Mitch Witten says that he’s been having “a blast” since Core Brands hired him as brand manager for Niles and Sunfire. It was not only refreshing to hear such enthusiasm about two iconic custom installation brands, but it was comforting to hear it from someone who has just about seen it all in this business.
Witten took to his new role at Core Brands this past January after working most recently at Monster Products, where he served as senior product area manager since 2009, with responsibility for all aspects of audio and wireless technology product development. Prior to this, from 2005 through 2009, Witten was the owner of and principal consultant at 1 Bear & Associates, a Coronado, CA-based consulting company focused on the marketing and sales of high-performance consumer electronics products and technologies. His other industry experience includes serving as vice president of sales and marketing, as well as vice president of marketing and product planning, at Sonance, a division of Dana Innovations, over a period that ran from 2000 through 2005. He also served as vice president of business development at Pioneer Electronics (USA) from 1997 to 2000 and vice president of market development at Infinity Systems (a Harman International Company) from 1992 to 1997. Additional experience was acquired at Faroudja Laboratories, Cinema Products Corporation, TEAC America, dbx, Lanier/Harris, Third Century Marketing, and Tech HiFi & Audio Innovators.
We chatted by phone recently about this diverse experience and how it affects his thinking with the brands and products he now represents, particularly the very cool new in-wall soundbar from Niles.
“It’s interesting because when I first came on board and we had meetings about the how the brands are being handled, having competed with Niles, Proficient, and SpeakerCraft, to some degree it was almost like having lived it, because you have a feel for how they did it and went to market,” Witten said.
Not only did he understand “the essence” of those brands before he accepted his current role, but Witten said that he had the benefit of following in the footsteps of Niles veterans Frank Sterns and Mike Detmer during his own career arch. “Because it’s such a small industry, when I went to work for Infinity a long time ago, I actually took Frank Sterns’ job when he went to Niles, and at that time, I worked with Mike Detmer who eventually left and went to Krell and then on to Niles,” he said. “You get a sense what a brand is all about from the people who worked there.”
Witten said that he believes that the essence of what Niles is as a company today is very similar to what its founder Ivan Zuckerman intended when he started the company in 1978. “He started it to find solutions to problems and the look, taste and feel of Niles hasn’t changed that much since then. It’s kind of cool.”
Sorting the differences between similar brands under the “Core” banner is one of the reasons Witten cited for taking his new job. His goal is to set the strategy for Niles and Sunfire—the marketing positions, the product positions, the roadmaps for each of the brands—as they match up against other brands in the group. There will never be absolute separation between brands, Witten noted, but certain types of products will always have overlap. For instance, a company that sells in-wall speakers will have to offer certain speaker sizes and shapes, “whether they’re SpeakerCraft, Sonance, Niles, TruAudio, or Current Audio,” Witten explained. “There are certain products that are meat and potatoes or bread and butter products, if you will. But those are the kinds products where you can get economies of scale from the manufacturing side while keeping the look and feel of the products different.
On the other hand, within each brand’s legacy areas each brand manager can offer niche or specialty products to keep the brand’s essence intact. For example, all audio brands will offer some version of a flat-panel TV speaker solution, but each will take a different approach that reflects that brand’s essence. Whereas SpeakerCraft and Proficient chose its own unique under-the-TV box with Bluetooth connectivity, Niles chose an equally novel approach with the first in-wall soundbar, called the Cynema Soundfield. And eventually, Witten said, he sees great potential within the Sunfire brand to elevate its presence within the CI community with products that relate to TV audio, as well.
“For Sunfire, the subwoofer is an obvious option,” Witten noted. “Why not make it a more sophisticated and higher performance brand TV audio solution?
Witten believes that Sunfire’s SubRosa onwall (or under the sofa) subwoofer is one of the most under-appreciated products in the group. “It’s such a cool product, but nobody knows about it. Unfortunately, the timing of when that product came out, it was during some of the convulsions that the company was going through. It just didn’t get the attention that it deserved.”
Witten emphasized that while Core Brands acknowledges overlap between its brands, there are always going to be dealers loyalty and the company doesn’t harm that. “There are some products that are just going to be similar, but you’re never going to see, for example, a Niles in-wall speaker with a SpeakerCraft logo slapped on it. That’s insane. There are dealers that are loyal to Niles. There are dealers that are loyal to SpeakerCraft. There are dealers that are loyal to Proficient. We don’t want to take a Niles dealer, and make them a SpeakerCraft dealer.”
