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Crossover stars – pro-audio and MI technologies

The reasons for – and implications of – the R&D crossover

The increasing crossover between pro-audio and MI technologies is one of the defining manufacturer trends of the last few years. David Davies hears the reasons for – and implications of – the R&D crossover

From an R&D perspective, it makes perfect sense. From a customer point of view, the benefits can also be substantial, if not always quite so easily delineated. But there is no denying that the last few years have witnessed an unprecedented degree of crossover between the pro-audio and MI spaces in terms of both product development and marketing strategies.

Monitor systems, in-ear monitors, microphones, mic pres and interfaces are among the most salient examples of this crossover tendency, although there is also evidence of unification around plug-ins, DAW software, video/podcasting solutions and more.

The most obvious benefits – chiefly, optimisation of expenditure on R&D work and the ability to cover a wider range of end-users with a smaller selection of products – don’t require elaborate explanation. But there are other, more debatable implications, such as the possibility of a fresher and more comprehensive approach to market research that may pick up on some aspects missed by a more niche-oriented approach to individual sectors.

To find out more about the pro-audio/MI crossover – the, “if you will, prosumer crossover” (as This Is Spinal Tap’s Marty DiBergi might say) – PSNEurope put some key questions to three leading industry voices: Martin Dockree, country sales manager – UK and Ireland, Pioneer DJ Europe; Tim Riley, director of brand development at POLARaudio, distributor of brands including beyerdynamic, Biamp, Mackie and Renkus-Heinz; and Martin Warr, MD of Synthax Audio UK, which distributes brands such as interface/converter specialist RME and headphone company Ultrasone.

The ‘prosumer’ crossover – is it genuine?

DOCKREE (pictured): It’s definitely happening. Our entry-level products like DDJ-RB [portable controller] and WeGO4 [software controller] are doing really well in some of the high street multiples alongside the PLX-500 turntable and DM-40 speakers. We even put together our DJ Starter Pack bundle, which contains speakers, headphones and WeGO4 controller all in one box to give the customer everything they need to start DJ-ing.

RILEY: If further proof was needed that ‘prosumerism’ was everywhere then surely the success of Amazon with what our industry would consider to be ‘pro’ type products is testament to the fact that any selling platform is open season with regards to sales. In the headphone market, for example, some years ago professional footballers started to emerge from coaches wearing Audio Technica ATH-M50, beyerdynamic DT770 pro, and other headphones that had previously been classed as ‘professional’. At that time certain people sat up and took notice.

As consumer markets become saturated with ever more hyped products that are clearly average at best (take a bow all you celebrity rappers with a headphone brand!) then a discerning buyer will inevitably gravitate towards quality. It’s at this point that quality, or what could be seen as professional, becomes consumer.

WARR: As a brand RME are always striving for the best price performance ratio when delivering product to specific markets. Historically our products have been designed with the pro audio market in mind, and do not cater to the consumer market by design, often being regarded as a bit technical and industrial looking for the home. At the high value end we still see the two markets’ requirements as very different. However, there have been examples of RME product that did find favour in high-end consumer applications (such as HDSPe AIO in high-res streaming for domestic music servers) despite RME not marketing specifically to that market. Interestingly, we have just released a new ADC called ADI-2 Pro, which we fully expect to sell well in both pro-audio and high-end consumer markets, and we will promote to both markets accordingly.

I would say that resistance has traditionally been by the consumer market not willing to accept that a pro product (which doesn’t always look as pretty) is nevertheless equal to or even superior in functionality to the consumer equivalent. I think pros have long been more willing to use a consumer product (speakers, for example) if it served their purpose to get the job done. I do think these barriers are slowly eroding, but we are in the ‘education’ stage at present. High-end consumer reviews still sound surprised that a pro-audio brand could produce something that lives up to their exacting standards!

What are the primary factors driving ‘prosumer’?

DOCKREE: The explosion in popularity of dance music. The scene is now generations in and schoolkids are being exposed to DJ and club culture through everyday tv/magazine/online/social media advertising campaigns for all sorts of FMCG brands and products using the ‘cool’ of the DJ to market their products. This gives everyone a taste of the DJ experience, kids and adults alike, without them ever even stepping inside a club or festival – and naturally they start looking in the same places for this technology as they would if they were looking for home electronics.

RILEY (pictured): I think it’s the slow descent of quality in mass market products. Clearly the more you sell the more you need to manufacture, and when that happens it comes down to economies of scale. If a Chinese manufacturer is offering to make your product for half the price you’re currently paying you’d be mad not to at least consider it. So what I believe is driving the development of a ‘prosumer’ culture is the quest for quality in the face of average components, sloppy quality control but essentially great design. They may be poor products but they always look stunning!

