Sonos Bets on Loosening Amazon and Google’s Smart Home Voice Control Grip

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2Q 2022 | IN-6559

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Sonos Launches Its Own Voice Control


Last week, Sonos launched its own voice control platform. After one acquisition and years in development, the new Sonos Voice Control offering aims to provide its users with a dedicated voice control interface to control their audio related requests across their Sonos speakers and systems. Despite not targeting wider smart home control, it is nevertheless a key development in the smart home voice control market and its evolution.

Paired Down, Edge Hosted Voice Control


The new Sonos Voice Control, launched alongside a new soundbar and new colors to Sonos’ line of portable speakers, is a downloadable option for any Sonos device that already supports voice control. Sonos first introduced voice control support with the launch of the Sonos: One in 2017, and since then home and portable speakers as well as soundbars have supported voice control.

The focus of the control is squarely on delivering control of audio playback and the features of Sonos devices and systems. With the wake term “Hey Sonos”, commands can be made to play tracks or playlists as well as distribute sound between devices and change audio settings of a single or group of Sonos speakers. At launch, only English is supported but other languages, starting with French later this year, are set to follow. With regard to streaming services, Sonos Voice Control is compatible with Sonos Radio, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Deezer, and Pandora, but not Spotify at launch. Spotify streamers can make adjustments to Spotify streamed music already playing but not start music via Sonos voice yet. Spotify has its own voice control supported in its app. Sonos says support for additional streaming services will follow.

The technology behind the new service was initially developed by Paris-based Snips, which Sonos acquired for approximately US$37.5 million in late 2019. Since then, working as a separate unit within Sonos, the team has been working to deliver the first version of the platform. According to Sonos, the new voice interface requires no additional memory or processing power, taking up more than 300 MBs of storage on each device. This means it can be leveraged even on its oldest capable devices which started shipping five years ago. In addition, the voice software sits entirely on each device, meaning that interactions take place solely on the device without recourse to cloud transmissions to understand commands or deliver responses. This speed up response times and also supports follow up requests and commands. In addition, without exchanging transcripts with the cloud, Sonos provides a level of privacy that existing cloud-based offerings do not. No audio or transcript is stored or even shared with the cloud.

Sonos has hosted voice control in on its devices since first offering Amazon Alexa in 2017 and Google Assistant shortly afterwards. Now, the new Sonos voice control offers an additional interface available for users alongside Alexa. That same level of integration is not yet possible for Google Assistant users, although Sonos maintains there is no technical reason why that integration can’t be supported once the companies align to deliver it.

While the new interface can be hosted on any microphone-equipped Sonos device the company has shipped, more recently it has been selective about including microphones in its offerings. For example, in March this year, less than a year after the launch of its small portable Roam device, a microphone-less and lower price version, the Roam SL, was launched. Also, the Ray TV soundbar which just launched alongside the voice control with no voice control capabilities either.

Lessons for the Wider Smart Home?


The new Sonos voice control offering is evolutionary for Sonos and for the smart home market. Developing a voice control platform is no small task and Sonos has been meticulous—from ensuring its availability across any legacy devices to the selection criteria used to pick Giancarlo Esposito as the voice of the system. Clearly the company believes in the value of voice to control, as with support for both Alexa and Google Assistant already present, it is too much to leave it to partners.

Sonos believes it can deliver a better end user experience with its own dedicated voice interface. But with its ability to host the interface on speakers without cloud interaction, Sonos is also responding to any wariness among its users to voice control from the existing players. It is also working to keep its users within the Sonos experience as much as possible. Now every interaction between their offerings and their customers can be delivered directly by the company.

If the Sonos voice platform proves valuable, it will help keep customers within the Sonos ecosystem, not a voice control experience that could be delivered on competing devices. Both Amazon and Google, Sonos’s voice control partners, have pushed to compete head-to-head with Sonos in the networked speaker market. All three players also compete in the music streaming market as well.

Furthermore, Sonos, unlike its far larger competitors, is overwhelmingly a hardware company. It has to win new users and also ensure existing customers want to come back and extend their Sonos systems and that as speakers are replaced, it is Sonos that they turn to again. As an experience mediated by competitors, voice control lessens that potential. With its own voice control, Sonos can also favor its own Sonos Radio streaming service. In 2020, the company added subscription added a subscription fee for access to higher-definition streaming and curated music for Sonos’ user base. With its ability to improve the end-user experience by controlling functionality across both voice interface and streaming service, the company both defends its core business and has potential to expand.

The sheer availability and appeal of voice control front ends from Amazon and then Google, pushing voice control into smart home. Both players were keen to expand the appeal of voice control by enabling third-party device support, while Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and smart home providers saw the ability to leverage the ease of use delivered by voice control to lift smart home value. But for those players with multi-device system offerings, supporting voice control came at the cost of sharing valuable customer data with the largest and most deep pocketed competition. It also meant compromise regarding privacy and data sharing for end-users looking for voice control benefits.

There are not many smart home players with pockets deep enough to build their own voice control, but the idea of edge hosted, application- or device-specific voice control will be appealing. With the introduction of the Matter specification later this year set to bring broad industry wide device interoperability, OEMs and service providers will have to compete more on functionality and end-user experience than ever before. Highlighting the value of an OEMs products or a service providers smart home subscription service with a distinct and application specific voice control will be an increasingly valuable proposition.


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