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Retailers, Suppliers Adapt To Download Era

NEW YORK — Home-audio suppliers have adapted to the massive shift from physical media to digital media, and retailers have begun to follow suit.

To remain relevant in the era of digital downloads and streaming, suppliers offer a broad array of networked A/V receivers, soundbars, tabletop-audio systems and powered speakers that stream music from the Cloud, from networked computers, and from Wi-Fi-enabled mobile devices. Also for the digital media age, USB-equipped digital-to-analog converters (DACs) have proliferated to connect computers to hi-fi systems to raise the audio performance of computer-stored music libraries.

For their part, retailers such as Gramophone and Barrett’s Technology Solutions have not just embraced the products but have taken pains to ensure they can demonstrate them and educate consumers about their advantages.

Robert Goedken, general manager of Yamaha America’s A/V division, would like to see more retailers follow suit. “With the broad array of capabilities offered with Yamaha gear, we’d obviously like to see more demonstrations of our technologies rather than just having a retailer sit a box on a shelf to fend for itself,” he said. “Some items that could be demonstrated more include the network capabilities on the vast majority of our AVRs and the apps that can be downloaded to a smartphone or tablet to … control our receivers over a network.”

“As more unique capabilities get introduced to the marketplace, retailers who can demonstrate them can win over customers by offering a value add rather than just leaving it up to the manufacturer to supply self-demonstrating displays.”

Timonium, Md.-based Gramophone adopted that strategy when it teamed with Lenbrook Industries to create an iFi Zone in one of its two stores. The computer-audio zones feature multiple networked laptops to show consumers how to maximize the performance of iTunes, but they also promote highperformance audio alternatives.

The zones display computers connected to PC speakers, PCs connected to stereo systems via USB DACs and USB headphone DACs, a pure Sonos system, and a Sonos system incorporating step-up amps and speakers from other brands, said CEO and founder Brian Hudkins. There’s also an area focused on Lenbrook’s Bluesound high-resolution multiroom-audio products.

Gramophone holds multiple in-store events per year, each attracting 200 to 300 people with vendor representatives on such topics as home automation. Computer audio gets its share of the promotional attention, Hudkins said.

The retailer advertises Sonos systems to bring people into the store, but salespeople also show the alternatives, he noted. Grampohone does outreach via email, web, social media, direct mail, radio, and Pandora advertising.

For its part, Barrett’s Technology Solutions carved out a dedicated computer-audio area in its new Naperville, Ill., design center to “appeal to the next generation of clients,” said president Joe Barrett.

The room was designed to “demonstrate and educate,” said VP/general manager Brian Perreault. The company wants to “educate clients on how to get the most out of their existing music collections along with variety of music streaming services available,” he said.

The room also shows consumers that “computer audio doesn’t just have to reside in someone’s office,” he continued. “We’re showing them how to leverage those iTunes collections and streaming services and provide a high-quality experience beyond the desk and elevate that experience.” The room also educates clients “on affordable solutions for whole-house audio.”

To those ends, Barrett’s created a dedicated 480-squate-foot room where consumers encounter a series of stations, each presenting a different set of options at different price and performance levels.

Outside the door, a sign bearing the word “computer audio” beckons consumers inside. Although the room’s mission extends beyond computer audio, Perreault noted, “computer audio is the most-recognized term by the general public.”

When they enter the room, customers encounter an area dedicated to Sonos wireless-multiroom audio products, including a Sonos soundbar connected to a TV. A digital sign by the station defines computer-audio terms, explains the hierarchy of bit rates, lists available streaming services, and explains the importance of a home network.

In the next station, Barrett’s displays step-up options from Lenbrook’s Bluesound brand. The products provide wireless multiroom audio and support high-resolution audio formats. The station displays a good-better-best selection of Bluesound solutions, including a $449 Bluesound Node streamer connected to an NAD integrated amp and to speakers.

The next station is the highperformance area, which features NAD’s top-end Master-series components, including the componentsize Music Vault server and an NAD DAC/preamplifier with USB input. The station also features Revel speakers and a Sony TV. “We use this display to segue to the other listening rooms,” said Perreault.

The computer-audio room also features an office-audio demonstration consisting of a desktop computer running iTunes and connected via USB to a USB DAC/DAC amplifier from NAD and to desktop Bowers & Wilkins speakers.

The room also includes Barrett’s first-ever dedicated DAC display to make its USB DAC selection more visible than before and to show commitment to the category. Barrett’s connects the optical outputs of five DACs to an integrated amp to switch quickly between DACs. A Bluesound Node streamer is the primary source.