But unlike in the old days, if a dealer needed a specific solution from a brand they did not carry, Core Brands can assess the situation and perhaps allow that dealer to cherrypick a product.
“If you’re a Core Brands dealer in good standing and you need that part, our sales team can make an arrangement, and it will count toward your programs and toward your whole position with us,” Witten said. “We don’t arbitrarily allow everyone to buy everything, but in specific cases it can be mutually beneficial. For instance, say there’s a Niles dealer that has a great opportunity for SubRosa. He can reach out to his rep or sales manager for that job and he’ll be able to buy it. Shipping and everything come under one roof now. There are distinct advantages of the whole Core Brands overlay over the brands.”
If you’re a dealer for any other Core Brands audio line that isn’t Niles, then you also should consider the Niles Cynema Soundfield. Not only does the industry’s first inwall soundbar help maintain that elegant appearance of the thinnest flat-panel TVs, but it does so without having to defy the laws of physics, and with the custom integrator in mind.
Cutting a hole the width of a TV will mean encountering at least two and upwards of four studs in the wall. The beauty of Cynema Soundfield is that the integrator doesn’t have to cut any studs to fit the separate LCR speakers in the wall. The in-wall soundbar consists of left, right, and center self-contained speaker modules and includes a preamp/amplifier module for the powered models. Powered models also include a separate low-voltage power supply—easily mounted in a stud bay adjacent to a wall outlet or behind the display—to eliminate the need for high-voltage wiring in the wall and the electrician required to do it.
Cynema Soundfield's speaker and amplifier modules snap in from the front into rails mounted on the wall's studs, and can be adjusted between the studs as needed to achieve the best soundfield. Integrators can configure the mounting positions of each speaker module and the amplifier around existing studs with ease. The speaker and amplifier modules have small foldable L-shaped brackets on each side to enable the installer to temporarily hang the modules on the in-wall mounting system's rails, freeing up both hands and making the speaker and amplifier connection terminals easy to see and connect. Wiring is run through specially designed spaces in the mounting system to eliminate the need to drill holes in the studs. Included spacers can be inserted to cover any empty areas between modules for a clean installation. A low-profile, magnetically attached, and paintable MicroPerf grille makes the entire assembly virtually invisible to end users for a clean look.
Included with the CSF-65A, CSF-55A, and CSF-48A amplified models is a three-channel by 30W digital preamp/amplifier with Dolby Digital processing. The preamp/amplifier module can be operated via IR for simple integration and auto-senses audio input to function as a seamless extension of the TV's remote control. The amplified Cynema Soundfield systems incorporate versatile design features that enable them to work effortlessly as part of a whole-house distributed audio system and connect wirelessly with Niles subwoofers. The passive CSF-48P does not include an amplifier module, allowing integrators to utilize any form of amplification for added flexibility.
The Cynema Soundfield passive model contains three speaker modules, one in-wall mounting system with grille, and one cutout template for the in-wall mounting system. The three powered models contain one preamp/amplifier module, one in-wall power supply unit with AC power cord, one cutout template for the in-wall power supply box, one Niles SW-T bracket for mounting an optional Niles SW-T wireless subwoofer transmitter, one TOSLINK optical cable 3m, one stereo 3.5mm to dual RCA cable, one DC power cable for the optional wireless transmitter 1.5m, and three speaker wires for the left, center, and right speaker modules.
The Cynema Soundfield system is now shipping at an MSRP of $1,195.95 for the CSF-48P, $1,599.95 for the CSF-48A, $1,749.95 for the CSF-55A, and $1,999.95 for the CSF-65A.
The better soundbars are big and bulky and then when you ask for them to be smaller, you deal with the laws of physics, and they’re not much better than the bad TV audio. I love this category. We’re having a lot of fun with it. It’s a category that continues to grow.
Decidedly less flashy, Niles also has launched a whole new line of amplifiers, including the re-tooled SI-1230 Series 2 12-channel amp, which is the successor to the SI-1230 that was inducted to the CEDIA Hall of Fame in 2011. According to Witten, the company’s amps have been updated to handle multiple voltage so they could be installed anywhere in the world with different power supplies. And its SI-1650 is TCP/IP enabled, so it’s configurable from a network.
“You have a web browser function that allows you to select any of the 16 inputs or combination of inputs, line-level adjustments, and EQ adjustments,” Witten said.
There’s also more to come by CEDIA EXPO time in September. “A lot of the brands need to refresh their multi-source, multi-zone products,” Witten said. “We’re working very fast with some interesting solutions there and needless to say some wireless solutions as well.”