Sector guide: Speakers and headphones

PCR looks into the audio accessories market
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PCR looks into the audio accessories market

These days the PC is often the primary hub for media consumption, whether it’s for watching TV and films, or listening to music. The chief benefit of using a PC over a dedicated audio device is the convenience of digital files, with the sharp decline in physical CD sales and exploding popularity of MP3 download services providing plenty of proof of this.

Because in-built or bundled speakers can sometimes be very low quality, if you seriously want to watch movies or listen to music through a PC, you’re going to want some half-decent additional speakers to back them up. This is especially relevant with regard to the evolution of the PC’s form factor. As mobility has become the defining factor in the development of PCs, room for internal speakers is reduced as a necessity. On netbooks in particular, this often leads to sound quality that few but the most evangelical product managers could call high. All this makes speakers one of the easiest and most logical add-on sales for a PC.

“The rise of iTunes and digital music consumption has naturally driven users towards their PCs and laptops and away from more traditional systems. Users then very often discover that the internal sound reproduction isn’t of sufficient quality and they look to external speakers to improve this,” says Emma Loveless, business unit operations supervisor at Centerprise International. “Very often the upgrade is incremental, with the consumer going through a number of speakers following a good/better/best path as they become more and more reliant on digital media.”

Gary Read, a senior account manager at Logitech, adds: “The sound quality on notebooks and laptops is very quiet and can sound tinny, which is why people prefer a decent set of headphones or speakers to enhance the sound, especially when watching TV programmes, a movie or the football.”

As well as PC speakers, MP3 player accessories have for some years been one of the best add-on sales in consumer electronics. The problem is essentially the same as with PCs if the devices have internal speakers at all, they are unlikely to be of a satisfactory quality. With electronic giants whipping up demand for MP3 players with well-funded advertising campaigns, third-party manufacturers of docks and speakers have half the job done for them.

The ever-growing popularity of smartphones also looks set to boost the audio accessories market considerably. “The technological advancements in smartphones in recent years has rapidly enhanced the growth for speakers,” claims Leanne Smith, Target Components’ hardware buyer. “Smartphones have now almost become an essential accessory in everyday life; we have seen them develop into a much more portable and modern device. They now allow the consumer to download films, TV and music direct from the internet, making them much more media-friendly.

An essential requirement to all these activities is the speaker. Individuals could just use earphones, but a docking station would be more practical, particularly when enjoying music with friends and family.”

Steve Walsh, sales director at Meroncourt, adds: “Media Centre PCs have certainly taken some market from home audio, so there is a requirement for good quality surround speaker systems, but for us the growth has been more on 2.1 and stereo sets. The demand has been most dramatic in USB speakers for use with notebooks.”

Advances in wireless technology have also opened up more avenues. “Smartphones, laptops, netbooks and MP3 players all come with one standard audio standard: bluetooth,” says Mark Holdich, product manager at Realtime Distribution. “Creative has just released a new range of Bluetooth wireless speakers which allow consumers to listen to music wirelessly without sacrificing sound quality.”

Headphones represent a different type of up-sell to speakers as they are essentially an upgrade to those that come with the MP3 players, phones and other mobile devices. The quality of headphones varies considerably, as do their corresponding price tags.

“Earphone price points are similar to speakers and are as varied as you can possibly imagine. There is a perceived best price point of around the £20 mark for reasonable replacements for the basic sets that come with most players,” states Andrew Miles, marketing manager at Interactive Ideas. “The bigger the audiophile the person is, the more they are willing to pay obviously all within their budget. It also depends on their usage; whether they need wireless gaming headphones with a microphone, or a set to use with a home recording studio.

“You can pay £1 or £1,000, and there is so much choice it must leave the consumer very confused. Luckily, there are so many online stores full of customer reviews to help narrow down the choice, so it usually comes down to how much the customer will pay.”

As well as head phones for mobile devices while on the move, with more gadgets around the house now allowing users to consumer media, the chances are you’ll be having more people watching different things in the same room at the same time. This leaves an opportunity to sell larger headsets that provide enhanced quality, but would perhaps be a bit too much for taking on the move.

Overall, speakers and headphones are sectors that should not require too much trouble to sell. The benefits are obvious to consumers, and can provide a decent bit of margin to retailers. And with a little nudge customers could be convinced to spend a little more.

Soyntec Voizze 220 Orange
SRP: £22.99
Distributor: Meroncourt

They say: Soyntec introduces a 2.1 multimedia speaker system for the computer, with an exquisite and exclusive design, with volume and bass control and a wooden body. Fit your PC with the most unbelievable sound

Energy Sistems E510 DJ Ruby Red
SRP: £11.99
Distributor: Meroncourt

They say: DJ-style headphones which contribute flexibility and a perfect fit. Extremely comfortable thanks to its earpads with ergonomic materials which allow prolonged use. They offer an excellent sound with enhanced bass

a-JAYS Three In Ear Noise Isolating Earphones
SRP: £39.99
Distributor: Gem

They say: There has never been a more affordable way to get yourself immersed in the world of in-ear headphones; the new a-JAYS Series gives you a listening experience that is far superior to that of the standard earbuds packaged with your MP3 player or phone

Asus Cine5 PC Speaker
SRP: £130.00
Distributor: VIP Computers

They say: Developed through Asus’ expertise in high-performance audio cards, the stylish Cine5 is the first PC speaker in the world to offer pinpoint surround sound with the new ‘Embracing Sound Theatre HD’ technology

Logitech USB Headset H530
SRP: £39.99
Distributor: Gem Distribution, Computer 2000, Ingram Micro

They say: This headset makes it easy for you to hear finer details – laser-tuned drivers and a pure digital USB connection provide clear audio for voice and video calls, as well as music, movies, and games. Onear audio control allows you to optimise your audio and a padded headband and cushioned ear cups give you a comfortable fit

Sweex SP130
SRP: £18.95
Distributor: Centerprise

They say: The SP310 has volume control, headphone jack, dynamic range control, sample rates of 44.1 and 48KHZ, is magnetically shielded and has a 70CM USB cable

Trust Indy In-Ear Headset
SRP: £8.99
Distributor: Interactive Ideas

They say: Small and lightweight in-ear headset with in-line microphone for quality sound on your notebook, netbook or MP3 player. Includes soft rubber ear plugs in three different sizes to guarantee a perfect fit

Evo Labs SP-E901
SRP: £5.99
Distributor: Target Components

They say: These speakers have inbuilt volume, power, and LED controls, 20Hz-20KHz frequency response, 40dB separation and 45dB S/N ratio

Creative HS-1100 Sound Blaster Arena USB Headset
SRP: £89.99
Distributor: Realtime Distribution

They say: Digital USB connection delivers hassle-free, crystal clear audio, the built-in Sound Blaster X-Fi technology with EAX support gives you 3D positional surround sound. The light, flexible headband and soft earpads ensure maximum comfort for extended gaming sessions

Coloud Star Wars headphones
SRP: £34.99
Distributor: Euro-tech

They say: These headphones come with 40mm power drivers, a frequency range of 20 Hz – 20001 Hz, 32 ohms impedance and a maximum input powerspan of 100mW

Trust SoundForce Pro
SRP: £12.99
Distributor: EntaTech

They say: Stereo 2.0 speaker set with a total RMS power output of eight watts. The device has a compact, space saving design with bass reflex port for full and rich sound