Will 2017 See The End of Sonos?

Amidst Stiff Competition From Amazon Alexa, Will 2017 Be The End of Sonos?
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Amidst Stiff Competition From Amazon Alexa, Will 2017 Be The End of Sonos?
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Image by Thomas Lang (CC by 2.0)

The company lays off an ‘unspecified’ number of employees. Then, they make deals with their rivals. Now, the CEO steps down. Will 2017 be the end of Sonos?

In a blog post on Sonos’ website, Sonos CEO and co-founder John MacFarlane stepped down.  Titled, ‘The Next Generation of Sonos Leadership,’ MacFarlane explained,

As the founder and CEO of Sonos, I am always trying to find leaders who are capable of taking Sonos to the next level. Part of that means assessing my own role. With Sonos now poised for a new phase of growth, I am excited to pass the role of Chief Executive Officer to a well-prepared Patrick Spence.

Citing successful Sonos hardware sales under Spence, MacFarlane also stated that the company faces stiff competition from rivals.  MacFarlane will remain as an employee to “to help mentor colleagues and work on other projects.”

Patrick’s leadership comes at a magical moment for Sonos.  Music has made the transition to streaming. It took longer than we expected but it’s fully here now, leading with a handful of paid subscription services: Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, Google Play Music, QQ Music, Amazon Music, SoundCloud, Tidal, etc.  Today, a Sonos owner can play almost everything ever made, and tomorrow we will certainly be able to do that with all manner of preferences, niches, themes, and mixes.

Amazon’s Booming Echo

Sounds lovely.  But is it true?  Looming ahead is a giant competitive threat that could eat this company alive.  The New York Times painted a clearer picture of the company’s standing.

“Over the years, Sonos has weathered competition from better known rivals like Apple and Bose to find a devoted audience among audio enthusiasts. But lately its wireless speaker has lost ground to an unexpected competitor, Amazon’s Echo.”

MacFarlane originally planned to step down last year.  He cited his wife’s battle with breast cancer and his aging parents as the reasons why.  However, he delayed those plans when Amazon’s Echo speaker ate into Sonos’ speaker sales.  The Times writes,

“While Echo has received mixed reviews for its sound quality, its Alexa voice assistant — which allows people to quickly play music with verbal commands — has captivated the tech industry and the public.”

Did Sonos drop the ball on voice recognition?

MacFarlane admitted that he, along with the company, misjudged voice recognition technology.

“I fell into that trap where I’ve been watching voice recognition for years… tried Echo in the beginning and wrote it off…had too many distractions at that time.  I wasn’t playing at the level I should have been playing at in all frankness.”

MacFarlane’s — as well as Sonos’ — miscalculation may have cost them dearly.  In March, the company announced their plans to dismiss an “unspecified” number of employees.  MacFarlane wrote in the company blog,

“These last few weeks have been tough for everyone at Sonos. We’re a tight bunch, so saying goodbye is particularly painful. But I know that making these changes is the right thing to do for Sonos as we look to the future.”

Small market for big speakers?

And how many people really need high-end interconnected stereo systems?  “Sonos’ turbulence is happening alongside an absolute surge in music streaming, with paid subscriptions easily crossing the 50 million-mark,” DMN publisher Paul Resnikoff wrote back in March.

“Many of those subscribers are serious music fans, with portable music collections often accessed through high-end, $300-plus headphones.  The problem for Sonos is that many of those ‘higher-end’ users aren’t taking the next step towards audio hardware, especially those that favor flexible, on-the-go lifestyles that are easily dragged down by ‘stuff’.”

Indeed, most consumers prefer to listen to music through their computer hardware speakers, followed by headphones on a portable device.  Still, it looks like MacFarlane is doggedly pegging Sonos’ growth to streaming.

But where are the numbers?

“The shift is not complete as a few laggards continue to cling to fading business models, but it’s inevitable now. The only question that remains is how fast the growth of paid subscription services will be.”

Meanwhile, Sonos has yet to release their winter sales.  And although not publicly traded, it’s difficult to judge the company’s current financial health without concrete numbers. According to MacFarlane, the company reportedly made $1 billion in 2015. Yet, one cannot ignore the following statement.

Sonos would not disclose its sales, but it said there are millions of homes with its speakers in them, many of them with more than one speaker.

Do these include 2016 sales or merely overall company sales? MacFarlane nor the company would confirm.

Amazon Wins CES.

Despite taking on rivals Apple and Bose, Sonos has yet to formulate a concrete plan to take on Amazon’s growing popularity with Alexa.  Instead of taking on Amazon, the speaker company announced a joint partnership earlier this year.  It’s a ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ strategy, one that doesn’t cut it in a cut-throat music hardware space.

Meanwhile, Amazon continues building on Alexa’s growing popularity with price drops.  And, special music streaming prices for Echo owners.  At CES this year, Amazon stole the spotlight with Alexa-connected products.  In fact, this year, TechCrunch wrote an article with the headline, “How Amazon and Nvidia Won CES this Year”.

It was all Amazon in Vegas.  The company presented a smart fridge sporting Alexa integration.  Another major announcement included Ford’s in-car Alexa integration with SYNC3 coming out this year.

