When it comes to high-end wireless audio, Sonos has been the top dog for a little while now. But customer tastes are changing, and the market is becoming increasingly crowded.
Over the last few years, the industry has taken a different approach, focusing on smaller, portable Bluetooth speakers and deep integration with digital assistants like Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant. Sonos' official policy of platform agnosticism means it now offers both assistants, but how can it continue to make a mark in a much more portable-focused audio world?
It gave it a go with the release of the Sonos Move: a hefty portable speaker which works comfortably both within the home as part of a Sonos network on wi-fi, but also outdoors via Bluetooth connection.
This is not a UE Boom – you probably wouldn't be able to toss it in a backpack before a trip to the beach without putting a bit of a strain on your spine, for example. But the audio quality is better than many of its competitors, and it's that point of difference the company believes still sets it apart in the market.
Pete Pederson, Sonos' VP of marketing, told Business Insider Australia he considers the Move to be "the perfect encapsulation of our strategy in one device."
"At last, we've got something that communicates what we're about as a brand, and portends what our strategy is moving forward."
It represents something of a delicate balancing act. It's obvious consumers value audio solutions which can be carted around with ease – and, in many cases, battered to within an inch of their lives – but it's difficult to make that sort of product while also delivering quality audio. Compromises have to be made.
Many speakers, like the products from Ultimate Ears and Sony, manage that balance quite well, delivering decent sound with exceptional portability and battery life. But Sonos, which trades on its upmarket quality, was willing to compromise a little on the portability side of things. The thing weighs nearly three kilos. It likely has more utility as an improvised weapon than something which goes wherever you may roam.
"Sound quality and sound experience are really important to us," Pedersen said. "There are different form factors where you can accomplish okay sound, but for something to produce enough bass to be reasonable and to project enough sound for an outdoor area like a deck or a patio, it's gotta have a little volume to it. The laws of physics mandate that."
"But the other thing is – and it's central to our product design philosophy – is 'systemness'. Sonos stuff has got to work with other Sonos stuff. That's the nature of it."
As such, the Move is supposed to serve two purposes – to be "two speakers in one", as Pedersen puts it. He says it can function as someone's living room speaker but also their speaker for the poolside, or the backyard, or – in a pinch – the park.
It's an incremental change, but represents the brand stepping out of the home for the first time. But Pedersen wouldn't be drawn on whether that means Sonos will dip their toe into the world of ultraportable speakers, which are a dime a dozen now. But he did stress Sonos will not be going cheap.
"Our focus is on creating really differentiated experiences and maintaining our 'premiumness' as a brand. We won't be making cheap stuff."
"We are not moving downmarket."
In other words, you can likely expect the near-future of portable Sonos gear to be a little weightier than the rest of the pack. And more expensive.
The company faces stacks of competition now – and it needed to update its brand as a result
You're probably intimately familiar with the aesthetics of Sonos' original brand image, and perhaps not for good reason. It was sleek and minimalist and heavy on whitespace – in other words, like basically every other tech company over the past decade. It looked premium, sure, but in the same way every other brand has tried to look premium in a world where Apple tends to call the design shots.
Pedersen acknowledges that. "When we went to the black and white mode, what we noticed is that everyone else did the same thing. So we're like, wait a minute – if the rest of the industry shows up in black and white, then we probably need to move in a different direction."
And it's not just aesthetic. If you want wireless home speakers, you're spoiled for choice. There are the traditional audio players, but other tech giants are circling too. Even companies like Roku are knuckling in at lower price points which could tempt people away from the Sonos experience.
To that end, the company launched a new brand image back in May, which focused on introducing what Pedersen calls a more "progressive" colour palette, while still communicating that elusive premium quality.
“We approached this rebrand with a rigorous design process, system thinking, and most of all, a passion for the listener and their needs,” Dmitri Siegel, VP of brand, said in a company blog at the time.
“Through that process we stripped away the fluff and the metaphor and found the power in who we really are and what we do: the enduring beauty of our products, the magical simplicity of our software, and our signature commitment to quality and design.”
Cut through the corporate brand lingo, and the message is pretty clear: keep it simple and pretty. Mosey on over to the Sonos homepage and you'll see their pitch is much more solutions-based than it ever was – providing a product to fit a broad range of basic home audio needs.
It is (possibly) open to interesting collaborations.
Sonos is also broadening the field of who is allowed to play in the previously walled garden of its hardware platform. In June, the company launched the first products in partnership with Swedish furniture mainstay IKEA, called "Symfonisk". The range includes lamps and "bookshelf" speakers, designed to integrate with IKEA decor.
I asked Pedersen what that collaboration looked like in practice.
"We supplied them with a module: a chipset and the software that runs it. They actually designed and manufactured the speaker themselves. We certainly had a hand in that, but it was their project 100%."
He praised the "like-minded" nature of the two brands – despite the fact they serve "different segments of the marketplace" – but was quick to clarify that Sonos won't be working with "any old brand" in the future.
"I would need to be a brand we share values with, that's step one of a great collaboration. It would need to be a premium brand."
"But from a technology perspective, we can conceive of more things having Sonos within them. But as we sit here today: nothing to announce."