How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Soundbar

2/19/2013 6:36:00 PM
There are many parts of this industry that I like… there’s that moment when you turn on a system for the first time and all of the keypads spring to life, come online and start reporting metadata just like they’re supposed to. There’s that moment after you’ve “activated” all of the lighting devices and press “All On,” and all of the lights actually come on. There is the moment when you hand over a system to a client and they're all smiles and thrilled with the job that you’ve done.

Sure. Those are all great things. But the part of this industry that I truly love is designing and installing dedicated home theaters. It’s not even about the money that these jobs bring in; it’s just the part of this industry that resonates most deeply with me. From unboxing and racking in the gear, to the unique smell of the new screen material (if you’ve never “stopped to smell the Stewart,” you are missing out, my friend), to the remote programming and calibration, to the final “wow!” moment of sitting back and watching those first demo clips… I doubt anything will come along that will ever replace my love for home theater.

So, you can imagine that I was pretty against soundbars when they first came on the scene. I saw them as low-end interlopers trying to take away from my beloved home theater installs, and every time that I hear the comment, “Well, I was told that a soundbar is just as good as a regular surround system,” that aneurysm in my brain gets one step closer to exploding.

I wouldn’t say that our company was resistant to or ignorant of the soundbar category, but we never really embraced it. In fact, we weren’t even showing any on our show floor. But over time my heart softened to the soundbar’s siren song, and now it has become a large part of our sales and installation strategy with us demonstrating three different bars on our floor—and looking to possibly bring in a fourth. As you can imagine, this has greatly increased our sales in the category.

Here’s what caused me to change my mind embrace soundbars and why I think you should too.

They Are Gaining Serious Street Cred
It took a while for “serious speaker companies to fully embrace soundbars, meaning that the market was glutted with sub $200 models that did nothing to endure them to custom installers. This also cast the pall of “low-end” and “lousy sound” over the category. But now, you have some heavyweight manufacturers putting some serious technology into this market segment: Paradigm, Martin Logan, Definitive Technology, GoldenEar Technology, Atlantic Technology, B&W, Polk… Krell is even said to be working on one! Krell! Soundbars are no longer the red-headed stepchildren of the AV world, but rather an accepted and serious technology solution.

Tell a Different Story
My mission at CEDIA last year was to find different soundbars for our showroom that let us tell an installation story. We wanted to separate ourselves from the sub-$200 Wal-Mart models, but still have choices that fit an array of budgets. We settled on three models ranging from $600 – $2000, letting us demonstrate different price and performance points and giving customers the same kind of choices and options that our regular system designs do. 

It’s the Biggest Slice of the Pie

According to the CEDIA Benchmark Survey, Home Theater/Media room makes up the single largest piece of an ESC’s annual gross revenue. And, yes, the dedicated media room is a large chunk of this change. But, when you consider that with a soundbar you can add much better audio and pseudo-surround to nearly any room in the home, it makes sense to augment your dedicated rooms with multiple soundbars.

Not a Home Theater Replacement
Let me be clear: A soundbar will never outperform a dedicated home theater system. At their best, I find that they make a fairly convincing side-surround image, but are never able to create the discrete, distinct sound effects that a true surround system will do. However, it is typically not practical—or within the budget—to do surround systems in every room, and sometimes people just want better instead of best. A soundbar lets you offer something much better often at a much lower price.

Multiple Flat Panels
Every TV sold today is a flat panel. Couple this design with low-low prices and you have people putting TVs in more rooms that ever before. Add this to the fact that…

TV Audio Sucks…and People Know It!
This is a point that customers will often volunteer of their own accord. Almost every day people walk-in to our showroom and say, “The sound from my new TV is terrible! I wish there was a way to make it sound better!” Just about every person that says this is really saying, “Oh, custom installer, won’t you please take my money and install a soundbar for me?” With TVs now at sub-2-inches thick and having all-screen, bezel-less designs, there is just no room for decent audio. The result is audio that is virtually unintelligible in many cases, especially for older listeners.

Add both of those items up and you get this graphic:

Soundbars are the fastest growing category, with a nearly 100 percent growth rate that is expected to continue. Wouldn’t you like to be part of 100 percent growth in any category?

Ease of Install
It’s not often, but there are times when it just isn’t possible to get wiring to the back of the room for rear speakers. Hardwood or tile flooring, no attic, on a slab, no crown or baseboards, brick exterior, etc. (Yes, there are “wireless” solutions, but they often come with their own set of issues…and wires.) Other times what might be possible might take hours of doing. Couple that with the price of cabling, a low-end receiver and a 5.1-system and it might still be more than someone is willing to spend. With a sound bar, you eliminate a vast amount of the labor and wiring costs and also remove the receiver, making for a much cleaner install in many situations. Sure, the $3000-5000 surround install is great, but if that doesn’t work, having a soundbar solution as a back-up might still get you part of the sale.

Simplicity of Operation
With most soundbars, you aren’t adding any more complication to the system; you are just replacing the TV’s volume commands with the soundbar’s. There is no input flipping or sound modes or extra remotes, and this is a great appeal to many people.

Get One of Your Own
Like many things, you will come to know and appreciate the benefits of a soundbar by getting one of your own. I have a really nice dedicated surround system. It’s 9.1 channels, anamorphic lens, the whole deal. #Love. But there are times when we want to watch in our bedroom before going to bed and a soundbar fits my lifestyle for this regard just as it fits our customer’s lifestyles. After living with the Martin Logan Motion Vision in my room, I can’t imagine having to go back to anemic TV audio.

The fact is, customers have demonstrated that they like the idea of a sound bar and they are going to continue buying them. So why shouldn’t they buy them from you? Just as you establish and validate other brands and technologies in your market, become the authority and demonstrate why a soundbar from your is a better solution.

John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.


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