Personal and portable audio: The iPod generation

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Remember the Walkman Generation? That was the name given to the consumers who flocked to products like Sony’s tape-based personal audio player. Then came the CD Generation, and now, we have the iPod Generation.
The personal and portable audio market has always been the fastest consumer electronics sector to evolve and has a strong connection with style, design and consumer tastes. Hence the high turnover of products in this sector. Tape and CD are being supplanted by audio products which use flash memory or hard drive technology, and in a growing number of households, the home PC is used as a digital music store.

Coupling new with the old

Although sales of tape and CD-based products are declining, they are not dead yet, says Paul Scott, Panasonic’s marketing assistant, audio marketing: “There is still strong demand for cassette and CD-based products. With the benefit of MP3 CD playback on nearly all of our range, this is a real bonus.” When it comes to the older audio formats, Shinji Nakajima, Sony’s audio product manager says: “Our sales have been at a consistent plateau for Tape Walkman. The boombox business is not declining massively, but overall the direction is towards docking stations for personal media and personal audio players like the Network Walkman and iPod.”

JVC’s RV-NB20B boombox is a good example of the trend for portable audio products to straddle both older audio formats and the latest digital audio developments. The boombox’s striking design is clearly aimed at younger users and it offers CD playback, MP3 compatibility and an iPod connection. Products like Samsung’s K5 MP3 player, which have built-in stereo speakers, are competing with the traditional boombox too (Samsung even describes it as a “mini boombox”). Leslie Burrage, chief executive of Roberts Radio, believes that memory cards will replace tape as the audio storage medium of choice on portable audio products, especially now that memory card prices have fallen and storage capacities have risen. Later this year, Roberts Radio is launching a portable DAB radio with an SD card recorder, a product Burrage describes as: “A replacement for the radio cassette recorder.”

The trend setters

The most obvious development in the portable and personal audio market over the past few of years has been the rise of the digital music player, with Apple’s iPod dominating the market (it’s estimated to have around 60% of the UK digital music market). Last April, Apple reported that it had sold more than 100 million iPods worldwide. But the iPod doesn’t have the digital music player market to itself and there are many compelling products available from other companies. Samsung’s YP-K3 MP3 player is just 1.8mm thick, weighs just 50 grams and stores up to 4,000 music tracks. Samsung’s U3 flash media player weighs less than 23 grams, comes in four colours, has an FM radio and stores hundreds of tracks. JVC’s XA-MP102W is a flash memory player that includes an audio line-in which allows users to convert analogue audio tracks to MP3 without using a PC.

But there’s no escaping the iPod effect and many portable, personal and audio system products now offer iPod compatibility. JVC’s RA-P11E is an iPod portable system, and both the company’s NX-PS3 audio system and UX-EP100 micro system have dedicated iPod connecting ports. The growing popularity of digital music can also be gauged by the launch of products like Sony’s NAS-50HDE Giga Jukebox hard drive audio system which stores up to 40,000 music tracks. It includes a fast transfer system, making it possible to download music on to a digital music player at super-fast speed – 74 minutes of audio can be transferred in 90 seconds.

Multimedia stars

Now, some digital music players are evolving into multimedia players that can play and display audio, video and digital images. Sony’s NW-A800 series Walkman Video MP3 players have a 2in screen, while Samsung’s YP-T9B plays both audio and video and has a 1.8in screen. Philips GoGear SA6025 and SA9325 are multimedia products designed for audio, video and images. So are the days of the dedicated digital audio player numbered? “More and more video will be included on devices because the chipsets will become standard, but there will still be a demand for devices to stay pocketable so screen sizes may not increase dramatically. It means video is not the USP of a device. And, whilst personal media players are a fast growing market, there is still little evidence that this is driven by the need to watch video on the move,” says Derek Wright, Samsung’s product manager. Sony’s Nakajima adds that: “The personal media market will grow and take a significant proportion of the personal audio market but I don’t see the traditional audio market declining for at least a couple of years.”

The vast majority of portable media players use hard disk drive (HDD) technology because of its higher capacity and lower cost when compared with flash memory, but this will change over the next couple years as flash memory prices fall. “We have long since believed that HDD technology in portable devices for audio is not the best option. It is cost effective but suffers from slow start up times, is less reliable, heavier, and has a faster battery consumption compared to flash memory,” says Samsung’s Wright.

Stumbling blocks

One of the barriers to digital music player sales has been the perception that users need to be computersavvy and that processes like downloading tracks or transferring them from a PC to a digital music player are complicated. So are digital music players the preserve of the computer geek? “It’s very easy to use our MP3 players,” says Samsung’s Wright, “we strive to make our software as easy to use as possible, with music store functionality and users being prompted to update their firmware if available.” Sony’s Nakajima reveals that: “We’re thinking about launching a PC-free portable but we can’t say more than that. Not everyone can use a PC and so that is still an issue.”

Another issue is the confusing number of music file formats and digital rights management technology. This makes it hard to swap music files between different brands and it means that consumers are to some extent locked into the digital music player and software they use, especially if they have large digital music libraries on their PC. So will there be any consolidation in this sector? Samsung’s Wright is not optimistic about this happening in the near future. “There’s no major consolidation going on out there currently, so we try to support as many file formats as we can.”

Portable DAB

DAB is branching out from being home-based audio product to a serious portable proposition. Colin Crawford, Pure Digital’s marketing director, says that portable DAB is one of his company’s major priorities this year. That said, there are still some issues to resolve when it comes to DAB and portability, admits Kevin Parslow, Intempo’s business development manager: “Battery power is an issue, but you can expect some developments in this area.” Samsung’s Wright adds: “There are still major issues in terms of battery consumption of portable devices with DAB and quality of reception when on the move from a device without an aerial. Also, as DAB is only widely adopted in the UK it makes it very difficult for worldwide manufacturers to develop this technology.”

Roberts Radio has launched the RD46, which offers up to 80 hours of DAB battery life, enough says Burrage to satisfy most critics of DAB battery life. Roberts Radio also sees combined DAB and MP3 players becoming more commonplace: “The two formats are getting close to each other,” says Burrage. In October, Roberts Radio is launching a £50 DAB/FM radio plug-in for iPods. The plug-in will allow iPod users to tune into analogue and digital radio and also act as a remote control for the iPod.

Powering up

The issue of battery life is not confined to DAB of course and manufacturers have put a lot of effort into extending it on their products. “Battery life has been one of our many strengths,” says Scott, “For example, our SL-SX475EB-S portable CD player offers 75 hours playback from just two AA Batteries.” Sony’s Nakajima adds: “As you add more features to personal players, the power consumption increases. We’ve been using special chipsets to reduce power consumption.”

Demonstrate and explain

With so many portable and personal audio products to choose from and so many formats available, it can be confusing for customers to know what they want when they enter a store. But retailers can do a lot to help, says Nakajima, “We think in-store demonstrations can help consumers understand the product’s key features. That’s the most important thing.” Panasonic’s Scott agrees: “All features are best sold by retailers through demonstration and explanation. When the customers get hands-on experience, they can see the benefit. This is especially true for DAB: they can see how easy it is to tune, see scrolling text and also hear the clarity that DAB offers.

Samsung’s Wright adds: “The best way of selling portable devices is getting the devices into the hands of the potential consumers, unfortunately this raises potential security issues, but allowing the consumer to see how easy the product is to use themselves is the best way to convince a consumer to buy.”

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