4 min read.Updated: 23 May 2015, 11:35 PM ISTManish Basu
Sonodyne's products were considered status symbols in the analogue era, but market dynamics now are vastly different
After doing business for at least seven years, Sonodyne Technologies Pvt. Ltd is shutting its only exclusive sales outlet in Kolkata’s upscale South City Mall. Tucked behind a food court on the top floor, the Sonodyne Listening Room these days gets only a few visitors every day.
Sales executives there are evasive but say the store does not get the right kind of visitors. But the salesmen at the store next door, operated by Bose Corp., another consumer electronics maker, are more enthusiastic.
Looking at the footfall at these two stores, it doesn’t take more than an hour to figure out that there’s far greater interest in Bose’s products than Sonodyne’s, which once had a cult following among people who cared for good music.
The listening room didn’t work for Sonodyne, says Anindya Mukherjee, a director at the company and the founder’s son.
From now, Sonodyne will be selling its products through multi-brand outlets, where they can be compared with those of competitors such as Harman International Industries Inc. and Sony Corp.
Brand Sonodyne has lately lost its consumer appeal, admits Mukherjee. But he is confident he can rebuild it.
Mukherjee, 40, a music aficionado, knows it’s not going to be easy though the products that his company now makes are “light years ahead" of its iconic Uranus series of music systems in the 1990s.
For those who have fond memories of the Uranus 2, there are plenty of used ones still available on online marketplaces such as Olx and Quikr, and for used audio systems of that vintage, they aren’t cheap even now.
Sonodyne’s founder Ashoke Kumar Mukherjee has been a stickler for quality all his life. It’s evident at the living room of his New Alipore home in Kolkata, where an immaculately preserved 80-year-old painting competes for attention with a giant M.F. Husain canvas amid a vast and varied collection of art.
While most manufacturers use polymer housing for loudspeakers, Sonodyne still uses high-density fibres—a close variant of wood imported from Brazil. The paint used is Italian and the more critical components are imported from Scandinavian suppliers, the older Mukherjee says as he gives a guided tour of Sonodyne’s assembly line at a special economic zone in Falta near Kolkata.
With a bank loan of Rs2.5 lakh, he founded Sonodyne in 1970. In a command economy, where options were limited, he didn’t take too long to establish Sonodyne as a coveted brand, particularly in the home audio segment. For it was in those days—and even now—an aggregator of high-quality components.
But that was the analogue era, when the Uranus was a status symbol. As multinational consumer electronics makers with bigger advertising budgets started to flood Indian markets with a wide spectrum of products, the game changed and Sonodyne lost its mojo.
It continued to produce quality products, but the value proposition of the brand was lost in consumers’ minds. Understandably, only a fifth of Sonodyne’s revenue now comes from the home audio segment, says Anindya Mukherjee.
As he takes over from his father, the challenge for him is to re-establish Sonodyne as a premium yet more affordable brand in the home audio segment. Hence the shift in the sales strategy—taking Sonodyne’s products out of its exclusive listening rooms to the open marketplace of multi-brand outlets.
Sonodyne’s Uranus series still has a “huge recall", especially among people who grew up aspiring to own one, says Debashish Barkataki, who runs Ace Acoustics, a multi-brand outlet in Kolkata. The challenge now is to introduce the new range of Sonodyne’s products to such people, says Barkataki, whose store sells brands such as JBL (from the Harman stable) and Focal, a French brand from Focal-JMlab Co.
Because they are made in India, Sonodyne will cost a fraction of the top range of these brands, but in terms of quality, it is completely at par, says Barkataki. “Sonodyne has demonstrated its quality to us," he says. “It is for us now to convince consumers about it."
But the key question is whether Sonodyne still enjoys the snob value it previously did. “We will know in five years," says Mukherjee, whose aim by then is to earn at least 60% of Sonodyne’s revenue from the home audio segment.
In the second generation of high-resolution 24-bit digital music, where content is stored on drives and the player is no longer important, Sonodyne’s focus on constantly improving its amplifiers and speakers will pay off, says Mukherjee.
As a maker of studio monitors—speakers used by professionals—Sonodyne has a strong following among music industry leaders. He wouldn’t immediately name them because Sonodyne is soon going to launch a promotional campaign by these professionals for its home audio offerings.
“Some of our users are global stars," he says.
Clarity across the entire spectrum of 196 kilohertz is for Sonodyne the key sales pitch. “We are going to deliver in living rooms the same clarity as in studios," says Mukherjee, and that’s going to be the driver for sales in the home audio segment.
But some professionals aren’t convinced about his strategy.
Studio monitors are different from those installed in homes, says Raja Narayan Deb, a music director who runs one of Kolkata’s leading studios. Studios are designed to cut reverberations, and studio monitors are designed to produce clarity in “controlled environments".
The same is not true for homes, where one has to deal with reverberations, he says. “What works in a studio may not work in homes," he adds, not commenting specifically about Sonodyne.
For now, Sonodyne remains a low-key player, despite getting recognition from across the world for its public announcement systems, studio monitors and the speakers it manufactures to be sold under brands owned by other companies.
To be sure, it still has a strong brand recall to build on, but the market dynamics that it now has to deal with are vastly different from its heyday in India’s pre-liberalized economy.