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Does Apple Need to Buy Sonos?




What’s Apple’s Answer to Sonos?

Speculation about Apple’s product pipeline is endless. Lately the frontrunner has been an Apple TV. Wall Street and the media want nothing short of a miracle: A device that combines the current Apple TV and the best display ever imagined — while instantly replacing every cable box for every carrier.
But how many could they sell? Devices like the iPhone and iPad sell in very large numbers, like the iPod before them. The reason? iPods, iPhones, and iPads are largely personal devices. A typical household buys more than one and upgrades regularly. Some households would buy more than one television from Apple. But how many? And how often?
For Murphy, the next product is obvious and Sonos is already making it: Intelligent, wireless speakers.
How often do we hear about Apple’s ecosystem? How big is music in the ecosystem? It’s huge. Apple’s stranglehold on the digital music industry has helped lock in customers. But one could argue that the stranglehold is loosening. Why not sell consumers more devices for music playback? And here’s the kicker: A significant number of households would buy more than one speaker.
Tim Cook’s quote about the television feeling decades behind has been repeated over and over. But what about stereos? Receivers with an endless array of ports on the back. Speaker zones. Digital inputs, analog outputs, consumer confusion. Speaker wire catching dog hair on the floor. Awkward remotes requiring line of sight.
Sonos has a lot of these problems beat. Wireless speakers with decent sound. Your phone, tablet, or computer as a convenient and simple remote. Dead-simple configuration. Built-in support for services like Pandora and Internet radio stations. In a way Sonos is an Apple TV for music.

So where’s Apple on this? You can be sure Apple is well-aware of Sonos. Steve Jobs even warned Sonos they could be infringing on Apple intellectual property. So why isn’t Apple competing with Sonos?
Sonos speakers aren’t for budget shoppers and aren’t what I’d call an impulse buy. In our case we were looking at wired speakers throughout the house. By the time you add receivers, amps, speakers, wiring, and an Airport Express for each “zone” of the house you’re into some significant expense. Sonos is a viable and affordable alternative to this path. We actually rejected Sonos based on cost until we started researching the alternatives.

Back to Apple: They launched a speaker unit years ago that didn’t last long. The Apple HiFi had an iPod dock and Jobs said he was getting rid of his stereo. But the HiFi didn’t have WiFi – limiting it to one room. Sonos speakers can be deployed throughout your house and play in sync or independently.
Maybe Apple was a little too early with the HiFi. They shouldn’t let that stop them from trying again. iPods didn’t have wifi back then, there was no AirPlay. But now AirPlay and Homesharing are the glue holding the ecosystem together. Apple shouldn’t be ignoring speakers. Speakers should at least have the hobby status (or is it ‘intense area of interest’ now?) the current Apple TV holds.

Buy Sonos or Build Your Own

Should Apple just buy Sonos? Sonos isn’t making a huge profit. But their equipment is somewhat expensive. It seems like the margins could be high if they charged near the current prices and were selling an Apple-like number of units instead of a Sonos-like number of units. There might be some sticker shock when you see Sonos pricing. But Sonos customers seem to have an Apple-like satisfaction with their purchase.

It’s hard to see why Apple couldn’t make their own wireless speakers. They’re not unfamiliar with speakers. They know wifi. But could they do it as well as Sonos? What does Sonos have that makes them a buyout target?

The most obvious one is Sonosnet, the technology the speakers use to communicate with one another. Sonosnet is self-configuring, allowing each Sonos component you add to your system to communicate seamlessly with the others. The underlying protocol is essentially wifi, but there’s more to Sonosnet than just wifi. Each speaker is capable of communicating with all the rest. That speaker in a remote corner of the house only has to reach one other speaker wirelessly to participate in sync with the other speakers. And you don’t have to configure any of that.

What about multiple speakers? Sonos speakers can work as individuals or all in sync. Or anything in between. All your downstairs speakers can be playing Pandora while all the upstairs speakers play directly from an iPhone’s local music store. With a few taps every speaker could be playing Pandora.

Currently you can play to multiple Airport Expresses or Apple TVs from a Mac or PC running iTunes. But you can’t do that from iOS devices, including Apple TV. AirPlay on iOS and Apple TV limits you to selecting one output. That’s a pretty big limitation when your goal is whole-house audio. Worth buying Sonos for? Probably not.

What about the speaker technology? I don’t know. Sonos sounds good and they play in sync. That’s all I know about speakers.

Sonos gear already has an Apple-y feel to it. The products have a minimalist, clean finish and the interfaces are designed well. Apple would quickly have a number of products ready to ship, including the new Sonos Playbar.

Sonos isn’t perfect. Its iTunes interoperability isn’t via any APIs. Sonos scans your underlying music files instead (which it helps you share) and builds its own index. That’s an opportunity for Apple: Allowing Sonos to pull directly from iTunes and iTunes Match.

The more I think about it the more I think it won’t happen. It would have happened by now. If Apple does make its own wireless speakers I can think of some added features I’d like to see. Like a system-wide intercom to boss people around in my house.

Note: Sonos recently added a new component, the Playbar. It’s designed to complement your television.








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6 comments to “Does Apple Need to Buy Sonos?”

  1. Can I Airplay straight to Sonos?

  2. Sonos doesn’t have Airplay built-in. Some Sonos devices have a line-in port. I have an Airport Express plugged into a Play:5 speaker. The Sonos auto-detects when the Airport Express is playing and switches to it as an input. You can preset which speakers should play when the line-in port receives a signal.

    Sonos can also import a directory listing of your iTunes library. But you have to update Sonos every time you add songs to iTunes. And the computer the songs reside on has to be available.

  3. You can put your iTunes library on a network storage drive (such as a Time Capsule) and point Sonos at that, then your computer doesn’t need to be in the loop at all. You can also set Sonos to update its music index on a nightly basis.

    Of course, if you use an on-demand service like Spotify or Rhapsody, you can get access to their entire streaming catalog at any time. This ends up making a lot more sense than continuing to buy songs at a dollar a pop, unless you only listen to music you already own.

  4. I don’t think it will happen, but I agree that this would be a great pickup for Apple.

  5. Does Apple Need to Buy Sonos? Yes! Right Now!!

  6. I had to comment here even though it’s old – hope this helps someone. The trick to Sonos-like multi-speaker control via iPhone through AirPort Express speakers and Apple TVs is to play the content from iTunes on a computer and then control -that- with the Remote app — you get separate volume control for all audio end points :)

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