How Sonos and Amazon Echo Learned to Talk to Each Other

The two companies announce a 'long-term strategic partnership.'

Matt Welch began hacking his Sonos internet-connected stereo system about two years ago, to make it easier for his wife to listen to the radio. One of his favorite creations was a software program that used the microphone on the family's Echo, Amazon's talking speaker, as a voice-control input for the Sonos. “Now she could walk into the room and say, ‘Sonos, play NPR,’” said Welch, a computer programmer living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Building the program took him about a week. 

Welch wasn’t the only Sonos fan spending time trying to connect Amazon’s and Sonos’s speakers. Guides for hacks began appearing online soon after the Echo debuted in late 2014. It wasn’t that hard to do for tinkerers who could discern sentences like this one: “Setup your server to auto-start or daemonize the node-sonos-http-api server.” Everyone else was out of luck.

That will change soon. At an event in Manhattan on Tuesday, Sonos unveiled a system developed with Amazon that will let users ask the Echo to play music on their Sonos speakers. Once the two systems are linked, it basically replaces the Echo's speakers with Sonos's own devices for any music applications. A test version will be available to some later this year, with a full-scale release planned for 2017. Antoine Leblond, vice president of software at Sonos, described the deal as a "long-term strategic partnership." 

Sonos has been grappling with the idea of voice controls at least as long as the Amazon Echo has been on the market, according to interviews with a half-dozen current and former Sonos employees. The fitful discussions came during a particularly challenging period in the company's 14-year history, after a less-than-stellar holiday period for Sonos and a realization that consumers—many Sonos customers among them—really loved the Echo. Besides partnering with Amazon, Sonos will also let customers of Spotify, and a handful of home-automation makers including Lutron, Crestron, and Control4, to control their Sonos speakers through these companies apps. Taken together, this marks a major pivot for Sonos, which has proudly introduced new products at a glacial pace and maintained the tightest possible control over the software its listeners use to control their speakers. 

Sonos, founded in 2002, makes a line of speakers that connect to the internet and one another through their own dedicated Wi-Fi networks. The speakers look good, sound great, and allow for satisfying tricks like playing Spotify in the kitchen, Soundcloud in the bedroom and Pandora everywhere else in the house—all from a single smartphone application. The company's fans tend to exhibit enthusiasm bordering on cultishness. 

When Amazon began selling the Echo in late 2014, executives at Sonos didn’t see it as a threat. Other voice-controlled platforms like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Kinect controller for the Xbox had experienced only mixed success. Also, Amazon’s track record on hardware was spotty, and the brass at Sonos doubted a device with such inferior sound quality would tempt their core users. By last year, the idea of voice-controlled speakers had been relegated to its list of projects to get around to at some point in the misty future. 

Sonos's finicky perfectionism had been a point of pride within the company. But while being picky played well with the audio snobs that make up its fanbase, the company's critics felt it wasn't keeping pace with the hyperkinetic tech industry. According to four employees who left Sonos this year, the company has always suffered from a default setting of inaction. That's not to say there aren't ideas bouncing around its Santa Barbara headquarters. For over a year, Sonos worked on a portable speaker, code-named Hopscotch, according to two former employees. But progress stalled over the inability to decide whether it would be primarily an outdoor speaker that would also work indoors, or vice versa. The project was shelved earlier this year, according to the company. 

Patrick Spence, Sonos’s president, says the company often errs on the side of conservatism because it doesn’t want to release products that don’t meet its standards.  “Our first value as a company is ‘experience first’. Our second is ‘relentless progressive.’” he said. "I think there’s a natural tension between those two things.” Spence said the company is working to fine-tune that balance. 

By late 2014, Sonos thought it was nearing a breakout period. In fact, things were about to get tough. Executives told employees and the public it would cross $1 billion in revenue for the first time the following year. But Sonos had a disappointing holiday season in 2014, and then again a year later. Meanwhile, the Echo was the hit of the 2015 holidays, creating a feeling of urgency bordering on panic within Sonos's leadership, according to people who were at the company. Sonos felt like it had to do something, and fast. 

In March of 2016, the company’s chief executive, John MacFarlane, announced a round of firings and said the company was focused on enabling voice control and catering to customers who pay for music subscription services.

Sonos’s engineers said it wasn't feasible to add voice control directly to its own hardware any time soon, so the company began aggressively pursuing discussions with Amazon. “We really started to see that holiday in a truly meaningful way,” Spence said. "We’re moving at a faster pace because the market has sped up." 

The result is Amazon’s most significant hardware integration for its voice-control platform, Alexa. Being the only voice-control system to be integrated into the preferred speakers of the nerd set is a nice, but modest, affirmation for Amazon, which continues to enjoy a surprising advantage over competing platforms from the tech industry’s other behemoths. Mike George, a vice president at Amazon who worked on the project, said the technical aspects of the integration were still being worked out. Part of the appeal of the partnership was to develop the skills to integrate deeply into hardware made by other companies. "We're working with a lot of people," he said. "We haven't announced anything."

It's much bigger news for Sonos, which could benefit from the massive reach of Amazon's website as it tries to land new customers. While Sonos has succeeded for more than a decade largely on the strength of its own speakers and software, it has become increasingly clear that growing larger involves a more open approach to partnerships.

Up to this point, Sonos users have had to use the company’s own mobile application to play music on the speakers. This meant that new features for music services like Spotify didn't make it to Sonos users for months. The speaker company's rigidity has frustrated partners and customers for years. “We’ve worked together for a long time, but we’ve both felt we haven’t been able to bring the best experience,” said Gustav Söderström, Spotify’s chief product officer. He says the changes announced Tuesday, which will be available in a test period starting in October, should permanently fix those shortcomings. Sonos plans to build similar integrations for all music services, although it hasn't publicized a timeline for doing so.

If Sonos is going to remain relevant in such a fast-moving market, it felt it needed to better leverage the advances being made by other companies, said Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner. The deal with Amazon doesn’t necessarily remove the need for Sonos to integrate voice control into future versions of its own hardware, but it does buy the company more time to figure it out. “It’s more of a full partnership between today and the day when they have the full-featured solution,” he said.

Last year in North Carolina, Welch continued to spend his evenings and weekends tinkering with his Sonos system. Eventually, friends introduced him to engineers at the company. By September, he had accepted a job at Sonos Welch says he played a tangential role in the official Echo integration, and continues to work on other projects for the company, although he's still using his home-brewed version in his house and likes to try out new Sonos features on his family.

One of Welch’s more recent hacks was to create a series of cards that resemble baseball cards that emit radio signals. Each card is programmed to ask Sonos to play a specific children's song, so when his young son lays one on a receiever, it plays the song pictured on the card. “That was all in the line of my exploration of new ways to control Sonos,” Welch said. But don’t expect this idea to become an official Sonos product—or even a lasting part of Welch's household. His son quickly realized he could continuously tap the card for the Octonauts, a British children’s show, against the receiver, and keep the house buzzing with its theme song. His kid loved it. “My wife wasn’t quite as enthused,” Welch said.  

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