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Mobile Audio Clipped By Dip In Components

Component shortages, which have plagued the digital TV, handheld devices, and portable and home audio markets, have grown increasingly severe in car audio.

Car audio retailers claim they are months back-ordered on certain products and four or five weeks behind on some key head units, while suppliers such as Sony and Pioneer say they are air-shipping in product to meet demand.

In other audio segments, suppliers contend the shortages of headphone CDs will likely continue through the remainder of the year because of unusually strong demand and shortages of key components, mainly surface-mount devices also used in the booming cellphone industry.

Shelf systems, in short supply earlier in the year, have loosened up in part because some suppliers have ramped up production to offset competitors' shortages. In addition, shelf-system retail sales growth has since slowed. But fourth-quarter demand could cause supplies to tighten once again, some suppliers fear.

In car audio, "I've never seen it like this before," said Tom Olla, car audio buyer for The Specialists in Tucson, Ariz. "It's on electronics across the board from anybody. We've heard it's due to earthquakes and shortages of parts, and manufacturers switching suppliers - I've heard it all. Right now, for one of our suppliers, I'm waiting on things I ordered six months ago."

Part of the blame is being placed on a worldwide chip shortage. Said Keith Burnett, senior marketing manager for Pioneer's car electronics division, "There is, in fact, a parts shortage out there, which has and will affect the entire consumer electronics industry. And what's causing it is the explosive growth in cellular and laptops and DVD."

Car audio shortages are also due to a surge in sales, fueled by the growth in car video, which is causing a general trend in upgrading. Another factor is the strong economy, which is putting more money in the pockets of teenagers and young adults, the key demographic for mobile electronics. This demand is causing back-orders to extend beyond highly chip-dependent products into car audio speakers and amplifiers.

Steve Haber, Sony's marketing VP for car electronics, said, "Parts availability has been an issue, particularly in CD head units and cassette head units. But a key thing is demand. It's very strong, and it's exceeding our dealer expectations and our expectations. We're up over last year by 30 percent in dollars, and even higher in units."

Sony said it was back-ordered on certain speaker and amplifier models, as well as CD and cassette head units.

Retailers said the back-order was more severe than in past years, and most cited Sony and Alpine as having the most shortages. Jeff Symonds, president of Rolling Thunder, San Rafael, Calif., said, "Sony is completely out of all their Active Black Panel units. No one has any Sony ABP."

Symonds noted he was also short on orders to Esoteric Audio, Precision Power and Zapco. "It's been pretty bad," he added. "I've been waiting five weeks for some products."

Ed Zurhellen, owner of Live Wires in Fairfield, Conn., said back-orders were particularly severe in low-priced CD players and also in low-end cassettes.

"Sometimes it takes weeks to get an order," he said. "For every order I place, I only get 75 percent of what I ask for. There's a lot of allocating going on. I think it's because business is good. We're up five to 10 percent."

Live Wires is also short periodically on video products, including Audiovox flip-down screens and custom consoles, Zurhellen said. In addition, 1999 "Suburban consoles are out of stock. Occasionally, it can take three weeks to get screens."

Big Daddy's in Longview, Texas was having supply problems with midline Kenwood head units, Clifford alarms and Kove Audio 12-inch speakers, as well as Progressive Concepts (PCI) door lock actuators and all makes of dash kits, according to owner Lonnie Gannon.

Sound Advice, Dania, Fla., said it was back-ordered three to four weeks on head units, particularly from Sony and Alpine.

One retailer said the shortages were particularly irritating because it hurts the retailer's ability to meet his quotas: "Every [supplier] wants you to do numbers, and it's hard to make those numbers when you are on back-order. I am $8,000 on back-order with Boston Acoustics. We're out of speakers today, but I would be ordering that much more if I had them."

Larger retailers claim they are having less of a supply problem than the specialists. Tweeter etc., for example, said it had no shortages because it plans six months ahead and orders two months in advance.

A buyer for a large retailer claimed he was back-ordered with only one vendor, but acknowledged there is an industrywide problem.

"There are only three different protocols in chips, basically large, medium and small and so much of the small chip manufacturing has gone over to PlayStation2 and cellular," the buyer detailed. "But some manufacturers, such as Pioneer, have had no shortages whatsoever."

Sony's Haber said that cellular phones, rather than the PlayStation, were impacting car audio supplies. Both Sony and Pioneer said there was no set end in sight to the chip shortages.

Leif Blackman, director of car audio for Boston Acoustics, acknowledged that speakers are also in short supply.

"It's a great problem to have, and it's a horrible problem," said Blackman. "We've had some back-order and I know we've had some parts shortages on some terminals we couldn't get a hold of."

Shortages are also creeping up into high-end product, said MB Quart president Keith Lehmann. "We're sold out on some hot 6 x 9 product, and some of the Autobahn components are in short supply, even Q series $850 component systems. Our sales are far and away above what we expected."

Other models cited by retailers as being in back-order include the Alpine DVA 5205, Clarion's entry-level ARX 4670 cassette deck, and the Boston Acoustics Pro 6.5.