Chinese equipment and handset maker ZTE released the second generation of its Axon flagship smartphone, with high-end specs and a strong emphasis on audio performance, at a launch event in Beijing this evening.

The Shenzhen-based company has set out to differentiate itself in the crowded smartphone market by focusing on the audio experience. After surveying consumers, it found that sound quality is important for most users, said Adam Zeng, CEO of ZTE mobile devices. For the Axon series going forward, he said “it’s all about sound”, complete with the endorsement from world-renowned pianist Lang Lang, who is the brand ambassador.

The Axon 7, a 5.5-inch model with a Snapdragon 820 2.15GHZ CPU, will be available across China this month and released in the US next month. Other markets will follow over the summer. The device will retail in China for between CNY2,899 and CNY4,099 (about $450 and $630).

Touted as an “affordable premium” model, Zeng (pictured below) said that with other flagship models starting at around $700, “we are much more competitive than the other premium options”.

US designed
ZTE teamed up with US-based Designworks, a division of BMW, to develop the design jointly with its internal team. On the back cover, it says “Designed in the US”. The flagship model features dual speakers, Dolby Atmos 7.1 surround sound and two dedicated audio chips from AKM, supporting 32-bit advanced audio codec, to deliver hi-fi quality sound. It’s manufactured by Foxconn.

Despite the ‘7’ moniker, it’s just the second-generation Axon (the first Axon was launched last June).

Waiman Lam, senior director of ZTE mobile devices, in an attempt to rationalise jumping to ‘7’ in just a year – thus matching the generation number of the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7 — claimed it’s actually the seventh iteration. “We’ve launched four versions of the Axon and had two internal versions that were scrapped,” Lam said, adding that “we look up to Apple and have aspirations to be like Apple… so we wanted to use ‘7’ in the name.”

He noted the Axon brand is an offshoot from its previous Grand series. The company has streamlined its global product line down to three series – Axon (premium), Blade (mass market) and Spro (non-handset devices).

Major upgrade
The Axon 7 has a 2K AMOLED display (an upgrade from its predecessor’s 1080 resolution), 4Gb of RAM and 64Gb of ROM (standard), a 20MP main camera and an 8MP front camera. It also features dual SIM slots, a micro SD slot and a USB Type-C connector.

Lam insists it’s a “top-of-the-line device that can compete with the best of the best”.

With 6Gb of RAM and 128Gb of ROM it sells for CNY4,099, while the 4Gb/128Gb version is CNY3,299 and the 4Gb/64Gb model is CNY2,899.

It dropped the EyePrint ID feature, included in the previous model, admitting retina-scanning is cool but not very practical. Lam said the technology hasn’t matured very quickly, and focused on finger-print authentication. That feature positioned on the back below the lens allows users to quickly unlock the device simply by touching the recessed area (see image below).
AXON 7 thumb print

The company is conservatively targeting two million unit shipments in the Axon 7 series, which will include the upcoming Axon 7 Mini and the Max. Zeng said sales of the first Axon model have reached 820,000, with 500,000 sold in China. For the Axon 7 series, it’s expecting a higher percentage of sales from US and Europe.

On the subject of 7, Counterpoint Research ranks ZTE as the world’s seventh largest smartphone vendor, with shipments hitting 13.1 million in Q1, giving it a 4.3 per cent market share. Last year the vendor shipped 56 million units and aims to move 60 million to 70 million this year.

Over the past few years it has repeatedly stated its ambitions of becoming a top three player.

Finding growth
ZTE believes there are still opportunities for smartphone OEMs. While the market has peaked in developed markets, it expects moderate global growth over the next two years.

It has invested heavily on consumer ad campaigns, particularly in the US, and has been pushing its brand via sports marketing. It sponsors five teams in the NBA in the US and two football teams in Europe.

Lam said a strong presence in developed markets matters, which explains its high-profile sponsorships in the US and Europe. While China is by far its largest market, followed by the US, it is also focusing on Germany, France and Japan – its four core markets. In Japan it is now working closely with all three of the country’s mobile operators.