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Aesthetics Trump Acoustics in Custom Loudspeaker Market

Nov 6, 2006 12:00 PM


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For the first decade of its history, custom installers and speaker manufacturers took a fairly traditional approach to loudspeaker design and sales. The rise of the custom market may have taken speakers off the floor and into the wall, but installers were still pitching rectangular in-wall speakers almost solely on the basis of sound quality. For customers whose primary goal was to hide the speakers and use them for background music, the sales strategy wasn’t a comfortable fit.

Flatpanel TVs have changed everything. Aesthetics rule. Custom installation speaker makers are now scrambling to come up with flat on-wall or floorstanding models to flank a plasma or LCD. And while sound quality still remains a matter of pride and commitment among specialty speaker companies, more and more are willing to let interior design, rather than acoustic performance, drive the overall engineering of speakers for the custom market.

Leon Speakers out of Ann Arbor, Mich., pioneered the on-wall speaker when plasmas first appeared on the scene almost 10 years ago. The company just launched a reference-grade line of custom speakers with its flagship Profile Ultima line. The handmade 3/4in. MDF cabinets are made to match the exact height, width, and cosmetic finish of any flatpanel display. Custom speaker and grill colors are available for a premium along with exotic woods including flamed maple and burled walnut. Prices start at $3,895 per pair for left and right speakers, with center-channel speakers starting at $2,495 each. Timbre and finish-matched surround speakers list for $1,995 per pair. Turnaround time for the speakers is 3-5 days.

Developments at Sonance, long-time suppliers of in-wall speakers to the custom market, show just how much the market is changing. The company has broken new ground with its Architectural Series of loudspeakers, which are specifically designed to complement the interior design of a room rather than compete with it.

“Sound quality doesn’t sell,” says Ari Supran, chief sales officer for Sonance. He says in the past custom speaker suppliers have taken a negative sales approach by focusing on the engineering specs of a speaker rather than their appeal to homeowners. The company still promotes its dedication to sound quality, but aesthetics are now first priority with “great sound” second.

Sonance dubs the speakers in the Architectural series the “first truly flush-mount loudspeaker.” The speakers align the plane of the grille with the plane of a wall or ceiling, dramatically reducing the visual impact of the installation. Each speaker is available in round, rectangular or square shapes to complement the décor.

According to Supran, marketing speakers on the basis of appearance gives dealers another way to upsell clients. Consumers today demand both great performance and attractive design. “It’s the iPod effect,” he says. “People expect everyday products to be beautifully designed.” At CEDIA, the company displayed the new series in a setting described as more museum and less showroom to underscore the point.

The Architectural Series is a limited-distribution product. Sonance will initially offer it to 50 dealers and then expand to just under 100. It won’t be sold through distribution because the installation process for flangeless installation requires more care and expertise with drywall techniques, Supran says. The line was in development for roughly a year.

Supran describes the Architectural Series as a concept launch rather than a product launch. “Over the next few years you’re going to see products pushing the envelope on what custom speakers should look like,” he says. As part of its reach to architects, the company also plans to offer ASID-accredited courses in design offices and dealer showrooms around the country.



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