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John Dew-Stanley, Polar Audio

Bucking the general industry trend, UK distributor Polar Audio achieved very creditable growth of 6% in 2010. The company’s technical director talks about taking an holistic approach to the integration market and the current challenges posed by RF spectrum reallocation.

How did you come to be working in the pro-audio business? Originally, my background was in broadcasting. Having completed my A-levels, I undertook some vocational training in Salisbury, Wiltshire, with The Local Radio Company and literally started from the ground up: working behind a mixing console and liaising with news reporters and news-gathering agencies. Subsequent to that, I became product manager for a radio station automation product at Harris Corp, before moving into TV automation equipment.

I had met John Midgley (MD of Polar Audio, then trading as beyerdynamic UK), who lived in the same area, and we began to have discussions about a possible role there. By 2000, I had joined beyerdynamic UK as a product manager, looking after beyerdynamic, Biamp and the control system brand CUE. In 2004, I became technical director, and have held that role ever since. In 2008, beyerdynamic UK rebranded as Polar Audio. How significant was this move?Very. [Under the old name] the danger was that we could be perceived as doing one thing only. beyerdynamic is still our largest brand and makes microphones, headphones, wireless and conference systems, but we are also involved in, and have expertise with, loudspeakers, DSP, acoustics and various other things that don’t necessarily fall under the beyerdynamic remit. We needed to make clear that we were a distributor with a number of different brands, and [the new name] helped with that.

The change also coincided with us promoting ourselves more as a solutions provider. We now have 14 different brands and they are all able to integrate with each other. We don’t see ourselves as being a box-shifting distributor; rather, we want to add value and justify our position in the marketplace by [assisting] integrators and supplying end-to-end solutions. Have you had a good recession (if that’s not a contradiction in terms!)? And how important is install to Polar Audio?
(Laughs) I think we have! Our business was up 6% last year, and within that installation also grew 6% for us. That is a very good result considering the difficult economic climate. We have worked very hard to deliver the best results for our customers and to maintain our business, and as a result we are in a strong position. I know that not everyone in the industry can say that.

Six years ago, installation would probably have accounted for 40% of our business, but now it’s more than 50%. It’s our most important and largest-growing market.

Customers across the board have had to grapple with the UK RF spectrum changes. What’s the current situation regarding compatibility of beyerdynamic systems with the new PMSE (Performance Making & Special Events) home of Channel 38?
There is now an extensive range of beyerdynamic systems for Channel 38, although we are also continuing to sell Channel 69 versions as well. In terms of specific systems, we are focusing on the Opus Series 600 radio mics – already available in Channel 38 versions – and are shortly to release a Channel 38 compatible version of the Opus 910, which will be shown at ISE 2011.

The Opus 600 is available in a number of varieties and we will be [promoting] that as the appropriate Channel 38 system for customers looking to upgrade or change their inventories. Ofcom reports that 65% of eligible applicants registered for the funding scheme designed to help PMSE users of wireless systems operating in Channel 69 to meet the costs of replacement equipment. How do you assess the general level of awareness of the spectrum issue?What we have seen from our customer base is that most people know what is happening. Those who have contacted us understand the funding scheme process and have found it to be straightforward, although we have had to assist some people with the rate card, which has been the subject of revision. [NB. It should be noted that, at time of writing, the funding scheme has yet to receive the final rubber-stamp from the UK Treasury.]

Licensed wireless system users will be aware of the spectrum changes, but I agree that there is a possibility that [some unlicensed users] won’t know about it until the switchover takes place. For them, it will be an unwelcome and unpleasant shock.

Whilst UK PMSE can now face the future with increased confidence, pressure on RF spectrum is destined to increase. How concerned are you about a possible generation of ‘cognitive’ geolocation devices? We are certainly keeping a close on eye on those developments and are monitoring all of the options. We are very close to the R&D departments at all of the brands we represent, and know that they are looking at all manner of scenarios to help deliver the end-result we require and our customers desire. At the end of the day, we are confident that we will find technologies to answer the long-term requirements of the industry [in this regard]. Given your company focus on integrated solutions, how do you perceive the outlook for networking technologies and, in particular, AVB (Audio/Video Bridging)?As a distributor, we support a number of networking technologies: Dante, CobraNet, EtherSound and [Aviom’s] A-Net. We welcome the move towards AVB and think that it could be very good for our customer base. My hope is that it will help the majority of applications and enable easy integration and networking.

However, I think that there will always be a demand for proprietary networking solutions. For example, if you had a studio environment that required signal distribution to 12 studios with absolutely no latency or jitter, AVB might not be suitable – but a protocol like A-Net could be. So it’s very much about looking at each project individually and finding the most appropriate solution.

Across the board, there is always a desire for simplification of system topologies and the ability to achieve straightforward integration. We are constantly being asked to be very clever with the technology and to be highly cost-effective in the way we deliver it to the customer. That will continue to be the priority as technologies continue to evolve. How do you see Polar Audio developing over the next few years? We are currently predicting 10% growth for the next 12 months, which I think is quite realistic for us to achieve. We have increased our staff and resources over the last year, and envisage that we will continue to do so over the next few years. Our intention is to add more staff to the back-office and the sales team. Polar Audio will retain a strong presence in the marketplace and we are very confident that the brands and solutions we offer will continue to be popular and embraced by our client base.