Features, services and upgrades: the Sonos music revolution

In an industry where products are superseded annually, designing technology to be consistently upgraded over a decade of use is rare. But that's the Sonos approach to its wireless music revolution.

Sonos is a company coming of age, proving that a rich set of features can be a smarter pitch than just selling off a spec sheet.

The Sonos family of products. Nothing superseded since launch back in 2005. (Credit: Sonos)

Sonos feels a little like one of those "overnight success story" music acts. Many years of hard work have gone into a range of wireless music speaker products that only just now seem perfect for how the industry has changed in the past two years.

As music-streaming services finally take root after years of promise and expectation, Sonos is the speaker company that has been focused on nothing but streaming since its inception. For a long time, it served an awkward niche that wasn't quite yet ready for prime time. Now that streaming is everywhere, Sonos' eight years of maturity in exactly that style of audio delivery puts it front and centre in the streaming revolution.

"Ironically, we thought we were late," said Tom Cullen, co-founder of Sonos. "We saw listen.com in 2004 before they were bought by Real Networks for the Rhapsody service, and we thought, 'That's it, that's what everybody's going to do.'"

The four founders of Sonos actually came from a company called software.com, an infrastructure company driving directory and email servers. In the midst of that early '00s era and the rise of consumer web services, it seemed like everything was heading to the server. So of course music was going to move online. It just took a lot longer to do it than the company expected.

"The part we missed was that the hard part isn't the technology at all. It's the combination of delivering an experience and catalysing the habit change to take advantage of it," said Cullen. "Unless there is mass habit change, it doesn't matter, and we basically fade away because people didn't discover streaming before we ran out of will to keep going. We turned out to be more tenacious than some."

Combining Playbar, SUB and Play:3 can create a wireless 5.1-channel solution. (Credit: Sonos)

To Cullen's mind, the eventual shift was actually catalysed not through music, but through video. While Apple's success in online music was still very much focused on selling tracks, the YouTube and Netflix revolution meant people started to see that you don't need to own a collection to access a world of content.

"Once people got that idea, it made it a lot easier for us, and I really believe they only got that idea in the last couple of years," said Cullen. "For 10 years, I've been telling everybody that in five years, everybody's going to stream. Now I will tell you that in five years, everybody is going to stream, and I'm finally going to be right."

Looking back on the history of the product, Cullen feels that music streaming "finally got good" back in 2008, when Sonos cut out the PC middle man and went directly to the server with all the music the service could handle. Without a PC in the way, the experience became seamless, letting users call up internet radio, podcasts, their own networked music collection or a subscription service straight from their smartphone on a Wi-Fi network.

"You think of a song, you pull it up, you play it, you don't run any storage in your house; it's a beautiful thing. But people didn't know that was a good way. They'd been trained for so long that you should be a collector, and you should buy and you should own."

Options to suit most user's needs.(Credit: Sonos)

For a company that has made big technical changes — like a shift from requiring a local PC go-between to letting Sonos speakers talk directly to the internet — one amazing factor is that every component and speaker that Sonos has ever made has been maintained with firmware updates that keep them working with each other to this day.

It's a technical feat that few consumer electronics companies would demand of themselves, and few customers would entirely expect. But it's the kind of upgrade that wins loyalty and speaks to a focus on delivering features and experiences ahead of consistently selling new hardware.

"We're very different from the people we are candidly displacing in a lot of ways," said Cullen. "If you think about how an audio product was made historically, it was largely a piece of hardware and maybe some industrial design, but then, after that, there was very little software, there was no kind of connectivity to the internet. In my opinion, the user experience isn't very good. Yet, there's one area we have in common: if you buy a Denon amp, it will probably last 20 years.

"Audio equipment lasts, speakers last," said Cullen. "So we felt we should make stuff that lasts. We made that commitment to ourselves to make stuff that lasts.

"The problem with that is it is going to get obsoleted by software," he explained. "So we made upgradeability a 'P1', which around here means it doesn't ship until it's done. A lot of people came to us after we shipped our first amplifiers and said, 'Wow, upgradeable on first release, that's impressive, must have been hard.' And it was! It took a long time and a lot of work — you do it wrong and you could turn everybody's product into a brick one day! Well, knock on my wooden head, we've never done that, and I think we're past that now.

"But that is the kind of thing we did because we felt we are not in the portable music player business where low-cost things where you use them for a while and then you find them in a drawer," said Cullen. "We believe that if we do this right, we will continue to invest in acoustics, design and our idea of 'play all everywhere', and that we will be things that people take with us over many changes in their lives."

