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Sonos, its new Playbar, and the future of home entertainment: Can the good guys win?

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Sonos is taking a big gamble on the home entertainment market with the introduction of its new Playbar, a $699 TV soundbar that also includes the company’s tried and tested wireless music streaming platform. It’s the first time Sonos has ventured into the TV and home theater space, where it will face plenty of competition and numerous new challenges. Can Sonos win by bringing TV and music together?

Sonos CEO John Macfarlane during a first press demo of the Playbar earlier this month in the company's development facility in Santa Barbara.
Sonos CEO John MacFarlane during a first press demo of the Playbar earlier this month in the company’s development facility in Santa Barbara.

I had the chance to experience the Soundbar firsthand at a day-long press event at the company’s headquarters in Santa Barbara, California, earlier this month. I also got to see the company’s development labs and talk to its executives.

And when I left Santa Barbara 24 hours later, I realized that the story of Sonos was at its core not just about speakers and soundbars — but about the way entertainment has changed, and is changing in years to come.

The speakers for the Spotifys of this world

Here’s the thing you need to know about Sonos: it’s not a HiFi company. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. Instead, it’s a technology company that has been building hardware for the future of music. The speakers for the Spotifys of this world, if you will. “When we founded the company, we had the fundamental belief that in five years, everyone is going to stream (their music),” said co-founder Tom Cullen.

It didn’t quite happen that fast, and Sonos’ part in the home entertainment revolution almost didn’t happen at all: CEO and co-founder John MacFarlane, who had sold his previous company for close to $6.9 billion in stock in 2000, had his eyes set on revolutionizing connectivity in airplanes when he was ready to start a new company in 2002.

Check out my interview with Sonos CEO John MacFarlane, or continue reading below: co-funder Cullen thought that was a terrible idea, and MacFarlane went back to the drawing board. When they met again some weeks later, MacFarlane was working on ways to network home stereo components with Linux. (For more on the history of the company, check out Stacey Higginbotham’s GigaOM story: How to build a consumer platform: lessons from Sonos. )

Since then, Sonos has been slowly working away on the vision of a wireless audio fabric in your home, selling a few million units to date. The company doesn’t give out exact numbers, but I’ve been told by a spokesperson that Sonos is now “streaming music in over 2 million rooms globally.” And now, it wants to add TV to the mix.

The Soundbar: Great when paired up with the rest of the family

Some five years ago, Cullen proposed that Sonos should build a soundbar. And for the past two years, a team of 100 has been working exclusively on the product. “For us, this is a breakthrough day,” said Cullen when he and his team unveiled the Playbar to journalists.

Hilmar Lehnert, Engineering Project Manager at Sonos, shows off the internal components of the playbar.
Hilmar Lehnert, Engineering Project Manager at Sonos, shows off the internal components of the playbar.

So how does this breakthrough look and what does it sound like? The Playbar is at first look a typical soundbar for your TV, combining nine individually amplified speakers for a room-filling home theater experience. It connects to your TV via optical audio, and comes without any additional remote control. Users can instead control the volume of the bar with their TV remote.

Or they just take out their mobile device and fire up the Sonos Android or iOS app, which also offers access to streaming music from Spotify, Pandora and Rhapsody, as well as music stored on a local PC.

As far as the sound goes, I’m the first one to admit that I’m probably the wrong person to judge. I subscribe to the good enough philosophy of enjoying entertainment. I’m the guy that’s happy with $50 headphones. Still, after getting an extended listening demo of the Playbar, I have to say that it is pretty good, but not mind-blowingly awesome.

That changes once you add other Sonos components into the mix, which is one of the key strengths of this product. The Playbar can easily be paired with the company’s wireless sub. And once you add two wireless Sonos Play3 speakers, you end up with great surround sound.

A company without specs in a world where good is good enough

Here’s another thing worth noting about Sonos: The company doesn’t do specs. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anything about the wattage of the Soundbar, or for that matter any of Sonos’ other speakers, on its website. Instead, it emphasizes an Apple-like “just works” approach, and doesn’t bother you with the data points and frequency curves that are so important to hardcore HiFi equipment geeks and home theater enthusiasts.

Sonos favors an Apple-like design approach over complicated specs and gatgetry.
Sonos favors an Apple-like design approach over complicated specs and gatgetry.

The problem with that approach is that is quickly becoming mainstream in the home entertainment space. The whole idea of a soundbar is to not spend thousands on the perfect home theater equipment, but have something that works better than the flimsy speakers of your TV — and many much-more- affordable soundbars do that just fine. Add Bluetooth to the mix, and that cheap speaker may even be able to stream Spotify.

