Sonos chief explains why it made its unusual looking new speakers
Sonos has today announced two new speakers to add to its range – and revealed that one of its most popular products is being discontinued. Sonos CEO Patrick Spence talked exclusively to The Independent from the company’s Santa Barbara headquarters about the new products and where Sonos heading.
The products first: there’s a remarkable-looking speaker called the Era 300. It’s shaped like a drum that’s had a belt put tightly around its waist and then lain on its side. If that sounds rather contrived, all will make sense when you look at the speaker. The reason for the shape is that this is the first Sonos product designed for spatial audio, where the output creates an all-around effect without multiple speakers. Dolby Atmos is one example of spatial audio. It’s as big a step-change as the move from mono to stereo, some feel.
Then there’s the Era 100. It’s a small, much-more-conventional design and is about the size of the highly popular Sonos One. But where the One is a mono speaker, the Era 100 has stereo capabilities. I’ve listened to both the Era 100 and Era 300, and initial responses are extremely positive.
Patrick Spence joined Sonos in 2012 and has been CEO since 2017. He has the relaxed Californian laidback attitude that’s de rigueur in the company (though his original Canadian accent is still gently in evidence). I began by asking what the Era 300 means to him and why this is the right moment for it.
“This is that moment when a new technology, which enables a great experience, is actually going mainstream. Around 85 of the top 100 artists released in Dolby Atmos last year, so a year or two ago this product would have been too early. But now, it’s hitting at the time where Dolby, other labels, streaming companies, and the recording artists are all coming together to recognise the magic of Dolby Atmos. This product was built from the ground up with that in mind.
“When it’s the right time and when there’s something that’s ready to hit mass market, Sonos is there and we’re going to raise the bar when we do it. And that’s the most important thing to me: we’re not just going to new categories, we’re pushing ourselves to raise the bar in the categories that we’re already in today. And that’s why I’m super proud of Era 300 and Era 100, I think they’re real testament to who we are and everything that we’ve been trying to do.”
At the mention of Era 100 I point out that it’s bold to replace the hugely successful Sonos One and its sibling the Sonos One SE, to take these mono speakers off the market. I mention that anyone who has one of these speakers, who’s been meaning to get another to make a stereo pair, needs to move fast.
Spence believes the One and One SL will likely be around for a few months, but since the new Era 100 won’t pair with the older One and One SL, customers need to think of this. On the other hand, if you’re looking for your first Sonos speaker, the Era 100 is a similar-looking speaker but now adds stereo.
“It reminded me of when we went from Playbar to Arc.” The Playbar was the company’s first soundbar and the Arc is the latest. “Everybody knew it was going to be a step up, but how big a step up it turned out to be. When you hear it, you realise, wow, that’s a huge difference, I think it’s going to surprise some people from a listening perspective.” The Era 100 is pricier, at £249, than the Sonos One that it replaces, which costs £199. But you get room-filling stereo from one speaker.
The new Era 300 will cost £449, which is £100 less than the Sonos Five, the company’s premium speaker. But the Five doesn’t have spatial audio capabilities, so which speaker is top dog now?
“Sonos Five is the ultimate in stereo,” Spence says. “We’re going through a transition in the world to spatial audio, but there are still stereo aficionados and that is the best stereo speaker. And if you create a stereo pair of Fives, the sound for stereo listening is just amazing, Not everybody will jump on the spatial audio bandwagon just yet.”
Lots of owners of the Sonos One maybe didn’t even know the speaker was mono – it does sound very good. How important is it to Sonos to ensure customers understand the technological side of things, I wonder?
“I think people, and particularly our customers, are very busy. We try to build products so that they are easy to set up and such a great experience that they hopefully don’t have to think about these technologies at all. But I also think that particularly when there’s a big transition, like spatial audio, that a lot of it depends on the artists. The Era 300 will be the way artists listen to their Atmos mix in the studio to approve it. And I think it’ll be compelling for consumers to hear from their favourite artists that this is the way to listen to their music.”
Sustainability is important to many electronic companies, even as they try to sell us new products. But one of the most striking statistics Sonos came up with is that 90 per cent of all Sonos speakers ever sold are still in use.
Spence says, “I think the best thing we can do is be mindful of the things that we’re pulling out of the ground, that’s important. But then if we can build something that last for a long, long time, that really serves sustainability needs. And reducing power consumption continues to be a thing we are working on.”
“Sustainability is part of what drives the flywheel. Because if we continue to build products that way, we can all hold our heads up high and I think our customers will continue to be advocates for us. They’re still, after 20 years, the number-one way new customers come into the system: it’s our existing customers telling their friends and family to come to Sonos that is our number one way to get new customers.”
Sonos has plans to move into more product categories, four new categories in fact. One will be this year, others later. Spence won’t say what they are, but I ask why now is the time to expand. “The reason is there’s opportunity there and right now we’re watching others pull back because of the economy. Our people have some great ideas. We have more ideas than we can go work on, but we’ve chosen four that we’re going to work on right now. But there’s lots more. The limits are only of our imagination.”