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Sonos attacks the soundbar market as competitors grow louder

Sonos' $399 Beam represents a more aggressive play for consumers who may have more modest TV audio needs. But with its embrace of AirPlay 2 and voice agents, it is also advancing the agenda of competitors.

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CLAUDINE GOSSETT

For years, Sonos has led the market for multi-room audio, beating back a host of competitors and proposed industry standards aimed at knocking it aside. But the company's biggest challenge to date has come from an unlikely cylinder with middling audio that could not only play music, but talk and listen.

Amazon's Echo, which is often used to set alarms, itself served as a wakeup call to Sonos. Sonos already had a product competitive with the Echo's size and price in the Play:1. But rather than try to answer even lower points of entry into the Alexa ecosystem such as the puck-like Echo Dot adapter, it made its existing speakers responsive to Alexa and introduced one as an Alexa endpoint, the Sonos One.

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Indeed, Sonos went far beyond that, promising to also support Google Assistant. And to get to Siri compatibility, it has even embraced AirPlay 2, Apple's standard for multi-room audio. In doing so, it has in part addressed a question about opening up its proprietary means of addressing speakers.

Sonos' recently announced Beam, though, represents a different sort of effort. Rather than simply voice-enable an existing component, it has introduced a far less expensive alternative to its Playbar soundbar that maintains compatibility with its pricey subwoofer and other Sonos Play speakers (to use, for example, for rear surround).

As we can likely expect for all Sonos speakers to follow, it will have full support for Alexa and other agents. Furthermore, its HDMI control backchannel to the TV may enable some neat tricks around input switching and other TV-related activities beyond passively improving the audio output quality. For Sonos, Beam represents a shift from reacting to the smart speaker revolution (ultimately a feature and not a particularly speaker-specific one) versus moving forward with market expansion.

And Sonos recognizes that it must move beyond its current customer base. The Echo per se was never serious competition for Sonos as a product, but more of an idea, one that ultimately improves the value of speakers. That much helps Sonos. But it also awoke other sleeping giants, most notably Apple.The HomePod doesn't offer much to those who don't have a strong allegiance to Siri or Apple Music today. However, many Sonos customers or potential customers are also Apple customers, and the same AirPlay 2 standard that enabled Sonos to fit into Apple's multiroom environment also allowed Apple itself to more directly compete with Sonos.

Indeed, while Apple products may pose the most direct threat to Sonos in terms of brand and design, Sonos is now deep into coopetition with the other companies that supply voice agents that it supports. When the Beam ships in July, it will already have competition from the Fire TV Cube. While more of a cross between Fire TV and and Echo Dot than a soundbar, it nonetheless will be able to control many kinds of TV functions via Alexa. On the other hand, it's unclear how deep into TV control Sonos aspires to get.

Sonos has been one of the most successful hardware startup stories of the past decade. In contrast to GoPro, it has flourished in part because of its relatively broad appeal. And in contrast to Fitbit, it has thus far steer cleared of major tech ecosystems focused predominantly on mobile. Alexa's success, though, has been a double-edged sword. It has opened opportunities for Sonos, but also attracted the interest of sleeping giants with which Sonos must cooperate.

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