MY ARTICLES ON this site frequently mention that portable and desktop audio are two of the hottest categories in the world of AV, but there’s another category that’s growing like a fire in a woodshed – soundbars.
Soundbars first made their mainstream appearance around 2005, and with their surround sound or LCR (Left – Center – Right) capabilities, were marketed as replacements for 5.1 home theatre systems. Unfortunately, home theatre was big news back then, and the novelty of having a surround sound system at home, complete with a big, shiny receiver and a loud subwoofer to impress the mates was just too much of a temptation for many buyers. Also, TV sets of that era were actually capable of generating semi-decent sound without a home theatre system to help out because their cabinets were deep enough to house reasonably sized speaker drivers. Another factor to consider is that TVs were expensive, dramatically more so than they are now, so the cost of a home theatre system was proportionately less than it is now with a $999 panel. Needless to say, soundbars didn’t sell all that well and the category pretty much languished in obscurity.
As the years moved on however, flat panel TVs have become increasingly slim, and while that’s great from a décor perspective, many modern panels produce a sound that’s at best wimpy, and at worst sounds much like someone glued a set of earphones to the back. In addition, home theatre and surround sound is no longer the novelty it once was, and the thought of having speakers and cables dotted all over the room isn’t as palatable as it once was, especially when said speakers and subs are being partnered with a super-slim, wall-mounted LED panel.
Which is where the soundbar comes in. Thanks to the awful sounds squeaking from the depths of today’s panels, selling a soundbar in a retail environment is reasonably easy according to what I hear. You just pair it with a typical panel and tell the TV- buying punter: “This is how the TV sounds by itself, and this Sir, is how it sounds with our Brand X Uber Soundbar 3000”. Cha-ching! Sale done, and fair enough because who could bear to live with the sound of a modern TV? In fact, you can run the same comparison with the best sounding panel in the store and in sonic terms, the soundbar will in most cases still kick its butt all the way down the road and out of town.
Soundbars are also easy to install, and are far less conspicuous than a home theatre system, which makes them an easy idea to sell to significant others. They’re a strong value proposition at the lower end, where they’re a better choice than cheap home theatre in a box (HTIB) offerings, and they sound increasingly good as the price rises, so they’re a compelling prospect for the punters.
Whether they’re basically just long, thin speakers or they’re full blown active systems with on-board decoding and processing, with or without a sub, they fit the needs of modern buyers. That, combined with the work of the TV manufacturers made it easy for the soundbar manufacturers to carve out a massive segment, and the category is growing. Soundbar sales doubled between 2010 and 2011 with massive growth continuing, particularly in the US market where both unit sales and revenue keep relentlessly increasing. Unfortunately, while the soundbar sales chart is trending upwards like a mountain stage in the Tour de France, the sales of speakers are heading in the opposite direction as soundbar sales eat into the speaker market.
It’s not just the soundbars that are putting the traditional hi-fi and home theatre market under increasing pressure. Along with the bars, small iPod and wireless speaker systems, and of course compact 2.0 and 2.1 speakers systems are replacing stereo and home theatre systems in many homes. It seems that the future is discrete, portable and wireless (or a combination of all three).
The next big trend we’ll see is likely to be wireless speaker systems from major audio manufacturers – see Dynaudio’s EISA winning Xeo wireless audio system as an early example – it’s hi-fi, but not quite as we know it. I’ve had a brief look at a similar small wireless hi-fi speaker system and it’s hard to argue against the sheer simplicity of the concept. The cable and amplifier makers will be gutted if (when?) this takes off.
Forget about the audiophiles and the home theatre nuts, mainstream consumers are voting with their wallets, and that’s where the money is for many brands. So the manufacturers and retailers are following along in droves, and who can blame them? Expect a huge surge in soundbar sales in New Zealand, along with some major innovations in the category (hint – while they need to be sleek, soundbars don’t necessarily have to be thin things that sit in front of flat panels). ASHLEY KRAMER