The Trouble with Speakers?

By Doug Henderson
Published on: January 12, 2018

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I was recently asked, “Why is it so hard to sell floor-standing speakers today?” I’d expand that question to performance audio as a whole. My answer is, selling floor-standing speakers is hard, and it isn’t. It depends on the mindset and the ambition. I would add that if you are a specialty dealer and are not good at selling performance audio, you’d better get busy if you want to stick around. Besides, there is no better way to have fun in this business!

In general, the specialty segment of the CE industry, call it the audio/video/integration business, finds itself in a very perilous spot. We’ve spent years now telling people, in essence, that “good enough” sound was all they needed, yielding to their ignorance rather than taking the longer, riskier path to show them the very real performance options available. We did this for a simple reason – we could sell them other features or solution based products more easily and often more lucratively. I’ll outline it for you:

  • In the not very distant past, we sold people sketchy control systems and not very good flat panel TVs for huge sums because these products seemed to answer a need.
  • We put relatively poorer sounding speakers (and audio products generally) into people’s homes not to hit a budget, which was typically elastic, but to promote convenience and unobtrusiveness instead.
  • We failed to show how quality free-standing speakers and appropriate supporting components can be harmonized with people’s décor and to highlight the wonderful experience they deliver.
  • Manufacturers are as guilty as dealers in this sense as few if any set a context for their products beyond narrow audiophile borders. Long ago, audiophiles became akin to model railroaders, a harmless but eccentric bunch of hobbyists. Audio brands have been fighting for share in a diminishing marketplace for years.  Eventually, even the winners are losers in this game.

In contrast, the appliance industry, which in many ways parallels ours, stressed the experience of great meals, foods so well preserved they are farm fresh from the ‘fridge, and family togetherness on their way to becoming in-demand style icons. And what style!

Big commercial grade appliances with logos the size of billboards testify to their owner’s proud indulgence. I’ve heard people say, “But everyone needs a kitchen!” Have you visited a home without a TV and some form of music system? People could spend a whole lot less on their kitchens and still get meals on the table. The high-perceived value of luxury appliances was created by the industry and massively reinforced by the physicality of the products themselves. Prices went steadily up, not down. For our part, we made our offerings invisible, mediocre and ever cheaper.

I’ve often said that a piano would be a funny looking table if we didn’t see it as a musical instrument, and yet a piano graces many an upscale home for the cultured statement it makes. No one would walk into a great room with a grand piano and say, “now, that’s ridiculous!” When I see a well-placed pair of high performance speakers in a room like that I see living music – Beethoven, The Stones, Coltrane, Beyonce, whatever comes to mind – and that’s the same statement. But increasingly, I don’t see those speakers. We moved speakers to the walls, then the ceilings when walls were deemed too intrusive, and now often behind a coat of drywall compound, all along assuring people that they’d sound just fine. I want to be clear on this point. I am not denigrating CI speakers. I’ve sold hundreds of thousands of them. I was the primary driver of the CI business at Bowers & Wilkins. I have CI speakers in my home where they are the appropriate choice. But, truth be told, they rarely get played. They are just not very inspiring compared to my main system and their invisibility tends to make you forget they are even there. My main system is built around floor standing speakers. It gets used nearly every day. It is possible to have great sound with architectural speakers, of course, but that takes specialized design and special care in the installation. More typical CI speakers installed in the ceilings can be fine for secondary applications but if these are the primary speakers in a home, I consider that a loss to the customer’s enjoyment and a major lost revenue opportunity. A lose/lose, in other words. Even worse, smart little AI speakers now dominate the marketplace (there was a world before Alexa and a very different one after). These sound as good as many in-ceiling speakers to the ears of people trained to accept low fidelity. They are nearly free courtesy of a business model that doesn’t need to make money on hardware. They can be placed anywhere and moved around at will, require no installation, provide an ever growing array of smart home functions and come with access to millions of songs … Houston, we have a problem. Did I mention that they are nearly free?

Tune in next week, when I discuss how I turned it around with my dealers.

 

Doug Henderson

Doug Henderson

Doug Henderson has had a nearly thirty-five year career in the high performance audio industry, starting at Dahlquist speakers in 1983, continuing for 22 years as principal of independent rep firm Audtek, representing a virtual who's who of manufacturers including Audio Research, Bowers & Wilkins, Meridian, Krell, Rotel, Sonus faber and others. Most recently he was for a decade president/CEO of B&W Group North America.

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