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Highlights from the Vergecast interview with Sonos CEO Patrick Spence

Highlights from the Vergecast interview with Sonos CEO Patrick Spence

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Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

Sonos CEO Patrick Spence sat down with The Verge’s editor-in-chief Nilay Patel for an hour-long interview on this week’s Vergecast. The discussion came a week after the announcement of the company’s latest speaker, the $399 Sonos Beam soundbar. Sonos continues to face more competition from Apple, Amazon, Google, and other big tech heavyweights. Customers are also still waiting for Sonos to execute on its vision of supporting multiple voice assistants on its products.

Spence and Nilay covered a range of topics — everything from a potential Sonos IPO to the risk of consumers becoming overwhelmed and confused by today’s unending wave of smart speakers. Would light bulbs with microphones inside be a better answer? That also came up.

If you’re a customer or fan of Sonos, it’s worth listening to the podcast for the best sense of where the company is headed as it evolves from a platform for streaming music on nice speakers into an open system that aims to offer every piece of “the sonic internet.”

Where’s Google Assistant?

Putting two voice assistants on the same smart speaker is proving to be a challenge for Sonos. Last year when the company unveiled the Sonos One (its first speaker with built-in microphones designed for voice control), it said that Google Assistant would be joining Alexa on the device sometime in 2018. Its customer support Twitter account has also reiterated that “Google Assistant is coming to Sonos this year.”

But Sonos CEO Patrick Spence didn’t seem so firm on that timeline. He declined — twice — to confirm whether Assistant integration will actually launch to customers this year, saying only “we’re working on it.” Sonos is working closely with Google on the effort, and Spence said the wait is all due to the technical work required to make Assistant run seamlessly on its products and function the way customers expect. “We always pride ourselves on bringing it out when it‘s ready. We‘ll let you know when it’s ready,” he said. He compared the constant questions about progress with Google Assistant to the similar pressures Sonos faced in the months before it shipped Alexa on a product.

Reached by email after the interview, a Sonos spokesperson reiterated that 2018 remains the team’s target to roll out Assistant on the Sonos One and Beam.

Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

Both Alexa and Google Assistant do very similar things; they can control hardware in your smart home, answer general knowledge questions, play music, tell you the weather, keep you informed about your calendar appointments, and so on. But Sonos has repeatedly said that it wants to support multiple voice assistants on its platform in the same way that it works with all of the most popular subscription music services.

The thinking behind that come-one, come-all strategy is easy to grasp: you’re much more likely to buy a Sonos product if it works with the thing you’re already familiar and comfortable with. For people who have already chosen the Google Assistant side, it wouldn’t make a ton of sense to drop hundreds of dollars on a speaker that’s optimized for Alexa. Spence has said numerous times that Sonos is building out an open system of speakers that should be compatible with all aspects of the “sonic internet,” whether that’s music, voice assistants, podcasts, audio books, and so on.

Plus, Spence pointed out that each has its own strengths: Google Assistant is best at getting your most random questions right, while Alexa works with a wider range of smart home gadgets. “I just don’t see a world where you’re going to have one assistant that‘s going to do everything for you,” Spence said. “And that’s why we think it’s important to be able to offer the whole host of services and kind of give customers that ability to be future-proof.”

For now, the voice experience on the Sonos One and Beam will continue to be centered on Alexa. But another significant upgrade is coming even before Assistant: Sonos is adding AirPlay 2 support to its recent products in July, which will enable them to play audio through nearly any app on iOS and Mac. AirPlay 2 will also allow Siri to play songs from Apple Music on Sonos devices with a voice request on your iPhone. Apple rolled out the AirPlay 2 feature earlier this month, so Sonos acted quickly to ship it on its products.

What about Siri?

With Alexa available now and Assistant coming... eventually, Nilay asked Spence whether Sonos has held discussions with Apple about bringing Siri directly onto the Sonos platform. “I think, at this point, Apple needs to decide if they’re going to be opening Siri to third parties, but we have a good relationship with Apple, and we’ve had some conversations on this and look forward to having more.”