Just some of the services that Sonos supports in Australia.
(Screenshot by CNET Australia)

In no small part, Sonos is only as strong as the services it supports. Some speakers support Spotify. Others Pandora. If you're lucky, they'll support both. Yet, Sonos supports Spotify, Pandora, Deezer, MOG, Songl, Rdio and even the JB Hi-Fi streaming service. Plus services you've never heard of, like 8tracks, Aupeo!, DAR.fm, Wolfgang's Vault and more.

"Songza right now is very hot in North America, but it seems to be different services all the time," said Cullen. "[Making service integration easy] was a decision we made in 2006, when we first got Rhapsody going. We asked ourselves, 'Do we think there's going to be 10 services, 100 services, or 1000 services?' and we concluded there would be thousands of services because there's hundreds of countries and thousands of languages and everybody likes music, so there's going to be demand for all kinds of different services."

From there, Sonos built a system that let services essentially add themselves to Sonos.

"It took us five years to do it well, but by 2011, we had a really solid approach to allowing a service to attach to Sonos and then run a set of tests. If it was a reliable service, you could look in your 'More Music' menu one day and find a new service in there. We wouldn't have done anything; it would just simply have added it all in the back end.

"So the way that played out in Australia was exactly what we had hoped when we did it. Australia went from having no services to having about four in a year and a half, right? And that was fantastic for everybody involved," said Cullen. "JB Hi-Fi came to us and said, 'We see the future of audio, we think it's streaming', and we were like, 'Great, here's the way to do it', and they basically had it up and running. All really thanks to five years of development on the Sonos music API to make sure it worked for a broad range of companies."

This service and feature upgradeability goes far beyond adding new streaming services. New features emerge, and as new speakers are released, old speakers are given new options and features to extend their usefulness around the home. Sonos speakers can be run together to create a bigger sound in a single room, or even turned into a wireless stereo pair, or they can be split up into separate rooms to all play different music across different zones around the house — all controlled from the one control panel on a single PC or smartphone.

This is where Sonos sits in a class of its own right now: managing multiple zones of music through a wireless system of interlinked speakers. Spotify in the bedroom, Pandora in the kitchen, a feed of the TV audio out to the deck to hear the commentary from the big game. The Sonos Playbar, its new TV sound bar, adds a particularly impressive range of new features to the line-up. It lets TV audio push out to the rest of the speakers in your home, it lets you add other speakers as wireless surround-sound channels and it includes smart TV audio features like "Night Mode" for flattening dynamic range to save sleeping kids or neighbours from unexpected explosions and gunfire and help you hear the quiet parts of shows without having to ride your volume controls like a roller coaster.

Cullen himself pointed to the built-in alarm functions — music from any source can be scheduled as an alarm, and many alarms can be set at once to single or regularly scheduled timings — as the quiet feature that makes a huge difference around his home.

All this, plus smart networking that actually creates a separate wireless channel exclusively for the Sonos speakers to stream over, avoiding interference with your main wireless network. Each speaker also includes Ethernet ports that can be used to add hard-wired devices near the speaker to the rest of your home network.

Cullen described it as "speaker Lego": "You should be able to combine any combination of anything we make over time to as many channels and rooms as you want."

The Sonos Playbar undressed. (Credit: Sonos)

So many features, yet when Sonos hardware is typically reviewed by even our own audio specialists, its hardware can be largely judged against the most stringent criteria that only a true audiophile would care about. Sonos hardware isn't cheap and isn't wildly expensive, but it costs more than your average speaker system with basic wireless features. At what point do the depth of features, services and support outweigh the absolutes of raw specs and fidelity metrics? Access to some of the features available in Sonos gear is otherwise only available through expensive specialist home installation providers.

"A Japanese component supplier showed us these charts, and they were projecting this sound-quality frequency response out to 190KHz. An instrument is measuring all that stuff. Nobody can hear it. They just don't know what to compete on anymore," said Cullen. "If you can't prove it makes people like it more, then I'm not interested in it.

"People didn't consider our features to be possible unless they went to some high-end audio shop to get these kinds of experiences. Now we're going to make them ever more appliance like."

Right now, Sonos offers the new Playbar, the Sonos Sub, connectivity hubs (an amp and a wireless bridge) and the Play:3 and Play:5 speakers. This covers a pretty wide range of options around the home. What's left to come? What's next? Cullen, naturally, isn't giving up all of his secrets.

"I'm responsible for product direction, and the way I do it is to go around the world and look at houses and ask myself, 'Do we have enough speakers today to cover this room?'," said Cullen. "Our goal is to make a very small number of well-considered speakers, and then combine them with software to cover a really wide range of needs in the home. I think you can look around and realise there are speaker form factors we haven't covered yet that are definitely worth covering."

Whatever comes next, when you already own a Sonos speaker or two, it's nice to know it will be designed not to replace but to complement and extend upon what you already own.

 

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