By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
LEDs are the new trend in "tuner" lighting, but some retailers say they have also become popular in standard car audio installations.
Advances in LEDs have created lights that are much brighter and less expensive than their predecessors. They are also now offered in a wide array of colors. As a result, many installers are using LEDs instead of neon tubing to highlight installations. Neon carries the disadvantages of being fragile, unreliable and requiring a transformer, which could add "noise" to the sound system, said industry members.
The use of lighting in car stereo is also becoming more prevalent because customers are more style-oriented than in the past, industry members said.
"The kids are more into what it looks like than what it sounds like," explained Dave Richardson, VP/COO of Freeman's Car Audio, Charlotte, N.C. "Even in head units, it's the Tokyo at night units that sell. If something lights up the board, they point to it and say I want that."
Further evidence of the tie-in with lighting can be seen in a new promotion from Sony in conjunction with Street Glow. Starting this month, anyone who purchases an Xplod product can receive a free neon or LED product from Street Glow. Such products include a 15-inch LED light bar, and a sound-activated neon tube or black neon accent tube. The promotion will run through August.
Street Glow CEO Jack Panzarella said LEDs are becoming popular autosound accessories as a spillover from the general tuner trend. Since the movie "The Fast and the Furious" came out, "we grew 400 percent year over year. When this second movie comes out ["2 Fast 2 Furious"] there's going to be some fireworks out there," he said.
Street Glow, based in Wayne, N.J., has been rated one of America's fastest growing companies by Inc. Magazine for the last three years said Panzarella expects to make that list for a few more years.
Street Glow offers individual LEDs in nine colors at $9.95 suggested retail, and carried by retailers including Best Buy, Circuit City, as well as Pep Boys, AutoZone and several regional A/V chains. Even retailers who don't carry tuner products say LEDs are becoming a standard part of a car stereo installation.
Scott Comiskey, installation manager at Hi fi Buys, Nashville, Tenn., said the trend began a year ago. "They are used for highlighting amp racks and in door handles. Lots of people want a color other than red. They were available last year, but not many people knew about them."
Quest Industries, Miami, said its LED business soared 1,000 percent in 2002, while neon and EL lighting was up 300 percent. The company offered only 20 LED products in 2001 and now supplies 300, said Steven Hamilton, senior VP/ sales and marketing.
Speaking on accessory lighting in general, he said, "Last year was really a watershed year for this. It was a movement just like any other teen movement, it spreads by grass roots." Again, he credited the movie "The Fast and the Furious." "All of sudden, every kid who may not have been aware of tricking out their car, knew about it," Hamilton explained.
The trend to LED in particular is the result of technology advances over the past few years. Eric Cole, senior product manager for Quest, said that in 1997 or 1998, LEDs became available in blue and white, but were very expensive. Suppliers then were able to place red, green and blue light emitting diodes in the same LED to make many different colors. Since then prices have been "halving on certain colors every year," to where LEDs cost about the same as neon, said the company.
In addition, LEDs are expected to become increasingly brighter. Years ago, LEDs were simply red or green indicator lights. Now they are about as bright as neon, said Cole, who notes that Quest has prototypes of LEDs that are as bright as fog lights. But marketing them is "still a few years off," he said.
Another supplier, Liteglow Industries, Pompano Beach, Fla., said its overall business has jumped from $1 million annually about five years ago to $16 million last year.
VARAD, Carson, Calif., began shipping in April a new line of interior LED bulbs designed for replacing dome, side marker, instrument panel and door lights. The bulbs are available in five colors — blue, red, green, white and yellow — and in two series. The step up Pro line is brighter and longer lasting with a lifespan of 30,000 to 100,000 hours, said the company. Suggested retail prices start at $3.65 per bulb.
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