The concept of Apple allowing another company to put Siri on its products might seem absurd, sure. It hasn’t ever happened. But Apple already gives Sonos an unusually high level of control over its Apple Music subscription service, which can be accessed from within the Sonos app.

It’s “doubtful” that Dolby Atmos will be added to the Sonos Beam, Playbase, and Playbar

When asked why Sonos hasn’t moved to support some of the leading home theater audio formats, Spence said that there’s no obvious benefit to bringing something like Dolby Atmos to the soundbar form factor that the company has focused on. Dolby’s technology works wonderfully in setups that include a ton of speakers, but he said that there’s “still work to be done” before Sonos sees a need to put it in its products.

Sonos doesn’t think Atmos improves soundbars enough to bother with it

“The primary driver at the end of the day is ‘Hey, how do we create the best sound possible in the room?’ And not get too caught up in what’s the flavor of the day from an audio technology perspective. And so sometimes we’ll do things where, yeah, it frustrates some of the people that are a little bit more into the space in terms of what are the standards and what’s the new stuff. But look, if something emerges that’s really experience-defining, we have no hesitation in building that into our products.”

On that later point, Spence was talking about building it into products during their development — like, say, an eventual second-generation Playbar. He said he’s “doubtful” that there would be a scenario where Sonos would add Atmos to its existing speakers through a software update.

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

On the Sonos partnership with Ikea

Sonos and Ikea announced in December that they would collaborate on speakers that would live inside the Sonos ecosystem and be powered by the company’s software. “We’ve been experimenting with them on a few different form factors,” said Spence. “It’s been fun to work with them because they bring such an interesting home design mentality and modular thinking to it — and at different price points.” Ikea recently provided an early look at some prototypes. Sonos says third-party speakers need to “sound great” for it to sign on to a project like this.

Soon, TruePlay won’t require awkwardly walking around a room with your iPhone, and Sonos speakers will automatically install updates

Sonos allows users to tailor the sound produced by its speakers for any room through a process it calls TruePlay. The Sonos app uses the mic on an iOS device to detect the room’s characteristics, and then it adjusts the speaker’s sound for maximum performance. But this requires actually getting up and walking around the room with your iPhone while the Sonos emits beeps and other tones. Sonos did it first, but Apple and Google have since come up with ways of doing this sound optimization automatically with sophisticated analysis and without any user involvement. According to Spence, Sonos is working to offer the same thing. “We’re working on that now, to do it without you needing to do anything,” he said.

The company is also planning to let its devices automatically install firmware updates, cutting down on annoying prompts when you open the Sonos app and just want to quickly start playing music.

Sonos software will expand to more home theater receivers and audiophile speakers

Sonos recognizes that not even its top-tier Play:5 can satisfy the audio needs of all customers. For years, it has sold the $349 Connect hub so customers can stream music to their existing high-end audio setups. More recently, the company partnered with Onkyo through the “Works With Sonos” program to integrate Onkyo and Pioneer receivers directly with the Sonos platform; you can now send music to them from the Sonos app just like if they were Sonos hardware.

Spence said that more of these partnerships are on the way. “We’ve been thinking about it. I think in that space, there’s a lot of still great traditional audio companies that don’t have the software expertise that we do, and really, I don’t see many of them investing,” he said. “There are people that still will want these high-powered specific receivers or their tower speakers, and we want to be there.” He said that customers can “look for us to be doing more in that space for sure because I think there’s something there, and I think it’s good for the industry.”

Sonos isn’t planning any kind of subscription model

Selling premium speakers is a nice little revenue stream, but in world where router companies are starting to introduce subscriptions, it’s reasonable to wonder whether Sonos is considering some kind of recurring monetization strategy. For Spence, it’s all about “stickiness” and the fact that customers keep using their Sonos products for years and years after buying in. In fact, 93 percent of the products Sonos has sold from its beginning through today remain in active use, which is a pretty astounding figure.

“It comes from the fact that, what we have done is made those products better every year through the software updates that you get, which really are included in the purchase price that you paid up front. So if we keep making those products better over time, keep bringing new ones that add to the system and people love, then I’m comfortable we’ll continue to be a leader in our space.”