Industry Opinion: Why Should the Custom Install Trade be Promoting High-Quality Audio?

By Yasmin Hashmi, HiddenWires. There are all sorts of routes by which people find themselves in the residential custom install industry. Some come by way of IT, some through installation of other services, some through interior design, and some even start with a custom install firm. But many of us, dare I say even most of us, have a background in audio. My youth was misspent in pro audio, so it will come as no surprise that, as with so many others with roots in sound, audio quality is not just important, it is a passion. It is strange to think that just a few years ago, home audio manufacturers had to grit their teeth and accommodate MP3 sources. Compression is now ubiquitous, but as bandwidth and storage limits get higher and the need for compression diminishes, is mediocre sound so pervasive and accepted that there is no point in trying to sell anything better? We asked a number of leading lights why the custom install trade should be promoting high-quality audio, and what can be done to convince consumers that they need it. Here are their replies:
Steve Olszewski, Vice President, Stealth Acoustics Purveyors of audio systems must realise that selling high-quality audio is more profitable. From that motivation, or perhaps from a desire to be the best, dealers should take time to demonstrate sound quality differences in not only speakers and upstream equipment, but also in source content. Learn these differences and then use them to sell better sound. Play a highly-compressed MP3 through excellent speakers with pristine amplification and you receive pristine rubbish. Play HD audio through cheaper speakers with weak amplification and you get pants. Play compressed MP3s through poor-sounding speakers with weak amplification and you should be nicked for audio fraud. Play HD audio through excellent speakers with pristine amplification and you approach what music is intended to be. Many customers will easily notice these differences. This educational approach informs a customer of what they have to gain or lose in their choice of a playback system and content, whilst empowering the dealer as an expert.
Matt Dever, Director of Audio, Core Brands Let’s start with the first part of that question: 'Why should the custom install trade be promoting high-quality audio?' Of course we’re big believers that all channels of the consumer electronics industry should be promoting high-quality audio. Unfortunately, not all channels have the capability for this focus, but in custom install, it’s almost always an option. Most of us remember the first time we heard our favourite music on a really high-quality audio system. It is generally a transformative experience, and once you hear a major improvement in sound, you don’t want to go back. So stepping up to better performing and sounding audio systems is natural, and from there it leads to whole-house AV distribution, to outdoor entertainment and on to other automation such as lighting and shade control. In the custom install trade, this step-up is all about 'personalisation' –customising products for clients to best meet their individual lifestyles. And it doesn't hurt to deliver some 'bragging rights' along the way. There is nothing like having neighbours over for a movie night, and the priceless look on their faces when all you do is push one button from your remote to close the shades, dim the lights, and turn on the television and audio system. This leads to the second half of the question: 'What can be done to convince consumers they need high-quality audio?' We think that’s the easy part. Generally we are trained to sell against customer 'needs'. For example, the customer needs to hear audio in four rooms. But when presented correctly, high-quality audio becomes a 'want'. Wants are more emotional and audio is very much an emotional experience. Again, think back to that first time you heard your favourite music on that really great audio system. In the sales cycle, we use that emotion to move the customer from 'needing sound in four rooms' to 'wanting amazing sound throughout my home'. And what’s funny is, that at that moment that emotion kicks in, they will again use the word 'need' to express that want. Just ask any child. This of course suggests the importance of demonstration and education, which, if used effectively together, turn needs into wants. As the old adage goes, 'Presentation without demonstration is merely conversation.' But it goes beyond just presenting and demonstrating; by listening to the customer and identifying their aspirational triggers, the integrator can turn those needs into wants, secure the sale and create a more satisfied customer.
Debbie Simms, Director of Sales, Consumer Division, BBG Distribution Ltd We have been supplying quality audio products for over twenty one years into the UK market with many different brands, and this history has led us to the conclusion that the key to selling more high-end audio is to provide some form of demonstration capability. In my experience, installers with either a retail store or who have an effective listening area that their customers can visit and actually hear what they get for their investment, have a significant advantage. To compare specifications and features in a catalogue or online is fine, but nothing brings those differences to life like being able to hear them with your own ears.
