How Sonos Is Banking On Artists and Culture To Compete In The Smart-Speaker Market

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Sonos

Earlier this year, Sonos founder John McFarland stepped down from his role as CEO after 14 years on the job, admitting he had allowed his company to be beaten to the punch by Amazon when it came to making voice-activated speakers. But nine months later, Sonos is working to stay in the game with its new Sonos One speaker, which is available today for $199.

To compete in the increasingly-crowded smart speaker market, Sonos is betting on an artist- and culture-centric approach: emphasizing audio quality; maximizing streaming partnerships; incorporating artist feedback directly into the product development process; and designing ad campaigns that give technology a backseat in service of a more social, aesthetic musical experience.

The Sonos One comes with Alexa built in, with Google Assistant, Siri and AirPlay 2 capabilities shipping in 2018. As for direct-control integration (controlling Sonos products directly from third-party apps, which is already possible with Spotify), Sonos anticipates working partnerships with Pandora and Tidal by year’s end. Audible, iHeartRadio and China’s Kuke Music are on the direct-control roadmap for early 2018 -- although certain voice features like lyric search remain exclusive to Amazon Music.

The Kuke Music partnership also highlights Sonos’ steadfast ambitions in Asia, one of the hottest streaming markets on the horizon. The company first partnered with QQ Music in 2012, has since launched a beta integration with Indian streaming service Saavn, and plans to open several new stores in China over the next few years.

But Sonos’ collaborations with artists tend to happen behind closed doors. With the exception of A Tribe Called Quest and Pearl Jam, artist names are rarely emblazoned on Sonos products or advertisements; instead, employees test early prototypes with the likes of Rick Rubin and Philip Glass for real-time feedback and tweaking.

Giles Martin, the son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin and a renowned Beatles producer himself, joined the Sonos team two years ago as Sound Experience leader to bridge the gaps between artist and engineer perspectives. “If it all came down to just science and maths, everyone would make a perfect sound experience,” Martin tells Billboard. “I see it as like cooking a meal: you can have all the right ingredients and cook them for the right amount of time, but people still tell you it doesn't taste right. It really is science-meets-art.”

That approach has slowed Sonos’ process. “There are quicker paths to getting the product to market, but there’s also the right path to launching the right, intuitive experience that falls in line with consumers’ expectations,” Ryan Taylor, director of partnerships at Sonos, tells Billboard. “If you already have an Echo in your house, you should be able to use your new Sonos speaker the same way, but that’s not how either of our platforms were designed at first. We had to work together to figure that out. The result seems obvious on the consumer side, but the path to obvious can be really difficult from a technical perspective.”

For Sonos, part of the “obvious” picture is what many employees at the company’s press conference called “continuity of control” -- agnostic, transparent, seamless integration with as many streaming partners as possible, such that Sonos blends into and enhances the day-to-day experiences that consumers already love. To that end, Sonos plans to add a total of 50 new streaming partners by the end of this year, and will also open its platform completely to third-party developers in 2018, with the opportunity to certify applications with an official “Works with Sonos” badge.

On the marketing side, the Sonos One ad campaign features tunes by the likes of Sampha, Michael Kiwanuka and Buena Vista Social Club serving as background music for emotional interactions, from simple candlelit dinners to post-heartbreak talks. “Music is a social experience, and at Sonos we’ll be focused on keeping it as social as we can,” says Mieko Kusano, Sonos’ senior director of product management, voice. “The home of the future will be much like the home of the past.”

As for hi-fi audio, while Sonos does support major hi-fi streaming options such as Qobuz, Tidal Hi-Fi and Deezer Hi-Fi, the company insists that convenience is its top priority, and that achieving higher audio quality requires intervention at every step of the production process. For example, major labels have only recently pulled back outdated watermarking technology that diluted the audio quality on streaming services, particularly with classical music. “Sonos is a delivery system, a window on the world of music,” says Martin. “How that sunlight gets through the window has a lot to do with where it comes from.”