Wireless hi-fi firm Sonos isn’t just for audiophiles any more, as its Play:3 and Play:5 connected speakers have shown. Today it’s unveiling a new product: the Sonos Playbar.
Pitched as a “soundbar for music lovers”, it’s designed to sit underneath flat-screen TVs, plug in to their optical-out ports, and deliver beefy audio for TV shows, films and games. Although this being Sonos, it also pipes in audio from a host of streaming music services.
The Playbar will cost £599 in the UK when it goes on sale on 5 March. It’s controlled by Sonos’ apps for iOS, Android, Mac and PC, or (via some clever technology) from the existing TV remote-control. Oh, and it can be paired with the Sonos Sub and Play:3 speakers for 5:1 surround sound.
Music Ally sat down with Sonos co-founder Tom Cullen in London this morning for a demo of the new device, but also got him talking about the bigger picture around wireless audio, streaming music and why Sonos isn’t planning a move into headphones to compete with Beats.
First, the Playbar. “Where we’re really trying to go with this is a big, ongoing move to change the way people look at audio from a set of components all wired together, to a smaller number of speakers which, when combined with software, cover the range of sound needs,” he says.
“If you’re not a music lover, you shouldn’t buy one of these things. You can buy a soundbar that costs less that will make your TV sound good. It just won’t play all the music on Earth. This is a soundbar for music lovers.”
“Daniel Ek has one of these in his house already…”
A niche? Cullen suggests that in a number of surveys, around 30% of consumers put music in the top three things they’re interested in. He hopes this means 30% of people buying new flat-screen TVs – whose built-in speakers are often weedy – will be in the market for a sound system. Or, indeed, a soundbar.
The Playbar is a significant step for Sonos, because it’s a move into home cinema territory, branching out beyond music. That said, Cullen is keen to stress that music – streaming music in particular – remains a core feature.
“Daniel Ek has one of these in his house already,” he says. “We have a very close relationship with those [streaming] folks: we test everything with them, in Europe in particular. The intersection of Sonos and Spotify is sucha natural experience: it really brings together the digital world in a way that’s exciting for people.”
If more people start streaming Spotify or its rivals through devices like the Playbar, will audio quality become an issue? Not according to Cullen, who notes that 256kbps-quality audio is becoming a standard for the streaming services.
“At 192kbps, most people can’t tell the difference between that and a CD,” he says. “Audiophiles won’t even take the test any more, because they can’t tell the difference at 256kbps, and that really bothers them!”
While audiophiles were Sonos’ key target market in its earlier days, the company has been edging into the mainstream thanks to its Play:3, Play:5 and Sub products, which are more affordable than its original multi-room kit.
“Sonos today is four times the size it was three years ago, and this year it’s twice the size it was last year,” says Cullen.
“80% of our business is speakers now. Our mainstream business isn’t in the high-end audio any more. We’re the second biggest speaker-maker in the world today, and while it’ll take a few years to catch up to Bose, that’s what we are doing.”
For me, the most interesting thing about Sonos is the way it’s pushing towards a place where home audio is essentially about speakers, controller apps and a broadband connection to access streaming music – cutting out the middlemen devices (like, well, hi-fis).
“This is a very small market: home audio worldwide probably totals £6bn, but what we’re doing in this space is very similar to what Apple did to Nokia and everyone else in the phone space,” says Cullen.
“We’re basically taking what as once a passive, relatively uninformed set of products that made an experience, and turning them into a smart product that massively expands the experience using software, networking and micro-processors.”
“In five years’ time, everybody’s going to stream…”
The appeal of Sonos’ products – and other connected home-audio products – is the growth of digital music services like Spotify, Deezer, Rhapsody and the rest. With a claimed 9m paying subscribers between those three services alone, there’s a rising tide for these devices.
“For about 11 years now I’ve been saying that in five years’ time, everybody’s going to stream,” laughs Cullen. “And by the way, in five years’ time, everybody’s going to stream!”
One thing the Playbar supports, incidentally, is streaming music from YouTube. Well, it does if it’s plugged into an AirPlay-compatible TV or one that also has an Apple TV (with its native YouTube app) connected to it.
Cullen describes this as a “breakthrough”, noting that YouTube is still the world’s biggest music discovery service. But is the ability to stream free music from YouTube on a Playbar also a threat to the likes of Spotify, which require a subscription for Sonos access?
Cullen shakes his head. “What Spotify recognises is the value of music discovery through trusted sources,” he says. “What they have now done is make it possible for you to have trusted sources you don’t know: you can follow people whose tastes you like and pick up their playlists.”
He continues: “The vast majority of music is being streamed by dozens of service providers, but the real key is to make an interesting experience. Spotify are helping people with the discovery piece, which is what really stokes people’s passions.”
Getting back to that “everybody’s going to stream” point, though. With that, and the fact that the Playbar is as much about audio from TV shows and films as it is music, when will Sonos start talking to video services like Netflix about integrating them into its own apps for users to control, just as it does for streaming music?
“We don’t want anything to do with video for control or playback,” says Cullen. “What we would say to Netflix or anyone else in that space is this: What’s the best way you can give us the best possible sound?”
He elaborates on that, suggesting that as smart TVs become the source for video – an embedded Netflix app streaming over broadband rather than a physical disc in an external player – the fact that they’ll be on the same Wi-Fi network as Sonos’ speaker(s) presents an opportunity.
“What we would like to see them do is give us the 5.1 audio over the network,” says Cullen. “That will come, it just might take longer than I think.”
“Apps changed everything for us…”
In the meantime, Sonos will continue developing its smartphone and tablet apps. An update today, for example, adds a new Favourites feature for faster access to users’ favourite music from the app’s main menu, while the Android Sonos Controller app has a new homescreen widget.
Apps have become a crucial element of Sonos’ ecosystem in the last year or two – something Cullen happily admits. “Apps changed everything for us, they were one of a very small number of things that completely changed our company forever,” he says.
“The challenge is trying to figure out two things: which devices are important to modern music-lovers, so we can make an app for them, and then how that app should live on the device. We’re also looking at longer-term ideas around apps.”
One of those is an experiment in China with Tencent, integrating a Sonos mini-player inside the official app for its QQMusic digital music service. More of these experiments are likely to follow, I sense.
One logical question is where Sonos might take its audio technology next, and in particular, whether the company fancies its chances of giving Beats some competition in the headphones space.
“No,” says Cullen, matter-of-factly. “Our strategy is to make the smallest amount of speakers, then combine them with software to cover the widest range of sound needs. Our goal is simplicity,” he says.
“When I go into any house, I’m looking around to see whether we’ve made enough speakers to cover the needs of that kind of person. The only scenario in which you can see us in headphones is if people are cruising around the house with their headphones on, connected into their Sonos.”
It’s not a priority for now, clearly. Instead, Cullen talks about other avenues opening up for Sonos, in businesses or retailers, although growth there is coming less from a deliberate sales push by the company, and more because the existing products work well in these environments.
“Think about the department store where Lady Gaga is playing in the pre-teen department and baroque classical music is playing in the men’s shoes department,” he says.
“There are a lot of the same problems that we’re solving in the home, but our driving thing is to create great music experiences for music lovers at home.”