Sound United Grand plans: At his annual dealer conference Sound United – the group behind Denon and Marantz – showed his cards. The near future is Sound United Grand plans as it brings a lot of new devices and significant price changes, especially for Marantz. For the first time, new devices from Classé were also shown, the latest acquisition of the audio group. But certainly not the last, we dare to bet.
Every year Sound United organizes a European event for dealers and press somewhere near the Mediterranean Sea. This year it was in an upscale hotel near Alicante in Spain. We were also there, both for the product introductions and the more strategic presentation that always keeps the top of the company open as an opener of the European Dealer Conference (EDC). Normally the first business presentation is more focused on market figures and prognoses, but this year it was mainly the ambition. Thanks to the acquisition of Denon and Marantz, the American Sound United group has become quite large. In addition to the two speaker brands that form the core of SU (Definitive Technology and Polk), it currently includes Denon, Marantz, Boston Acoustics and – since the beginning of this year – Classé. Strictly speaking, HEOS is the seventh, but the brand name has since been reduced to a function that will be present at the aircraft of the other SU brands. That evolution has been going on for a while. First there were a few Denon receivers with HEOS on board, now almost all AV receivers from Denon and Marantz are equipped with the multiroom function. This EDC showed even more HEOS-compatible devices, including pure stereoproducts, such as the Denon CEOL N10 .
Sound United Grand plans
That Sound United comprises seven brands is a snapshot, because CEO Kevin Duffy and other employees clearly made it clear that new acquisitions are going to happen. A ‘maybe’ did not come into play. Which brands are in the sights of Sound United, we found no one willing to even informally give a hint about it. But the tenor was clear that there will be an announcement in the coming months. We suspect that what comes next will be complementary to the other SU brands than one of them mirror.
Because that is also the core of the strategic course that Sound United wants to take, says Joel Sietsema, the senior vice- president for brand management and marketing: “Each brand has its own place in the market.” To make that clear, he presented a graph where each brand gets its own profile At the very bottom of the axis budget -audiophile is Boston Acoustics (where little else about being told), with Polk just above it as a better budget brand. Denon is in the middle segment, while Definitive Technology has to become the more premium speaker name in the group. Above that are Marantz and Classé. More information about the strategy in the coming years we got from Bart Muller, the new European CEO who succeeds the flamboyant Terry O’Connell.
Sound United Grand plans- Marantz goes high-end
The biggest consequences are for Marantz, a brand that is large in the Benelux but usually second violin after Denon elsewhere in the world. The distance between Denon and Marantz has to increase, both in products and in terms of appearance, because now there is too much overlap, it says. That is why Marantz will reposition itself as a brand that is slightly more premium than is currently the case. It will express itself in new models that aim higher, although the combination of the PM-10 and SA-10 remains the absolute top, says Emmanuel Millot, the brand new Brand Director of Marantz. Really looking for the ultimate high-end is not the intention, because Sound United Classé has. Our suspicion is that between the KI Ruby (from 4.000 euro / piece) and the PM / SA-10 (from 8.000 euro / piece) still has space for additional premium models. For Marantz it seems like a good decision, because the brand is a highly respected name in hi-fi that certainly also fits with more luxurious products.
It will be a real balancing act for Sound United, because although Marantz needs to become more high-end the group also does not stop with the affordable Marantz products. Appliances such as the 600x series now score high in reviews and sell very well. Certainly for this class of devices and the AV receivers, there are shared items with Denon devices under the bonnet, such as streaming modules or the card that processes video. HEOS comes to about every device you can think of.
So it is waiting until next year to see how the new course of Marantz translates into concrete products. One of the things that is coming up is a new design for the AV receivers of the brand. Although we consider the current design of the Marantz receivers to be the best on the market, Millot noted that this design has remained unchanged for many years. That makes it difficult to distinguish the latest devices in the store from models of perhaps a decade ago.
At EDC we did not see so many totally new Marantz machines, although we may use the KI Ruby amplifier and CD player. of course not to be considered old. This exclusive duo was only presented at High End Munich in May. In Alicante we got the set demonstrated by Ken Ishiwata – who else? – on a set of Polk Signature speakers. The Marantz ambassador had brought along a TT-S15S1 for the occasion, but with an MC cartridge instead of the usual MM. The demo went through some technical problems, but what we heard makes us suspect that the KI Ruby will be appreciated by many audiophiles. It’s good to know: the KI Ruby series is a limited series. Only 500 of the two colors will be sold in each case. Marantz currently has an excellent high-end receiver with the SR8012 and also the SR7012 performs well. But the middle and lower part of the AV receiver segment is renewed every year, so we were not surprised to see the 9.2 SR7013 and SR6013 on the EDC. (At Marantz, the last two digits indicate the model year, “13” is for 2018-2019).
Sound United Grand plans – And Classé then?
The acquisition of Classé dates from the beginning of this year and yet new devices on this EDC. The new Delta line includes a DAC / preamplifier, a monoblock and an integrated amplifier, and is not completely finished yet. But all this year the new devices would be available. We do not have price indications, but the fact that Sound United Classé wants to present as a luxury brand and will only work through a few selected dealers indicates that you are talking about devices with price tags with five figures on them. That new things were shown so quickly – but could not be heard – is because Sound United has not only bought the Classé name. “We took over the Canadian designers and engineers who make Classé what it is,” says Duffy. Sound United also benefited from the fact that these designers were already working on the new Delta line when the Montreal brand was still under the wings of the Bowers & Wilkins group. Bowers & Wilkins, however, has become the property of a Silicon Valley group that did not see any role for Classé in his plans, so that Sound United can immediately take a flying start with the Delta line.
