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The Art of the Demo and Other Tools to Sell Big Audio Systems

Don’t throw in the towel just yet on high-end audio.

This system designed by Spire Integrated Systems of Troy, MI features Meridian DSP8000 DSP digital active loudspeakers, DSP420 DSP digital active in-wall loudspeakers, the 861v6 Reference surround controller (including ID40 card), HD621 HDMI audio processor, and a six-zone Meridian streaming system. Don’t throw in the towel just yet on high-end audio. Sure, wireless and portable is all the rage for mainstream consumers, but high-end custom systems were never designed for the average Joe. There’s still hope to sell those big audio systems in custom home theaters, listening rooms, and other architectural speaker systems that have always put the capital “A” in AV.

Selling high-end audio systems isn’t as straightforward as it used to be, of course, with many homeowners distracted by the popular buzz around soundbars and wireless speakers. Yet custom integrators have plenty of opportunities to install high-margin, high-performance audio products through proper demos, flawless execution, referrals, and by working with interior designers and acoustical design consultants.

For starters, it’s important to realize that the portable/wireless trendiness does not indicate a lack of value for hi-fi sound. “Just as fast food restaurants didn’t eliminate the public’s desire for fine dining establishments–the current desire for small, wireless components doesn’t diminish the value of better performing systems,” said Keith Dowd, U.S. national sales director for Paradigm and Anthem. “Far from it.”

As a leader in both the portable/wireless and luxury audio space, Harman is experiencing growth on each end of this spectrum, with the Mark Levinson, JBL Synthesis, Revel, and Lexicon brands within its Luxury Audio Group.

“While we haven’t really seen that small wireless business take a toll on the high-end, it is affecting products like traditional mid-level/mass market component audio and HTIB systems,” said Jim Garrett, director of marketing and product management for the group. “We see a move away from those types of products in two different directions. One is as expected to the ease of use/ convenience factor of small, portable, and wireless products, but the other is to the higher end systems, like what we offer from our Luxury Audio brands.”

Experiencing great audio is naturally the key to unlock these sales. “When someone listens to a really good music or movie system, it is hard to go back to life with inferior sound,” Garrett added. “The problem, though, is that the vast majority of people have never really had the chance to hear good audio before. You cannot forget the value of sharing that experience with your customers, and you must certainly never forget about the art of the demo for these types of sales.”

The Art of the Demo

This project for Triphase Technologies out of Indianapolis, IN had an indent between the doors to contend with, so Simplified Acoustics built a false wall three feet out from there to put the chairs on.

Allen Tarrant, North American sales director for MartinLogan noted that a great demo is sometimes a lost art, which he encourages dealers to employ with both music and film. “Because the experience of hi-fidelity is critical to understanding the MartinLogan value proposition, we encourage our dealers to create a reasonable playback space and to use top-quality electronic equipment in the chain,” Tarrant said.

Demos must seize an individual’s imagination and affect them emotionally, said John Buchanan, executive vice president, Meridian Audio. “The combination of stunning performance in a beautiful, easy-to-use package sells,” he said. “We manufacture products that enhance our customers’ lives through a combination of design, research and technology, and the pursuit of perfect sound to provide a best-in-class experience.”

Waterfall Audio’s Victoria Evo speakers use patented ADT technology and an extreme low frequency 21cm driver located in the base.

California Audio Technology (CAT) is another company that likes to build off the emotive element of audio. “My CAT teammates and I remind people how much they enjoy music and that music adds value to the daily lives of their family and friends as well,” said Brian Barr, president, CEO and co-founder of the company. “We then remind them that music is not just ‘background audio,’ but is, in fact, much more fun and involving when it sounds natural, full range, and realistic.”

Audiophiles aren’t the only ones that enjoy the experience of high-end audio, Barr noted. “Kings and Queens did not live in silence without music– they entertained throughout the day and night with live musicians.”

And ultra-high performance audio equipment is the next best thing to the live experience, audio companies often contend.

Experience Centers and Roadshows

As important as the demo is, many dealers don’t have the resources for the appropriate facility. Triad hopes to overcome this weakness with construction of a new demo facility at its Portland factory, allowing dealers to bring clients to experience the Cinema Reference products in both high-resolution two-channel and fully immersive theatrical formats. Triad is also working with other home theater component suppliers, including projectors, screens, seating, and acoustical treatments, to create a network of regional experience centers.

“Naturally, we encourage Triad dealers to undertake their own demo facilities if they have the ability to construct and maintain a suitable demonstration environment,” said Triad president Larry Pexton. “We soon hope to be able to offer third-party lease financing for the equipment needed for multi-brand qualified demo facilities.”

Paradigm and Anthem support dealers in their demo initiatives by selling demo products for showrooms at “substantially reduced prices,” Dowd said. “A dealer’s showroom is an important, but expensive, tool,” he admitted. “The best way for that tool to pay for itself is for the dealer to do as many comparisons as possible–with speakers, amplifiers, projectors, screens, even cables–to show the clients that differences in systems are audible.”

Waterfall Audio supplier Nouveau Distributing also pointed to “substantial discounts” offered to dealers for display products, as well as custom artwork for brochures and on-site support for dealer and designer events, according to Joseph Kirby, managing principal for Nouveau Distributing.

MartinLogan’s Ethos features Xstat electrostatic technology with an 8-inch woofer and 8-inch passive radiator duo using a 24-bit DSP engine.

