lowest.  I think we’ll see a lot more HD music being played. Our Music Flow multiroom system supports 24/96 FLAC file playback, the new standard.”

Rai, Onkyo: “Wireless speakers are likely to be huge part of the audio market. They offer a simplicity of concept that many customers, put off by 'traditional' hi-fi, find immensely appealing, that much is already obvious. Usability and simplicity of operation will be key drivers in this sector so smart home professionals need to offer products that do more than just pay lip service to those aspects. Try them and see... if they don't work for you they won't work for consumers.”

Katrina Mills, Audio Buyer, John Lewis: “Streaming is definitely on the consumer agenda, although I’m pretty sure that customers have differing views as to what it means. Many still think of it as Bluetooth…”

John Gahagan, UK country director, Sonos: “Sonos was founded on the belief that one day, all music would be streamed through the Internet. It’s that vision that has driven us to create products with an eye toward the future…”

How do innovations, such as Meridian’s MQA file format fit into the audio picture going forward?

Hucker, Pure: “Meridian’s High-Res Audio technology is paving the way to make listening to audio that is as close to the original studio experience become just as accessible as MP3s. Getting high-res filtering down to smartphones, headphones, wireless speaker systems, streaming services and other popular audio products of today should enhance the listening experience for everyone.”

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Julian Cooke, Business Development Manager, Sygnifi: “In the past, people have accepted lower quality audio as the norm as the technology and hardware to deliver high quality audio wasn’t accessible to the mainstream. However, we know that more and more people are increasingly searching for a better quality listening experience. Many have avoided streaming products as they have been too expensive or too complex.”

Neil White, Hi-Fi and AV Category Manager, Richer Sounds: “There are significant gains to be made by the High Res Audio services. We look forward to watching which services go all-out to win customers over.”

Is there anything genuinely new happening in the world of streaming audio tech?

Hucker, Pure: “Bluetooth Caskeid, a technology developed by parent company Imagination Technologies. This enables users to stream any music service, such as Spotify and Deezer, to single, stereo or multiroom speakers from any smartphone or tablet. Bluetooth Caskeid also brings superior audio synchronisation technology…”

What is the biggest turn on for consumers: multiroom or wireless device to speaker functionality?

White, Richer Sounds: “Without any shadow of a doubt, it’s both.” 

Hucker, Pure: “Crucially, customers want products which can seamlessly integrate into their own listening experience. They want products that offer a seamless user-experience, which is why currently, point to point Bluetooth speakers are experiencing such growth.”

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High Resolution Audio continues to excite a lot of people – from step-up streaming services like Tidal and Qobuz, to 24-bit file downloads. How much traction does this market have?

Eric Kingdon, Audio Product Specialist, Sony: “One of the things that multiroom has proved is that people want to live with their music in a flexible way. High Res Audio is taking off because it doesn’t represent a big change to the way people are listening. It’s convenient. You can store it easily. If people can enjoy an AV receiver in a way that they may have only previously been able to enjoy with a certain famous multiroom brand, it might make them think a lot more about what an AV receiver can deliver (new Sony AVRs support Sony Multiroom technology).”

Taylor, LG: “Everything is moving to streaming. The ratio of speakers per household is the thing everyone cares about. One speaker in one multiroom household is nowhere near what we want. We want 4:1. And we want those products to all be different products – soundbars, portables, fixed speakers…”

Cooke, Sygnifi: “There’s definitely demand for different types of solutions, what individual customers want all depends on what they are trying to achieve, what existing kit they have… and their budget of course!”

Is the arrival of more new download stores like Technics Tracks and Onkyo Music, likely to have a big impact on the market?

White, Richer Sounds: “Very difficult for us to say, but more competition in the marketplace has traditionally meant a great deal for the consumer.”

Cooke, Sygnifi: “Streaming services are the way ahead for the mass market but there will still be audiophiles who want the best quality sound.”

Geoff Wood, UK Sales Manager, Pioneer: “High Resolution audio is a category that we are very much behind. It is very strong in the far-east and with network players, it sounds really fantastic. There is still a significant amount of work that has to be done to educate consumers about hi-res audio as most are not aware of what it is. There will always be a niche consumer who wants the best performance currently possible.”

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How can installers best demonstrate the benefits of higher quality audio systems? 

Hucker, Pure: “Perhaps most pertinent is the ability to hear, and compare, the difference of high-resolution audio. In order for dealers to demonstrate the differences between low/mid res and high-res audio they need to present an audio solution that can deliver it. The audio differences are more audible with certain kinds of music, and can even depend on individuals, so a range of music for demonstration will be key.”

Cooke, Sygnifi: “The streaming market is not a simple concept for many consumers and they often want to speak to someone and see it in action before buying so the independent retailer is ideally positioned to demonstrate and explain the benefits – its the ideal wow-demonstration product.”

Does the streaming audio market have any synergy with the similarly successful headphone market – or are they different beasts?

White, Richer Sounds: “I think they are different beasts, but there’s no denying that headphones are improving in quality all the time. Whether this is driven by streaming audio, or is simply a matter of evolution, I’m not sure.”

Hucker, Pure: “Numerous reports detail that over a fifth of British music buyers have fully transitioned to digital music, and part of that appeal is the accessibility of music and the growing trend in mobile listening habits. In this sense, it’s natural that there will be a demand for headphones as the streaming services industry grows. However, I think the two need to align themselves in order to provide a better listening experience for the user.” 

Steve May

Inside CI Editor Steve May is a freelance technology specialist who also writes for T3TechRadarHome Cinema Choice, Trusted Reviews and The Luxe Review.

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