At IFA 2016 in Berlin, we caught up with the head of Sony Australia's audio department, Abel Makhraz, for a chat on all things audio and Sony.
Sound+Image: So tell us who you are, what you do.
Abel Makhraz: I’m Abel Makhraz, I work for Sony and I'm the head of the audio department for Australia and for New Zealand. I look after all of audio including portable — so headphones, soundbars, home audio, portable audio. So if it's not a TV or a camera then it falls under me.
S+I: So in-car as well — you started in in-car, I gather?
AM: I did. So before I joined Sony I actually had my own car audio shop -- Hyper Sound was the name of the store, in Blacktown, Sydney. It was a specialist store where we fit solid high-end audio, and did installations there as well, custom-style installations. Sony was one of the brands we were selling, and from there, when I left the store and sold, I got into Sony and have been there since, and that was 12 years ago.
S+I: So that's a lot of changes in the in-car industry -- how have you seen that side of things change?
AM: What I've seen is that the in-car industry is becoming more difficult, mainly due to the OE side of it. So cars are now coming out with standard Bluetooth -- back when I was when I was in the game, if you wanted Bluetooth you had to buy an aftermarket. But not only the feature set, it's also the type of installation now required to put in a car audio product aftermarket is quite difficult.
S+I: Because we've got computers instead of cables.
AM: Exactly, and there been the move away from the generic single or double DIN dimensions to custom-built dimensions that work within that car. So even though all that has happened, car audio is still selling quite well... there are slight decreases but what we're finding is the move from non-Bluetooth products... so quantity is slightly down but value as an industry is a lot healthier than the quantity decrease. So we're finding things like navigation picking up, because still to buy an aftermarket navigation is quite expensive from a dealer, where you could buy an aftermarket one for a lot lot less... CarPlay devices and Android is also picking up quite well.
S+I: So how's Sony as a company reacted to these changes.
AM: We've now got models that can do that. So we're releasing a CarPlay-Android model this November [most likely the pictured XAV-AX100 or a similar local model], which we think will take off and do very well, both CarPlay and Android both, so therefore you can then use it for pretty much everything, it's just an extension of your mobile phone.
The other thing that we're doing is we're moving away, we're trying to develop new products for the car, and there's actually one here on the show -- you probably missed it but it sits there and it plugs into your standard kind device, turning it into a Bluetooth product, so it's a very small remote-control-style device that you just put in the centre console. So what that does is when you connect your telephone to it, it allows you to communicate with the device, which then runs through your speakers without a need to change any of your current car accessories, or your speakers, so it just flows through it. But the big advantage that it has over Bluetooth is that it's also voice controlled. So you can use either Siri or you can use Google Now. And it's all about 'don't even touch your phone anymore', you just talk, and off it goes, and it's only 149 bucks. Something new!
S+I: Does Sony OEM for any car companies?
AM: We do. We do. I don't know all of them but I know we do OEM for Ford in the U.S., it goes in with the Sony logo. We also do a couple of models in Thailand and a couple of models in India as well. There could be more but I don't know the exact... so OEM is still healthy, it's just the aftermarket side that has slowed down a bit.
S+I: All right. So home audio. What excites you most from what's happening in home audio at the moment?
AM: I think for me out of out of IFA's releases is the Signature series [pictured above], very exciting for us. We've tackled that high-end -- sort of set a mark where Sony is, bringing back that heritage that Sony has in audio and bringing it forward to 2016, where we still want to set the benchmark as being the best thing in audio.
The noise-cancelling 1000X model [pictured right] is very very exciting for us, as well. You know it's all about having that 'best' noise cancelling feature, plus the extra features, and not having to remove the headphone for any reason at all -- if you don't want to. And yeah in terms of the extra bass side, that XB5 device, that portable speaker with the flashing lights, is also very exciting.
S+I: We just reviewed the XB7, it did remarkably well as a Bluetooth speaker. So what are Sony's main strengths in home audio in Australia - what are the things that sell best, what makes the best money?
AM: We do well across audio, we are the number one audio brand in Australia.
S+I: Is that right? In quantity or value?
AM: In value. We do very well in wireless speaker, we do well in sound bars, obviously to coincide with with TVs as well, that helps. We do exceptionally well in headphones. That's a very key driver for us.
