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Wireless Multiroom Audio Speakers Gain Steam From Suppliers

LAS VEGAS — Sales of wireless multiroom audio systems have grown swiftly in recent years, prompting prominent suppliers to launch their first systems and prompting retailers to promote the category with dedicated retail displays.

Here at International CES, companies are launching their first wireless multiroom systems to grab a share of the growth market. They include LG, MartinLogan and U.K.-based start-up Damson Audio. Other companies, such as Voco and JBL, are expanding their selection, and DTS’s Phorus subsidiary is replacing a model.

New products include Wi-Fi speakers that use smartphones and tablets as whole-house music sources. Some also use networked PCs as whole-house music sources, with a smartphone or tablet acting as a system controller. Some also access streaming services.

The introductions here follow the entry last year of such companies as Bose, Samsung and Lenbrook start-up Bluesound into the market.

The new entries are helping promote the market’s visibility to consumers, and, in turn, sales growth. In 2013, 15 percent of dock-less wireless-only speakers shipped in the U.S. were Wi-Fi-equipped Air- Play and multi-room Wi-Fi speakers, with the other 85 percent incorporating only Bluetooth, Futuresource Consulting said. By 2017, however, with Wi-Fi chips increasingly incorporating Bluetooth at negligible incremental cost, Futuresource forecasts that wireless speakers combining both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth will account for 45 percent of wireless-speaker shipments by 2017, with Bluetooth-only speakers focused on the lower end.

In 2013, U.S shipments of wireless dock-less speakers (incorporating either Bluetooth or Wi-Fi) were estimated by Futuresource to grow by 168 percent to 7.5 million. Unit wireless sales are forecast to grow in 2014 by 51 percent to 11.3 million.

Wireless-equipped docking-speaker sales are also growing, Futuresource said. U.S. shipments rose an estimated 35 percent in 2013 to 2.3 million and are forecast to grow by 17 percent in 2014 to 2.7 million.

U.S. household penetration of wireless speakers in 2013 was estimated at 9 percent and forecast to grow to 51 percent in 2017.

Like Futuresource, some suppliers, such as DTS Play-Fi division GM Dannie Lau, see multiroom Wi- Fi speaker systems emerging as a step-up to Bluetooth speakers, which can’t be used for whole-house music distribution.

With Bluetooth sales up sharply in 2013 Lau said, “multi-room streaming is a natural extension to the category. As Bluetooth has become a commodity feature, multi-room streaming will lead the next growth phase.”

“Another positive for the category is that wireless multi-room audio is being positioned as the next-big thing by retailers,” Lau said, pointing to dedicated retail space for Wi-Fi audio products during the recent holiday season.

B&W Group president Doug Henderson called it “a very new category that is experiencing a lot of growth.”

The products, he said, are “introducing or perhaps reintroducing people to listening to music in three-dimensional space.” A percentage of them, he noted “will graduate to larger [home-audio] systems.”

At least one supplier, Pioneer Americas marketing executive VP Russ Johnston, sees the Wi-Fi speaker market growing but nonetheless held back from its full potential because of consumer confusion caused by inexpensive Bluetooth products. “Multi-room audio is definitely growing as a category but has not created mass appeal,” he said. “Consumer confusion caused by inexpensive Bluetooth products has not allowed the industry to maximize the market.”

For consumers interested in multi-room capabilities, the following suppliers are launching products.

LG’s first entry into the market ships in late Q2 or early Q3. The system uses Apple and Android mobile devices as music sources that stream music to multiple wireless speakers via a Wi-Fi network. Mobile devices also serve as remote controls to select and direct PC-stored music to speakers. The system also accesses streaming services, but it was unclear whether the services were embedded in the speakers or in LG’s mobile-device app.

Mesh-network technology is used to extend range and improve quality of service.

To synchronize music among multiple speakers, consumers must connect a Bridge Box connected to a home’s router. If only one speaker will be used, the Bridge Box isn’t required.

The company is showing two speakers, the 70-watt NP8740 and 40-watt NP8540.

Up to five speakers can play at a time, each playing a different music source.

Additional details were unavailable.

MartinLogan has its first active tabletop speaker incorporates Wi-Fi, Ethernet port, AirPlay, DLNA networking, and Bluetooth with aptX and AAC streaming over Bluetooth. It also features Made For iPod/iPhone/iPad USB, built-in DAC, and 3.5mm optical digital input with included mini-Toslink optical adapter.

The $899-suggested one-piece Crescendo, which ships in the first quarter, is shaped like a half-circle with flat top facing up. Its solid-MDF enclosure is wrapped in high-gloss black or real-wood walnut veneer and features aluminum stand.

Via DLNA, Crescendo plays back music stored on a DLNA-equipped PCs and NAS drives and DLNA-equipped Android smartphone, the company said. The computer or phone is the control source that selects songs for playback. The Crescendo itself does not select content from DLNA or AirPlay sources, the company said.

Voco is expanding its selection of wireless multiroom music/video receivers with the addition of the V-Amp receiver/amplifier, which connects to passive speakers and plays music from USB-connected hard drives, networked PCs and networked NAS drives, USB sticks, smartphone music libraries and embedded music-streaming services. It also streams You- Tube videos.

The 24-inch-wide V-Amp is the company’s wireless receiver with a built-in amp and no speakers.

The company’s other products are the V-Spot receiver/ speaker. The V-Zone and V-Zone+ are wireless receivers without amplification or built-in speakers.

V-Amp pricing was unavailable.