Car Amplifier Watt Wars Heat Up

By Amy Gilroy On Apr 21 2003 - 6:00am

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Car amplifier suppliers are turning up the heat in the war of the watts, with many starting to advertise peak power ratings for their amplifiers (vs. continuous or RMS power).

Kenwood, Rockford Fosgate and Sony are among the suppliers "badging" peak power ratings directly onto the amplifier, which has proved a popular selling point and which is leading other suppliers to adopt this practice.

John Durbin, audio product manager for DEI (which owns the Orion, PPI, ADS and Viper brands) said his company is now under a lot of pressure to advertise peak power. "This started when Kenwood had very good success with their midline amps starting about two or three years ago," he said. "They had a plaque on the amp that had peak power or about twice the continuous output of the amp. These amps have been among the top sellers in the industry. When you see a relatively well-known brand, with that kind of watt-per-dollar ratio, it has an impact."

He continued, "Factor in that the big retailers have salesmen who don't know a lot about the product and they sell off that puffed up [watt] figure and it becomes bigger than life. We're opposed to it, but we're under a lot of pressure to advertise a bigger number than the continuous power rating."

Kenwood said, however, that it was responding to the trend, rather than spearheading it. "We weren't the first. There have been many companies out there. It's not something that we endorse, but we responded to the competitive situation. We have guys working on the CEA committee to develop a standard for promoting power ratings and we'd love to see a standard imposed that would eliminate this," noted Bob Law, Kenwood sales and marketing VP.

Part of the reason for this trend stems from the use of peak power ratings on head units, said Alpine VP/marketing Stephen Witt. A consumer sees a 40 to 60 watt rating on his CD player and then wonders why he should spend more money on a separate amp rated at only 25 watts RMS, he explained, adding, "Consumers don't understand the difference between RMS and maximum power."

Suppliers such as JL Audio and JBL said they will not "badge" peak power ratings on their amplifiers.

Chris Dragon, brand marketing director for JBL, said, "We do have some retailers who say why don't you do it, and we don't do it. If you misstate the watts on the amplifier, it's going to be misused and you'll create buyers' remorse or product failure."

To avoid further watt confusion, CEA is in the process of publishing a watt rating standard for consumer promotion. The mobile division of CEA (and the R6 engineering committee) is expected to agree on a standard for amplifiers by this summer, said Witt. It is hoped that suppliers will bring car amplifier promotion into compliance in the 2004 model year, and eventually bring head unit promotion into compliance as well, said Witt. Complying with a standard, may be difficult to manage, given development cycles, managing inventory already on the shelves and managing manufacturers that aren't part of CEA, said Law. "There's a lot of things that have to be worked out, but Kenwood would fully support a standard to control this situation," he added.

In a related trend, many industry members report an increase in the number of "blown up" subwoofers being returned to dealers, in part because of higher powered amplifiers, which are now available at lower price points.

About half the retailers and suppliers polled by TWICE said they had seen a sharp increase in customer returns on "blown up" subwoofers in the past year. Among these are The Specialists, Tucson, Ariz.; Custom Sounds, Austin, Texas; Freeman's Car Stereo, Charlotte, N.C.; and JL Audio. JL Audio said it has responded by altering its return policy for subwoofers. Rockford Fosgate also recently changed its return policy but said this was unrelated to subwoofer returns.

Said JL Audio marketing VP Manville Smith, "Subwoofer returns have increased significantly. We believe it's a combination of factors. People want to max out their subwoofers," he said, noting the use of fewer subs in combination with larger amplifiers. "Another factor is that high power is cheaper than it used to be."

In response, the company is now offering a one-year instead of a two-year warranty on dealer-installed product. "We've always had a policy of giving our dealers the benefit of the doubt, but it reached a point where we could no longer support that without increasing pricing. We decided it would be best to hold the line on pricing and change our return policy," Smith said.

Several retailers said suppliers are also tightening up policies that were already in effect.

"Everyone's feeling a pinch and trying to adjust how they do business," said buyer Tom Olla of The Specialists. "With a lot of companies, it didn't matter if you sent in the warranty card. In the first year, they would replace the unit with a refurbished or a new one. Now, if the product is more than 30 days old, they won't replace it" (unless you send in a card).

Mike Cofield, president of Custom Sounds, said recent policy changes are the result of a tougher economy rather than subwoofer problems. "It's strictly a profit bolstering move. Every woofer supplier has tightened their policy. Woofers are easier to administer. With head units, it's hard to say that the head unit blew up because of something you did. But all the vendors have gotten more unbending on their warranty policies on all equipment."

Rockford Fosgate said it recently downshifted from a two-year to one-year warranty (and/or three-year to two-year warranty) but it added an over-the-counter exchange instead of requiring the customer to send in the product. "So we think we made an improvement," said director of customer care Bill Dunphy.

Kenwood and JBL said they have not made any changes to their return policies.

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