Sonos faces a unique challenge on the eve of launching the most important products it has developed in years. The company's mission statement is simple to sum up: It wants to make it easy to listen to high-quality music anywhere in your home. And it believes its new products, the flagship Play:5 speaker and new software called Trueplay, move that goal forward. But there's one part of that mission -- "in the home" -- that speaks to perhaps the toughest problem facing the company: How do you convince people who've grown up listening to music with their iconic iPod headphones to spend hundreds of dollars on an expensive home audio setup?
"To your generation, the component stereo system was irrelevant," Sonos CEO John MacFarlane tells this 30-something reporter during a visit to the company's Santa Barbara, California, home base. "It's not that younger people don't like quality; it's just that the breadth [of music available] outweighed the quality." That's been the case since Napster and the iPod kick-started the "good enough" music revolution: There are more passionate music fans than ever before, but so many of them listen on white earbuds, tinny laptops or mediocre Bluetooth speakers. How do you make people who don't know what they're missing spend $500 (£429) on the new Sonos gear?
All of the executives I spoke with gave a variation on the same answer to that question: Make a high-quality product, and users will come. "The promise we make to our customers is to try and deliver the ultimate home music experience," says MacFarlane, "and if you keep moving that bar significantly, I think you're in good shape."
Fortunately for Sonos, the Play:5 and Trueplay both appear to be excellent new products. The new Play:5 replaces the six-year-old speaker of the same name, but it's far more than an iterative update: It's entirely redesigned, in terms of both how it looks as well as how it performs. Like Sonos' other speakers, its main feature is that it connects to the internet and streams music from a wide variety of services. From there, you can use the Play:5 on its own or buy two and make a stereo pair; you can also link them up with any other Sonos speakers anywhere in your home. This time, though, Sonos has also added a host of intelligent features, including capacitive touch controls and built-in accelerometers that allow the speaker to be placed in three different orientations.
The speaker sounds wonderful -- but Trueplay might be the more unexpected innovation. Put simply, it's a tuning system found in the Sonos app that lets you optimize the sound coming from the speakers. It works by emitting a tone that your iPhone's or iPad's microphone reads. Then, as you move around the room with your device, slowly raising and lowering it, Trueplay is able to figure out what frequencies are being lost or over-emphasized, and it adjusts the output accordingly. It takes all of two minutes, and makes the sound quality from your speakers dramatically better. And it works not just on the new Play:5, but on all the company's speakers (save for the more home theater-centric Playbar).
Sonos "sound leader" Giles Martin (son of the famed Beatles producer George Martin and a Grammy-winning producer in his own right) says that the goal of Trueplay is to get your speaker sounding as good as it does when Sonos is testing it in the ideal acoustic setting, regardless of where that speaker sits in your home. "The first thing you have to do is get really, really happy with the speaker," says Martin. And that's a big part of his job. Sonos aims for its speakers to reproduce music as the artist or producer or sound masterer intended when a record is finalized; that's why the company works with people like Martin or Rick Rubin. From there, Martin says, "Trueplay gets us to the point where you're really, really happy with the speaker anywhere you put the speaker."
Trueplay promises to make every speaker Sonos ships sound better.
That's not to imply that Sonos has been shipping speakers that don't sound good outside of the perfect listening environment; it's just that the company knows it can't account for the endless number of environmental factors that affect the clarity and sound reproduction. "It's really easy to say we can't control for where people put their speakers,'" says Chief Product Officer Marc Whitten. "Well, what if we said we could?"
Of course, the idea of tuning a speaker is not new, but Martin says that Sonos endeavored to make it simple for the user while disguising how complex the process really is. Typically, getting a speaker professionally tuned means that it'll sound perfect in one "sweet spot" where the speaker's sound is converging -- but it might not sound great everywhere else. Trueplay takes a whole host of readings around your room and attempts to make the speaker sound uniformly great, regardless of where you are sitting. "That's much more complicated," Martin says. "It adds lots of variables, but we do it in a way that is actually simpler for the listener." And Trueplay needs a quiet room to work correctly during the setup process, but it is smart enough to know it should ignore some background sounds. For example, the Trueplay test tone emitted from the speaker during setup tends to make dogs bark, so the software knows not to take into account the sound of riled-up canines when you're setting up your speakers.
The real test will be once this is out in consumers' hands, because Sonos can't afford to have the system mess up. If someone gets a new speaker, tunes it with Trueplay and ends up making it sound worse -- or even if the process is just too complicated or not easily explained -- then the whole concept goes out the window. In my testing experience, Trueplay worked well and setup was easy, but I had the benefit of having it explained to me by Sonos employees. Most consumers will have to rely on the app's directions and how-to video, something the company said it intends to get right to avoid any setup problems.
