Digital Assistants Shake Up The Wi-Fi Speaker Market

Amazon vs. Google will play out on the CES show floor
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Amazon vs. Google will play out on the CES show floor
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Suppliers of Wi-Fi multiroom-audio speakers are coming to CES with a growing selection of smart speakers to tap into the sales energy generated by their Amazon- and Google-branded counterparts.

Analysts forecast a continuing double-digit surge in sales of smart Wi-Fi speakers, which incorporate voice-controlled digital assistants, and a decline in sales of Wi-Fi speakers that lack digital assistants.

Here at CES, attendees will find new smart speakers incorporating either Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa built in. 

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“Voice control is pretty necessary in the future [for Wi-Fi speakers],” said Kevin Brannan, director of marketing for the Onkyo, Integra and Pioneer home audio products.

In 2017, Amazon and Google accounted for 99 percent of U.S. smart-speaker unit sales of 20.7 million units, while CE brands’ smart speakers were expected to ship fewer than 500,000 units, given that almost all CE-brand models didn’t ship until the fourth quarter, said Futuresource analyst Rasika D’Souza.

Although audio brands and other CE brands will grow in this space, their shipments will not match Amazon’s or Google’s in the short to mid terms, she continued. Amazon and Google “have the advantage of being early entrants into key markets and have gotten consumer excited with their products. Moreover, they offer many more products at lower price points, which potentially audio companies might not be able to offer.”

The growth of Amazon- and Google-branded smart speakers “has impacted the Wi-Fi non-smart speaker market,” D’Souza also noted. Preliminary Futuresource statistics show a 16 percent drop in 2017 U.S. shipments of non-smart Wi-Fi speakers (including non-smart Wi-Fi/Bluetooth combo speakers) to 2.23 million units, with another 29 percent drop forecast for 2018. “This segment will continue to fall as more brands integrate voice into their Wi-Fi speakers,” she noted. On the other hand, sales of smart Wi-Fi and smart Wi-Fi/Bluetooth speakers soared 170% in 2017 to 20.7 million units and were forecast to grow another 30 percent in 2018.

In its mid-2017 forecast, CTA expected the growth of non-smart Wi-Fi speakers to slow in units and dollars starting in 2018 even as sales of smart speakers continue to surge at double-digit percentage rates.

Profit warning: Though smart speakers will soar, profits on their sales might not. Said Arman Arami, president of Bluetooth-speaker maker NYNE, “Amazon and Google have seen an opportunity and, using the Wi-Fi audio platform, are capturing what they have been looking for: consumer data.” He continued, “I would not be surprised if, in the near future, they give their speakers away for free in order to capture valuable consumer data.”

However the market plays out, suppliers are here today at CES with new smart and non-smart Wi-Fi speakers. Here’s what some of them are showing. 

Other companies introducing smart speakers include: 

Harman/Kardon: The Harman brand is readying its second smart speaker with built-in Alexa. The new $199-MSRP Allure Portable, due in the spring, will be a portable version of the $249-MSRP 360-degree Allure, available since late 2017. The speakers complement HK’s $199 battery-powered Invoke, which features Microsoft’s Cortana assistant built in.

As of late 2017, Harman was the only company with speakers incorporating all three voice-assistant platforms, though through two brands (H/K and JBL).

JBL: The Harman brand is expanding its selection of wireless-multiroom speakers with Chromecast built-in (CCBI) and Google Assistant built in.

To its selection of three speakers with Google Assistant, the brand is adding the $399 Link 500. A ship date was unavailable. Like the $149 Link 10 and $199 Link 20 battery-operated speakers, it features Wi-Fi, multiroom CCBI and Bluetooth, as does JBL’s non-portable $249 Link 300. All offer the same capabilities as the Google Home speaker but don’t make phone calls.

In CCBI speakers lacking Google Assistant, JBL plans early 2018 delivery of the $499/pair vertically oriented Control X Stream. Two can be paired for use as separate left-right speakers. It joins JBL’s $150 Playlist with CCBI. None of the two is battery-powered, but both feature Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

LG: The company is building Google Assistant into all of its 4K OLED, 4K Super UHD LCD, and 4K UJD LCD TVs as well as into its first smart speaker, which also incorporates Chromecast built in.

The company is positioning itself as a lead device developer of smart speakers with built-in Google Assistant and will engage in co-marketing and co–promotion with Google.

Monster: The company is developing smart speakers based on Qualcomm’s AllPlay wireless-multiroom platform, which Monster and other brands already deploy in existing wireless-multiroom speakers. It wasn’t certain whether the AllPlay-based smart speakers would be displayed at CES.

Separately, the company is smartening up a trio of portable Bluetooth speakers by adding MonsterTalk by Melody, a voice-controlled AI-equipped personal music assistant developed by Speak Music. Consumers use natural-language voice commands to access a variety of streaming music services aggregated by Speak, including Spotify Premium, iHeartRadio, iTunes, and NPR. The services are streamed to the speakers via Bluetooth from a Cloud-connected smartphone that runs Speak’s Melody app. With voice commands, consumers also change volume, play, pause and skip tracks.

Speak’s platform was launched in Monster Bluetooth headphones in the summer of 2017.

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