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Sonos: The A/V receiver is dead

Sonos co-founder talks about how integrated network-connected audio players will kill traditional A/V components. Eventually.

The Sonos lineup. Sonos

I'm a big fan of Sonos, thanks in part to the loaner Play:5 in my kitchen. I use it more than the beautiful Marantz receiver and classic Tannoy speakers in my living room, not just because it's in a more convenient location, but because it gives access to much more music. My Sonos plays my music library from a networked hard disk, as well as Spotify, Pandora, and local and global radio stations. It's really a fantastic audio device.

With the introduction of the lower-end Play:3, it appears that Sonos is steadily moving down the market. Perhaps, I thought, the company is going to lower its prices even more, so I could afford put a Sonos box of some sort in my living room. Perhaps, even, when it's time to upgrade my receiver, I'll be able to get one with Sonos built in. I called Sonos co-founder Tom Cullen to ask when that would be.

The answer was not what I wanted, but it led to an interesting look at Sonos' and home audio in general. In short, according to Cullen, "We don't believe receivers are long for this world."

Cullen says that audio receivers made sense "before the digital world," when you needed a box for big amps and for switching between a lot of sources. As more entertainment comes over the Net, Cullen says, "We think the notion of switching between physical sources will be seen as quaint. Instead of putting Sonos into receivers, we're going to make receivers unnecessary."

The new Play:3 speaker. Sonos

He adds, "We play in a market full of companies that haven't made meaningful changes to how they do sound in 20 years."

This Sonos vision certainly makes sense, as a vision. At the moment, home audio (and video) users do have to deal with multiple hardware sources: DVD players, game consoles, television or satellite or cable signals, and so on. Granted, more of the content is going to the Internet, to both remote cloud services like Spotify, Pandora, and Netflix, and to local network storage. But you can't yet run a full entertainment system without having some way of switching between physical signals in addition to your IP streams.

Cullen maintains that you still don't need a receiver. The modern television, he says, can do the job of source switching. And a Sonos system can take input from a TV's output, for when that's necessary.

OK, I said, so perhaps Sonos will get built into TVs? Because I also need to upgrade my TV. Again, Cullen said the company is sticking to speakers (and one expensive speakerless, ampless product for people who aren't ready to throw out their receivers), and that it won't do a software version for computer owners or TV vendors. The problem is sound quality control. Sonos systems are designed to be multi-zone, to play the same audio on different speakers around the house. Doing that so it sounds good requires exact timing of the audio output so the sound waves don't interfere with each other and muddle the sound. On non-Sonos hardware, the software can't do that reliably, and Sonos doesn't want to risk lowering quality by making Sonos work, but only technically, on other platforms.

Perhaps Sonos will make a soundbar product for TVs? Cullen said that is a possibility. (Although I don't think that's what Cullen meant when he said of the company, "The goal was always to be more horizontal.") I think a soundbar product could be a real breakout for Sonos.

The company was started in 2002 with the belief that "traditional A/V brands were vulnerable to the digital transition." Cullen says the founders studied Bose, which also started by making high-end products back in 1964. "We saw an opening, we thought there was room for a new Bose." Initially, Sonos sold $1,200 systems over the phone. If it's an indicator of how you can move a brand from the high-end to the mid market, Cullen notes that Bose is now making iPhone and iPod docks at prices similar to Sonos' offerings. But he says the dock market is not long for this world. Music is moving off of dedicated MP3 players (iPods) and onto phones. "People won't leave their iPhones in a dock."

I admire Sonos for sticking to its vision over what was has become a long lifetime for a consumer tech start-up. The company has never succumbed to flipping its high-end brand into immediate market share. Instead it's deliberately and rather slowly moving into larger markets, juggling its marketing message and brand position while carefully riding the wave of the growth of networked audio, neither falling behind nor rushing too far ahead of the curve. Sonos does have good technology, but for what this company is doing, timing is everything.