In another interview with Patrick Spence and Giles Martin, we talk design, repairability, Matter, home theater, planned obsolescence, and more.
Sonos isn’t about to make the same mistake twice. In hindsight, its transition in 2020 to a major new software platform, S2, could’ve been communicated better and handled with more consideration for longtime customers. A few very old products were left behind, though only one speaker was affected: the first-generation Play:5. For those devices, Sonos has continued to maintain the old S1 controller app and deliver bug fixes / security patches. But the whole thing got messy and took some time for Sonos to straighten out.
So with the introduction of two new speakers at the same time — a first for Sonos — some owners of existing speakers are having flashbacks to the S1 / S2 controversy and wondering if the Era 300 and 100 will mark the beginning of the end for products like the Play:1, Play:3, and second-gen Play:5. When I chatted with CEO Patrick Spence in New York City two weeks ago, he made it clear that no one needs to worry about any S2 products suddenly being cut off from new features.
“They do, they do,” he said when asked whether those speakers and others still have many years of life left. “Back when we started the company, we were passionate about building products that would last a long, long time. But nobody could see 15 years into the future, and now, we’re 20 years in. But you now see us as well incorporating things like Bluetooth and other technologies like line-in, which will also help support and futureproof everything.”
“I think we’ve publicly said we will support a product once it hits end of life with software updates for at least seven years after we do that, which I think right now is best in the industry — not just audio but tech in general. And we’ve done better than that.” [Editor’s note: Sonos has previously said five years, not seven.] “People don’t need to be worried.”
For the rest of my conversation with Spence and Sonos VP of sound experience Giles Martin — you might be familiar with some of his production work — I tried to cover topics that weren’t part of Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel’s Vergecast interview. If you want the deep dive on spatial audio, check that out. But here, we cover repairability, the company’s Mayht acquisition, Matter, and more. I also took a few questions from the Sonos subreddit, so thanks to everyone who contributed those.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You told Nilay that the Era 300 has been a three-year project. Based on that timeline, you started on it even before Apple Music got into spatial audio. It would’ve been back when Tidal and Amazon were still leading the charge. What was the tipping point that made you green light the product?
Patrick Spence: I think the beauty of Sonos is that we’re always having these spirited debates about what comes next in terms of innovation. We had it around lossless, high-res audio, all of those things. And there was something that was really happening around the spatial audio space where there was enough momentum from artists, from recording engineers, from labels, that it felt like something special was happening. And Giles, and Chris Davies who leads our audio team, and their teams were very much getting behind it and seeing that this was happening. Our sound board was active in it. It seemed like it was something that could allow artists to do something new with sound and bring it to people in a different way. And that, to us, is very interesting.
But make no mistake, at that point, it was a big bet of saying “is spatial audio going to be mainstream by the time this product actually comes out?” The thing I keep coming back to is the majority of releases are happening in spatial audio. And 85 of the top Billboard 100 artists over the last year released in Dolby Atmos music. So it feels like it’s happening.
But I also would say that whole transition from mono to stereo took years, right? And this will be the same. Not everybody is going to switch overnight. There will be strong opinions on either side of the equation of the way they experience it. But we think it is the future.
Let’s talk about that design. People have seen the leaks online, and it’s been somewhat divisive. What was your reaction the first time the team brought it to you?
PS: It really is a case of form following function. When you first see it, it doesn’t look like a traditional speaker. And that was my initial reaction, too. But if we’re going to truly serve this new format and do it the right way, it really took a ground-up effort. And that meant a whole new form factor, obviously the whole architecture inside being completely different, and how we would do that. It was something that I certainly trusted the design team, the audio team, in terms of what we needed to do in order to bring the right experience and the right sound to the world.
Giles Martin: Just to add to that, there’s another reason. Spatial audio has to be forward-facing and immersive. By the function and form and fit of the speaker, it is forward-facing and immersive as opposed to a circular object, which will just fire audio in all directions. That’s not how we listen to music, even in performance. So there’s a reason why we’ve gone down that route.