Andy Jones, Office Manager, Pulse Marketing We should be promoting high quality and high performance within every area of our industry. Audio is no exception, whether it be distributed audio throughout a client's property, or the audio package within their cinema or media room, particularly with the advent of new audio formats such as Auro-3D. By specifying the highest level of audio performance for our dealers' clients, we help our dealers differentiate their offer from the lower-performance proposals of others. Once a client has been shown just how much better a well-designed audio system can sound over a lower-priced alternative, they appreciate the value and are able to justify the additional cost. We find that dealers who specify high-performance audio systems tend to have a more profitable and prosperous business. They get into a rhythm that builds confidence when presenting quotations to a client, resulting in a greater hit rate when it comes to winning the job. It is also common for them to get referrals, as the client inevitably wishes to show off their fabulous new system to family, friends and neighbours.
Per Henneberg Klausen, Marketing Manager, Steinway Lyngdorf It's not a question of why the industry should promote high-quality audio, it's a question of why it hasn’t been. After all, the audio world is moving just as fast as its video counterpart. Video resolutions of 4K are becoming the new standard, and HD for both movie and music soundtracks have been available for a number of years. An audio system that truly takes advantage of an HD soundtrack is just as big a step up the ladder as 4K video. But many consumers don't know that the huge range of dynamics and resolution HD sound offers is simply not being utilised properly. As far as convincing consumers is concerned, it is simple: the proof is in the experience. Consumers must be urged to get live demos. If users only compare systems on paper, they will choose the product for which the marketing department was given a free hand with the product sheets. Or even worse, they get only one demo, buy that system, and don't know what they are missing until they listen to something truly outstanding when it is too late. Today’s consumers need to experience multiple systems to truly understand what they are offering and how some differ from yesterday’s standard.
Walt Zerbe, Product Manager Audio, NuVo & On-Q Legrand Once upon a time home audio may have required choosing between convenience and quality, value and performance, but that no longer needs to be the case. Thanks to the innovative audio solutions now available, installers are able to offer their customers incredibly robust, high-fidelity audio systems with more flexibility, and less labour, than we could have ever imagined five years ago. These systems, enabled by installer expertise, provide the best possible listening environment, whether playing standard or high-def audio content. Promoting high-quality audio is simply about offering a superior user experience – an experience customers want, if the rising rate of high-fidelity digital music file purchases is any indication, and deserve – and with all of today’s impressive audio offerings, delivering that experience is easier than ever before.
Ciaran Doran, CEO, Datasat Who remembers the 24" CRT TV? Today it feels like something that belongs in a museum. Screens have been getting bigger and better at an incredible speed, and in turn we are close to delivering the same viewer experience at home as in the cinema. But what about the sound? It's generally accepted that the makers of screens do a great job of marketing their image [sic], but the sound has often played second fiddle. However, experts such as George Lucas and Danny Boyle, are quoted as saying that 50% and 80% (respectively) of a movie experience is sound. And the audio equipment to deliver this is in the home is here, now. Dedicated home cinemas are one of the fastest-growing areas in the home AV market, especially at the higher end. However, although sound has often lagged behind the image, we are beginning to see more content genres being delivered to the mass market in a 5.1 sound format, such as sporting events and live concerts on TV. More importantly, in the mid- and high-end markets, there is a growing demand for the newer 'immersive' sound formats such as Auro-3D. To enable truly immersive sound in the home and to achieve as close a cinematic experience as possible, there's a need to invest in high-quality audio to accompany that latest screen: an acoustically-transparent screen with your centre speakers positioned behind it; advanced speaker configurations such as 11.1 or 13.1, with a careful selection of speakers to best suite the space; an informed selection of processing and amplification equipment to ensure the fine, granular control of sound that is essential to achieve effective playback of those formats. And, most importantly, room acoustic optimisation is a must. If a client is willing to invest in their home cinema experience then this is the final piece on the jigsaw that perfectly tunes an individual room to deliver the best sound. What should be clear is that only highest quality audio equipment can fulfil all of these requirements, and usually it is only custom installers who are capable and best placed to deliver them. The custom installer can not only benefit from the more attractive margins involved in such high-end systems, but also get to demonstrate to the client their true capabilities in adding real value to a project. Are customers willing to pay for quality? Absolutely yes. Like many things in life, true value can only be realised by experiencing it personally. Giving a client a personalised cinema experience of immersive sound such as listening to the organ at St Gallen Cathedral in Switzerland, is stunning, you really have the feeling of being right there in the pews, and Bach comes alive. Watch 'How to Train Your Dragon 2' in full immersive Auro-3D and you will be blown away, left wondering why height layers in home cinema have not been available before. Like all magical experiences, you don't want to go back to the ordinary. Custom installers can create great images and control systems in home cinema rooms, but it takes great sound to truly deliver an experience that is never forgotten.