When it comes to the new Play:5 speaker, the goal was simple: to make a speaker so good that people will notice details in the music they've never heard before. In practice, the Play:5 achieves that goal and then some. In a stereo pair, you really do get that sense you're experiencing the music in a way you haven't previously, with details that otherwise would get lost on lesser devices. MacFarlane is right: Many people my age haven't heard music that sounds this good. Even as a single speaker, the stereo separation and wide soundstage is readily apparent, although most people spending $500 on a speaker will probably want a stereo pair, something that puts these speakers out of reach for many people.
Still, for that investment, Sonos is promising a 10-year lifespan for the Play:5. As a builder of speakers, it's the kind of promise it needs to make; after all, most other high-quality speakers also claim to last that long. But it's trickier for Sonos, a company that builds a lot of technology into its devices: Who even knows how we'll be listening to music five years from now, let alone in a decade? But Sonos owners should feel assured that the company will continue to support its products down the line. Trueplay coming to the old Play:5 is a perfect example of that.
"You want to make your passionate owners happier and happier," says MacFarlane. "Of course we could have made the choice that old Play:5s were abandoned, but it's much better not to." Even though much of the consumer electronics business is pushing fairly disposable devices that get upgraded every few years with new features, Sonos doesn't think that's a strategy worth pursuing. "We want you to fill your home with Sonos," MacFarlane says. "If we ask you to replace it every year or every other year, that's not cool." And in a move that's becoming more common, there's technology in the new Play:5 (like a pair of microphones) that it can't even use yet. But future software updates might make it able to optimize itself, for example, without needing to do the Trueplay setup with an iPad as an external mic.
"If we ask you to replace [your speakers] every year or every other year, that's not cool."
Of course, none of this matters if Sonos can't convince people that consumers will get big benefits out of investing in its ecosystem. It appears the company is doing well so far: It has offices in six countries and is hiring aggressively to grow to its 1,200-employee workforce. There's also the $199 Play:1 speaker, which company execs seemed to suggest has been a gateway drug of sorts to win over more customers. And the belief is that continuing to offer a connected home music experience that merges both hardware and software will continue to expand Sonos' audience.
But despite Sonos' strengths, there's no question that cheaper and more portable Bluetooth speakers are rapidly becoming the go-to choice for many consumers who want to play music in their home. There are legitimately good-sounding speakers like the Logitech UE Boom 2 that come with the added benefit of being small enough to throw in your bag. Bluetooth speakers also work natively with the apps you already use on your phone, while Sonos requires you to use its own app to control its speakers.
That's because Sonos streams music directly from the internet to its speakers, rather than streaming from your phone or tablet to the speaker. Yes, the Sonos way offers better sound quality and avoids some of the annoyances of Bluetooth -- like a relatively short range and the potential for notifications to interrupt your listening experience. But Bluetooth speakers let you stick with the apps you use every day when you're out and about, rather than forcing you into an entirely new app and interface.
As far as Sonos is concerned, however, it's not even playing in the same market as Bluetooth devices. "There's not a Bluetooth speaker out there that's anywhere close to [the Play:5]," Martin says. And while he says those speakers do have a place, the Sonos experience extends beyond just audio quality.
MacFarlane agrees, saying that the quality you get from a Play:1 with Trueplay is so good that "five years ago you couldn't have spent $20,000 and achieved that. It's getting better and better, and no Bluetooth speaker on the planet can touch a Play:1 with Trueplay." That's a rather hyperbolic statement, but there's no doubt even the company's entry-level speaker is a potent performer. As for trying to convince people of what they're missing out on, it's not a group MacFarlane feels the need to chase. "I'm not a big believer of trying to convince people of things they don't need," he says.
Sonos isn't going to convert those Bluetooth speaker buyers and iPod headphone wearers overnight -- and that's OK.
Product officer Whitten takes a bit more of a pragmatic view when discussing the challenges Sonos faces. "It's a question of how do we do a better job of showing people that experience. ... It's something we'll keep working on, and we work on that through how we talk about Sonos in our advertising, how it appears when you go into a retail store, all those kinds of things." But it all comes back to the experience, which is why Whitten believes the company's happy customers are probably the best marketing he can find. "The best possible introduction to Sonos that anyone can get is at a friend's house," he says.
Ultimately, even with a solid lineup of products and plenty of happy customers, Sonos isn't going to convert those Bluetooth speaker buyers and iPod headphone wearers overnight -- but that doesn't mean the company is failing. It'll likely continue on in a similar trajectory to what brought it here today; music fanatics who are serious about home listening will be delighted, while everyone else will continue with the good-enough devices they currently use. It's a market that has served Sonos well thus far; with a broader and better product portfolio, the company should continue to find success with that somewhat niche group. And as streaming continues to get more and more mainstream (and as 20-somethings hit their 30s and have more disposable income), Sonos could be in a prime position to capitalize on the next generation of music lovers. It just needs to play the long game to get there.