That’s where Sonos is today. With the launch of the company’s latest wireless speakers — the $249 Era 100 and $449 Era 300 — several previously held beliefs about what makes for a great home audio experience have been revised or thrown out entirely.
Perhaps the biggest change has been a rethinking of Bluetooth. In the past, Sonos hasn’t just refused to support the wireless technology embedded in every smartphone on the planet — it’s openly mocked other companies’ Bluetooth speakers, most notably in a 2016 series of ads that featured the tagline “you” re better than this” — a reference to the ways in which Bluetooth speakers can undermine a listening experience.
As of March 7, the company has four Bluetooth-enabled speakers, including the recently launched Era 100 and Era 300, plus the existing Roam and Move portable speakers. Why the change? “Bluetooth has gotten better,” Sonos CEO Patrick Spence told me at the Era launch in New York City. “It’s become more ubiquitous, but it’s also much more reliable than it used to be.”
That may be true. But Sonos’ reluctance to embrace Bluetooth, even long after it had proven to be a useful and reliable technology, leads one to suspect that there was also an ideological flavor to the company’s stance.
“We got a little religious about Wi-Fi versus Bluetooth,” Spence admits. He’s still a fan of Wi-Fi, the wireless technology that propelled the company to its current status as the king of the whole-home multiroom audio experience, but it seems he’s ready to put aside some preconceived notions about, what it means to deliver that experience. “I think you have to be humble enough to listen to the customers.”
As an example of Sonos’ newfound humility, Spence points to the fact that the Era 100 and Era 300 have a USB-C port that can be used with optional dongles to transfer external audio sources, like a turntable.
The Era series aren’t the first Sonos speakers to do this – they are
(formerly Play:5) also has an analog input. But now that these three speakers make up the main line of the company’s home, music-focused products, it’s a big shift from the days when there were almost no external inputs in the Sonos universe.
Interestingly, now that Bluetooth is very much at stake for Sonos, there may even be an appetite to do more than just allow Bluetooth connections to these speakers.
In 2021, the company made its first foray into better-than-CD quality audio with support for 24-bit/48kHz lossless music from streaming service Qobuz. Similar support arrived for Amazon Music later that year. So when I asked Spence if Sonos was willing to look at high-quality Bluetooth codecs, like LDAC or aptX Adaptive, which are capable of much higher audio quality than the currently supported AAC and SBC, I was surprised when he said that he was open to it.
“There’s no religion other than, ‘Can we deliver a great experience?'” he said. Spence expressed some doubt as to whether these codecs were reliable enough to maintain a high level of quality, but remains willing to implement them if they can be made to work. “It’s about the quality of that connection. That’s all that matters.”
This willingness to rethink the way Sonos products work feeds into the company’s current thinking around the new Era 300. The speaker is primarily designed to offer an immersive music listening experience via its Dolby Atmos-compatible spatial sound architecture. It also doubles as a Dolby Atmos-enhancing surround speaker when used with an Arc or a Beam Gen 2, but it doesn’t handle TV-based Dolby Atmos on its own or in a stereo pair.
I pointed out that both Apple and Amazon’s Atmos-capable smart speakers (Echo Studio and HomePod Gen 2) double as TV speakers (when paired with their respective streaming devices) and asked if Sonos might be changing course. “We haven’t seen a lot of people actually using (the HomePod) like that,” Spence said. “Most people still pick up a soundbar instead.” Like the move toward ubiquitous Bluetooth, he’s still willing to let Sonos users be the judge. “If customers show us that’s the way they want to enjoy home theater, we’ll figure out how to support that.”
That change could happen sooner rather than later. Spence said he’s put a lot of thought into how to remove the HDMI cable from the company’s soundbars, “I’ve been pushing the team for a long time — I don’t want a wire for the soundbar at all. Let’s make it even easier.”
There are still technical hurdles to overcome, and once again he emphasized the importance of reliability, but it’s clear that Spence wants Sonos to be even better than it is now.