By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
Subwoofers continue to be a key focus for autosound suppliers, who are taking the category to new extremes in pricing, design and power handling.
Mainstream brands are pushing the envelope in SPL, while speaker specialists debut exotic shapes, provide even higher SPL and establish new price ceilings.
Subwoofers continue to be a strong growth segment for the industry, racking up gains of 32 percent in 2000 over 1999 in both units and dollars, according to NPD Intelect, Port Washington, N.Y. Suppliers are hoping to cash in on this growth by winning market share at the high end, where profits are lucrative.
Explains MB Quart president Keith Lehmann, "Dealers are looking for something new to talk about, and fortunately, suppliers are offering alternatives. Mainstream brands are now thinking unconventionally, which is the right way to strike a new position in the market. It's what Gen Y wants and what dealers need to grasp the attention of their customers, either through radical design or a compelling story."
Turning heads at CES this month was Xtant, which launched a hexagon-shaped subwoofer, and SAS, which showed a triangular Bazooka subwoofer. These follow on the heels of the Kicker square subwoofer that spent most of last year in 30- to 60-day back-order due to high demand, according to Stillwater Designs' director of marketing J. A. Tonsfeldt.
Alpine, Pioneer and Sony are also pushing aggressively into subwoofers this year with upgraded lines. Moving into new price segments are Rockford Fosgate, which launched new high-end models (see story, p. 61) and Kicker, which is offering its lowest-priced woofers to date.
Said Alpine marketing VP Stephen Witt, "Clearly, this CES showed that many manufacturers are pursuing extreme sound pressure-type woofers geared to a very narrow consumer base."
From a business standpoint, he said, "it doesn't make sense to have all these extreme products in the market, but if you're looking to make a dramatic statement in a crowded market, then the extreme subs have some merit."
One drawback to the move to exotic shapes and materials is cost, Witt said. "Typically, the more exotic the design the higher the production and manufacturing costs, resulting in higher retail that can be difficult to justify."
Bazooka said it skirted some of the high costs in its first departure from the enclosed woofer: a new line of liquid-cooled speakers in both triangular and round shapes. The company said that to keep costs down, it manufactured its new triangular subwoofers with as many standard parts as possible, using a round voice coil and all standard motor components.
The triangular T-1 and T-2 woofers feature a special vented pole piece that allows liquid cooling when used with an optional kit.
The same kit works with four new round liquid-cooled Bazooka models, which also debuted at CES. But the triangular speakers have the additional "wow factor" because of their shape.
"To compete in this market," said SAS eastern product specialist Derek Tircuit, "you have to be innovative. Things that are unique tend to sell."
The vented pole piece (which is threaded) on the T-1 and T-2 can accept a new device called a CHIL-plug, for Custom Heatsink Integrated Liquid, which threads into the pole piece and has an interior baffle that lets liquid flow in and out. This allows up to 50 percent more continuous power output, according to marketing director Pete Tully.
Any liquid can be used, including antifreeze, or even purple 409 to match a purple car.
The speakers operate without liquid cooling, but to get the full effect, users must purchase the optional CHIL-Plug at $14.99 and a kit that includes a pump, radiator and hosing at $199.
The triangular liquid-cooled woofers come in two sizes (the smaller T-1 has 9-inch sides), and they use reinforced polypropylene cones and rubber composite surrounds. The models T-1 and T-2 are expected to ship in May at suggested retail prices of $199 and $249, respectively.
Another exotic speaker is the hexagonal (six-sided) subwoofer line from Xtant. The woofers are claimed to offer 10 percent more cone space than round speakers and are available in four models-two 10-inch and two 12-inch units, both in single or dual 4-ohm voice-coil versions.
The 12-inch model claims 2,000 watts total power output or 500 watts RMS. The line ranges in suggested retail price from $299 to $349 and is expected to ship at the end of the first quarter or early in the second quarter.
Pioneer, for the first time, is replacing all of its subwoofers-in the Premier as well as Pioneer brands-and at CES it presented the debut of a new line using its Voice Coil Cooling System (VCCS) introduced last year under the Premier brand only.
VCCS is said to lower voice-coil temperature by 75 to 100 degrees for better efficiency and sound quality. The VCCS subwoofers have an aluminum bobbin and center cap at the center of the voice coil to draw heat toward the front and center of the subwoofer, where it is cooled by the moving air.
The woofers use 3D Power Cone technology with certain shapes or "folds" embedded in the molding for a stiffer cone. The step-up models have metal inserts in the cone for further strengthening, and these are connected to the metal dust cap to help dissipate heat.
The full line of subwoofers includes five 10-inch models, five 12-inch models and two 15-inch models. The Premier series has two 10-inch and two 12-inch models. Prices range from approximately $100 to $240 each.
Alpine debuted at CES new 15-inch, Type R (high-end) subwoofers that are Bass Engine compatible and claim the highest bass output of any Alpine subs.
The top-end models SWR-1540 (4 ohms) and SWR-1540D (4 ohms +4 ohms) have a peak power rating of 1,500 watts (500 RMS) and a frequency response of 21Hz to 2kHz. They use high-excursion 1.25-inch Santoprene surrounds and 2.5-inch voice coils, as well as double-sided flared pole vents, dual oversized progressive Nomex Spiders with strain relief, and an integrated heat transfer plate.
Both models ship in April at a target retail price of $400 each.
Sony showed a new line of Xplod ES subwoofers that handle up to 1,200 watts maximum. The line is the company's first to use a one-piece aluminum cone and voice coil.
The subwoofers also feature a new surround and have a new inner cap at the top of the voice coil to help transfer energy away from the voice coil. The subwoofers include two 10-inch, 4-ohm models with single and dual voice coils, at $199 and $239 suggested prices, and two 12-inch models at $219 and $249. They are expected to ship in March.
At the low end are new 10- and 12-inch subwoofers from Kicker. They use standard Kicker features, such as an extended pole piece and perimeter venting, and come in 10 and 12 inches at suggested retail prices of $119 and $129. The new woofers also sport radically designed cast-aluminum grills.
The trend to extremes is filtering into other speaker categories as well.
MB Quart formally bowed at CES its QSD line, which was first announced at IASCA last fall. With component systems raging from $1,199 to $2,148, the company is not targeting the mainstream buyer.
"What we have done is captured the ultra-high-end position," claimed Lehmann. "The purpose of this is not just to make a technical statement but rather for the retailer to promote high-end, top-down selling in all categories, not just loudspeakers."
"By raising the bar in this category, it will promote the sale of high-end amplifiers, accessories and installation," said Lehmann, noting that the company privately showed at CES a QSD subwoofer that is in development.
Alpine debuted a new X series of high-end component speakers targeting a market that is being driven by the rise of multichannel sound and the general trend in step-up speakers. It includes four speaker systems with cast-aluminum "unibody" frames, integrated spider landings, a heat transfer management system, crossovers with on/off axis compensation and bi-wire input, and selectable tweeter attenuation.
The two-way X series speaker cones are made from hemp fiber to reduce cone distortion. They include the SPX-177A, 6.5-inch two-way component speaker, the SPX-137A 5.25-inch two-way speaker, the SPX-F17T three-way component set and the SPX-F13M center-channel set at prices of $450, $400, $850 and $330, respectively. Shipping is scheduled for April.
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