Since its creation in 1946, JBL has steadily grown to become a world leader in epic sound experiences and the market leader in portable speakers with 34.2% volume share and more than 100 million units shipped. JBL owes its well-earned reputation for pushing the boundaries of premium audio to the passion and talent of the hundreds of audio experts and designers who strive day in and day out to create products whose sound quality, design, features, and user experience are the best of the best.
We sat down with Andy Tsui, Vice President & General Manager, Smart Audio, to learn more about JBL’s fascinating trajectory and the secrets to the brand’s success in the portable speaker market.
Where did you get the inspiration to enter the portable speaker market?
When I began working for JBL, smart phones were just catching on. Media, online content, and streaming content were in their infancy. JBL produced mainly professional loud speakers and luxury audio, and now looking back we have more than one-third of market share globally and we’re number 1 in the portable speaker category, which means the speakers we develop have an impact on millions of people around the world. When we began developing the Flip 1, we looked at consumer behavior to analyze unmet needs. Bluetooth speakers weren’t very popular; people were skeptical about the technology. Likewise, people didn’t perceive audio streaming technology as being capable of providing good sound quality. We saw the challenge differently. We saw plenty of areas where we could provide a great audio solution. That’s how it started.
Where did the first JBL portable speaker take off?
In the U.S. and Europe. We weren’t the first ones to launch a portable Bluetooth speaker, however, our approach to the user experience was different. While our competitors focused on technical and functional features, such as Bluetooth or batteries, we focused on consumer needs. We looked at what people did, when they needed and wanted audio, e.g. at a party, or on the beach, or at a picnic, or while hiking or playing sports. We looked into each scenario one by one and then created a portable product that fit the use case. At HARMAN, when we start a program we ask all our regions for a sales forecast for the year. Our expectation was selling 88,000 Flip 1 units globally for the year. Astonishingly, we actually shipped that within two months and sold over a million units within the first year. Everyone was shocked; no one expected the category to catch on like that.
How has JBL helped shape the market?
We rely heavily on consumer research to anticipate how people want to enjoy their music. We want to be where our customers want us to be. We are not interested the normal small, medium, and large or good, better, best product definition. Our products serve different purposes, which is how we built the JBL portables range with seven products that all have very specific uses and Signature JBL sound quality.
How has the JBL portable speaker range evolved?
We started with the Flip, then came Clip that reflected a lifestyle need to travel, followed by Charge, then Pulse, then Xtreme and GO, and finally Boombox. The seven products have gone through 26 iterations already, but the key balance between the products remains unchanged. For example, our position on the Flip is that at that size, nothing sounds better than this product, which remains at a very attractive US $99.00 price. The key value proposition remains unchanged. I still have a Flip 1, and when I play it against a Flip 5 it still sounds awesome even after all these years (although admittedly, the Flip 5 sounds better.)
What role does sound quality play in the development process?
JBL has always set the bar for sound quality in the Professional division. Epic sound is our legacy. Our acoustics engineers in the consumer division are equally as passionate about acoustics and they work hard to honor the JBL brand. We ask ourselves questions like…. “Can we amp up the bass in such a small device? Sure can! How do we adjust to the surrounding environment? Which technologies can we pull into a portable Bluetooth speaker?” For example, in the new Charge 4 and Flip 5 we are using a very special full-range racetrack shaped driver that is normally used in the much larger soundbar, it gives us increased cone area and excursion thus delivering increased bass response and overall system output to create bigger sound. We were the first to use it in a Bluetooth speaker. We are uniquely positioned to draft off the technologies that are developed for JBL on the world’s biggest stages, adapting them into our portables line.
How many engineers work on one portable speaker?
More than 40 engineers from all fields…acoustic, software, mechanical, electronic, supply, quality, and more—all for one product. Two years ago, we broke the Guinness World Record of 1,000 Flip speakers connecting together from one streaming source. That kind of achievement isn’t simple. We have more than 15 people working just on software. JBL Flip 5 has over 150,000 lines of code.
Can you think of an interesting anecdote about how speakers are designed and then produced?
The JBL Pulse was the idea of one of our very talented designers. We were looking at how we could elevate the listening experience beyond just hearing, whether there were any other senses we could ring in. He came up with the first Pulse which integrated LED lighting. The interesting part is that after we launched Pulse 1, the following year at the Hong Kong Electronics Show, there were lots of speakers that had lights built in, which is testament that we are setting trends and innovation pace in the industry.
What are the specific challenges in developing portable speakers that meet consumers’ expectations?
Customers can be very critical. They buy a product because they have an unmet need. Meeting the needs of 100M people is not simple. They have very different expectations. For us, it’s all about use case. We are not building a Swiss army knife that can serve many different purposes; instead we move case by case. Something very interesting about our market is that customer behavior keeps changing due to advancement in technology. We have to keep evolving, keep adjusting to customer needs, and those needs will only grow. It’s a continuous effort, but through engineering and design we can make anything happen.
What do you think are the key ingredients that helped you and your team build the leading portable audio portfolio on the market?
Passion to deliver the world’s greatest audio experience through portable speakers. Our pride in JBL and its audio legacy runs high, and we are committed to upholding it. We work hard to understand consumer needs and desires and transfer our audio expertise into stylish portable products that proudly deliver JBL’s signature sound creating epic experiences wherever they go.
What can you tell us about your newest innovation, the Flip 5 Ocean and Forest special editions?
They’re beautiful products once again inspired by consumer demand. The consumer movement towards more sustainable products is important. We worked hard to identify where we could find the right kind of recycled plastics that would allow us to construct Flip 5s while maintaining our quality standards. We found the right mix by using 90% recycled plastic in this special edition, plus we packaged it in revolutionary eco-friendly packaging, including a protective case made of biodegradable materials.