Alex Camara, CEO, AudioControl The world is changing again, and yes, while squeezing 10,000 music tracks onto a device and showing all of my friends my extensive library of music and asking them to name any song for me to find is still awe-inspiring to many, in our experience with customers and dealers, we are starting to see an accelerating demand again for high-quality, great-sounding audio. We are seeing a return to 'high-fidelity' which, if we remind ourselves, demands 'the reproduction of an effect that is very faithful to the original'. Having been focused on 'making good sound great' for nearly forty years, we believe that the custom install industry can take a lead in this rebirth. Even with streaming music systems, restrictions of MP3 and other compressed music formats, we see an enormous opportunity to bring great audio back to customers in their homes and cars, the way the artiste intended. Top of the list for my daughter's birthday this year was a good turntable and a recording from Mobile Fidelity Soundlab of 'The English Beat' to accompany her thirty other vinyl discs bought in the last twelve months. Together with her Dr Dre headphones and a new pair of B&W desktop speakers, her discovery of iTunes lossless as well as a subscription to HD Tracks all paired with her custom install Rialto 400 amplifier, she now calls herself a 'Baby Audiophile'. For me, her experience mirrors what we see when selling a wide range of amplifiers into the custom install industry, and have the opportunity to bring great-sounding music, gaming, sport and any other audio experience back to our customers. Convenience has replaced quality in many of the lifestyle experiences our customers crave, but there is no reason why they cannot have high-quality audio too. The custom install trade is in a great position to demonstrate and promote the merits of a superior audio experience, and enjoying robust sales and margins while delivering the audio 'wow' factor that my daughter wants to experience.
Ruben Mookerjee, Managing Director, Simple Audio Ever since Edison’s wax cylinder was surpassed by Emile Berliner’s shellac disc, music lovers have been courted by ever-improving audio technologies. Despite some manufacturers’ more unbelievable claims (remember 'Perfect Sound Forever'?) there have been several technology leaps that have made significant strides towards recreating the visceral excitement of a live music performance. The latest – and possibly most significant – is the ability to stream music digitally through a data network. This has simultaneously made music listening more convenient than ever before through online services such as Spotify, iPlayer and Deezer, while also sounding better thanks to 24-bit resolution and uncompressed playback. There have never been more wires ready to be hidden than the 'three-plates-full of spaghetti' hanging out of the back of a Hi-Fi or home-theatre system. Increasingly, adding a multi-room high-resolution audio system is the trigger for an enthusiastic music listener to upgrade many other home systems – including lighting, security and data networking - as part of that same purchase.
Steve Halsall, Managing Director, KEF UK Just because the consumer wants a neat solution with hidden speakers, shouldn’t mean that they cannot enjoy good quality sound. The custom trade should invest in dedicated showrooms and demonstration facilities where the possibilities can be pointed out to consumers on behalf of their clients. In my experience, many consumers know what sort of video/TV they would like, but have no idea of the level of sound quality that can now be achieved, even with fully built-in speakers using the latest technology. Most consumers are very pleasantly surprised when they hear high-definition audio for the first time that can really keep up with the resolution of their latest 4K display.
Alan Davidson, Sales Manager, Arcam Audio performance matters in home cinema and it matters to the success of custom install. Great music and movies deserve great reproduction to deliver the incredible experience that all custom install clients crave. And I’m not talking about the differences that cables can make here. The quality of modern uncompressed sound tracks deserves to be heard through high-performance amplification and speakers. Getting a home cinema system right requires real attention to detail for the customer to be swept along and lost in the experience. Cinema sound and the best sound systems have upgraded their performance massively in the last ten years. And yet, while I see huge leaps in control and convenience in custom install, I don’t think our industry has improved by all that much in the same period. George Lucas said that great sound and music was 50% of the complete movie experience. Many of us in custom install would agree with that view, and arguably, make every effort to ensure that clients value the audio system provided accordingly.
Yasmin Hashmi is the Editor of HiddenWires, EMEA's leading English-language publication for the home control trade. You are welcome to add to this discussion by commenting below or through the HiddenWires group on LinkedIn. You are welcome to comment on this discussion. See below.

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