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Cache-And-Carry: A/V Hard-Drives On Dealers’ Radar

Many A/V specialty dealers plan to get more aggressive in displaying and promoting hard-drive-based jukeboxes and music centers because of rising consumer awareness and the entry of mainstream A/V brands into the nascent business.

To date, most dealers polled said they’ve either been modestly successful in selling the devices, largely through their custom-install departments, or are still investing in training and display. Most predict a brighter future for the devices, especially as prices fall.

Some suppliers categorize hard-drive music components into two types:

  • hard-drive “jukeboxes” that deliver instant access to, and make it easier to select, individual songs from among hundreds or thousands of songs previously stored on hundreds of CDs. Many of the devices offer multizone capability for use in distributed-audio systems
  • hard-drive “music centers,” which add such features as streaming Internet radio and CD/DVD megachanger control, with all media options presented in an integrated GUI appearing on a TV screen.

“Two years ago, the primary listening system and the distributed-audio system shared a 200-disc changer,” said Strider Slocum, an engineer with Audio Advisors of West Palm Beach, Fla. “Now we use a hard drive for the distributed-audio system and a five-disc changer for the main system.

“Initially, people think they will lose a lot of sound quality [through the distributed-audio system], but a lot of our customers don’t notice the difference, and the value of the ease of access outweighs [the drawbacks],” he contended.

Ultimate Electronics recently began offering its first hard-drive jukebox, a Yamaha model, and the chain has been “modestly successful,” said Ultimate VP Steve Wood. The chain will increase its selection as more models become available, he said. “The future is bright for this category. We’ll continue to pursue it.”

Similarly, Myer-Emco VP Gary Yacoubian said hard drives “are not yet a business for us, but we see huge potential.” The Gaithersburg, Md.-based A/V chain didn’t enter the market until recently, he said, because the first products came from relatively unknown companies. “We didn’t know much about these companies,” he said. “It seemed risky for our clients.” In addition, many of the products “seemed like they were built in a garage.”

Myer-Emco’s first hard-drive device is Escient’s $1,999-suggested Fireball, which doubles as a streaming Internet radio and a music management system that accesses CDs in select other-brand megachangers. “We’re ramping up training and merchandising for the Fireball, and it could be a huge custom application,” Yacoubian said. Integrating MP3 and CD song and album titles into a single GUI appearing on a TV screen “is a sound idea,” he said.

Fireball will be a custom sale, however, because “setup is daunting,” he said. Setup includes storing music on the hard drive and downloading cover art. Even though Fireball automates the process, Yacoubian said, the typical consumer who’s buying it as part of a custom home theater or distributed-audio system wants it done for him.

Setup also includes integrating the product into complex systems. “It typically isn’t part of a plain vanilla home theater,” he said. “I don’t see this as a retail [over-the-counter] product anytime soon.”

Yacoubian also sees value in hard-drive jukeboxes that don’t connect to megachangers, so long as they use a TV screen to display titles and cover art and don’t limit the user interface to a small front-panel display.

Harvey Electronics has already ramped up. “It’s a category where we have made an investment and hope to grow the business,” said Harvey Electronics president Franklin Karp. “We’ve taken it slow and made an investment in time and training.” The company hasn’t looked for “huge sales in the short term,” he said. “We were farming, but longer term, it can become a nice add-on business.”

Karp recently promoted Escient’s Fireball in Sunday ads and expects most sales to occur through his custom division. The company will probably add a Marantz jukebox this year, Karp added.

It’s also early in the game for Bjorn’s Audio Video. “We haven’t focused on it, but we’ll now do so because customer awareness is up, and more traditional audio brands are involved,” said Doug Bravin, GM of the one-store San Antonio company. Bjorn’s recently began stocking its first hard-drive product, a Yamaha device whose suggested retail recently dropped to $799 from $999. Since last October, the store has sold one per month without promoting it. “We’ll see more activity as prices drop,” he said.

The jukebox has been selling through mostly to custom customers, he said. Some retail salespeople talk it up to select consumers, such as those who come in for a CD-recorder, he added.

Two other dealers say they’ve already seen the light. Kenwood’s Sovereign-series music center solution “met with a lot of positive response in the custom channel, said Jeff Miller marketing director at Indianapolis-based Ovation Audio Video. The hard-drive device also streams Internet radio stations, burns CDs, and accesses CD, DVD-Video, and DVD-Audio discs in a 400-disc Kenwood megachanger.

Ovation custom manager Rick Cooper said installers are using the multizone device to stream DVD-Video, not just CD, to multiple rooms in a house. “I was surprised that an older demographic (through the custom division) had an interest in it. I thought 20- to 25-year-olds would be more hip to it, but folks in their forties have a lot of CDs and want to get radio stations from around the country.”

The most compelling feature, he said, is the management of large CD and DVD collections. “People can search for a song rather than choose a disc and a track,” he said. The ease of finding songs encourages people to listen to discs that they haven’t listened to in years, he added.

Barrett’s Audio Video of Elmhurst, Ill., just began to offer Escient’s Fireball, which owner Joe Barrett said is “very strong on the custom side.” The product, he said, “makes a whole lot of sense to organize music. People do get it.”

At least one dealer, however, is skeptical of digital devices stuffed with so many capabilities. “It stumps people,” said Audio Advisors’ Slocum. “It integrates so many things that customers are uncomfortable with to begin with. A lot of our customers are over 50.”

One thing’s for certain, however. You can’t sell it without a demo, he said. “You can’t describe it to them and make them feel comfortable. Without our design center, a lot of customers couldn’t understand what it’s all about.”