Play-Fi takes on Sonos in wireless audio

Commentary: Sonos has done a great job of keeping competition at bay over the years, but a new industry initiative promises to crank up the volume on multiroom audio.

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The Sonos Play 1 has made multiroom audio more affordable. Sarah Tew

Products such as the Nest thermostat and Philips Hue light bulb are gradually giving ordinary consumers the kind of advanced smart home functionality that was previous the domain of those who could afford custom installations. But perhaps the first company to provided a (relatively) affordable alternative to a smart home luxury -- multiroom audio -- was Sonos.

Sonos, which has been making wireless audio products since 2002, started picking up steam after it moved away from its pricey touch controller and migrated its software to smartphones and tablets. In doing so, it offered an early example of the companion app that has become practically a requirement for any new connected home device. Sonos also benefited from the boom in streaming audio services like Pandora and Spotify as they removed the need to manage a local library.

Over the years, Sonos has seen many networked audio products come and go from companies as diverse as Sony, Yamaha, Logitech, and Cisco. Many were complex or unreliable.

Sonos, however, has had enough success in wireless audio to attract competitors. While Apple hasn't seriously pursued its AirPlay technology for mutliroom audio, Samsung has begun expanding its line of networkable speakers. Bose, from which Sonos took inspiration and staff in its early days, has come charging in with its SoundTouch line of networkable speakers. Qualcomm is also starting to certify devices that use its AllPlay technology, a platform designed to let people wirelessly stream music from mobile apps to multiple speakers in their home.

One of the latest challenges to Sonos comes from DTS, the audio enhancement company best known for its work in theatrical features and home cinema. Its technology, branded Play-Fi, rides atop Wi-Fi and promises to link speakers into a Sonos-like system. The first official Play-Fi systems was released by Phorus back in 2012, and DTS has been licensing the technology to other companies such as Wren Sound Systems.

Play-Fi may be the most credible threat yet to the company that democratized multi-room audio. It works reliably, is designed for multi-room installations, and comes from DTS, a company that has relationships with many major audio companies. Apple's AirPlay, on the other hand, has been picked up only by a handful of licensees. If Sonos is the iOS of multiroom wireless audio, Play-Fi is trying to be Android.

DTS also understands the importance of building strong ties with streaming services. In its early days, it has attracted European service Deezer and Songza, which was recently acquired by Google.

So, will Play-Fi be the Sonos-killer to finally kill Sonos?

Probably not for a long time, if ever. The same thing that protected Sonos from competition in the early days is helping it compete now that more companies are entering the wireless audio space. Multiroom audio isn't something that people generally stumble into. Customers have to recognize the need and, of course, have the room for it to be worthwhile. So, while we may see plenty of home audio products support Play-Fi or other standards in the coming years, it would not be surprising to see people buy Sonos even when they have one or two speaker devices already in the house that support Play-Fi.

Put another way, anyone who buys a Sonos starter system has the intent to set up multiroom audio. As the company has often pointed out, customers tend to come back for additional units once they've bought the initial ones. Play-Fi's best bet for the near term will be to court people on the margin that are interested in higher-quality audio and might want to experiment with multiroom audio down the line.

 

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