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Sonos launches its own streaming radio service

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Sonos Radio will now be the default service available for the company’s speakers

Image: Sonos

Sonos has always been the neutral manager of streaming services on its multiroom audio platform, but the company is about to take a big step into creating some of that content itself. Sonos Radio is a new, free-to-use streaming service that’s being introduced as part of a software update rolling out today worldwide.

Moving forward, it’ll come preloaded in the Sonos app, so I think it’s fair to think of Sonos Radio as a starting point that customers can sample before adding other services like Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Pandora, and whatever else they will be listening to. That’s a pretty advantageous spot to be in, and CEO Patrick Spence says it’s “only the beginning” as Sonos works on other services “that provide our customers a better experience, and provide our music streaming service partners an opportunity to highlight their best content.”

Image: Sonos

Sonos says radio playback accounts for “nearly half” of all the time that customers spend listening to its products. “Complementing the 100-plus streaming options available on Sonos, the new service introduces a holistic and cohesive way to explore radio, bringing together more than 60,000 stations from multiple streaming partners alongside original programming from Sonos,” the company said in its press release.

Those partners include TuneIn and iHeartRadio, two obvious go-to picks for this category. In the Local Radio section of Sonos Radio, you’ll be able to easily pull up your local NPR station, sports talk, news shows, or other favorites — or listen to something from across the globe if you choose. You won’t get every feature of TuneIn or iHeartRadio as part of Sonos Radio, but the partnerships check off the core function of streaming live radio. Sonos says more partners, including in the US and Global in the UK, are coming soon.

But the second, more interesting pillar of Sonos Radio is original programming — found under the Sonos Presents section — and this is headlined by an ad-free station called Sonos Sound System. Think of it like Apple’s Beats 1. The company converted the basement of its (currently closed) flagship retail store in Soho into a recording and production facility. Sonos says this is what you can expect from its flagship station:

Listeners will enjoy a stream of new, well-known, or rediscovered music, behind-the-scenes stories, as well as guest artist radio hours from the likes of Angel Olsen, JPEGMAFIA, Phoebe Bridgers, Jeff Parker (Tortoise), Vagabon, and more. Artist hosted radio hours, released every Wednesday, will start the stream of Sonos Sound System for a 60-minute radio show with music and commentary about inspiring artists, releases, and the host’s latest work.

There will also be artist-curated stations that offer “a regularly updated stream of hundreds of songs from artists inspired by their own influences and obsessions.” The first of those is going live today from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Like Sonos Sound System, you can listen to these artist stations without any ad interruptions. So if you’ve got Spotify’s free plan and have had your fill of commercials breaking up your tunes, Sonos Radio might slot in as a decent alternative.

Sonos Stations are the third and last piece of Sonos Radio. These are genre-based stations that do have ads — Sonos is partnering with TargetSpot to sell ad inventory and says “only general location data (ZIP code) and music genre information” is shared with advertising partners.

Various examples of genre-based Sonos Stations.
Image: Sonos

The marketing points from Sonos ring very familiar here; with Sonos Stations, the company is trying to position its curation as superior to what competitors are doing and says it’ll serve up a more varied assortment of music beyond the same old tracks you hear everywhere else.

I haven’t had a chance to try Sonos Stations, so I can’t weigh in there. You’ll occasionally hear voices pop in to let you know what’s playing (particularly for classical stations), and Sonos says it’s using AI to smoothen out song transitions and keep the volume at the same level for ads and music. The end goal is for these to feel more like traditional radio than mere playlists. They are radio stations in the sense that you can’t ever skip tracks. Every part of Sonos Radio is linear.

Sonos Radio streams at 128kbps, which is a little disappointing considering that the company has full control over both service and speaker hardware. There’s only so much you can do with live local radio streams, but I would’ve liked to see a higher quality for Sonos Presents and Sonos Stations. At launch, you won’t be able to use Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant to access the service.

Sonos Radio is divided into three sections.
Image: Sonos

And that’s the gist of Sonos Radio. Will Sonos agitate some of its partners by launching a streaming service? Possibly, but the company insists that it won’t be giving Sonos Radio any unfair preferential treatment in the Sonos app. (If you know you’ll never use Sonos Radio at all, you can hide it from your browse menu by going into settings, selecting “services and voice” and removing the account.)

This will also be a way to showcase content from all of the services that are available on its platform and bring attention to some of the lesser-known options, the company claims. In that way, it reminds me a bit of The Roku Channel. Roku is another company that has typically played a neutral role in overseeing its platform, but the ad-supported video service gave Roku company a more direct link to its customers.

Sonos Radio might be launching a bit differently depending on where you are. Internet radio stations will be available to everyone once today’s update rolls out. Sonos Sound System, artist stations, and Sonos Stations are launching first (also today) in the United States, Canada, UK, Ireland, and Australia.