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The future of home audio

Consumer demand for quality, high-end audio remains ever-present. However, custom installation is a much more complex animal than it used to be, and the way we consume music continues to evolve. So what lies ahead? And how will streaming services, downloads and wireless technology affect the added-value services that custom installers provide? A visit to next week’s CEDIA Home Technology Event will provide answers to these questions and indicators of the direction audio is taking in the future.

It’s a truth pretty universally acknowledged that the custom installation industry was born in response to consumer demand for high quality, high-end audio.

In these early days, the industry defined its starting point as providing “posh hi-fi for toffs”. Today, this requirement for installers to deliver simple, high quality music only systems for discerning audiophile customers remains.

But custom installation is a much more complex animal than it used to be. A typical installation is capable of embracing and integrating many more sub-systems than ever before resulting in sophisticated, whole-house AV entertainment, lighting, security and HVAC systems which incorporate the latest technology and glamorous home cinemas with stunningly powerful audio, very much a part of that mix.

The way we consume music is changing and continues to evolve too. In the month that saw Apple launched its iCloud service, convenience is, undoubtedly, king. So where does this leave quality audio? And how will internet streaming services, downloads and wireless technology affect the added-value services that custom installers provide?
A visit to the CEDIA Home Technology Event (28-30 June 2011, ExCeL London) will provide answers to these questions and key indicators for installers on the direction audio is taking in the future.
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“High-performance audio still offers a tremendous sales opportunity for both home cinema and multi-room applications. Whilst control, flat panels and even switching and distribution products have become more commoditised, audio electronics and particularly speakers continue to be an area of fantastic development and profit potential” says Neil Davidson of Genesis Technologies (pictured).

“Discreet installation is vital and so most people are familiar with the concept of in-wall or on-wall loudspeakers” adds Davidson. “Often these products are viewed as having performance compromises – in fact the opposite is true. A well designed in-wall speaker can easily perform better than a floor-standing model. One of the biggest challenges of course is educating those in the industry, never mind end users, that such options are available.

“One of the biggest barriers to selling high-performance audio is the difficulty in demonstrating to clients just how easy it is to detect the difference between entry-level and high-end. Nothing beats dedicated demo space, and working with suppliers who offer use of such facilities can have a massive impact on the bottom line.”

At the Home Technology Event, Genesis Technologies will be demonstrating a home cinema system using only in-wall speakers but still capable of true ‘reference-level’ audio performance. The company is excited to not only show a new product line but also to try and let dealers experience what reference level actually feels like.
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“Audio is such a subjective topic,” points out Stuart Tickle (pictured), managing director at distributor AWE Europe. “The challenge in the CI industry is how to balance system flexibility and quality within a customer’s budget. In the simplest form, you could spec a £10k top-quality single-room system, or you could fit a whole-house wireless network audio system for £300 per zone. The problem here is that the desire and demand to provide a fully featured whole-house system can completely overshadow the quality of audio. The other issue is that that kind of average-quality high-feature set system can be ordered online and DIY-installed”.

The key challenge for AWE is also one of education. “It’s vitally important to get the message across that to get decent quality audio, you need to spec decent quality equipment. Give consideration to quality as well as feature set and don’t always compromise performance with the desire to make things disappear. With careful selection of the right products this can be achieved,” says Tickle.

“The obvious opportunity for installers is to specify additional zones to a main system. Although we sell huge numbers of in-ceiling speakers, do give consideration to more traditional floor-standing and wall-mounted speakers. There are beautiful solutions from KEF that can easily outperform the invisible or discreet alternatives.”

At the show, AWE will be unveiling a range of audio innovations. These include the European launch of Total Control from URC, a brand new whole-house control system that features good-quality multi-room audio distribution; recently upgraded DF Solutions Sonix hardware and software which deliver a three-zone audio server solution that now features full Spotify integration within its 3D GUI. This is the first product that allows you to “pin” online tracks alongside your stored library. Also on show will be top-quality multi-zone amplification from ARCAM and Denon CI which can take a distributed audio system to the next level by providing dedicated, top-quality amplification around a house.
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NuVo Technologies will support the presence of its exclusive UK distributor Habitech at this year’s event, showcasing key products from its market-leading portfolio of products. Taking the stage will be Renovia, the revolutionary whole-home audio system based on powerline technology which has already made a big impression on Habitech’s customers since its release in March 2010. Another significant highlight will be the new Music Port Elite (MPS4-E – pictured) content aggregator and streaming device, NuVo’s powerful D460 amplifier, the NuVo App for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad devices, as well as the company’s Single Point In-Wall Stereo Speaker.

The Music Port Elite is an especially interesting development. This product gives the homeowner a single all-inclusive component that gains access to music libraries from a wide variety of sources including music stored on networked computers, free and subscription internet-based sources and cloud-based music libraries. The MPS4-E expands the homeowner’s options far beyond what’s loaded on their iPod and introduces them to an integrated world of audio choices that combines multiple digital content services and their personal storage devices into one single access point for making content more accessible, even beyond their home. The Music Port Elite makes whole-home audio more versatile, flexible, functional and modern than ever before.
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Content access and distribution is also a major driver in the market, according to Marc Waple (pictured) at MidwichHome, the home technology division of trade-only distributor of AV, IT and consumer electronics distributor Midwich.

“One of the challenges the industry currently faces is the increasing client demands for content delivery to provide compressed music, HD audio and video distribution throughout the home,” says Waple. “Vendors like Niles Audio and Aton can deliver the latest user features, including networked music and radio throughout the home from a single box. Secondly, the industry faces increased user accessibility from the latest portable tablet device. MidwichHome has an impressive offering here, with the new Elan G product range.”

At the show MidwichHome will provide visitors with the opportunity to discover exactly what reseller’s clients require from discreet application, specific speaker arrangements, touch screen user interfaces to no visible intrusions for a client’s delicate or minimal interior-designed home.

In other audio innovations at the show Music in Every Room, the UK distributor for EISSOUND, will present two new products to the AV Industry. The New Kb Sound iSelect with DAB radio is designed for the kitchen or bathroom whilst the i500 Multi-room audio system has a KNX interface. Both of the products fit completely in the ceiling and feature a wireless iPod docking station.

Amina Technologies is returning to the Home Technology Event this year with its full range of invisible loudspeaker solutions. Amina will be presenting how to install this range behind plaster skim, wood, veneer and acrylic boards. Also on show will be an array of demonstration equipment which is aimed at those who wish to educate their customers as to what is possible with invisible loudspeakers.

Meanwhile, Artcoustic will be utilising this year’s show to demonstrate what it calls the world’s first and best on-wall loudspeakers with bespoke design options. Aesthetically beautiful designs from the DF-Range enable stunning systems to be installed in beautiful rooms, whereas the Spitfire range of loudspeakers provide the very finest in dedicated home cinema performance in a fraction of the space traditionally required.

All this activity on the show floor will be supported by exhibitors offering free training at the event alongside must-attend CEDIA courses covering Home Cinema Design, Audio and Video Set Up and Calibration and Acoustic Isolation and Noise Control.

The Home Technology Event takes place at ExCeL London from Tuesday 28 until Thursday 30 June. That’s when the exhibition show floor will be open, although delegates will be able to attend CEDIA Training courses a day earlier from Monday 27 June. For a full list of all exhibitors taking part at the show, further information and to register for the event, visit the show website.