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Suppliers Target Premium Bluetooth Niche

NEW YORK — It’s hard to deny the appeal of Bluetooth speakers to audio and CE suppliers.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) forecast that Bluetooth speakers will generate $650 million in factory-level sales in 2014, up 69 percent, to exceed forecast soundbar sales of $611 million, up 17 percent.

Although the strongest growth rates are occurring in Bluetooth speakers at $199 and less, premium-audio suppliers see enough opportunity in higher-priced niches to participate in the market with products priced at $299 and more.

Bang& Olufsen’s B&O Play sub-brand, high-end speaker maker Bowers & Wilkins, and BenQ are the latest companies to launch their first Bluetooth speakers, all portable AC/DC models priced at $399, $349 and $299, respectively. For its part, pro-audio supplier Marshall introduced its latest AC-only Bluetooth speakers at $300 and $400.

At these price points, the speakers enter a segment that is growing more slowly than the overall Bluetooth-speaker market. Sales of Bluetooth speakers at $299 and up rose 5.2 percent in retail-level dollars for the 12 months ending September, but the segment priced at less than $299 rose 100.7 percent, The NPD Group’s Retail Tracking Service found. For the 12 months ending September, the market share of $299-plus Bluetooth speakers shrank to 2.5 percent from the prior 12 months’ 4.7 percent.

Growth is slower at the higher price points, said Ben Arnold, NPD’s industry analysis director, because of “a lot of activity from premium brands in the $150 to $199 price range.” That range, he said, “has become the new Bluetooth premium price band.” Prices above $200, he believes, are being challenged by multiroom Wi-Fi speakers. “The premium Bluetooth market is being challenged on one side by premium brands and several ‘good-enough’ products at $150 to $199, and on the other side by the growing crop of network-connected, Wi-Fi speakers, many of which offer multiroom,” he said. Some of the Wi- Fi speakers also feature Bluetooth.

Wi-Fi speakers, however, are not as portable as Bluetooth speakers, usually requiring an AC outlet for power and use within range of a home Wi-Fi network. So B&O, Bowers & Wilkins and BenQ targeted the niche for premium Bluetooth sound anywhere inside or outside the house. Given their premium-market positions, the companies are not concerned with out-pricing competitors.

“Our strategy has always been to solve a particular problem well, not out-price the other guy,” said Robert Wudeck, strategy and business development associate VP for BenQ America.

Here’s what the four companies have launched:

BenQ: The Taiwan company expanded into audio for the first time with the industry’s first Bluetooth speaker with electrostatic speaker panels.

The company expects to offer other audio products in the future with its power-ef ficient electrostatic technology but declined to specify the types of products or availability dates.

The company is best known in North America for its commercial and residential video projectors and gaming monitors targeted to high-end performance niches. It also offers digital signage.

The premium Bluetooth speaker is the portable $299-everyday eVolo, which features two fold-out electrostatic panels that deliver midrange and high-frequency clarity and detail for vocals and acoustic instruments, said Robert Wudeck, strategy and business development associate VP for BenQ America. The panels are complemented by two passive and two active low-bass cone drivers that he said deliver “tight, precise bass.” The speaker, about the size of a hardcover book, differentiates itself from Bluetooth speakers that concentrate on reproducing deep bass at the expense of higher frequencies, he said, noting that many modern songs include a lot of high-frequency energy.

The aluminum-chassis speaker will “establish a sound unique to our brand” and be “compelling to the music lover,” he said. Because the fold-out electrostatic panels radiate sound from front and back, they deliver a mix of direct and reflected sound as experienced in live performances, he noted.

The speaker, due in black or silver, also differentiates itself from most other Bluetooth speakers by incorporating a USB audio input to play music from a USB-connected computer. The speaker also streams AptX over Bluetooth and comes with analog input and analog output, which streams Bluetooth music to a more powerful home audio system.

The speaker is designed for small- to medium-size rooms and delivers SPLs up to 90dB. The rechargeable lithium battery lasts for 12 hours of music playback and normal volume levels. It also comes with hands-free speakerphone.

Bang & Olufsen: The company added the first Bluetooth speaker to its B&O Play line, which includes a portable AirPlay speaker.

The book-shaped BeoPlay 2, though shaped like a book, delivers 360-degree sound and a 24-hour battery life at $399, the company said. It’s available in green, gray and black with included leather strap at Bang & Olufsen stores, the B&O Play online store (, and select design and department stores.

The speaker features an extruded-aluminum chassis with polymer shell on each of its largest sides. Each side incorporates a two-channel driver array, and an extra tweeter delivers high-frequency sound “around the edges,” the company said. The arrangement is promoted as delivering “room-filling music in all directions.”

The drivers are powered by a 2×30-watt Class D amplifier that delivers 180-watt peak output and 55Hz-22kHz frequency response.

To extend the life of the rechargeable Li-ion battery to 24 hours, Bang & Olufsen added “adaptive power management” technology to monitor and anticipate the incoming audio signal, making it possible to feed the exact amount of power needed by the amplifiers only when they need it, the company said.

The device features Bluetooth 4.0, a line input, and a USB port to charge mobile devices. It also comes with leather strap. The speaker weighs less than 2.5 pounds and measures 1.7 by 5.6 by 10.1 inches.

Bowers & Wilkins: The portable AC/DC T7 model, available this month at $349, joins two AirPlay speakers with Wi-Fi and two AirPlay speakers with Wi-Fi and iPod/iPhone-dock.

The T7 will be sold initially through B&W dealers and online partners Amazon, Magnolia, and Crutchfield, a spokesperson said.

The speaker is about the size of a hardcover book and features AptX streaming over Bluetooth, two 2-inch active drivers, two force-canceling high-output bass radiators that extend low frequencies response, high-performance DACs, digital signal processing, and two filterless class D amplifiers said to deliver “smooth and open high frequencies, intelligible midrange frequencies and tight bass.”