And what about the somewhat damaged image of Classé in terms of quality control? “The production of Classé equipment moves to our leading factory in Japan, where the top models from Denon and Marantz are also being built. That is one of the best in the world. “
New at Denon
Denon is a strongholder in the Sound United group. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of news at Denon on the EDC. A device that we expect a lot from is the compact N10 from the CEOL series. It is a beautifully finished all-in-one that goes for 499 euros over the counter (without speakers), with a built-in CD player and HEOS built-in. The latter is a first for the CEOL series, which is very popular with people looking for a second set or looking for a music system for a student room or flat. Apart from the competitive price point, this is also the first device that allows streaming of a CD to other HEOS speakers. So you can also hear a music CD on the N10 in the kitchen via the HEOS speakers in the living room.
HEOS is also all about the new 800NE range from Denon. The PMA-800NE and DCD-800NE are the third episode in the new NE-generation, where previously the outright outstanding PMA-2500NE / DCD2500NE and PMA-1600NE / DCD1600NE of appeared . New is the third member, the DNP-800NE streamer. You could consider it as a HEOS Link, but then disguised as a hi-fi component. The three 800NE devices that we saw on EDC were real prototypes, which was noticeable on the lesser front edges. The parts will appear on the market later this year and carry sharp price tags: around 500 euros for the PMA-800NE and DNP800NE, and 400 euros for the DCD-800NE. If you want to, you can also extend this set with one of the new turntables that Denon brings in the autumn. It’s own designs – pay attention to the special dust caps – which are produced by a big European name from the world.
Behind the scenes at Denon a young engineer with a lot of talent is working on new headphones, Yoshi Fukushima. In recent years he has been working on a series of new headphones based on his own driver and with a construction reminiscent of the legendary Denon 5000/7000 headphones. Last year Denon won with the D7200 an EISA Award this year it already launched the D5200. By the end of the year there will be an absolute top model, the D9200, with a price tag around 1,500 euros. Denon wants to participate in the flagship segment, among other things by equipping the beautiful headphones with earcups made of very exclusive Japanese bamboo wood. According to Fukushima he has long searched for a material with such good acoustic properties. Anyone who would like to experience the Denon sound at a lower price can soon also contact the D1200 .
Denon is a super power in AV receivers. New models at the skate on the EDC, although experts will not fall from their seats when we release the model names. Just as the autumn follows after the summer, last year’s models (like the AVR-X2400 and X4400) follow new receivers with names like the AVR-X2500 and X4500. On feature level, a major addition is support for eARC. Of course the monstrous 13.2 AVC-X8500H is still the top model. Denon is in the habit of allowing his flagship receiver to last for several years.
Airplay 2 and voice
Both the new receivers and HEOS products and certain stereosets get Airplay 2, which means that you can use them in a multiroom setup with other Airplay 2 devices. When correct? “That depends on Apple”, we were told. The last rumor about when Apple would release Apple 2 states that this would happen sometime around August 1st. It remains Apple of course, so changes are certainly possible.
Airplay 2 also means that you can operate these devices via Siri, with restrictions. Siri voice commands can only be used for streaming, but not, for example, for switching inputs on a receiver. This is possible with the existing Alexa integration with HEOS and Denon receivers. Only Alexa is difficult to use in the Benelux, partly because there is no Dutch support available. A bigger problem is that some can just use Alexa (like the author of this piece), but others have to work via a VPN connection to get Alexa activated. Why this distinction is not so clear, but lies with Amazon.
Voice control was clearly an important subject at EDC, including an extensive demo of what Sound United intends to do in that area. CEO Duffy emphasized in any case that the company is going to focus strongly on the smart home. A concrete product in that area is the Polk Command -soundbar. It is an affordable handset with wireless sub that comes with an integrated Alexa module, just as if a round Echo Dot was mounted in the soundbar. The built-in microphones are far-field, which means that they are able to pick up your voice even when there is a TV nearby. Via voice commands you can switch inputs, adjust volume and change sound modes. An option that may be less relevant to us is that a niche is provided for a Fire Stick, Amazon’s counterpart to a Google Chromecast.
The challenge with voice assistants is that as a manufacturer you can not yet say which key is becoming. That’s why Sound United will support Google Assistant next to Alexa from Amazon and Siri from Apple. It does so with the Polk Smart Assist, a smart speaker that sounds “unlike the speakers from Google and Amazon”. For the Benelux, Smart Assist is relevant, because probably around November Google will finally let its assistant speak and understand Dutch.
Sound United Grand plans – Also strong in loudspeakers
If there was one product that we and most other people present from below impression, it was the Demand speakers from Definitive Technology. They are special bookshelf speakers (later follow floor stands) of which we have already tested the smallest model, the D7 . They are not particularly expensive, but sound very good and European. Technically, Definitive Technology has made very distinctive choices for these speakers, including eccentrically positioned tweeters with waveguide and an overlying passive woofer on the D9 and D11. Another nice news: Skylar Gray, the former headphone guru of Audioquest (not the almost eponymous Skylar Gray, the pop singer), is now the brand ambassador of Definitive Technology.
Sound United is also very aware of the fact that the speakers from Polk and Definitive Technology are tuned for the American market. That is not always very good in Europe, and that is why they started working with acoustic consultant Karl-Heinz Fink to adapt models for our continent. Other things happened with the Signature series that we tested earlier in his American form. Fink had among other things strengthened the cabinet internally and adjusted the crossovers, says Sietsema.
Sound United Grand plans – Lots of fun in the coming months
This edition felt strongly like a turning point for Sound United, but less than last year. Then the merger between Polk and Definitive Technology was on one side and Denon and Marantz on the other side just finished and the company was still in full transition. In 2018, Sound United is full of self-confidence, bursting with ambition. Where the group as a whole goes, remains to be seen. In any case, there are again some interesting products on the agenda – of which we will be examining a large part in the coming months. To be continued!