The past, present and future of home audio
A new era?
Welcome to Lowpass, a newsletter about the future of entertainment and the next big hardware platforms, including smart TVs, ambient computing and AR / VR. This week: What the newest Sonos speakers tell us about the future of audio hardware.
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The past, present and future of home audio
Earlier this week, Sonos announced two new products: The Era 300, the company’s new flagship speaker, brings spatial audio to the living room, while the Era 100 improves on the company’s entry-level Sonos One with stereo-ish sound.
Both speakers are intriguing on their own, and the company clearly hopes to ring in a new era for its hardware business with them. (Yep, the product branding is a bit on the nose.) However, to me, the two devices are also interesting because they combine the past, present and future of home audio in a way that may be key to selling smart audio systems to the masses.
The most important feature of these new speakers is a $19 adapter. When smart speakers first became popular, people generally assumed that within a few years, all music would be streamed. It’s an understandable assumption, given the massive growth of streaming services like Spotify.
In 2012, streaming accounted for less than 15% of music industry revenues. By mid-2022, streaming had reached 84%. Over the same ten years, revenue from digital downloads fell from 40% to just 3%, and physical sales declined from 40% to 10%.
However, some people stubbornly refuse to get on the Spotify bandwagon. Vinyl sales have been growing for 15 years straight, and now account for 73% of all physical music sales.
For a long time, vinyl was thought to be the domain of well-off hipsters, and audiophiles willing to spend lots of money to wallow in analog sound. As a result, most mass-market smart speaker makers ignored the medium entirely. There’s no cheap or easy way to connect a regular turntable to a Homepod or Google Nest Audio speaker, for instance.
The $550 Sonos Five has had line-in connectivity, and the company has also been selling its $700 Amp to help those well-off hipsters connect their turntables.
Clearly, there’s demand for cheaper solutions, with some Sonos owners resorting to Raspberry Pi hacks. (I did this as well for the heck of it, and it works! But it’s also, quite frankly, a pain.)
And it’s not just vinyl: CDs of all things are having a bit of a moment right now, as you may have realized if you, like me, have a teenager who likes to spend their time in thrift stores.
Streaming may account for 83% of today’s music industry revenues, but that still leaves plenty of room for physical media libraries, or whatever else people may want to connect to their home audio systems in the future.
The two speakers introduced by Sonos this week both offer an option to connect line-in audio with a $19 USB adapter, which means that you can now stream music from your turntable (or CD player, for that matter) to your entire Sonos system for less than $270. That’s a very smart way to account for these edge cases, and make sure music’s enduring past isn’t left behind in the home audio space.
Also notable: Sonos finally embraces Bluetooth. I remember visiting the Sonos offices in Santa Barbara when the company introduced its very first soundbar a decade ago, and executives at the time flat-out discounted Bluetooth as an inferior solution. The company’s new Era speakers are the first stationary Sonos speakers to embrace Bluetooth, which is a bit of an acknowledgement that the presence of home audio didn’t evolve the way the company expected.
Wi-Fi-connected speakers do generally offer better audio quality and fewer distractions than Bluetooth, but Bluetooth is a lot less complex. “If you have friends coming over to your house and they want to play some music, it’s way easier to pair a Bluetooth device,” admitted Sonos audio systems engineer Sam Feine during a conversation with me last week.
That convenience factor alone was one reason why Bluetooth speakers long outsold Wi-Fi-only smart speakers. Sonos added Bluetooth to its first portable speaker in 2019, and began embracing it as a way to connect Bluetooth audio to Wi-Fi-connected whole home audio systems with the Roam in 2021. The same is true for Era speakers going forward: “If you have one of these in your house, you can use it as sort of an on-ramp to get that Bluetooth audio to the rest of your house,” Feine said.
And about that quality issue: Bluetooth codecs have gotten a lot better over the years, and the next big quality improvement is just around the corner, thanks to Bluetooth 5.2 and Bluetooth LE Audio. (A Sonos spokesperson confirmed that both the Era 100 and Era 300 are technically capable of supporting Bluetooth 5.2 with “a future software update,” but declined to comment on the timing and features of such an update.)
Spatial audio, local processing and all that jazz. The new Sonos Era does support Dolby Atmos spatial audio, with Apple Music and Amazon Music on board as launch partners. “Era 300 will bring spatial audio into millions of new homes,” Feine told me, calling the format “the next evolution of listening.”
If you want to learn more about spatial audio and the Era 300, I recommend this week’s Vergecast.
It’s worth paying attention to another aspect of these new products: They both feature a 47% faster processor than the Sonos One, according to Feine, who told me that this would be setting them up “for future innovations.”
Feine didn’t tell me what those will be, but he said that much like the company’s voice control, a lot of future innovation will happen on-device. “It is important to have CPUs in these devices that are going to be able to keep up for the next generations of software updates,” he said.
Vinyl, Bluetooth and spatial audio are very much representing the past, present and future of home audio. Having support for all of them in one device is a pretty sweet deal for consumers. Moreover, companies building home audio platforms can’t really afford to ignore any of these parts, or else they’re bound to exclude and disappoint a lot of consumers.
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Dan Jedda will become Roku’s new CFO. The former Amazon and Stitch Fix exec will start his new job in May.
Reddit is shutting down its Clubhouse clone later this month. Remember when live audio chats used to be the next big thing?
How was your week? As for me, I did finally start watching Netflix’s South Korean legal drama “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” this week, and now understand why the show has been so popular: The story of a autistic attorney who is obsessed with whales is funny, sweet and thoroughly enjoyable. Give it a try if you need a change of pace after Sunday’s “The Last of Us” season finale, and have a great weekend!