S+I: It's a very difficult market to launch a single model into headphones with so much out there?
AM: You're right, the headphone market is becoming extremely tough. It's still growing, quite well, and as a result of the growth we're seeing shifts within the market itself. So it's moving towards Bluetooth, and sports within headphones are growing, also that high-end section is also growing. I believe it's probably a result of... you know we understand there's customers out there that just don't want low uqality sound, so that we all get, they want to listen to their music the way the artist intended it to be. And when you look at those customers in detail, we find in the younger generation of those customers is what's growing the fastest in that high-end section. So as a result of that the Signature series was launched today. Those customers want high sound quality on the go. You know when you compare to the not-so-young demographic, they like to listen to their high-res audio or their high quality sound at home on a beautiful set of speakers off a receiver. So that change I think, Sony's adapted very well to. And hence the launch of this Signature series.
S+I: And something like the Walkmans can do both jobs at once, really.
AM: Exactly, something like the Walkmans can can do both at once, yeah. So I think it's all about that expectation from that audiophile-based mentality, but moving down to the younger demographic where we see those consumers don't want to listen to music that sounds like it's coming from an audio device. They want to listen to music like they're there at the concert, you know where they can immerse themselves in the atmosphere and the passion of that performance, and that's the lacking bit that we don't quite have now, that the Signature series allows us to be able to to share with them.
S+I: So the high res audio, I think it's been three four years Sony's been championing high-res audio. Do you think the adoption of it has grown as fast as Sony would want, as they thought it might?
AM: From an Australian viewpoint we are very happy with the growth, it has grown to our expectation. Awareness is something that we're extremely happy with. So there was a survey done about awareness in 2014 and the question was asked - this was for someone who was interested in buying an audio product - 'Are you aware of high-res audio. Do you know what it is?'. And 10 percent of the people replied that they were aware. That same survey was done again a year later, 2015, and that number went to 40 percent. So we believe that our messaging, our education, is getting out there. Obviously we still need to continue that, and promote high-res audio to the consumers. But as that gets out there, as consumer awareness becomes higher and higher, as our product categories and products expand, we can see a really healthy future for high-res audio.
S+I: And the logo - it was originally a Sony logo, the Hi-Res Audio thing, and now that's appearing other brands. How does that work?
AM: That's right - so Sony developed the logo and the high-res audio as well, we were first to market with it. Now there's been approval through the JEITA association, they now have the authority to use the same logo provided they follow whatever the requirements are. And now we're starting to see other brands starting to use the Hi-Res logo. Which is good for us, we like to encourage and push high-res audio, for recognition.
S+I: So Sony Australia - not all Sony products come to Australia, we remember when you had the high-end speakers coming in and some came, some you're not sure. How does that work,do you choose or is it handed down?
AM: So we get presented every model. And then we then cross-reference that with our market. We make sure that, you know, is there a demand there? We do a couple of surveys and just get some feedback directly from the consumer. We also get feedback from our retailers, what they think of the product. And then after our small consulting period we decide on whether the product is ranged in the Australian market, and we generally find that if there's a need or a requirement for it we will range a product. It's becoming more rare that we've don't range a product because, as you know, the world is becoming very very connected, so if we don't have it, they'll pp over somewhere else... so as long as there's some sort of requirement and acceptance of it we will range it here.
S+I: And how hard is Australian certification requirements and all that stuff when bringing them in.
AM: That I don't know, we leave that to the engineers. But yeah, they do have to go through certain steps before it becomes certified.
S+I: So things like sound bars, this is in your area, and you've also got full-on surround systems and stuff. So how is the movement in that market?
AM: So soundbars are doing really well... we're seeing the market move away from the traditional home theatre where you'd have three speakers at the front, two speakers at the back, a little bit of complication in terms of installing the product by running wires etc. We're seeing that move towards soundbar. And also I think that people's living environments change as well. A lot more units, smaller housing where you can't fit a home theatre. Also open-plan living has helped that come along - you can't just put two speakers in the middle of a room where there's no walls. So the soundbar market has really put picked up for us, we are very happy, we're doing very very well with it. And now with the additional introduction of multiroom we can further expand the Sony family within the consumer's household.
