Solid sellers

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Consumers have quickly embraced solid state audio products, and the market has segmented into a number of product groups including, personal digital music players, hi-fi systems with iPod or MP3 compatibility, iPod docking systems and media players (sometimes called home or music servers). The result is that retailers can offer a range of solid state audio products that cater for a wide range of customer needs and expectations.

Digital music players have all but replaced tape and CD-based personal audio players, and Apple has sold more than 200 million iPods. The company has also launched a new range of products. A 2GB entry-level iPod Shuffle costs £45, while the new iPod Nano costs £115 for an 8Gb version. The Nano now also includes an FM radio and a video camera. The iPod Touch includes Wi-Fi wireless technology and prices start at £145. Although the iPod is the dominant digital music player format (its market share is around 75% in volume terms), there are many other excellent products out there. Sony’s Walkman NWZ-X1050 and NWZ-X1060 players both offer a 3in OLED touch screen, digital noise cancelling technology, Wi-Fi and support for a wide range of digital music and video formats (such as MP3 for audio and MP4 for video). 

Fast track developments

Sony’s Walkman E Series models are just 9.3mm thick, have a 2in colour screen and play music, video and photos. Sony’s Walkman B Series players offer up to 18 hours of music from a single battery charge. Philips’ GoGear Spark has a colour screen and up to 8GB of storage, while the GoGear Opus has a 2.8in screen noise isolation earphones and up to 16GB of storage. It also supports a wide range of video formats, plus the BBC iPlayer. Philips’ GoGear Muse includes active noise cancelling headphones, FullSound2 technology and up to 16GB of storage. Samsung’s recently launched YP-R1, YP-R0 and YP-M1 players include a ‘drag-and-drop’ function for accessing audio and video libraries anywhere, anytime. The super-slim R1 is the world’s first DivX certified MP3 player with a 2.6in wide touch screen, while the M1 has a 3.3in touch screen MicroSD memory card slot, built-in stereo speakers, FM radio, voice recording and Bluetooth.

Sales of iPods have reached a plateau, suggesting that the digital music player market has become saturated. Some think that offering some form of wireless connectivity, such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, is the next step for this market and that this development will help boost sales. But companies are divided over the potential impact of wireless functionality on the market. Omar Gurnah, Sony’s category marketing manager for Walkman, says: “I don’t think enhanced connectivity is top of many consumers’ shopping lists just yet, but that will change over the next few years. Right now, it’s more important that if manufacturers do offer connectivity, like Wi-Fi, that we actually do something with it. There are a few media players popping up that have Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to tick a box, but don’t actually offer the consumer much benefit from it. We wouldn’t have put it on our X Series Walkman if we didn’t have one-touch YouTube and artist information look ups while listening to your music and automatic podcast downloads.”

Philips points out that its Go Gear series offers a good range of product options, from simple, MP3-only players, through to models with large high quality screens aimed at consumers wanting to enjoy video content. It expects the market will continue to evolve in similar fashion, and that features such as Wi-Fi connectivity will be found only on high-end products. But Tony Limrick, managing director of Archos, northern Europe, says: “We believe the consumer is looking for a device that will deliver many functions and that Wi-Fi is an important piece of this desire. To be able to connect, surf the web, use social network sites, etcetera, is key to this solution for many.”

Video playback

More and more digital music players are also offering video playback. “It’s very important for some customers,” says Sony’s Gurnah, “some people just want a simple player to take jogging, or will never watch a video on a small screen. For others, it’s great, but like wireless, ticking the box isn’t enough; it needs to be easy to get video onto the player in the first place. We added things like support for BBC iPlayer and iTunes last year, and have added a video converter in the box on our newest products.” Archos’s Limrick, adds: “Video playback is a must have. Screen size and quality are important for the optimum viewing experience, and if I’m on the web I want to be able to view the web content. If I can’t play back the video what’s the point of going to the web page in the first place?” What is clear is that more and more features are being added to digital music and video players. The Archos 5 Internet Tablet can be used for watching video, viewing still images, listening to music or accessing the internet, and includes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Perfect sound

Philips says one of the biggest selling points on this year’s range of MP3 and MP4 player is audio quality. The GoGear Muse features FullSound2 technology, which restores sonic details and balances soft and loud sonic passages at a more constant level, says the company. The Muse is also supplied with advanced noise cancelling headphones. For Sony’s Gurnah, the biggest drivers will be: “BBC iPlayer and iTunes support across the MP4 video range, but also FM radio recording, built-in speakers, noise cancelling, OLED screen, and digital amplifier. In other words, features that make listening to music or watching videos, easier or better.” Archos’s Limrick says that increased functionality, such as GPS navigation, and the ability to stream digital content around the home network via Wi-Fi is a major sales driver.

Home support

The rise of solid state music has resulted in a range of home products designed to enable users to continue listening to their iPods or MP3 players in the living room (and beyond) without using headphones. These products use docking stations, USB ports or mini jack connections for the purpose. Both Sony and JVC, for example, offer ‘Made for iPod’ audio systems that bridge the gap between older media like CDs and radio, with digital music players. Sony’s MHC-GTZ3i is a Mini system that includes dual USB ports, allowing users to transfer tracks between iPods, Walkman and other digital music players. It also has a 3-disc CD changer. The Sony CMT-LX40i is a micro system with an iPod dock, CD player and DAB radio. JVC’s UX-LP5E is a CD micro component system with an iPod dock, and Panasonic’s SC-PM38 is another micro system with an iPod dock.

Another growing market is the iPod/MP3 player speaker system, such as Sharp’s DKAP7 iPod docking station, JVC’s NX-PN10E (which can play and charge two iPods together) and Sony’s Air-SA20PK, wireless music system, which allows users to send music from their iPod around the home. Philips’ DCP951 system has a 9in colour screen and iPod docking station. It also plays music from SD memory cards. Philips’ DC910 iPod docking system has stereo speakers and users can rotate their iPod in landscape or portrait mode, depending on whether they are listening to music or watching video. The growing popularity of these products shows that many consumers are prepared to settle for greater convenience (the ability to play hundreds if not thousands of tracks from a single device) over hi-fi sound quality.

Made for convenience

Media players can combine high quality audio with convenience, by allowing users to stores thousands of tracks on a hard disk drive. They are designed to make life easier for users. For example, CDs are ripped (transferred to the hard
drive) at high-speed and online databases can be used to automatically add artist name and title to each track, saving users much time. Once stored on a media player, it’s easy to find a specific CD or track by using a search system that makes it possible to sort your music by artist, album, track title or genre. The use of Wi-Fi wireless technology means that music can be streamed around the home without having to put down metres of connecting cables.

Philips’ Streamium WACs 7500 system uses an 80GB hard drive that can store up to 1500 CDs. The stored music can be piped to wireless speaker modules dotted around a home. Sony’s GigaJuke NAS-SC500PK has a 160GB hard drive (enough for up to 40,000 tracks) and uses wireless technology. The Sony NAS-E300HD offers an 80GB hard drive. Panasonic’s SC-HC7 is a micro system with an 80GB hard drive and a USB port for connecting an iPod, while Linn offers the Klimax DS and Majik D, hi-fi quality music streaming systems. We haven’t seen the last of tape, CD or even vinyl records, but there is no doubt that the solid stereo audio market will continue to grow, and could eventually become the dominant format for listening to music, both outdoors and at home.

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