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Shelf Systems Struggle To Stay Relevant In Home Audio

The venerable audio shelf system is down but not out.

The audio contender is on the ropes after suffering a one-two punch from rising sales of home-theater-in-a-box systems and from the inclination of young people to listen to music through a bedroom or dorm PC.

Despite the changing market, suppliers hope to inject some relevance and excitement into the category at CES. Suppliers here will add MP3-CD playback and game-machine connections to more systems, introduce more systems with USB connections to a PC, and step up their focus on the growing microsystem segment.

Systems with built-in CD-recorders will go by the wayside as lone holdout Philips exits that market, which also saw Pioneer and Aiwa leave in the last few years. Philips cited the price premium and the youth market’s love of the PC for music burning. Aiwa cited high returns on the products because consumers tried to record onto data CD-R discs, not audio CD-Rs.

As the market changed, factory-level sales of shelf systems fell 20 percent in units and even more in dollars in 2002, RCA estimates, but microsystem sales rose 40 percent in units to achieve 25-30 percent unit share of the shelf-system market, the company said. Microsystem sales will increase again in 2003 but at a slower rate, the company projects.

Microsystems satisfy the consumer need for small systems with lots of power, said Rich Phipps, RCA’s audio business-development director.

To increase the relevance of shelf systems, JVC and Sony turned in recent years to hard-drive-equipped jukebox models, and Philips said it will follow, but not until 2004.

In 2003 products, here’s what dealers will find at CES:

Denon: The DM-31 single-disc personal audio system features 2×22-watt amp and single-well CD that’s CD-R/RW-compatible. Details were unavailable.

JVC: Four of six new minisystems are the company’s first minis with MP3-CD playback. They are the HX-Z30 and Z10 with five-disc changer and three-disc-carousel MX-GT88 and MX-GA77. All four feature biamped speakers and cassette deck.

RCA: Two new shelf systems, sized between mini and micro systems, are the first with proprietary Neo-5 five-tray changer mechanism. It ejects and displays all five CDs at a time (or four if the fifth is playing) to help users quickly identify the inserted discs. It provides the benefits of a carousel changer with the smaller footprint of an elevator-style changer, the company said.

The RS2300, due in June at a suggested $149, features cassette deck, 100 watts, and CD-R/RW compatibility. The step-up $199-suggested RS2302, due June, features 200 watts.

Sharp: The SD-EX200 shelf system features 1-bit digital amplification, CD player, tuner, 200 watts total power, and two-way bass reflex speakers. It ships in June at a suggested $399.