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Custom Vendors Launch Products Despite Housing Downturn

By Joseph Palenchar

— The steep stock market decline, the credit crunch and a steep drop-off in high-end homes built on spec have made this housing market downturn different from any in recent memory, suppliers and distributors said.

The custom industry downturn has been broad-based, with the possible exception of MDU projects and very-high-end custom homes that often involve an architect and are built over two or more years, they agreed.

Installers have adopted multiple survival strategies, such as focusing more on retrofits, diversifying into light commercial, adding lighting controls, taking on smaller jobs, networking with architects and real-estate agents, and mining prospects from opened building permits and existing housing sales.

Some suppliers have responded by widening their distribution, lowering their accounts-payable exposure by reducing terms and credit lines, reducing inventories to cut carrying costs, easing minimum order requirements and offering quantity and bundled-product discounts.

Here at International CES, vendors will focus on launching products to help them compete better for surviving installers’ business. Here’s what some of them plan to show:

Definitive Technology: The company plans March shipments of its first custom-installed speakers promoted as being “near-invisible” after installation, thanks to small diameters, hidden flanges and low-profile micro-perf grilles.

The “Disappearing In-Wall” series will consist of five round two-way speakers, one round single-speaker stereo model, two square two-way in-walls and one rectangular bipolar surround model. Suggested retails start at $189 each for the smallest speaker, the DI 3.5R two-way round model with 3.5-inch midwoofer, 0.75-inch pivoting dome tweeter and 4.6-inch-diameter grille. It and the $199-each DI 4.5R with 4.5-inch midwoofer and 5.3-inch-diameter grille are positioned as complementing small recessed lighting fixtures, whose popularity is growing. Prices top out at $399 each. A new driver technology delivers more bass output and dynamic range than larger drivers.

Hunter: The Memphis-based ceiling-fan company is teaming with Mitek’s Soundolier wireless audio division to launch a ceiling fan with integrated wireless speaker system. The system is based on the 2.4GHz wireless technology that Soundolier uses in its Soundolier Duo floorstanding speaker/torchiere lamp, which shipped in 2008.

In the ceiling-fan system, a combination light/audio kit fastened below the fan blades delivers music transmitted wirelessly from a 2.4GHz wireless transmitter, which can be connected to any music source up to 300 feet from the fan via RCA inputs or 3.5mm input. A handheld remote controls the lights, fan and speaker-volume level. The fan will be available in an indoor version and an indoor/outdoor version, each at $499, including transmitter. The light/audio kit will also be available separately at $399 with transmitter and $349 without transmitter. Shipments begin in early 2009.

Jamo: The brand’s first custom speakers voice-matched to its in-room speakers appear in the new 600 and 400 series, all designed in Denmark for the first time and using technologies available in its in-room speakers. The 18 models in the two series, priced from a suggested $299 to $899 each, are also said to be easier to install than their predecessors and feature more discreet cosmetics.

For easier installation, they feature a one-piece baffle and a bridge design that acts as a handle to hold it into place during installation. Magnetic grilles simplify grille attachment.

The in-room technologies brought to the wall and ceiling include a wave guide to control tweeter dispersion, decoupled tweeter technology to prevent wall vibration, and a center plug, which replaces traditional dust caps to make a cone lighter and more responsive, increase power handling and prevent break-up points. Hard conical cones deliver detailed midrange.

The speakers, scheduled to ship last month, will be displayed in the Hard Rock Hotel.

Paradigm: The company’s first two architectural subwoofers are positioned as entry-level models. Pricing was unavailable.

The PCS-80R is a round in-ceiling model, and the PCS-80SQ is a square in-wall model, both with 8-inch driver. They’re designed to be used in pairs and can be mated with Paradigm’s Class D X-300 amp, which drive up to four of the subs at a time. The 300-watt amp also features DSP and EQ to match the cavity size or optional back box.

Wisdom: Some of the newest additions to the company’s custom Sage series include a 76-inch-tall line-source in-wall speaker. The $15,000-per-channel L150i speaker, shipping now, is the company’s tallest at 76 inches by 8 inches and designed for large rooms or rooms with challenging acoustics, such as rooms with cathedral ceilings and hard floors. The line-source array is said to effectively eliminate floor and ceiling reflections and exhibit less propagation loss than traditional speakers, delivering a large sweet spot for rooms with large seating areas, the company said.

ZeeVee: The Littleton, Mass., company is launching the installer version of a product that distributes HD video from a DVR to any HDTV in the house without attaching a client device to each TV.

The ZvPro Zv-250 captures component or RGB video from an HDTV, converts it into a QAM HDTV channel, and broadcasts it to multiple HDTVs simultaneously over a home’s coaxial cables. The broadcast is picked up by an HDTV’s existing QAM tuner. The TVs will also display Internet video when the device is connected to a PC.

Pricing wasn’t available, but it’s said to deliver its capabilities “at a fraction of the cost of existing solutions.”