September 2019

With the Aurora, iFi decided the time was right to think differently about industrial design

Dare to be different

Of course, as smart functionality becomes ubiquitous, old fashioned values like performance and design quickly reassert themselves. None more so than in the Aurora, an all-in-one connected sound system, from Southport-based iFi. With a design language that’s clearly Japanese inflected, it’s one of the more eye-catching of this year’s new breed of wireless audio components. “Not all connected audio products dare to be

different,” says Miles Roberts, Business Development Manager EMEA, iFi Audio. “Companies like Amazon and Apple are intentionally making smart speakers that look different to traditional audio products, using cylindrical shapes and so on. They’re designed to sit comfortably on a kitchen counter, for example, and blend in rather than stand out.” With the Aurora, iFi decided the time was right to think differently about industrial design. It wanted to produce a wireless music system that made a statement. “Engender a sense of occasion,” says Mr Roberts.

“As a brand, we have a great reputation among fans of high-performance audio equipment but we also want the Aurora to be coveted by people outside that core customer base; people who may not have heard of iFi before but are looking for a great sounding music system they’d be proud to own. For that, we need a design that draws attention, not one that blends in. “Smart speakers with voice control have become big business,” adds Mr Roberts, “but sound quality is not always their first priority. With the Aurora, we took a deliberate decision not to incorporate voice control; integrating, say, Alexa limits the maximum digital audio resolution from a technical standpoint. However, if a customer wishes to add voice control, they can simply connect an Echo Input.”

Deliver on all fronts With a number of high profile streaming product launches already this year, including Naim’s upgraded Mu-so Qb 2nd Generation streamer and Bowers & Wilkins’s Formation Wedge, a successor of sorts to its lauded Zeppelin iPhone sound system, it seems that high-quality audio is on the ascendance again. So

should retailers stress performance improvements, or major on the interface?

“Sound quality and convenience don’t have to be mutually exclusive!” insists Mr Roberts. “Sure, outright quality is more important to some customers than others and the more one pays for an audio product, the better the expected performance. But the best products will deliver on all fronts, design, functionality and performance.” For retailers, it’s a question of knowing your customer, he adds. “Some will want to know the details of how a product sounds and how that is achieved, the technical USPs. Others may be more oriented toward the look of a product and its convenience features. Most will want a mix of all the key selling points, so retailers should ensure they’re equipped with all the facts.”

Jamie O’Callaghan, Global Head of Sales and Marketing at IAG (home of well-known Hi-Fi brands Audiolab, Mission, Quad and Wharfedale), describes the move to wireless streaming solutions as “essential” for the industry, and says his portfolio has embraced the challenge.

“It’s fundamental to the audio industry that people keep listening to new music,” he reasons. “Of course, our customers demand a high level of sound quality as well as traditional hi-fi functionality, so it’s critical we maintain standards when introducing solutions to connect components wirelessly to each other, and to the internet. We include Bluetooth connectivity in a range of DAC, amp and speaker products, and we’re working with DTS Play-Fi to offer Wi-Fi networking and multiroom solutions.” Play-Fi offers a number of advantages, he says, not least the quality of brands and products within its ecosystem, all of which can link for playback. The Audiolab 6000N Play network streamer, a companion to the well-received 6000A integrated amplifier, is the first of a range of products from the IAG family with Play-Fi built in.

Quad is also joining the Play-Fi party with a new iteration of its Vena II integrated amp, the Vena II Play. Interestingly, this will sell alongside the regular model, adding Play-Fi functionality for an additional £150 outlay. “We give Quad customers

Pure has recently introduced the StreamR, a portable Amazon Alexa Bluetooth speaker with built-in digital radio

a choice,” says Mr O’Callaghan. “Not everybody wants Wi-Fi streaming, and if you fall into that camp we won’t force you to pay for it. We think this is an effective way to introduce Wi-Fi networking while continuing to respect our traditional customer.”

Radio times

DAB radio stalwart Pure has recently introduced the StreamR, a portable Amazon Alexa Bluetooth speaker with built-in digital radio. It’s a stablemate to the DiscovR, its first Alexa-enabled smart speaker. Both seek to address common piracy concerns expressed by buyers. “Our

Mic Drop feature uses the speaker’s

exclusive X-SPAN compressing design that when closed, physically disconnects the microphones for complete privacy,” says Rob Haycock, Pure CEO. “This was a hugely important aspect for us to consider, as we understand the need to mitigate any security concerns the consumer may have.” Another feature Mr Haycock is excited about is Music Discovery. “We’re extremely proud of our heritage as a digital radio brand and know that most owners use smart speakers to listen to radio content. So, if you’ve heard a song you love on the radio, simply tap the Music Discovery button and DiscovR will identify the track, adding it to a Spotify playlist for listening again later.” Another innovation dealers can promote is Quick Corners. This feature lets users save up to four Alexa commands as presets, which can be launched at any time with the tap of a button on the edge of the speaker. My Haycock says the idea was to bridge the gap between the tactile experience of a digital radio and the completely wireless nature of smart speakers.

When it comes to conveying the benefits of connected audio, Mr Haycock also agrees product training is key. “The unfamiliarity of smart speaker technology may be a challenge for some consumers, particularly those looking to use it within their homes for the first time,” he notes. “Therefore, it’s vital that retailers provide robust shop-floor support wherever necessary and possess a strong knowledge of the options available on the market.


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