Sonos Is Looking to Stand Out in a Crowded Streaming Space…with Paid HD Radio?

Sonos Is Looking to Stand Out in a Crowded Streaming Space…with Paid HD Radio?
Screenshot: Sonos

There are a lot of music streaming services out there, but chances are you probably fall into one of three camps: Spotify, Apple Music, or Pandora. A few months ago, Sonos tossed its hat into the ring, launching a free streaming radio service called Sonos Radio. Today, it’s expanding that service in the U.S. and UK with a paid tier called Sonos Radio HD.

What the what?

The new tier is sort of an extension of the existing Sonos Radio service, except that it adds more exclusive content and the ability to stream in lossless, CD-quality audio. The Sonos press release claims it is the “highest quality sound of any radio streaming service,” though its 16-bit 44.1kHz quality is essentially standard CD quality and some non-radio musicstreaming services now go beyond that. That includes some more genre stations, sleep and relaxation stations, and “in-depth artist content.” Sonos Radio HD in particular will also enable users to stream without ads and gain the ability to skip and repeat songs.

This sounds a lot like Sonos mashing together aspects of Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, and Tidal. Like Apple Music and Spotify, Sonos is leaning hard into exclusive content with musical artists. For Sonos Radio HD, it’s launching a new station by country music icon Dolly Parton called Songteller Radio, with more artist-curated stations to follow in 2021. Hi-res, CD-quality streaming is reminiscent of Tidal, which is a favourite among audiophiles. (Though, Tidal isn’t the only hi-res audio option out there; there’s also Amazon Music Unlimited, Primephonic, and Qobuz.)

Content-wise, although Sonos is doing a decent job of pulling both mega-famous and deep cut artists for its artist-curated stations, this type of exclusive isn’t unique to Sonos. Apple does it. Most streaming services worth their salt these days also offer a wide variety of algorithm-curated playlists and genre stations. That, and while Sonos says 50% of all listening time on its platform is radio, Sonos Radio is just the fourth most-listened-to service on Sonos. So…why do this… at all? (Money, it’s always the money.)

The thing that most stands out here is that Sonos Radio HD will be $US8 ($11) per month after a 30-day free trial. That’s significantly cheaper than most hi-res music streaming services. Tidal’s hi-res tier is $US20 ($28)/month, Primephonic’s is $US15 ($21)/month, as is Quoboz’s. The only one on par is Amazon Music Unlimited, which is also $US8 ($11) for Prime Members and $US10 ($14) for non-Prime members. If you’re willing to pay the premium for Sonos hardware, chances are you care at least a little bit about audio quality — so all things considered, this is not an unattractive offer.

Interestingly, to sign up, users will have to do that via Sonos’s website and not the Sonos S2 app. A Sonos spokesperson declined to say whether that was an attempt to bypass Apple and Google’s 30% commission, stating that Sonos believed this was the “easiest way” for users to sign up.

Sonos has had a few other minor updates lately too. Earlier this week, its Dolby Atmos Sonos Arc soundbar got a software update to support multi-channel LPCM to bring “new immersive sound experiences for gaming, Blu-ray discs, and more.” It also rebranded its Trade Up program, which allowed users with older devices to receive discounts on new Sonos hardware, to the Upgrade Program. The main difference is it expands the list of eligible products.

All this points to Sonos looking to shore up value as the smart speaker category becomes increasingly competitive. Apple, Amazon, and Google all released affordable $150 smart speakers boasting good sound quality in the past few months. We’ve tested both the fourth generation Amazon Echo and the Google Nest Audio and can confirm they sound impressive for the price point. (We’re still waiting to get our hands on a HomePod Mini.) All three of these speakers can also act as a smart home hub and can be paired to work in stereo. Sonos’s cheapest connected speaker, the Sonos One SL, is $100 more at $269, while its Sonos One costs $150 more at $299 And while Sonos speakers come with Alexa or Google Assistant support and AirPlay 2, it does require an extra step in setup via the S2 app.

When you consider all this, it’s not surprising that Sonos has doubled down on providing a more unique service. It doesn’t help that some Sonos customers haven’t been too happy with the company as of late. Earlier this year, the company had a bit of a kerfuffle with angry customers when it decided to retire its older-but-still-functional speakers, highlighting a common problem among smart home gadget makers. But while Sonos Radio and Sonos Radio HD are clever plays, it remains to be seen whether it’ll ultimately pay off in a market where most people have already chosen their streaming service of choice.