Connected speakers maker Sonos released its first $200 speaker Monday, a move that could help the company fend off competitors as well as find new, more price-conscious audiences.
The new speaker, dubbed Play:1, is about the size of a coffee can, available either in white or black, and encapsulated by a metal grille that wraps around the entire speaker. Sonos CEO John MacFarlane told me during a recent interview that the speaker is the result of a lot of engineering and advances in both acoustics and wireless technology. “Two years ago, we couldn’t have built this,” he said.
The Play:1 is in many ways a smaller version of the company’s existing speakers. It’s capable of playing both local music as well as live streams from thousands or radio stations and tunes from Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, SiriusXM, Songza and a bunch of other services. It can be remotely controlled through a mobile or desktop app, but you can also walk up to it and change the volume or toggle pause and play at any time.
The one thing you need to know about the Play:1 is the price
It’s wireless, but needs plug-in power, so there’s no way you could take it to the beach — but the company isn’t looking to compete with cheap, portable Bluetooth fare. Instead, it wants people who already have a Sonos speaker system to put another one in their kitchen, their bedroom or even their bathroom. Or people who already have the Sonos soundbar to pick up two of these for surround sound.
But the Play:1 isn’t just another Sonos speaker. Sure, one can say a lot of things about the sound quality of the Play:1 (the company loaned me two review units for a few weeks, so expect me to chime in on this in the coming days as well), but the real game-changer about the Play:1 is that it can provide a full Sonos experience for the same price as a Bose Soundlink, and just slightly more than a Jambox.
In the last few years, we have seen a huge shift in home audio: People are buying headphones, Bluetooth speakers and soundbars for their TV. Everything else is in free fall – with the exception of edge cases like Sonos that have managed to define a new product category for themselves. Except, this product has so far been pretty expensive. Take the Sonos Playbar for example, a TV soundbar that the company released earlier this year. It comes with full Sonos integration, but costs a whopping $700, while decent-sounding alternatives with Bluetooth audio support can be purchased for less than half that price.
Check out an interview I did with MacFarlane when Sonos released the Playbar earlier this year:
With the Play:1, Sonos is now in Bluetooth territory. Not the kind of Bluetooth speakers that you pick up for $30 at the gas station, but the ones that music lovers with limited budgets buy, only to find themselves annoyed by the shortcomings of Bluetooth. Having access to that audience could be huge for Sonos, and the company knows that. “We will do some damage in the $200 category,” MacFarlane told me with a smirk.
There’s no need for a Spotify speaker aisle
Of course, Sonos isn’t the only one looking to bring connectivity to home audio. Veteran speaker maker Bose announced its own connected speaker system dubbed Soundtouch last week, but priced it above even the more expensive Sonos products. MacFarlane quipped that Bose could be the next Nokia, or RIM, and left it at that.
Then there are all those consumer electronics manufacturers from Bang & Olufsen to Pioneer to Yamaha that recently teamed up with Spotify to announce a new initiative called Spotify Connect that will bring Spotify playback capabilities directly to speakers of participating hardware vendors.
Asked about the Spotify initiative, MacFarlane told me: “They asked us to participate, and we didn’t.” He went on to argue that it made little sense to tie speaker systems to the brand of a single music service, joking that stores like Best Buy shouldn’t have separate aisles for Pandora speakers and Spotify speakers.
Next up for Sonos: Chromecast-like in-app-beaming
So what’s next for Sonos? MacFarlane was vague when asked about new products, but he told me a bit about how the company plans to make its existing products better. Music services will soon be able to add functionality to their apps that will let users beam music directly to Sonos speakers. This means that users won’t need to fire up the Sonos app anymore to launch their favorite radio station or playlist from the cloud. Instead, they will be able to simply press a “play on Sonos” button within the app of their favorite service, and launch music playback on their Sonos system. Think of it like Chromecast, but for your music.
MacFarlane told me that Sonos intends to make this functionality available on both iOS and Android. He wasn’t quite ready to share a timeline for the full launch of “play on Sonos,” but he revealed that Sonos quietly launched the feature in China earlier this year, where users of QQ’s audio streams can already make use of it. This means it’s only a question of time before it will also be available to users of western music services.
A previous version of this story incorrectly called the new speaker S1. The story was updated at 7:55 with the correct name of the product, which is Play:1.