‘We want to be the future of AV’
British audio brand Convert Technologies is shifting its focus from hi-fi to smart home and is urging retailers to do the same. Sean Hannam finds out more
Independent hi-fi retailers are not typically ready to sell connected smart-home technology.
That’s the view of Ben Timberley, senior marketing manager for Convert Technologies – the British manufacturer of the Plato home entertainment, hi-fi and home-cinema systems – who wrote an outspoken Turning Point opinion column in the April issue of ERT.
Speaking to us at the company’s HQ in Derby, he picks up the thread: “I love your Turning Point campaign – it’s needed in the hi-fi sector more than anywhere else. Hi-fi is just not selling through – we’re in a quiet patch at the moment, which is not good, and we’re finding it difficult. Independent hi-fi retailers are our main channel in the UK. The issue we’ve got is that we’re doing OK with some of them, but nobody is doing well. We’ve lost sales because a lot of customers don’t know how to sell anything more complex than a turntable or hi-fi speakers. You start talking wi-fi or UPnP to people and you can see their eyes glaze over.”
ERT asks him whether the vinyl revival has stopped some retailers – and consumers – from embracing wireless audio and multi-room? Are they happy with just a turntable and some speakers and not prepared to make the next step?
“Spot on. It takes a sea change in thinking. We get people who are old school, two-channel who come along and say, ‘we want this, we want that’, but to start thinking about the smart home turns it into a whole different ball game. They have to think about the wiring in their home and Cat5 plugs, USB connectors and the wi-fi signal. It changes everything. There needs to be a much better focus on wi-fi and the tech that’s involved – a lot of independent retailers just don’t know enough about tech.”
He adds: “There’s definitely a gap in the market and we’re doing our best to start moving in that direction. At the top, you’ve got the typical custom installers and AV people, who are charging from £14,000 to £15,000 upwards and below that there’s nothing. You’ve got Sonos right at the bottom end, but there’s nobody in the middle. We’ve got a system that will allow that to happen – it means that for £5,000 to £6,000 you can have a complete set-up in your house that does AV in every room. Yes, it won’t be super-duper, integrated stuff. You’ll have units and you’ll have to connect them via a wireless router, but it will work and it will do most of what a high-end system will do.”
The Plato systems can be used as a wireless video or music server and a streaming and download system, with a Class A or Class B amplifier, and include a DAC for vinyl recording.
So which products is Mr Timberley suggesting will help to fill that mid-market gap? “This is where it gets interesting. Our price range goes from £1,900 for the Plato Lite up to £4,350 for the Plato Class A and we’re releasing the Tempus, which is £10,000.”
He also hints at new, more affordable products to come further down the line. Also on the new technology front, Convert is releasing two apps – Vinyl Recorder and CD Ripper. The former allows you to digitise your vinyl collection by plugging a smartphone into a USB turntable and ripping records in real time to the phone. Users can pick from three high-quality formats – AAC, WAV and FLAC. The app removes the need for any PC audio editing software, which, claims Convert, is complicated and lengthy to use.
The CD Ripper app – which needs to be used with low-cost equipment, including a CD drive, a USB power hub and an adaptor plug – enables Android users to rip CDs to their device without using a computer.
Mr Timberley tells ERT that Convert has plans to expand its business overseas: “We’re aggressively entering new markets – we have an auto-ranging power supply, which means we can go into markets that need that, such as the US. We’re entering the US and we’re in talks with Russia. We already have around 50 per cent coverage of Europe.”
From talking to Mr Timberley – a man who is very passionate about technology – it’s clear that Convert is shifting its focus from hi-fi to smart home: “We started out in hi-fi, but we understand that the market is in the smart home. We want our name associated with the smart home and we want to be the future of AV – not at the top-end, but at the commercial, affordable, retail end.
“Our challenge is that we don’t have retailers who can sell us in a smart-home context, but we’re changing that. We’re working with custom-install companies and smart-home retailers, like Avensys – who I think are the future. We want people who can sell us as part of a holistic system.”
He adds: “If I had one hundred million quid going spare, I would set up a chain of stores across the country, dedicated to smart home. I know that those stores would still be there in 20 years and I would make an absolute mint. Smart home is a vibrant, growing sector with innovation, new ideas and new ways of doing things. To ignore it is stubborn to the point of self-destruction.”