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Akai Views Audio As Elevating Image

Video-display supplier Akai entered the component audio business here at International CES with step-up products intended to elevate Akai’s image and help the company further expand its distribution through retailers with assisted-selling floors, said newly appointed president /CEO Gary Lafferty. Distribution plans include dealers with custom-installation divisions.

In video, the company’s focus is on midpriced and lower midpriced displays, including plasmas and DLPs, Lafferty said.

The new audio strategy, which recalls the brand’s high-end audio heritage, follows a 2004 expansion by Akai into assisted selling floors to complement its warehouse-club channel. The company started 2004 with six customers and six SKUs and ended the year with 21 SKUs and 34 customers with more than 2,500 outlets, Lafferty said. The customers include H.H. Gregg, Circuit City and Conn’s. The company’s plan is to end 2005 with about 45 customers and about 5,000 outlets.

Because the Akai name is well-known to baby boomers, the company is targeting retailers where that generation shops, Lafferty said. “We will be in all channels, but we won’t overpopulate a single channel,” he added.

Planned audio products include two seven-channel A/V receivers, at a suggested $899 and $1,199, both with HDMI switching, and two $1,999 power amps. All products feature BlueTube amplification technology that brings down the cost of tube amplification to moderate price points and uses cool-running tubes that combine the sonic performance of traditional tubes with the longevity of solid-state electronics, the company said. The tubes’ blue glow will be visible through front-panel windows on the receivers.

The company is also incorporating a new type of electrostatic speaker technology to substantially reduce the price of flat-panel electrostatic technology. The high-efficiency speakers include a suggested-$3,000/pair floorstanding tower and a shorter model that will create a 5.1-channel speaker system, with powered subwoofer at $2,000. The speakers can be mounted on a wall.

All components are due in May.

To round out its A/V selection, the company plans to enter the autosound aftermarket as well as the HTiB, shelf-system and boombox markets.

The car products are due in the second quarter with midrange to high-end speakers and amps, some using BlueTube technology. Products will be available to existing accounts, but mobile electronics specialists and mass-market retailers will also be targeted.

For now, three HTiBs are due in about 90 to 120 days, all with integrated DVD and all with wireless surround speakers. They start at a suggested $199 and run to $399 for a model with DVD recorder and slots for multiple flash-memory cards.

Two microsize shelf systems include a model with a DVD player, MP3 playback, RDS, DiVX and multiple card slots, at an approximate suggested $149. The version with CD player but no DVD playback will be a suggested $89.

In an internal change, the Akai sales team will begin selling Nakamichi-brand audio and will work with the Nakamichi marketing staff, Lafferty said. Both brands are marketed in the United States by Akai Product Holdings (APH), a subsidiary of Woodland Hills, Calif.-based ESI Enterprises, a diversified company whose holdings include a sporting goods manufacturer, commercial and residential real estate, and Compact Power Systems, which markets the CellBoost brand of disposable cellphone batteries.

Effective Feb. 1, Hong Kong’s Grande Group will invest in APH, making it a joint venture with ESI. Grande owns the Nakamichi, Akai, Kawa and Sansui brands. The Grande investment gives ESI the confidence to invest more in the brand than a limited-term licensing agreement would, Lafferty said.