Sound United: Heos vs. Play-Fi Debate Continues after D+M Group Merger

Sound United still defining sales roles, wireless platforms for Polk, Def Tech with D+M Group brands Boston Acoustics, Marantz and Denon.

Joe Palenchar

Home-audio companies D+M Group and Sound United merged on February 28 and are still evaluating the changes they will make, including revised sales and marketing programs and a wireless-technology direction (Heos versus Play-Fi), to “exit the merger in the strongest way possible for our dealers and consumers,” says Aaron Levine, senior director of global marketing for all of the merged company’s brands. The merged entity, called Sound United, is “evaluating all aspects of the business” and has already broadened the responsibilities of some top-level employees to cover all brands, Levine said after a press briefing on new products for Polk Audio, Definitive Technology, Marantz, Denon, and Boston Acoustics

Levine, for example, was senior director of global marketing for the Polk Audio, Definitive Technology and Polk Boom speaker brands in the pre-merger Sound United, but he has added responsibilities for D+M’s Denon and Marantz audio electronics brands and Boston Acoustics speaker brand. Kevin Zarow, former VP/GM of D+M Group Americas, is now VP of the A/V specialty and custom-installation channels.

The merger “opens up opportunities for all brands to expand to multiple [wireless] platforms.”

— Aaron Levine, senior director global marketing, Sound United

As roles change, the company is evaluating sales and marketing programs to identify best practices and bring them to all brands, but nothing has changed yet in the way the brands go to market, Levine says. The focus of the merged company, a division of DEI Holdings, has been on “understanding what each brand needs and to merge resources to position each brand to grow.”

The combination of the two companies brings with it “a wealth of technology and knowledgeable individuals” who are “just getting together to explore a technical direction,” Levine continues. That effort includes how to manage the three wireless-multiroom technologies adopted by different Sound United brands.

The merger “opens up opportunities for all brands to expand to multiple [wireless] platforms,” Levine noted.

Play-Fi Strategy for Polk, Def Tech

In Polk’s MagniFi soundbar series, for example, the company has implemented Google’s Chromecast built-in. It appears in a $299-suggested MagniFi Mini soundbar and a planned step-up soundbar due in a few months. The DTS Play-Fi wireless platform, however, appears in Polk’s step-up $699 Omni series SB1 Plus soundbar.

Polk views Play-Fi as as a premium technology compared with Chromecast built in, says Michael Greco, Polk’s global brand director. Active Play-Fi speakers, for example, double as wireless surround speakers when paired with a Play-Fi sound bar.

For its part, the premium Definitive Technology brand uses Play-Fi exclusively in speakers, soundbars, and wireless adapters, and Heos wireless-multiroom technology, developed by D+M, is expanding this year to more Denon and Marantz AVRs at a broader range of price points.

Conceivably, Sound United could adopt a strategy similar to Onkyo, which offers Onkyo, Integra and Pioneer products incorporating three technologies: Play-Fi, Fire Connect and Chromecast built-in. “We’re exploring all opportunities to give consumers the best possible audio experience, ” Levine says. “If the consumer is looking for it, we’ll consider it.” Sound United “hopes to have more to share at CEDIA,“ he adds.

Back-office functions such as accounting and finance will merge, as will engineering and customer service, Levine noted.

On other topics, Levine said D+M’s Boston Acoustics speaker brand, which hasn’t been marketed heavily in recent years, will continue as a specialty brand for the custom installation channel through its lineup of in-room and architectural speakers. Boston Acoustics speakers have also been used in promotional packages with Denon electronics for the specialty channel,  a spokesperson added.

“We’re exploring all opportunities to give consumers the best possible audio experience. If the consumer is looking for it, we’ll consider it.” 

— Aaron Levine, senior director global marketing, Sound United

As for future product developments, the merged entity continues to work on implementing Alexa voice control of Heos-equipped Denon and Marantz products through Amazon’s Wi-Fi smart speakers. The development was originally planned for the first quarter of 2017.

