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Audio Makers Getting Creative With New Features

The long-term systematic decline in home-audio system sales is forcing suppliers to get creative to spur repeat sales and tap new consumer segments.

New compact stereo shelf systems and home theater in a box (HTiB) systems here at International CES will reproduce music from a new generation of music sources, including iPods, Bluetooth-equipped cellphones and USB flash-memory drives. More HTiBs are adopting industrial designs to complement flat-panel TVs, and more HTiBs are incorporating virtual-surround technologies to eliminate aesthetic objections to cluttering a room with five to seven speakers.

Factory-level sales of HTiB systems are well below their 2003 peak of $961 million, and sales of compact shelf systems are down from their 2000 peak of $1.78 billion, Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) statistics show. CEA’s 2007 forecasts have called for a 7.6 percent decline in factory HTiB volume to $728 million and a 21 percent drop in compact stereo dollars to $386 million, although actual volume reported to CEA during the first nine months of 2007 showed HTiB sales up 5 percent to $525.5 million and compacts down only 17 percent to $259.1 million.

To pump up interest in systems, suppliers are incorporating iPod docks in a growing selection of models (see p. 12) and delivering a greater selection of virtual surround systems. Many of them are bar-type speaker systems built around a single-enclosure speaker system designed to complement flat-panel displays and deliver five-channel sound. At least two HTiBs on display are the first to incorporate integrated high-definition disc players. The Blu-ray HTiBs are from Samsung and Panasonic.

In virtual-surround sound-bar systems, Philips is expanding its selection, and Samsung is launching its first. Polk is showing its first powered surround-bar HTiB, joining a pair of passive models that lack amplification and video sources. For its part, Definitive is showing its first two passive five-channel surround bars.

At CES Samsung is launching seven new DVD-based HTiB systems that include its first soundbar system, its first six systems with stereo Bluetooth and its first three with embedded iPod docks.

Panasonic is introducing its first HTiB with integrated Blu-ray player and upgrading its entire selection with enhanced iPod and set-top-box connectivity while reducing chassis depth to fit on shallow-depth flat-TV furniture.

Sony is showing its first iPod-docking stereo shelf systems, joining iPod-docking HTiBs and A/V receivers.

And at least two companies are dropping XM-ready ports from their HTiB selections. They are Panasonic and JVC, which is also dropping the feature from shelf systems.

For complete details of what audio makers have in store for retailers at CES, visit