How Sonos Outshines Apple in Home Audio (NYTimes)

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Sonos should have been roadkill beneath Apple’s tires.

The Santa Barbara, Calif., start-up was formed by a software entrepreneur, John MacFarlane, in 2002 with a plan to reinvent the home stereo for the digital age, not long after Apple came out with a steamroller of a product, the iPod, that did the same thing for portable music.

At an industry conference, Steven P. Jobs, the late chief executive of Apple, warned Mr. MacFarlane that he might sue Sonos for the design of its stereo remote control, which used an iPod-like click wheel for browsing a music collection. Later, Apple came out with a speaker system for its portal music player, called the iPod Hi-Fi, that signaled its interest in Sonos’s bailiwick, home audio.

But here is Sonos a decade later, a private company that approached a quarter-billion dollars in revenue last year, about double its sales the prior year. Sonos is that rarest of birds in the technology world – a small consumer electronics company (as opposed to Apple and the mostly Asian firms that dominate the business) that had to build sales the old-fashioned way: by hustling its way into stores rather than relying on the viral marketing that defines many Internet hits today.

The biggest reason Sonos has survived though, is by doing what Apple does: paying attention to the little things. “The company we are constantly learning from is Apple,” Mr. MacFarlane said in an interview. “They get all the details right.”

Sonos arguably gets more details right about home audio than Apple does, as I learned while reacquainting myself with the company’s products over the past few weeks. The company’s most visible products, now sold in Target and other mass-market stores, are integrated speakers and amplifiers, likes its $299 Play:3, which connects to your home network and plays music from your iTunes music library or from Spotify, Pandora and other Internet music services. Sonos shines far brighter if you add a speaker (or two — each speaker can work either as a single stereo unit or in a pair, with left and right channels sent to each one). Sonos can send music to speakers in multiple rooms simultaneously, for when you really want to rock out. Alternatively, you can send different music to different rooms, so rocking out can be tailored to each listener.

Years ago, I cobbled together a similar whole-home stereo system using two $99 Apple products – the AirPort Express and Apple TV – that I hook up to traditional stereo systems. With this set-up, I can use an Apple technology called AirPlay to stream music stored on my computer to different rooms simultaneously. An Apple app for the iPhone and iPad, called Remote, lets me pick what I want to listen from anywhere in the house.

There are drawbacks that leave this system lacking compared with Sonos, though. Apple’s Remote app can’t power up my stereo receivers, and although you can change the volume of music from the app, that only works well if my receiver’s separate volume controls are at an appropriate level. I usually have to run around to different rooms fiddling with my stereo gear to make sure everything sounds right.

With Sonos, I could sit on the couch with my iPad or iPhone (the company makes remote-control apps for both) and it all just worked. This is part of the reason why Sonos decided it needed to make its own integrated speakers that don’t rely on an external stereo receiver and speakers. A complex system like that tends to work better when one company designs every key piece of it with painstaking attention to detail.

Mr. MacFarlane believes Apple ultimately decided not to design a home-stereo system that competes more directly with Sonos because it wanted to stay focused on bigger opportunities, like the mobile phone and television markets. “Audio is a much smaller market than what gets Apple out of bed in the morning,” he said.

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Blog courtesy of NYTimes