Meridian works with dealers to create compelling demos in-store, including full training and support for them. Special Edition Loudspeaker roadshow events are another opportunity Meridian has created to engage customers and dealers directly with the engineers.

McIntosh partners with some top dealers across the country to create its experience centers. The company helps merchandise the systems for customers considering a home theater, two-channel, or lifestyle audio system. “Since McIntosh has the product range to configure full systems, it helps us to present this in the marketplace and hopefully simplify the purchase process for our customers,” said Ellis Reid, director of marketing.

Design Partners

End users aren’t the only people to consider when selling high-end systems. Just as important are integrator relationships with architects, designers, and reps.

CAT helps dealers by working closely with elite architects, builders, designers, and other clients worldwide. “By building and maintaining these coveted relationships, CAT often gives its dealers AV projects,” Barr said.

Noble Fidelity supports its dealers by a commitment to experienced rep firms and never selling its products online or through the distribution channel. “We foster intimate dealer relationships of substance, equity, and duration,” said Greg Ford, Noble Fidelity principal. “We work closely with territory trusted and proven IProRep firms to carefully choose and interface with dealer partners. It’s a family affair–old school.”

For Waterfall Audio, educating all these groups of professionals about the audible and aesthetic differences of a system is what sells them. Waterfall encourages dealers to be involved with local ASID and AIA chapters while offering lunch-and-learn programs to connect these contingents. This includes sharing other elements of the design that are fundamental to an audio system’s success. “Each system component has a specific set of operating parameters that must be considered to achieve the desired performance results,” Kirby said. “These systems must also be tuned to the individual listening or screening room to achieve accurate reproduction, allowing emotional connection with the artist; this knowledge is the integrator’s true value as it allows high-end systems to provide measurable value to their clients.”

Room acoustics and tuning are just as critical a component to deliver truly big audio. Thus, acoustical panels are often an essential accessory to top-of-the-line loudspeakers.

HomeTronics, of Dallas, TX, installed this system with CAT Audio’s MBX Sequoia loudspeakers for left and right, an MBX Tahoe center channel, and two MBX Diablo subwoofers. Behind the scenes are six MBX 1200.2FD XPR power amps to drive the front of the room.

“The only way to achieve the highest quality sound is to treat the acoustics of a room, no matter what electronics or speakers you may purchase,” said James Wright, business development Canada, Primacoustic.

“Our opportunity lies in the need to ensure the room is not fighting the sound system,” he continued. “The current trend for designs is leaning toward hard surfaces for flooring; counter tops and furniture coverings greatly reduces the ability for a room to absorb sound energy, so fixing this becomes even more critical.”

Some of the benefits that acoustic treatments provide include eliminating sound reflections for a more accurate soundstage in two-channel listening spaces and eliminating standing waves, so the subwoofer and low-frequency drivers supply tight, articulate bass instead of an undefined wall of sound.

“In multi-channel home theater systems, the real theater experience is enhanced as reflections are eliminated and the program comes from the source intended by the audio engineer,” Wright said.

Primacoustics provides dealers with the tools– including evidence–that they need to make acoustics part of a proposal with regular travel and lunch-and-learn opportunities, as well as the latest product information and case studies.

Simplified Acoustics combines design, logistics, and custom installation with its Simplified Fabric System, a product directed toward the high-end, big audio client. This allows the acoustic treatment manufacturer and installer to custom build whatever is required without ordering and timeline issues; the solution is built at the project site by the company’s own installers. Working directly with the interior designer allows them to adjust the treatments to work within the space with the given fabric choice.

“That is how we promote our business to the AV integrator, by taking that area of coordination with the ID off of their plate, we free them up to concentrate on other issues,” said Matthew Call, principal and COO of Simplified Acoustics. “Our experience with fabric options and the ability to adjust to design changes gives us a lot of leverage to please all parties involved.”

One recent project that Simplified Acoustics worked on involved an interior designer that really wanted the theater seating to be up against the wall–“an acoustical nightmare,” Call said. “To solve the problem, we built a false wall four feet in from the back wall and stretched fabric on it to simulate the intended look without the negative acoustical issues. Acoustic treatments and speakers were all installed behind the wall, creating a win-win for the [interior designer] and the client.”

Other manufacturers also prioritize proper tuning with resources for the dealer. For Pro Audio Technology, investing in software tools is an important element to succeed with big audio projects. “Pro has dramatically simplified the implementation of large surround systems by offering thoughtful DSP processing tools via its SoundTools amplifier software,” said Paul Hales, founder of Pro Audio Technology.

The company recently made a major investment in a new training and experience center, Hales said, where dealers can take in-depth classes on product technology and system design.

Triad’s Pexton, also CEDIA’s current chairman, suggested that dealers that are less experienced installing big audio systems should seek outside help from one of the industry’s many independent design and acoustical consultants, like Tony Grimani and Dennis Erskine. “Using one of these independent experts dramatically improves the odds of a good first major theater, and the positive referrals that flow from that first big job,” Pexton said.

Once that first big theater is a success, “it’s time to start the referral machine,” Pexton advised. “Many clients are eager to show off their new room to their friends. If a dealer works closely with the client in a manner that respects the clients’ sense of taste and style, movie and sports night parties can become a very valuable source of new prospects.”

In other words, demo, wow, sell, install, tune, wow, repeat. Big audio hasn’t gone away; it’s just waiting for its close-up.

Lindsey Adler is associate editor of Residential Systems, Systems Contractor News, and Healthcare AV.