Eating Sonos’ lunch.

At CES this year, Sonos was noticeably absent, just as they were at CES 2016. Others are also moving in on a stodgy Sonos.  This year, a rival start-up company presented AmpMe.  Dubbed the “free alternative to Sonos,” AmpMe is a free app that syncs smartphones so they play music in unison.

Furthermore, rival Altec Lansing presented SmartStream X and XL speakers. The company aims to launch,

a wireless multi-room system which aims to rival Sonos, adding Bluetooth into the mix, plus compatibility with a host of streaming services, and coming with a sub-£100 entry point.

Everywhere you look, there are simpler, smarter, and cheaper solutions slamming this space.  One quick example is Muzo’s Cobblestone, a smart-and-scrappy ‘stone’ that connects into wifi and re-routes everything into your stereo system.  The price tag?  $60.

Actually, the only product presented with Sonos connectivity that we could find was the Sevenhugs Smart Remote.  The Smart Remote controls connected thermostats, lights, Sonos speakers, and nearly 25,000 other connected devices.

So will 2017 be the year Sonos goes bankrupt?

With music streaming on the rise as well as competing devices and low-consumer adoption for high-end products, Sonos appears to face a difficult year if they plan to turn things around.  MacFarlane ended his blog post with a high-note, though it appears more like a final farewell from the company.

“It’s been a pleasure and honor working toward a mission of filling every home with music. The fifteen-year journey has been filled with fantastic adventures, hard learnings, and everything in between. I look forward to our next chapter.



27 Responses

  1. Tony

    I really liked Ted, not sure what Seth was thinking when making speakers. He should stick to comedy.

  2. Anonymous

    This seems like a bigger long-term threat: http://www.theverge.com/2017/1/5/14125200/wifi-timesync-announced-wireless0speakers

    Once wifi speaker syncing is baked into the wifi standard, then provided it works, that opens up a lot of possibilities for other hardware players who didn’t want to invest in creating their own proprietary solution (e.g., that standard would probably make it much easier for Amazon to incorporate speaker sync across multiple echo devices in the home, since the echo devices are already connected to the wifi.

  3. Carl

    I still believe Sonos is the way to go for wifi music throughout the home. I own a Sonos system and several different model speakers and it’s flawless, it just works. You all should read the reviews on the Cobblestone, it does not seem very impressive according to the reviewers. I’ll stick with my Sonos for now. It may be more expensive than the competition however, it just works and the sound is wonderful.

    • Paul Resnikoff

      I’ve been testing the Cobblestone for a few months. It’s definitely not flawless. But, mostly, it works, even with guests that come over. Just hop on Wifi and it’s usually okay.

    • Antinet

      Someone gave me a Sonos speaker, and while I was impressed with the look, the sound was nothing special (how could it compare to legacy 3-way stereo speakers or a 15 year old surround system), The fact it had no ability to patch into another system with the inclusion of a minijack in just made me hate it. Plus the software on a mac was surprisingly buggy.

      I sold it. I found the whole thing to be a borderline scam. I can buy a new imported wired logitech stereo speaker system at a local computer recycler for 15 dollars.
      What’s the point of paying $250-300 for this thing?

      Actually, I’m fed up with the entire way sound systems are made these days. The move away from a central receiver is nonsense. Soundbars are bullsh*t. Surround systems are where it’s at, and in the last 5-6 years, they’ve been made to be outliers, with severely jacked prices. It basically forces a consumer to buy used gear.

      • Alan

        You’re citing one main reason you sold it is because it didn’t have a jack input? Why on earth would you need one? I have a Sonos system at home in two rooms and can’t think of a single scenario where I would need to plug something into a jack socket.

      • ed

        If you are listening to music a stereo is where it’s at. Especially if you bring your turntable. Anybody who would suggest that a $15 logic speaker sounds as good as any of the Sonos speakers , well it’s scary! I’ve been selling and installing speakers for 40 years and I’ve never met anyone who could not discern the difference in sound quality to that extent . My guess is that you’ve never actually had anybody demonstrate the difference. Bring that logic speaker into a decent store in your town. The Philistines are taking over !!!

  4. Brandon

    Antinet – if you want to play your LPs through Sonos while sitting on the sofa, I can see why you were disappointed.

    For the rest of us that want sound in places that we may or may not want to synch with other rooms; and to hear it without the need to install wires throughout; and want to control it remotely from the room that we are in (or anywhere else), Sonos is the only game in town.

    I love my Sonos and would hate to think that they may be gone in the future. I certainly dont want Amazon, Google, or anyone else listening in to what is going on in my home.

    • Jeff Chan

      “Amazon’s Booming Echo”

      You do realize that while you can group two (or more) Amazon Echo speakers together you can’t use them to play the same music at the same time. (Stereo Pair). The only reason to group the Echo speaker with another Echo speaker is to sync up your grocery lists, timers, notes, etc.. not for music.

      I hope everyone isn’t too deflated by this “sensationalized” article. It’s clearly written to provoke this kind of panic chatter and to be honest it’s not very well researched.

