Sennheiser, the German audio pioneer, is marking its 75th anniversary this year. The privately held company was founded by Prof. Dr. Fritz Sennheiser on June 1, 1945 and is now led by Dr. Andreas Sennheiser and Daniel Sennheiser, the third generation Sennheiser family. The company started with the sole objective of shaping the future of audio. In over seven decades of its existence, the company has repeatedly introduced products that questioned the status quo. There have been times when it has launched products that have replaced it’s own products that many believed hard to replace. Also Read - Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 Review
Singular focus on audio quality
However, the pandemic has thrown a new equation in the market and Sennheiser, while finding itself in odds, is more than prepared. Depending on whom you ask, Sennheiser is best described as a company producing audiophile grade headphones. It has defined the idea of wired and wireless headphones and has often gone a step beyond to deliver the audio experience. It produces high fidelity products including microphones, headphones and other telephone accessories. Also Read - Qualcomm has a plan for wearables and smartphone makers are buying it
While its consumer business is widely recognized, the company also serves professional and business applications. With the pandemic, the consumption or adoption of audio devices have changed in a big way. The consumers are no longer looking at devices offering individual experience. Instead, they are looking at audio devices that serve the entire home. Even on the personal audio side, consumers are skipping that transition from wired to wireless and jumping straight to true wireless with much more confidence. Also Read - boAt Lifestyle sets focus on 2021 to come out stronger from COVID-19 outbreak, says co-founder Aman Gupta
It took a really long time for wireless headphones to become mainstream but true wireless earbuds have been a mainstream phenomenon for a year now. This brings me to the contentious statement I made at the start of this article. Sennheiser is finding itself at odds with the consumer behavior, where home audio now trumps individual audio experience. It is prepared with devices that cater to these requirements. In fact, Mr. Kapil Gulati, Director, Consumer Segment, Sennheiser India, told me that the company has just shown it’s first card in this area of significant opportunity.
Launch of Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2
Sennheiser launched only it’s second true wireless earbuds in the market recently. The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 shows how even the biggest company in the world cannot sit on its laurels. The difference between a successful company and the one failing to challenge it often lies in who listens to their customers sooner. The Momentum True Wireless (MTW) 2 is an example of Sennheiser listening to customers of original MTW and fixing everything they didn’t like and then adding features that were in their wishlist.
“India is a market for in-ear style compared to headband design,” Mr. Gulati told me. “True Wireless offers seamless and comfort design” he added. Globally, the true wireless market is growing by 300 percent. In India, according to Counterpoint Research, the hearables market posted 700 percent YoY growth in 2019. The success of true wireless earbuds can be owed to the fact that they are available across multiple price points. In India, we now see TWS earbuds that start in the sub-Rs 1,000 price segment. However, the true wireless earbuds market has been known for convenience, unlike the headbands, which offer distinguished sound.
Sennheiser, with a rich history of pioneering sound experience, wants to change that narrative. “Convenience remains the focus but 70 percent of the consumers want better sound quality,” Mr. Gulati said on MS Teams call. Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 is priced at Rs 24,990. It is certainly expensive and one might even argue that it is five times as expensive as the one offered by a smartphone brand. As a result, the audio pioneer now has to contend not only with audio brands but also smartphone brands that are venturing into the audio and accessories market.
Mr. Gulati, who has been leading Sennheiser’s India operations for over a decade now, made an astute observation. He told me that true wireless has a market share of over 60 percent in the in-ear audio market priced under Rs 4,500. “With Momentum True Wireless 2, Sennheiser offers the best sound, best ergonomics and ANC in one package,” he further added. My review of Sennheiser MTW-2 will be out later in the day but I must say that these are the best when it comes to sound in the TWS form factor. In an interview with the Economic Times last year, Dr. Andreas Sennheiser that the company does not “want to be elitist in India.”
Plans for new true wireless earbuds
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2, despite its price, is not meant for elite customers. Mr. Gulati says there will always be customers who will buy a product purely on the basis of price. However, the company is already seeing customers pick MTW-2 in India for its sound quality. To further prove Dr. Andreas’ point, Sennheiser is planning to introduce at least two new true wireless earbuds in the market in the next three to six months. These will be more affordable than MTW-2 but will not skimp on audio performance.
Speaking of MTW-2, Mr. Gulati uses the reference of comparatives and superlatives to explain the product strategy. He says the Momentum True Wireless 2 is the best the company could do for this year. However, the next two products will fit in the good and better segment. In other words, they will be better than what rivals offer in the market and at the same time, will be competitive in terms of price. Even though pandemic is expected to make consumers spend cautiously for at least the next six months, Sennheiser sees itself as a value or investment proposition and not a one-time purchase.
The chances of Sennheiser succeeding in this segment are high and Sony has already shown that strategy. The Japanese electronics giant is one of the late entrants in the true wireless market in India but it launched two products catering to a price segment that remains competitive. Suddenly, the interest shifted from smartphone makers and their TWS earbuds to an audio company and its product. Mr. Gulati further explains that consumer behavior will hinge around what they want. If their first preference is sound quality then they will stick to brands like Sennheiser even if it comes at a premium.
Mr. Gulati also told me that the company had apprehensions around the launch of MTW-2 in India last month. With consumers expected to spend only on necessities, Sennheiser had second thoughts about this launch here. However, Mr. Gulati was elated to share that the MTW-2 has done even better than the original model. While he did not share the exact sales number, one can make an inference that there is opportunity for premium audio players. Sennheiser also believes that “wireless charging is not the need” and is the reason why MTW-2 does not offer wireless charging.