WARR: Converging technologies outside our industry. [Specifically] things like tablet manufacturers attempting to get us all to believe that you can do every task on a tablet that you used to do on a desktop. Therefore, RME’s Fireface audio interfaces, which were the very first to offer multichannel audio in and out of a tablet (perhaps useful for surround sound playback of films), may have inadvertently become crossover products. However, their cost relative to the cost of the tablet itself has tended to prohibit them taking off as a viable ‘accessory’.

What are the benefits – and drawbacks – of a more unified approach to R&D?

DOCKREE: The benefits are obvious. It turns a niche business into a strong commercial business and also gives it longevity. The only drawback I can see is [that] the commercialisation takes away some of the cool.

RILEY: The drawbacks will inevitably be that the pro products that attain high sales will suffer by being mass produced. How many times have we seen the quality of products that we’ve all known and loved for many years do a nosedive when manufacturing has to respond to higher sales? As recording studio numbers decrease the music produced to a releasable point in DAW situations increases. This will inevitably mean that a crossover selection of equipment used in a home studio will suffice. Call me a cynic but there won’t be many U87s used in your average garage!

WARR(pictured): Obviously if R&D can design one set of electronics or software for a product which then sells into multiple markets there should be some cost-saving for the end-user. But since each new generation of technology offers more functionality for less cost to the end user anyway, this R&D cost saving is only what the consumer expects. The significant drawback of designing a product once and then trying to shoehorn it into various markets is the lack of focus on the final application, and therefore severe risk of compromise in design. A generic ‘middle ground’ product ends up no longer satisfying the true professionals, while simultaneously becoming too complicated for your average non-technical consumer. I think we can all think of a few examples of this in both directions from big companies right now!

A current product from your range that has achieved a level of crossover…

DOCKREE: The DDJ-WeGO4 (pictured top). We pitch it as a computer accessory as it allows tactile control over DJ software applications on smartphone and tablet as well as laptop, devices that are commonplace with every consumer. Our HDJ range of headphones and DM-40 and SDJ-X speakers also do well for the same reason; they’re great sounding accessories to listening to music on any device even if you’re not using them to DJ with.

RILEY: The beyerdynamic DT770 pro is a product that falls into that section I mentioned earlier. A definite crossover product that was never originally manufactured to do what is asked of it today. The extraordinary sales of this product mean that it’s not just professionals who are using them. It’s back to that end-user who considers himself or herself to be either discerning and to some extent professional or at least has aspirations to be so. We must never underestimate this lucrative section of any market.

WARR: The obvious example is the ADI-2 Pro (pictured), which is a super high end ADC and DAC with two beautiful headphone preamps, and a plethora of professional features including separate EQ on every channel (separate left and right EQ even for the headphone outputs), DSD recording, playback and monitoring capabilities, and RME’s rock solid reputation when it comes to computer connection and sound quality. This was originally designed with those who require the highest possible fidelity in audio reproduction from a computer, perhaps mastering engineers and their like in the professional world. But interestingly, with its astonishing headphone preamps, this unit is already finding favour with the audiophile consumer community as a DAC for playback from domestic high resolution audio servers, and also as a headphone preamplifier for those seeking the ultimate headphone experience.

Finally, what are your prosumer predictions for 2017?

DOCKREE: I see significant growth provided the offering isn’t too complicated. Products need to be intuitive for the end-user to keep them engaged and want to upgrade rather than lose interest.

RILEY: I think that if you have a brand that is respected you can do pretty much anything you want. Beats are an ideal example of a brand that are the clear winners in this field and have lots of lessons to teach us if we’d only listen.

The existence of a ‘prosumer’ market can be proven by the fact that Beats bring out a consumer headset, they then migrate to what could be called prosumer. Next they get all ‘pro’ with extended dynamic range and muted colours, and finally move into wireless in-ears with a vengeance. One of the more silly but obvious reasons Beats have done so well is that they are clearly visible from 100 yards away. Therefore if you are wearing them, you’ll be seen and so will your headphone of choice. Self-perpetuating marketing!

Sadly in-ears cannot be as easily seen and they consequently don’t make that ‘statement’ that the wearer wants so badly to convey, so a way to make in-ears (which cost far less to manufacture) more popular will be on the minds of all major headphone manufacturers this year.

WARR: I think any manufacturer who produces single products and then tries to sell them to multiple markets runs the risk of falling between two stools and satisfying neither market. Therefore I predict the trend from sensible manufacturers will be to leverage the same technology in different markets, utilising the same product innards and software, but packaging them differently for the different markets. This would include changes to the industrial design, the precise functionality made available to the user, the style of documentation, and of course the marketing approach.