      • Paul Resnikoff

        I find this to be the number one problem with companies facing a threat. They point to a small feature difference, or lack of a certain feature, to declare the competitor unimportant. Actually I just got an email from Sonos declaring that the Echo isn’t their competition.

        They might want to re-visit that assessment.

        • Steve

          I’m confused. How is a much lower quality audio speaker with voice integration competition for a HiFi wifi system that is adding Alexa support?

      • Paul

        So true. I mean, is Alexa really a speaker or a microphone allowing you to make a grocery list? I would never compare Alexa to a Sonos speaker for true audio quality. Alexa wasn’t built for that. At least now when it was initially launched. Amazon might be thinking of that now, or in the future, but it’s definitely not their yet. Any audiophile would not pick Alexa for the “sound” it produces.

    • Iann

      You can play your LP’s through Sonos.. I have a pre-amp from my player to my play amp which will then send the signal anywhere in house to any other Sonos speaker.

  5. Justin

    Ok, an entire article predicting the death of sonos. Only problem there was zero reason given! A couple of new products and competition. Sonos is great quality, works straight out of the box and has access to every song imaginable.

    Helped a friend install the new bose soundbar. What a nightmare! Truly horrible experience though it sounds great.

    I’ll be setting up surround sound with sonos with no concern for their future.

    • Sam

      Absolutely. Sonos is not going away. System sounds great and I love Alexa as well. I bought the dot which is amazing and getting better everyday. I run it through my play 5 using the sonos cable and it sounds great. With the coming out of the dot there is a great reason to still buy great speakers and still be able to enjoy amazon at the same time. I see a great partnership in the making for 2017.

  6. peakay

    Has anyone with an echo noticed how basically useless the thing is? Yes, it will start playing music but nearly every other question I’ve asked it can’t handle. I’m not sure what to do with this thing and the only value I really see in it is a front end to Sonos and hopefully it gets better. Google now on my phone is light years smarter.

  7. Top Secret

    I just use my iPhone or iMac to listen to music.. am I the odd one out.. maybe so.. I live in a small apartment and can’t see the value in
    having another object take up space.. but for McMansion dwellers it
    might be the bees knees..

  8. Jeff

    I don’t find this article particularly convincing. I read the same blog post regarding the CEO’s departure and had a completely different set of of takeaways. I’m heavily invested in Sonos and have no interest in switching over to a different hardware ecosystem. Quite the opposite; I want more Sonos products in my home. Having said that, the partnership between Sonos and Amazon will likely spur me to explore the Alexa software ecosystem a bit. I’ll happily invest in an Echo dot, for example, once that integration is deployed. Sonos hardware rivals have come and largely gone over the years. I’m sure competition will increase, but if Sonos keeps churning out new products like the Play:1 or (especially) the new Play:5, they will be fine.

  9. Jörn

    Wow, this article is pretty bad… The beta testing of sonos/alexa integration us well underway and the author writes about the end if sonos?! Wow!

  10. ed

    Yeah I saw the headline and just had to see what the nonsense was. Sonos speakers do not sound like $500 pair of speakers. But the idea that an Echo speaker would compete or that it would even qualify as a Music speaker is absurd. Oh and by the way you can use the Connect to hook up to your great stereo system and/or whole house system and it can sound as good as a Typical CD player.

  11. ed

    Daniel, I looked for an email address for you because I didn’t want to have to post this for all to see, but you do a great disservice to your readers to suggest that Echo and Sonos are comparable , and I am surprised that a site that calls itself Digital music would publish something like this. I don’t know that I am familiar with the site but I would assume that an entity with the word music in it might possess some appreciation for sound quality . The Sonos stand-alone speakers themselves may not be considered High Fidelity by stereophiles, but the Echo and its ilk are of as much of a magnitude lower in sound quality as a high current stereo receiver and a pair of $500 speakers are above the Sonos. And if I want to I can connect a sonos to my stereo. I have been in the home electronics field for 40 years and I am as surprised as anybody that Sonos has continued for so long without any serious competition.. I have an echo connected to my Sonos whole house system. I play my Music library , and other lossless services through my Sonos and if I address Alexa it will i interrupt my music , but as far as I can see I can only do that with the Sonos connected echo so that if my Sonos echo is in my study and I’m in my bedroom I can’t address and interrupt my music from another echo unless I carry around its voice remote and whats the point then if the remote is in a different room? .Echo is a fun toy and but still needs some work. And the idea that multiple echo cannot play the same music ( as low fi as it is) is bewildering.

  12. Grant

    Sonos Works. Thats what matters. I think its time to update the whole line. Only Updated the Play 5 But Overall no Complaints. We Integrate Sonos Into House Systems. I cant imagine using anything else.

  13. Alehandro Figaro

    FWIW….., the Gen2 Play 5 has an incorporated microphone (per manual) for future services. The Play5 manual states it may be activated via firmware update for some as-yet un-dosclosed service in the future.

  14. Chuck

    This idiot has been writing ignorant, unfounded gloom and doom stories about Sonos’ demise for a very long time. Sonos just had a very successful IPO. They aren’t even remotely in danger of bankruptcy, more than a year after this idiotic article.