Home theater audio becomes an unlikely new entertainment battleground
Living room audio has long been an afterthought -- marketed as a way to enhance the anemic output of flat screens. But the promise of voice agent control has attracted companies from diverse corners to engage in a war for the television.
The surprise success of the Alexa-powered Echo and its latest variant, the Fire TV Cube, has spurred renewed interest in consumer home theater audio. Premium brands are looking low. Value brands are looking high. And the home theater is becoming a proving ground for new wireless standards.
I recently wrote about the Sonos Beam, the less expensive but nonetheless voice agent-savvy soundbar from the multi-room audio pioneers. The Beam is a more inviting shape than Sonos's first soundbar and is intended to be a good fit for smaller rooms with smaller TVs. Nonetheless, it is fully compatible with the rest of the Sonos system, enabling you to use it with Sonos's subwoofer or two Play:5 speakers, for example, as wireless rear speakers.
Without such add-ons, the Beam offers only stereo output as opposed to higher-end soundbars that produce 5.1 or 7.1 audio. While it won't shake your floorboards as you watch giant fallen robots crash to Earth, it still offers a richer and deeper audio experience than televisions can generally muster.
Of course, the Beam has the most appeal to people who are already bought into the Sonos multi-room audio system. However, at $399 and with Sonos gaining traction as a quality audio brand as much as a networked audio brand, it could serve as a market entry for Sonos newcomers. This is especially the case given its versatile support for a wide range of streaming audio services. Indeed, entering credentials for each of these may be the most cumbersome part of setting up a Sonos and the company should consider solidifying its advantage by working with these services for easier credential sharing.
The Video Streamer
If Sonos is coming at the TV audio issue from the audio systems perspective and seeking to widen its audience with the Beam, Roku is approaching the issue from the TV perspective. The company still grinds out inexpensive TV streaming boxes competing against Apple and Amazon. However, it has found greater success recently in licensing its software and services -- an exhaustive collection of channels arranged in simple grids -- to other TV manufacturers.
These have mostly been smaller brands in the US, including TCL, HiSense, Hitachi, and the Philips and Magnavox brands owned by Funai. Still, Roku's success in licensing -- it claims one of every four TVs sold in the US are Roku TVs -- seemed like a longshot when Google sought to repeat the Android success it has had in smartphones on televisions. Now, Roku seeks to augment those TVs with a pair of wireless speakers coming at $200.
Longtime Roku watchers may remember that the company's first products were indeed wireless audio products: Small tubular network audio adapters called branded SoundBridge. But its new offering has been influenced by a Danish audio specialist company it recently purchased. Alas, they work only with Roku TVs, not the better-known aftermarket boxes, which the company says is a necessary limitation given the control over HDMI inputs and other features that it can access only on partner television.
To begin, Roku is offering the wireless speakers exclusive at its own site and under its own brand, which makes for an unusual channel mix: A directly sold first-party accessory that works only with the products of third-party licensees selling their products across retail channels. However, Roku notes that the speakers have attracted attention from its licensees, and so it would not be surprising to see them find their way to the (virtual) shelves of retailers, which could tout the tight integration with Roku TVs.
Along with Roku TV, the company is also launching a standalone remote that can be used far from the couch, but it plans to reveal more details about its Roku Entertainment Assistant later this year.
The Mobile Enhancer
A third new option is from a company expanding out from a mobile perspective. French startup Tempow has developed a way for specially Android devices to act as multichannel media centers in the living room. As with the Roku device, you are limited in choices for now; the Moto X4 is the only smartphone to have Tempow's technology embedded, although the company is working on other licensees. Alas, it's not compatible with Google Cast for now.
Once enabled with Tempow, a device can send a multichannel audio channel to any Bluetooth speaker. This, of course, provides a great deal of flexibility but can easily result in mismatched or suboptimal audio as it can include sending the subwoofer channel to a speaker with poor bass performance. Still, cobbling together a home theater out of spare Bluetooth speakers is but one of Tempow's tricks, which also include sending different audio tracks -- say, in different languages -- to multiple viewers wearing headphones.
The company is a member of the Bluetooth SIG but hopes to become a mark for advanced Bluetooth implementation as Dolby has become for audio. However, that could be a tricky path, as Dolby enhancements are more about a qualitative experience and it is licensing IP whereas Tempow is licensing software, the actual implementation.