Sonos' New Products Are A Win Against Forced Obsolescence (Forbes Tech)

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This past week, Sonos—makers of speakers that have become popular for their ability to play music directly from a wide variety of streaming services—made two big announcements: An evolutionary update to their Play:5 flagship speaker (out November 20), and one almost-magical software feature called Trueplay.

First, lets back up. As far as consumer electronics companies goes, Sonos is a strange beast. The gadget world is notorious for an unending train of forced obsolescence. Whether it’s an operating system update that slows or freezes an aging gadget or the addition of a must-have new feature, your year-old devices never quite seem good enough. Sonos largely ditches that playbook, opting instead to keep its products on shelves for years, while releasing new ones on a blue-moon basis. To put some numbers behind this, the last major Sonos release was way back in 2013, when the company released the bookshelf-and-bathroom-sized Play:1.

Sonos is also a company that tends to nurture its existing product line. Longtime Sonos users will notice that regular software updates fundamentally change the way their years-old products operate, giving these devices the smarts of brand-new gadgets, without forcing consumers to spend more money. When the Play:1 launched three years ago, it required a device called a “Bridge” to hook into your home network router before its wireless magic could do its thing. Today, updated software allows these same Play:1 devices to stream songs sans Bridge. And if you happened to already have a Bridge, it’s not wasted: Sonos’ new software allows them to serve as network extenders for the Sonos system, making it easier for speakers in the far reaches of a large house to play nice with each other.

Sonos' new TruePlay feature tunes the company's speakers for specific rooms (photo: Sonos)

Which brings us to Trueplay, which may be the most ambitious effort I’ve ever seen to breathe new life into old electronics. This feature, which arrives via an update to the iOS version of the Sonos mobile app sometime prior to the Play:5′s November 20 release, is designed to map a room’s unique acoustic properties, and then use this information to optimize the way each speaker plays. According to Sonos reps, this is important because consumers tend to be pretty haphazard in terms of how they place their speakers. Sure, audiophiles may know these things matter, but the average consumer is just as likely to leave speakers behind a nightstand, or facing a wall, or squished together in a corner. “We visited hundreds of homes with Sonos and it became super clear that the real world is really messy in terms of what speaker placement and room acoustics do with the sound,” says Jon Reilly, a Sonos product manager.

TruePlay works by having the user slowly walk around the perimeter of a room, waving their iOS device around in the air. The entire process takes about 45 seconds (after a short tutorial video), during which time the Sonos speakers play a high-pitched chirp that sounds like it came from a Space Invaders-esque video game. As it moves around the room, the iOS device’s microphone picks up this chirp, and uses all sorts of software and algorithmic wizardry to tune the speakers accordingly. If you use a modicum of common sense when placing your speakers, you’re unlikely to notice a huge change in the way things sound, but if you tend to shove things in the corner or behind books (hey, I have friends who do this!), you’ll probably be pretty pleased (and possibly astonished) with the improvement.

The new Sonos Play:5 streaming speaker (photo: Sonos)

The new Sonos Play:5 streaming speaker (photo: Sonos)

And while one can be forgiven for viewing such support for old speakers as a sign that Sonos doesn’t actually want us to buy their new products, the company has one worth looking at. The brand-new Play:5, which replaces a years-old model of the same name, is the company’s biggest and baddest sound speaker yet. A slick rounded box, the Play:5 contains six discreet speakers behind its grill: three tweeters and three midwoofers, each with a dedicated amplifier. These guts deliver what Reilly describes as “well over two times the acoustic horsepower” of the old Play:5, making this speaker plenty loud and plenty clear at these high volumes (I never once felt like my room was anything less than full of sound), with a surprising amount of bass for a standalone box. Like other Sonos speakers, the new Play:5 also works as an expandable set, with the ability to easily pair it with a second Play:5 for an impromptu stereo performance.

In many ways, Sonos’ strategy feels like a throwback to the old days of hi-fi, when speakers were treated more like furniture than gadgets, and built and bought to last for years—or even decades. With software as a tool, Sonos reps told me their goal is to design products that last at least 10 years. And in era where we’re used to throwing out our phones every year or two, this is an approach I can get behind.

Seth Porges is a writer and co-creator of Cloth app. For more fun, follow Seth on Twitter at @sethporges, or subscribe to him on Facebook or Google+.

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