Last year, you bought a company called Mayht, which found a way to get big sound out of really small transducers. Are we seeing the fruits of that acquisition yet, or do these products predate all of that?
PS: These products predate the Mayht acquisition. We’re super excited about the technology there; obviously, that will start to work its way into our roadmap over time. But these predate that.
Two Era 300s cost $900. You just raised the price of the Beam. Do you worry about pricing yourself into a corner where people start to look at the competition more often? Or do you still feel confident about where you are?
PS: We feel very confident in the value for what you get from our products. We’re trying to find that balance of great value and then also being able to invest in innovation and bring out these great new products like an Era 100 and Era 300, pay our people well, and do all the things that a business should try to do. We’re not perfect. We try to do the right thing in terms of serving our customers, serving our people, and trying to build our business. I think we’ve largely gotten it right as we go through this.
But just like we have conversations about audio formats and what’s coming, we have vigorous debates about what we do on the business side and making sure that we’re trying to do the right thing for everybody involved. It’s something that we’re probably going to continue to vigorously debate over time.
If you look at Reddit and the Sonos forums, one thing a lot of people have been hoping for is a Sonos One (or Era 100) with upward-firing Atmos drivers. Did you prototype that? Did it push the cost of the product too high?
GM: We didn’t test it. The reason we didn’t test it is that would be a product just for surrounds, I guess. It has to be based on experience and not branding. That’s the dangerous thing about audio. It’s so easy to stick a label on a speaker and say this is what it does.
With the Era 100, it is a single-box stereo unit, and we’re honest about what it does. We’re not saying it does spatial, because it doesn’t do spatial. Our key thing when it comes to audio is honesty. Now, Era 300 is a genuine spatial product. It does all the channels, renders them in the correct way, and you can hear it when you listen to it. And that’s the key thing: listen to the products. We believe in being justified in what we’re doing, not “this might sell more products.” It’s based on experience, and everything else follows.
You used to make fun of Bluetooth in ads. Is this just a case where people keep asking for it? Is choice becoming more important to you moving forward?
PS: It has been, and I think the technologies have evolved in such a way that we can provide the experience that we want to. Bluetooth’s gotten much more reliable. There’s also the guests appearing at your house and wanting to put some music on. That’s a real use case, which we hadn’t contemplated before. But now, with the quality of it, we feel good about that. And on the line-in, one of the things has been the prevalence of turntables, the resurgence of vinyl, and a lot of people asking us, “Hey, I want to plug it into my Sonos speaker.” And so we’re like, “Okay, this is a real thing happening we’ve heard from a lot of customers on. So let’s figure out a way to give them that choice.”
By far the top question on Reddit was: why does a soundbar always need to be the front fixture of a Sonos home theater system? Have you thought about two Era 300s as front left and right channels? Or just loosening up how things can be arranged?
GM: Yeah, we’ve thought about that. Quite often, it’s fit and form. People don’t have space next to their televisions to do it. You have to have a large credenza to be able to have two units. We always look at innovating and pushing forward. Right now, we have three incredible soundbars that fit that purpose and do provide an amazing both home theater and music experience.
It’s not something we’re against. We always look at “what’s the best experience?” Right now, we believe that the bars deliver the best. Dialogue is everything in home theater. How do you deliver the best dialogue experience if you want to make a robust home theater system along with spaciousness and bass?
You’re highlighting that the Era 300 and 100 are easier to disassemble and are using a lot of screws instead of adhesive. That’s one piece of the puzzle. What about a self-repair program?
PS: We’ll see how it develops over time. I have no issues with self-repair or in getting to that point. We’ll have to look at “can we build a system to do that?” I would love to be able to do that and make it easier for people to do those things. We pack a lot in there and a lot in a tight space. So it’s the practical reality of how do you balance those two things? Of making it easily repairable but, at the same time, you want to be able to make the tightest form factors you can and use that air in a smart way. There’s no religious debate about it. It’s more, can we practically do something like that?
