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Wireless Multi-Room Audio Heats Up In Q4

NEW YORK — The holiday selling season promises to be the most competitive ever in wireless multi-room audio systems with the entry of CE heavy-hitters Bose and Samsung into the market, a lower opening-price point for Sonos, and new merchandising displays from Sonos.

Lenbrook Industries, supplier of the NAD and PSB home-audio brands, is also adding to the wireless mix with the launch of its Bluesound brand.

The addition of high-profile competitors will help lift a market that Sonos CEO John MacFarlane said is “growing like mad anyway,” although household penetration is still low.

The new speaker entrants, along with new active POP displays from Sonos, will help educate people about the difference between Bluetooth speaker systems, which are largely portable AC/DC speakers, and wireless multi-room audio systems, which are largely AC-only in-home speakers, he added.

For its part, Bose said it would advertise its new wireless products, called SoundTouch speakers. “We will be merchandising our products in all retail locations where they’re available and will have some advertising this year,” a spokesperson said without elaborating.

Sonos will also promote its new entry-level speaker in various media, including TV. Also to stoke fourthquarter competition, the company launched a promotion in which consumers get a free $49 Bridge with the purchase of any Play:1, Play:3, or Play:5. The Bridge connects to a home’s router to stream music wirelessly from the Cloud and from networked PCs to Sonos’ devices. The promotion lasts through the end of the year.

Also to promote its products in the quarter, Sonos deployed new active POP displays to Target, Best Buy, P.C. Richard and other retailers. The displays focus more on explaining the products’ multi-room benefits, in part to better differentiate the products from Bluetooth speakers, said MacFarlane.

To support the launch of its first Shape Wi-Fi speaker, Samsung plans print and online advertising, a social media program, and in-store demonstrators that let shoppers press a button to activate a speaker, said Jim Kiczek, Samsung’s digital audio and video director.

The promotion and merchandising activities will contribute to continued market growth in the quarter, marketers said, as will the shift in consumers’ music libraries to PCs and handheld devices and the growing popularity of streaming music from the Cloud. The products unveiled by Bose, Samsung and Sonos also stream music from the Cloud.

Retail sell-through has been on the upswing, NPD Group statistics show. Sales of non-docking Wi-Fi speakers rose 35 percent in units and 10 percent in dollars during the January-August period compared to the year-ago period. Full-year 2012 sales were up 87 percent in units and 17 percent in dollars.

Bluetooth speakers are growing at a faster pace, however, because of “the truly portable nature of the standard,” whereas Wi-Fi-enabled speakers “require the listener to be connected to a Wi-Fi connection in order to stream.” said Ben Arnold, NPD’s industry analysis director.

Here’s what’s coming in WI-Fi speakers for holiday sales:

Bose launched three single-chassis SoundTouch Wi-Fi-equipped active speakers, which stream music stored on Macs and PCs, Cloudbased music from Pandora and vTuner, and music stored on Apple smartphones and tablets.

Bose promises over the next six months to add SoundTouch capability to almost all of its current home-audio products either by building it in or offering SoundTouch adapters. Bose also plans to expand the selection of Cloud-based music sources accessed by SoundTouch products.

The tabletop SoundTouch speakers and other Sound- Touch-equipped audio devices are controlled from a Bose app running on Apple and Android mobile devices and from Bose software running on Macs and PCs. A speaker can also be controlled from a wall-mountable Bluetooth LE-equipped controller at up to about 70 feet.

The products are the AC-only SoundTouch 30 at $699, AC-only SoundTouch 20 at $399, and portable AC/DC SoundTouch Portable at $399.

They will be followed in December by the tabletop Wave SoundTouch music system with AM/FM/CD at $599. In early 2014, Bose will ship a SoundTouch-equipped $1,199 SoundTouch Stereo JC 2.1 active speaker system with pair of tiny Jewel Cube satellite speakers and subwoofer.

Also in early 2014, the company will ship a SoundTouch wireless adapter at an unspecified price for Lifestyle home entertainment systems and VideoWave TVs. A $499 SoundTouch SA-4 amplifier, which will add SoundTouch capability to such products as outdoor and in-ceiling speakers, will appear around the same time. The discshaped Bluetooth controller at $99 is also due early next year.

Up to four sources can play simultaneously through the speakers via Wi-Fi, including four different songs or playlists streaming simultaneously from a PC or Mac. More sources can be streamed simultaneously if the speakers are Ethernet-connected.

To stream from an Apple mobile device, the speakers use Apple’s AirPlay, which limits the mobile device to streaming only one song at a time to one speaker at a time.

Sonos shipped its lowest price and most compact wireless speaker to date. The $199-everyday Play:1 is available through Target, Best Buy, J&R and Amazon, as well as 3,500 independent retailers, small chains and systems integrators.

The Play:1 is a compact two-way wall-mountable mono speaker that can be paired with a second Play:1 to create a left-right speaker pair. The speaker measures 4.7 by 4.7 by 6.4 inches.

Sonos’ new speaker joins the current $299 Play:3 and $399 Play:5 tabletop speakers and related products such as the $699 Playbar active soundbar. All prices are unilateral retail prices.

Samsung’s Shape wireless-audio product is a $399 active AC-only speaker that reproduces music stored on Apple and Android smartphones, stored on networked PCs, and streamed from the Cloud by Samsung’s Shape app running on smartphones. Music travels from the sources over a home’s Wi-Fi network to a $49 Shape Hub, which plugs into a home’s router, distributes the music wirelessly to multiple Shape speakers, and ensures synchronization among multiple speakers playing the same song throughout the house. A single speaker can be used without the Hub.

The speaker also incorporates Bluetooth with nearfield communications (NFC) pairing.

All prices fall under the company’s unilateral pricing policy.

Shape uses a Samsung app to turn Apple and Android smartphones into music sources that feed the Hub over a Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n network with dual-band N. The app also turns the smartphones into system controllers to distribute music from networked PCs to the speakers. An iOS and Android app for tablets is in development.

From a single smartphone, users are able to transmit multiple phone-stored songs simultaneously to 10 or more wedge-shaped speakers.

The speakers also reproduce Cloud-based music services incorporated in Samsung’s smartphone app. The services include TuneIn Internet radio, Pandora, Rhapsody and the Amazon Cloud Player.