S+I: And how's understanding of multiroom? People confuse what a wireless speaker is with what a multiroom speaker is?
AM: I believe as more and more brands become involved in multiroom, the message is getting out there. You know it's no secret Sony isn't the first in multiroom, however we believe that the wait was definitely worth the while, because we now have many multiroom-compatible products. We have receivers that are multiroom compatible, we have a Blu-ray player that you can use as a source unit as a multiroom product. We have wireless speaker with battery power. We have powered speakers. We have soundbars. So when you join the Sony multiroom family, it's not just buying a wireless speaker and one soundbar. There's a growing family use of products where you can use that speaker in your house as a wireless speaker if you want to, because they also have Bluetooth, the Sony ones, and then when you want to use it as multiroom you pick it up and you can use it and then put it back into the room that it originally came from.
S+I: It is a Sony family. There's a lot of companies are joining third party platforms like DTS PlayFi and so forth. So is there any value to Sony opening the system to other companies.
AM: I'm not too sure about that, at the moment it's not. You know, GoogleCast is part of it, Spotify is part of it.
S+I: So you can use GoogleCast to connect with other brands.
AM: Oh yeah. So look, ours is a very simple system, you connect to your Wi-Fi and through the app you pretty much control every speaker.
S+I: Tell us about the new ZD tellies, which have got slightly different numbers in Australia... Why do you do that? Why did you change the models between markets?
AM: About TV I can't really comment, in terms of audio when a product has a different model number it's because if there's even a small spec change to... for licensing or whatever, to get it into the country, then that product is different than the original. Which means it needs a different model number. It might be something to do with that.
S+I: You've got a turntable in there [on the Sony IFA stand, pictured above] which transcribes to DSD.
AM: That there is again something to add onto our high-res audio story. So as you know the vinyl market is coming back, and we do sell an entry-model vinyl player as well, and this is again our premium model. So I think it's designed for those customers that have the vinyl and they love their vinyl and they want to take it to the next level. So you want to record your vinyl through the PC with the supplied software into high-res audio and you can then sit back and enjoy listening to it off your high-res audio device, pack away your vinyls if you want, or continue to listen both, and experience the difference. Put it on your Walkman, put it on your wireless speaker.
S+I: I'm always slightly confused and I know that isn't particularly consumer relevant, but how Sony compartmentalises its divisions... Is that something that restricts communication in terms of what's going on at all at all-of-company level? How closely tied are yo uto other divisions?
AM: Well look I can speak on behalf of audio... so audio, if you go back, audio also had divisions within audio. So there was the soundbar division, there was the headphone division, there was the Walkman division. There was the MP3 player division. So there was divisions. What you're seeing now, and you can see within our range of products, they've all now combined, so there is a common platform. And the proof that is when we launch something like h.ear go, which is you know the colour launches that we did for the high-res products? h.ear go was available on speakers, it was also available on headphones, also on high-res Walkman.
So as a group I think it's all coming into one. Another really good example of that is the 'EXTRA BASS' products, so EXTRA BASS is now across multiple categories. So I think it's very advantageous having that, very easy for the consumer to see Sony as one as well.
S+I: Have you had that sort of, let's call them youth products, before? Because certain companies have specialised in these immensely crazy ghetto blasters, I don't know Sony's history in that.
AM: We've always had boomboxes, and we continue to have boom boxes now, they continue to sell quite well.
S+I: In certain areas.
AM: In certain areas! What's changed is the transition of multiple large speakers, so for example you look at our Muteki model which still sells quite well, it three speakers at the front, two subwoofers, a center speaker – is changing to a one-box design. So what you saw in there is a simple one-box design which takes less space but is just as loud as a three-box design. So that's where we're seeing the evolution happen.
S+I: Got you. And you can chain these things.
AM: You can change two ways, one with Bluetooth where you can pair up a stereo if you want, or connect them and double the power. Or you can chain them with wire, with RCA, and you can chain up to 10 together.
S+I: So had you had a chance to look around IFA, any takeaways you've seen on the show as a whole?
AM: Not yet, that's next!
S+I: OK, Abel, thanks very much for your time today.
Declaration: Sound+Image visited IFA 2016 as a guest of Sony Australia. This interview was part of the presented schedule of Sony events.