Is Sonos religious about audio? You said you plan to enter four new product categories over the coming years. There have been job postings about a “Home Theater OS.” Do you see a path into video? Or is it audio, audio, audio but in different categories and form factors?
PS: We play in video today, in my opinion, with what we do in home theater. So we’re really trying to understand where the home theater experience is going and what’s happening in all these spaces. We feel good that, in audio, there’s a ton of opportunity because there’s $96 billion a year spent on audio products. Last year, we did $1.7 billion in revenue. That’s a lot of room for us to grow into and a lot of new categories — which we’re not going to talk about today — but there’s a lot of room in audio for us to play. It’s what we’re good at.
You and I have known each other through the entry of Big Tech into smart speakers. I think our focus on audio, on innovation, and the things we do well, has really helped us weather the storm of a bunch of imitators coming in and copying the tech, underpricing the tech, and we’ve still persevered with quality and what we do well around sound. I think that sets us up for a bright future.
Speaking of Big Tech, let’s talk about Matter. You’re in the group, but you’ve been pretty quiet about your plans for it. Is part of that distrust of Big Tech’s involvement or just a wait-and-see approach?
PS: Some of the ideas are interesting. But we’ve been around IoT and smart home long enough to know that there’s no holy grail in tech. A lot of us will talk about One App and some of these visions that consumers haven’t shown a willingness to adopt. They don’t necessarily want to control everything from one app or one interface.
More and more homes I see now will have Sonos for music, something else for security and doorbell, something else for HVAC, and something else for blinds or lights. And customers are happy with that and happy with purposeful, well-thought-out apps and solutions. We come at all of these things with “what’s the benefit for the customer?” So we’re going to continue to explore to look at is there something better we can do for the customer? If we find that, it’s something we would definitely embrace.
Apple Music spatial audio tracks are coming to the Era 300 at launch. What’s the status of supporting Apple Music’s lossless library?
PS: We’d love to offer all of the standards that everybody’s offering. We’re working with everybody in the industry to make sure that we’re offering everything. So stay tuned.
There’s no Google Assistant on these speakers. You’ve said it’s a technical issue and not related to ongoing litigation. Can you expand on that a bit? Do you hope to see it return?
PS: Right now, it’s a pretty heavy engineering lift for us to implement what they’d like any third party to implement. The change isn’t just impacting us. All of the companies that support Google Assistant from a third-party perspective need to assess is the work worth the effort? Right now, we don’t see it being worth the effort. We hope Google will take another path that will allow us to continue to offer it in more of a lightweight manner the way we do today. But we also feel well covered with what we have with both Alexa and Sonos Voice Control.
On your last earnings call, you said quite directly that Big Tech hasn’t been doing anything interesting in audio over the last year. It seems like you’re not particularly impressed with Apple’s HomePod and its temperature and humidity sensors. What does “interesting” mean to you?
PS: To me, something like Era 300 is interesting because it was built from the ground up with spatial audio in mind. What I’m not seeing out there is people starting from scratch and saying “how do we create a better experience than is available today? How do we top what Sonos is doing in these categories?”
Instead, we’ve seen a lot of products that get thrown out there in the under-$100 category for other purposes, whether it’s trying to control the smart home, or order you groceries, or advertise something to you. That, to me, just is not interesting. It’s not fun. It’s not great. I hope we see more in the industry embracing spatial audio and creating great speakers that really help people feel the music. That’s what I’d like to see, quite frankly, and that’s where we’re going to put our efforts.
GM: The reason Sonos has been so successful with music and home theater playback systems is because they listen. They listen to the artist. They listen to the industry. There’s such a transparency. And that transparency then goes on between the music lover or film lover and the artist. That’s the idea: that clear window on sound. At Sonos, we will go to the industry and say, “Is this good enough? How can we innovate? What do you want to see from us?” It’s that collaboration that’s key, as opposed to: “you have to fit into our ecosystem.” The fact that we listen to what the artist wants to do, and we listen to the innovations coming through, and we can then deliver that to the consumer is key for our success in the future.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge