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Panelists Outline Potential, Challenges For Audio Industry

New York — The iPod might not have raised awareness of quality audio reproduction, but it has opened up opportunities for home and car audio marketers, panelists said here during the Consumer Electronics Association’s (CEA) Digital Downtown event.

Thanks to compressed music files, “people have rediscovered their music collections,” and that “has been positive for the audio industry,” said Franklin Karp, COO of Audio Video Systems, a Mineola, N.Y.-based custom installer with three locations. The iPod’s functionality, he continued, has “set the bar for many audio manufacturers,” many of whom he said have been “asleep.”

Custom installers can leverage consumers’ familiarity with the iPod and its functionality by explaining that compressed music from an iPod or dedicated music server can be sent to rooms throughout the house. “There’s a tremendous opportunity for an integrator,” he said. “I don’t have a customer without some iPods in the house,” and iPod ownership creates a “source of conversation.” For example, he noted, installers “can show how you can duplicate iPod functionality on a touchpanel.”

In the car, audio systems have evolved to reproduce music from many sources, whether the iPod, satellite radio or USB flash-memory drives, said Ed Sachs, president of Pioneer’s mobile electronics group. “We love content,” he said, and Pioneer’s mission is to “make sure the journey is fun.” After the event, he noted that iPods and other new music sources have encouraged music listening. For audio makers, he said, “The source opportunities are huge.”

Although compressed music may have reignited consumers’ passion for music, the audio industry is challenged to create awareness of audio systems that reproduce music with a high level of quality, panelists admitted. Custom installers, said Karp, lack the budgets to get the quality-audio message out to the public. Manufacturers get the word out, but they’re sending out a price message, not a quality message, he contended. The audio industry, he said, should take a cue from the luxury-watch industry, where established brands threatened by an influx of Japanese manufacturers banded together to “identify their clients “and “give them a reason to aspire” to what they make. “The audio business has never done that,” he lamented.

Awareness of quality audio isn’t just a home audio issue, added Sachs. “We’re going through the same thing in the mobile arena as well.”

After the event, Karp was asked whether the audio industry’s focus on home theater for the past two decades may have inadvertently kept consumers from embracing quality music reproduction. Home theater, he said, actually broadened the audio industry’s customer base beyond hobbyists and gearheads. “The industry was narrowcasting and allowed the vast majority of people to go by the wayside. Then home theater came in, and it was something everyone could get.” The industry’s promotion of home theater, however, “got people to understand why they needed a subwoofer and surrounds,” but “the industry never talked about quality sound and drove low-end home theater. They never talked about high-quality music.”