And the competition isn’t sleeping: Sonos may have figured out how to make wireless audio in the house work, but others are quickly catching up. Apple’s (s AAPL) got AirPlay. Google (s GOOG) showed how interested it is in the home audio space when it released its ill-fated Nexus Q last year. And Qualcomm (s QCOM) recently teamed up with ODM speaker manufacturer Tymphany to add its DLNA-powered Skifta audio module to soundbars and other stereo components.

Another challenge is that the future of home entertainment may depend as much on the home as on the entertainment. As houses get smarter and devices become networked, there is a real need to tie all of this together, have your fridge message your TV and your personal assistant talk to you through your speakers. MacFarlane told me that the company doesn’t plan to venture into the smart home space. Instead, it wants to provide APIs to get other services to talk to Sonos devices. But will that be enough?

Rooting for the good guys

Sonos doesn't us off-the-shelf components - but is too modest to talk specs.
Sonos doesn’t use off-the-shelf components – but is too modest to talk specs.

What Sonos has going for it is its attention to detail combined with its desire to make things simple. That has led to a company heavily invested in engineering and design. A company that develops almost everything in-house. And we are not just talking about the audio components. “We design all our antennas,” Cullen said.

Sonos is a company that’s incredibly proud of its technical achievements but that’s also too modest to talk tech specs. A company that has developers on both coasts as well as in Europe to get the best people for the job. A company that even gives its support staff stock options. It’s the good guys. You want to root for them, but you’re not sure if they’re really going to come out on top.

Check out the gallery below for more behind-the-scenes pictures of the making of the Playbar:

5 Responses to “Sonos, its new Playbar, and the future of home entertainment: Can the good guys win?”

  1. Caroline B Smith

    We’re far from Santa Barbara, but we love our two SONOS systems, one in southern MI and one in the Thumb of MI where you can get not much on the radio waves, it has saved our sanity. It’s the top of the line and we believe you get what you pay for. Our dealer is so helpful that he drove to the Thumb to install the second system. Good luck to the GOOD GUYS.

  2. Matt, I also thought Sonos’ product development schedule was rather languid. Then bought a fairly high-end home theater receiver a couple of months ago and realized that the HiFi manufacturers are still way behind Sonos in terms of ease of use. To control the receiver from your PC, you reserve an IP address and use a web app that doesn’t recognize the names you have assigned the inputs. Picking your favorite internet radio stations requires another web app, and controlling it from a tablet or smartphone uses a completely different app. And don’t get me started on the lack of WiFi or room syncing.

    Still, Sonos has room for improvement. I hope they’ll add a digital input and PlayBar features to the Play:5. The Play:5 has decent bass and enough stereo separation for small rooms, so if your TV stand has the height to accommodate a Play:5 or two, it would be a great “poor man’s” PlayBar.

  3. I’m really torn. I love Sonos but the elephant in the corner is Airplay. The danger is spending $$$ for a Sonos system that has few speaker choices that are truly integrated.

    $700 Playbar
    $700 Sonos Sub
    $300 Play 3

    $1700 ain’t chump change. Guess it won’t hurt to see how things shake out this year. If Airplay doesn’t get synchronized audio then Sonos is in no danger.

  4. Matt Eagar

    I’m with you, Janko — I want these guys to win, but I don’t think they are moving fast enough. I was an early Sonos customer in 2005 — seemed like the right thing to do as I had recently ripped my CD collection to my PC. To this day, I love being able to listen to anything in my music library anywhere in my house. But from where I sit, they haven’t really done much of significance since then. Sure, I can get subscription music services through the system, and I like being able to control the system from my phone, but that kind of a software upgrade hasn’t been the revelation that the original product was — they are an expected improvements, kind of a yawner. I don’t see the Soundbar as anything to get excited about, either (especially as most of their recent announcements have been speakers with different form factors).

    I have long hoped for Sonos to do with video what they did with audio, but that hasn’t happened — and as you rightly point out, AirPlay and other technology is already delivering there. Having an API for their system — I believe that is one key to their future. But they should have done it a few years ago, so it’s more than frustrating that they are only beginning to talk about it now.

    While Sonos may have Apple-like aspirations, they aren’t delivering the barrage of innovation (some hits, some misses) that is so hallmark Apple. Instead, I am reminded of a conversation I had with former Sonos design manager. He said their goal was to outdo Bose. That seems to be a better analogy to me — another company that delivers relatively pleasing products, but only rarely comes out with major innovations. There may be a lot of engineering happening behind the scenes, but I’m not sure it matters to most of us.