Research concerning the audio market has historically been inconsistent. The lack of verifiable data is due to the industry’s fragmented nature and the increasing number and types of products that can be used across applications.

However, manufacturers and contractors on the front lines of the audio market have valuable information to share with specialty and electrical contractors interested in the opportunities this market has to offer. The general consensus among these professionals is that the market is definitely growing.

According to Mark Cerasuolo, director, brand development for Leviton Integrated Networks & Controls, Little Neck, N.Y., the growth is primarily entertainment driven. “Audio systems are being rediscovered by end-users as technology improves and the variety of options for delivering content expands,” he said.

According to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), Arlington, Va., the average person listens to 13 hours of music a week, whether from CDs, radio, satellite radio, television, MP3 players, DVDs or cassettes. As a result, many are investing in audio systems.

“It has been estimated that approximately $250 million will be spent on installed multiroom audio in 2006,” said Walt Zerbe, product manager, audio, for On-Q/Legrand, Harrisburg, Pa.

In addition, prices are decreasing as the technology matures, driving customers’ desires for higher-tech systems.

“As more, less-expensive choices become available, consumers are being drawn toward the technology,” said Christian Reick-Mitrisin, marketing manager, low-voltage, Broan-NuTone, LLC, Hartford, Wis.

School and church segment

Although structured premises wiring for home networks and entertainment systems has been increasing for years, this technology is now finding its way into schools, churches and other public buildings.

“Almost every school in San Diego, from elementary to high school, has had some kind of audio and visual system upgrade in the last three to five years,” said Pete Spencer, president of Audio Associates of San Diego.

Practically every classroom has a projector, TV sets, and computers for research and to serve as teaching aids.

“In universities, instructors need modern sound and audio systems to be heard by the hundreds of students that attend lectures,” he said.

Churches are considered by some to be a huge market for sound systems.

“Churches are realizing the need for having modern audio systems installed by professionals who understand acoustics and who can work with building designers to help improve the overall system,” Spencer said.

Professional installers also need to work with structural engineers to ensure the correct placement and installation of increasingly larger speakers. Another driver of the church market is that the buildings themselves—mega-churches, as they have been dubbed—are growing in size and require audio systems with the clarity and intelligence to adjust to acoustical conditions and to allow video presentations.

“The church and school markets are similar to the custom-home market in this sense. They each require high-performance components and are being customized to meet individual facility’s needs,” said Cerasuolo.

According to Reick-Mitrisin, these mega-churches are also focusing attention on large-screen audio/visual systems to reach their audiences.

“Many nontraditional churches are focusing more on using music in their services, requiring better audio systems,” he said.

Gerald Schindler, president of Audio Engineering Inc., Loves Park, Ill., believes that the growth of the church and school segment of the audio market is flattening.

“In the past five or six years, people have caught up with the technology,” he said.

For the most part, however, it seems that both churches and schools have discovered the power and the convenience of installed audio systems to communicate their messages and to teach.

Integration

Not only are audio systems finding their way into nonresidential applications, but they are increasingly being integrated with other building systems, such as paging systems in public places; information technology networks to help companies track usage costs; lighting; building automation sub-systems, such as occupancy sensors and HVAC systems; security; power conditioning and power quality equipment; and CATV systems.

“Audio systems rarely stand alone anymore. They are now always used in conjunction with video systems and increasingly with computer network systems,” Spencer said.

The integration of audio with other building systems fulfill various needs that naturally fit together, said Reick-Mitrisin.

“Entertainment, communication and security systems are related technologically and, when integrated, provide high levels of convenience and ease of use,” he said.

When integrated with a building’s card access, CATV and life safety systems, audio systems can be better used for emergency voice evacuation, for crowd control, and for managing and informing building occupants of the status of the emergency.

Innovative solutions

To fulfill growing demands from end-users for innovative solutions, manufacturers are investing in research and development. For example, according to Spencer, the control systems that many audio/visual systems use today are becoming increasingly decentralized, allowing users to control and operate their systems remotely with touch pads located throughout the house or facility.

“The desire by end-users to reduce the number of people required to operate the system and to have remote access for making whatever changes are desired are driving the development,” he said.

Propelling research and development in the commercial segment is the need to increase long-term value, performance, scalability and to reduce costs. One way to accomplish that goal, according to Cerasuolo, is through the use of wireless technology.

“Using wireless for retrofitting buildings, such as churches, solves both cost and aesthetic issues. Wireless technology can allow churches to upgrade their audio systems to fulfill their communication needs without modifying the building,” he said.

Manufacturers are also looking into improving system integration to further meet user needs such as high-quality audio reproduction and ease of use.

“Making audio systems user-friendly with increased levels of intelligence and adaptability is the real future focus,” said Reick-Mitrisin.

Also in development are products that communicate over the Internet and Ethernet, making it simpler and more convenient for the user to obtain content and easier for the installer to upgrade, maintain, and troubleshoot the system remotely, Zerbe said. In addition, manufacturers are designing audio systems that can be integrated with satellite radio and MP3-type devices to allow users to take advantage of the metadata these systems provide.

“The multitude of options that end-users have for listening to content is driving manufacturers to develop new technologies that will allow them to do so easily and cost-effectively,” said Zerbe.

Although computer-controlled automatic mixers, switchers and equalizers have been used in audio systems for a number of years, manufacturers are currently investing research and development dollars toward enhancing these components and systems.

“The goal is to provide better sound quality and to make installation and integration easier as well as providing the end-user with more flexibility in programming the system,” said Schindler.

Market advantages

With the proper certifications, Spencer said, electrical contractors can demonstrate to the end-user their ability to perform the work and become a single-source for the entire traditional and low-voltage installation.

“To either enter the audio market or to increase one’s expertise and market share, however, the contractor must constantly invest in training and recertification in new technologies, systems and products,” he said.

The audio market also requires paying strict attention to what end-users are demanding and ensuring that field personnel have the technological knowledge to show customers what is available in the market to fulfill their needs.

Reick-Mitrisin maintains that profitability is the big advantage for electrical contractors engaging in the audio market, as the installation and integration of low-voltage audio systems have significantly larger margins than traditional electrical wiring.

“The work is more profitable because audio systems are much more customized to user needs, are more sophisticated technologically, and present an opportunity to upsell or to sell accessories,” he said.

Electrical contractors might already have an advantage in the audio market if their state requires that the work be performed by a licensed contractor.

However, even though the contractor may be installing the traditional electrical systems for a project, the contractor still has to have the necessary education and skills to successfully offer audio systems installation.

To increase expertise, contractors can obtain training through system manufacturers, trade shows and industry publications or organizations.

“Manufacturers’ sales forces are very knowledgeable and technically competent,” Reick-Mitrisin said.

Schindler, however, does not believe it is as easy as that. “For a purely traditional electrical contractor, the cost of training and certification is too expensive to maintain a place in such a specialized market,” he said.

Even if the contractor already has a low-voltage systems division and gets the necessary audio product and installation training, it still has to get access to proprietary equipment and have several jobs a year to maintain the product line.

“However, if the traditional contractor can demonstrate to the end-user that it has access to a specialty contractor, it can still get the work and subcontract the actual installation,” he said.

There might even be advantages to subbing out a project’s audio system installation, such as not having to deal with training and system programming and a higher margin for the project.

No matter how the individual contractor decides to proceed, the audio market provides an array of ever-changing opportunities with new technologies that are constantly expanding, becoming more computerized, and being demanded by customers in a number of new and different applications. EC

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 or darbremer@comcast.net.