Sonos embraces voice control era with Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant

Beyond supporting a range of voice agents, Sonos will become a high-profile third party to support AirPlay 2 as Apple prepares its HomePod competitor.

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(Image: CNET/CBS Interactive)

Years before Nest and Philips added smarts and connectivity to some household staples, another company tackled another longstanding dream of the connected home. Sonos' multiroom audio system has beaten back many challenges over the years. It continues to battle both proprietary and consortia-led efforts to enable a host of other audio companies to better compete with it.

CNET: Sonos One speaker blends Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri for $199

Then came the Echo. It's not so much that the Echo has been a direct competitor to Sonos, which historically hasn't considered anything that wasn't a multiroom system to be real competition. (Echo only recently gained the ability to sync audio across multiple devices.) However, the attention focused on Echo has shined a spotlight on home audio in general and added a new angle to what a new set of home audio buyers will expect from a system.

And so, Sonos is throwing its hat into Alexa's ring, but only as the first voice agent as Google Assistant support is already in the queue. Unlike audio giant Harman, which has released separate connected speakers for different voice agents such as Alexa and Cortana, Sonos has created a flexible approach to work with multiple agents.

Beyond a certain price point that would enable such flexibility, it is a better approach all-around: for consumers in households that might use multiple agents in the home, for retailers looking to maximize shelf space, and even for less popular agents such as Cortana that might be able to ride into more homes on coattails. It's sure to become more the rule than the exception.

Despite being agent-neutral, though, Sonos has worked with Amazon to streamline what can be Alexa's more verbose commands. You won't have to tell Alexa to tell Sonos to play something. Simply tell Alexa to play something and it will tap Sonos. This has somewhat broader implications as it represents what could be an important precedent in terms of Alexa currying favor to parties beyond Amazon.

In any case, not everything Sonos is pursuing embraces vendor neutrality. Rather than throw its weight behind a competitor-neutral competitive multiroom audio standard such as Qualcomm's AllPlay or DTS' PlayFi, Sonos will be backing Apple's AirPlay 2. The move comes with some risk in that Sonos is, for the first time, putting itself on a more level playing field of interoperability with other systems. In addition, it's not clear what, if any, advantages Apple's own networked HomePods will have over AirPlay 2-connected devices.

However, at least for now, most of the vendors supporting AirPlay 2 are higher-end audio companies that don't pose much threat of undercutting Sonos. Unlike for Amazon, Google or Microsoft, it's rare that Apple extends a way for companies that compete directly with one of its core products to participate in its ecosystem so Sonos is wise to seize the opportunity. The two companies' customer bases are so well-aligned that Sonos had often been mentioned as an acquisition candidate for Apple over the years. And supporting AirPlay 2 brings HomeKit support, and thus, Siri, along for the ride.

For Sonos, which began as an insular system that didn't even use standard Wi-Fi protocols, the moves collectively represent an opening up necessitated not only by the market but by technical need. While Apple, for example, has imbued Siri with a broad knowledge of TV and movie knowledge for calling up different kinds of entertainment on Apple TV, Sonos hasn't pursued its own natural intelligence. If you were to send Sonos a musical query that demanded some metadata finesse such as, "Play me some music from artists influenced by Ella Fitzgerald," it would have to rely on the smarts of one of the services it supports. These are poised to increase beyond the 80 currently on the menu as the company will launch a platform that allows any service to get onto Sonos; the company will also launch a certification badge.

In addition to retrofitting its older speakers for the era of voice agents via a software update, Sonos has introduced Sonos One, its first speaker developed explicitly for this era. It is virtually a clone of the company's current Play:1 speaker and will sell for the same price of $199. While the company intends to extend the One's integrated microphone to its other speakers, the older Play:1 will remain in the portfolio for at least the next few months.

The One's resemblance to its existing entry-level speaker offering says a lot about Sonos' embrace of voice services. The company has always been aggressive about exploring a long tail of audio content and the new mode of voice interaction could open the door for a lot more -- bedtime stories for kids, lectures, meditations, etc.

Sonos now stands to receive more consideration from consumers who don't go into their home audio search with multi-room audio in mind. But if the company's historic trends hold true, that is where it will continue to defend its position as consumers add on.

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