For Sound United’s Play-Fi products, Alexa voice control via Amazon’s speakers is also in the works, awaiting a Play-Fi firmware update that DTS confirmed is now due in the second half rather than in the first quarter as previously announced. The firmware update will work with Play-Fi products marketed by any company that licenses the Play-Fi platform.

With the Heos and Play-Fi updates, consumers will talk to Amazon’s smart speakers to control select functions of Play-Fi and Heos products and select the Amazon-speaker music services to be played through the Heos and Play-Fi products. Through its soundbar with Chromecast built in, Polk already offers similar functionality when the bar is networked with a Google Home smart speaker.

In other technology plans, Sound United hasn’t announced plans yet for DTS Virtual:X surround technology. The post-processing technology enables sound bars and traditional 5.1-speaker home theater systems  to reproduce virtual height channels from object-based surround-sound tracks without installing height-effects speakers. The technology also upmixes stereo and multichannel sound tracks to create 3D virtual surround.

Another immersive surround format, Auro-3D, is expected to trickle into additional Denon and Marantz products later this year, a spokesperson added. Auro-3D  is currently available as a paid-for firmware update to two Denon and two Marantz products.

Marantz Expands Heos

In the meantime, Marantz is launching two new slim-line networked AVRs at a suggested $549 and $749 to expand Heos wireless to three SKUs from one over a broader range of prices. Heos is currently available in a full-size AVR at $1,399.

The $549 5.2-channel NR1508 and $749 7.2-channel NR1608, both due this month, also the brand’s first AVRs with Dolby Vision HDR pass through and first, via a firmware update due sometime in the future, with Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) HDR. Both models are about 4-inches-tall, and their suggested retails are up $50 from their predecessors’ prices.

Like its predecessor, the7.2-channel model features Dolby Atmos and DTS:X object-based immersive surround decoding. The 5.2-channel model features Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master.

Marantz’s two new slim-line AVRs, the $749-suggested NR1608 (pictured) and $549 NR1508, expand Heos wireless-multiroom technology to three AVRs from one. They are the brand’s first AVRs with Dolby Vision HDR and first that can be upgraded via firmware to add Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) HDR.

Both components also feature Bluetooth, Apple AirPlay, TuneIn Internet Radio, Pandora, Spotify, Amazon Prime Music, iHeart Radio, Sirius XM, Sound Cloud, Tidal, Napster, and Deezer. Both also decode high-res audio files from a networked computer or NAS drive at up to 192kHz/24bit and DSD 2.8MHz and 5.6MHz. They also play high-res music through a front-panel USB port.

Other key features of the $749 model include eight HDMI inputs, including one on the front panel; second-zone amplified and pre-amp outputs; 5×70-watt amplifier (rated at 8 ohms from 20 Hz-20kHz with 0.08 percent THD) to drive a 5.1.2 speaker system; and Dolby Surround and Neural:X processing, which derive height channels from soundtracks lacking Dolby Atmos or DTS:X for playback through speaker systems with height-effects speakers.

The top model also features analog-to-HDMI video conversion and upscaling of standard- and high-definition video to 4K. It also features video-calibration controls for use by technicians certified the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF).

The suite of technologies from Audysssey consist of Audyssey MultEQ room correction, Audyssey Dynamic EQ to retain balanced sound at low listening levels, and Dynamic Volume, which levels out jumps in volume when commercials come on TV.

An optional Audyssey MultEQ Editor App is available for consumers to tune the sound to their personal tastes.

With the $549 model, consumers get almost all of the same features except for Atmos, DTS:X, ISF calibration controls, analog-to-HDMI conversion, upscaling to 4K, a remote IR output, RS-232C port, and compatibility with the Audyssey MultEQ Editor app. Power output goes to 5×50 watts, and the number of HDMI inputs goes to six.