The name Sonos has nearly become a household word. You see ads for the whole-house music system during the SuperBowl, you probably have friends who have a system in their homes (maybe you do, too), and whoever uses the system instantly loves it. We decided to uncover the secret sauce that makes Sonos systems so great, with a candid interview with Eric Nielsen, a part of the company’s marketing team.
Sonos the Early Years: Founded in 2002
Q: How did the idea for a wireless whole-house music system come about?
A: Sonos was conceived and built on the idea that people want to listen to music in their homes. At the time, 2002, it was a novel concept, as people were primarily using iPods and headphones for at-home music listening. From the very beginning we thought the future—and our success—would hinge on music streaming.
Streaming? Definitely Ahead of Their Time
Q: So while you waited for streaming to catch on, what kinds of products were the engineers at Sonos developing?
A: We launched our first product in January 2005—the ZP100 (Ed. This has since morphed into a product called the CONNECT:AMP). At the time, virtually no music streaming service existed. To keep people convinced that music streaming would eventually be big, we made sure the system could play ripped CDs and MP3s from a computer’s internal hard drive or from a network storage device to speakers throughout the house.
Simplicity: A Core Principle at Sonos
Q: If streaming wasn’t yet available, how did Sonos manage to capture the interest of consumers?
A: Streaming really didn’t take off until 2013, but our products still resonated with consumers because they were so easy to use and easy to set up. From the beginning, we knew our products had to be wireless. If you have a power outlet you should be able to have music. This was our core principle from the get-go.
We’ve also focused from the beginning on fostering a great user experience. It’s one of the reasons our systems operate over our own mesh network and not the early versions of the home’s Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
Evolving with the Market
Q: Today, Wi-Fi networks in the home are more robust and streaming is pervasive. How has Sonos embraced these changes?
A: As Wi-Fi has become more robust and reliable over time, we launched the ability to use the home’s Wi-Fi with our systems. If you’re streaming music to just one speaker in the kitchen, for example, a direct connection to the home Wi-Fi works fine; when you start to add more speakers, the mesh networking capability in our systems kicks in to ensure that the music gets to where it needs to go without any lag time, and that it doesn’t stop. The switch from Wi-Fi to mesh happens transparently to the end user.
As new streaming services come out, we incorporate them into our systems. We now support more than 60 streaming services globally, including Apple Music by the end of the year. In the past, Apple’s iTunes has been the beast in the home audio world that always encouraged the buying of music rather than streaming subscriptions. The launch of Apple Music sends a message to consumers that it’s okay to subscribe to streaming, and you don’t have to buy tracks to enjoy music at home.
Q: In what other ways has Sonos adapted to the introduction of new technologies?
A: When the system first came out, it was controlled from a special $350 controller, the CR100. It featured a scroll-wheel and we eventually upgraded it to have a built-in touchscreen. Then the iPhone came out. We saw this not as a competitor, but as our future, so we made the decision to support the iPhone as a device that could control our system, and designed a free app for it.
Q: As the home audio market has evolved, how has Sonos responded in terms of product development?
A: Because we do all of our design in house, we are always working on the next piece. A mechanical engineer from our offices in Santa Barbara, Cambridge, or Beijing can propose a design and send it remotely to our 3D printer in Santa Barbara and have it put through testing. This testing also happens in-house, which allows us to bring our ideas to life more quickly. (Sonos currently has eight products in its lineup.)
Our goal today is to fill every home with music, and we look at the areas in the home where music is most important, and where we might be missing a product to fill that space. The PLAYBAR, for example, was developed to unleash the sound of the TV. PLAY:1, on the other hand, is well-designed for placement in a humid location like a bathroom, but it still sounds great in a bedroom or kitchen.
Preserving a Legacy
Q: Sonos’ commitment to innovation maintains a constant flow of new products to the marketplace. What happens to the older products?
A: Because most people live in their homes for decades, we also want our products to work in these homes for decades. Rather than discontinue products, we made a commitment to keep our legacy products fresh and relevant through free software updates. I still have our first product, the ZP100, in my house, and it still works great. Through software updates, it can now stream music from Tidal, be controlled and stream songs from an iPad, and be paired with our wireless subwoofer. All of these products and services did not exist in 2005.
Plays Well with Others
Q: Although Sonos is designed as a standalone system, there’s been a movement to integrate its operation with other smart home systems. Is this something Sonos recommends?
A: We don’t like to think of ourselves as a walled garden, but we do want to make sure that no matter what’s integrated with our system, Sonos is still providing the best experience possible to its users. When you begin to integrate systems, it can add a level of complexity. We want to make sure this doesn’t happen when it comes to playing music throughout the home. The simplicity of Sonos has made believers out of technophobes. Once they start using the Sonos system, they realize that it’s easy to master, which may give them the confidence to incorporate other smart systems into their homes. EH