With an adoption rate just around 5 percent, Mr. Gulati says the audio market is poised for its biggest growth yet. It is also a market where “winner takes all” won’t be relevant. Sennheiser sees entry of new brands less of a challenge and more of a market opportunity. He says smartphone brands and their product offerings are pushing us to innovate faster. He highlights MTW-2 as a product coming from that zeal to do better. It will be interesting to see how inexpensive Sennheiser’s next TWS earbuds are but for now, the company is focused on bringing India-specific products as consumers look for the best audio experience while working or learning from home.
Home Audio Market
Home is where all the action lies right now. Sennheiser, with its over 70 years of storied history and leadership in the audio segment, never ventured into the home audio market. It comes both as a shock and surprise to me that the company took this long to launch its first home audio product. At CES 2019, Sennheiser launched Ambeo Soundbar as its first ever consumer speaker, setting aside the idea of sticking to consumer headphones alone. It did so in not an ordinary fashion. The Ambeo Soundbar looks more like a large, black chocolate bar than a speaker and it houses 13 speakers – six woofers, four tweeters and two top-firing speakers.
I obviously asked Mr. Gulati about why it took Sennheiser this long to enter the home audio market and the road ahead for the company in this space. He explained that during his first visit to Sennheiser’s HQ in Germany, he asked Mr. Jörg Sennheiser whether the company has plans to enter the home audio market with Bluetooth speakers or floor-standing speakers. Mr. Jörg told him that Sennheiser had no plans for this space because it did not have anything different to offer at that time. When you look at Ambeo, it definitely comes across as different and then elevates the idea of home audio experience.
Mr. Gulati says that consumer speaker, in the form of Ambeo, became possible thanks to its experience with Neumann-branded professional audio equipment. Like MTW-2, Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar is expensive and its Rs 2,00,000 price tag might make some faint. However, it is again playing to the strengths of Sennheiser. It is the best the company could do with its first ever consumer speaker and entry into an extremely diverse and populated soundbar market. Mr. Gulati says the company is surprised by the response for the device so far in the Indian market. He says that it is not limited to a small set of users and “people are seeing it as a long-term investment.”
We all can relate to the fact that home is no longer the place where we socialized but also the one where work gets done. As a result, the choice of technology and consumer electronics plays an important role. So, Sennheiser is seeing people order Ambeo not for themselves but for the entire family to enjoy an incredible home entertainment experience. “Ambeo is not an individual product but instead a family product,” Mr. Gulati said. If the price is keeping you at fence then there is certainly good news around the corner.
Mr. Gulati says that consumers have bought the Ambeo soundbar even during the lockdown period as well. He calls this a taste of success in the consumer audio market and confirms that Sennheiser will make more products for home audio experience. In other words, Ambeo is the best Sennheiser offers now but it will soon have soundbars that will fall in the “good” and “better” segment of its product lineup.
Ambeo for automotive
From the consumer headphone market, Sennheiser has ventured into the consumer speaker market with its Ambeo soundbar. However, it is already making its play for a market share in the automotive market as well. In August last year, Sennheiser announced its partnership with Southern California-based luxury automaker, Karma Automotive to introduce in-car Ambeo sound system. Mr. Gulati says this is a strategic partnership with long-term opportunity to establish itself in the future where driverless cars will become common.
With Ambeo for automotive, Sennheiser is seeing an opportunity to define the future of audio equipment, especially the speaker less design and form factor that morphs into design of the automobile. “We set out with the aim to create nothing less than the best-in-class sound experience. The system we designed will amaze with its authentic immersive sound, voice intelligibility, and possibilities for sound personalisation,” Co-CEO Andreas Sennheiser said at the time.
Impact of COVID on Sennheiser’s 75 years celebration
Mr. Gulati says Sennheiser had planned a big music festival to mark 75 years of its existence. The event in Germany was supposed to bring together Sennheiser family, employees, distributors and major customers. However, the pandemic has forced the company to abandon that plan. Despite the uncertainty caused by the outbreak of COVID-19, Sennheiser is not cutting down on its efforts to engage with customers, partners and retail distributors.
While these activities earlier happened offline, Sennheiser is now taking these offline experiences to an online world. It has created a “#DontStopMusic” experience bringing DJs and musicians together to demonstrate their talent online. It is also doing webinars for customers and partners to explain the technology behind its products. “A lot of celebrations were planned for all of us in Germany as well as in local markets,” Mr. Gulati explained. However, it now looks like a distant dream for the company and its employees.
Focus on future products
Mr. Gulati says true wireless is the most important product segment for the company right now. He says the segment has grown from low single digit share in its business to high double digit numbers despite the lockdown. With consumers spending more time consuming content, he sees the opportunity for this segment to evolve faster. While he did not share Sennheiser’s future plans, he did suggest that the future for true wireless will be one where earbuds will become smaller. When I asked how small? Mr. Gulati said so small that people won’t even know that you are wearing one.
As a veteran at Sennheiser, Mr. Gulati is definitely visionary and his vision involves one where these earbuds will become plug and play devices. He sees the earbuds being used when you are on the move and then being docked onto a station to become a speaker. He says home audio and soundbars, in particular, will see a lot of pickup among consumers. Sennheiser is already working on audio products that could define the segment two years from now. However, it remains confidential at this moment. According to Mr. Gulati, one thing will remain constant – expectation for good sound output regardless of form factor.