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Is This Sonos' Answer to Amazon's Echo Dot?

By Rich Duprey - Updated Apr 18, 2019 at 9:14PM

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A filing with the FCC indicates plans for a new smart speaker, but what its actual use will be remains a mystery.

Check out the latest Sonos earnings call transcript.

Sonos (SONO -3.29%) is developing a new, smaller speaker. And though not too many details are available about what the audio specialist intends to use it for, some think it could be part of a new surround-sound system for its Playbar, or possibly a smaller smart speaker on the order of Amazon.com's (AMZN -2.78%) Echo Dot and Google's Home Mini.

A secretive setup

The Variety website on Dec. 31 reported finding a filing with the Federal Communications Commission that, in heavily redacted form, identifies the speaker with the model number S18, featuring both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities. What makes the site believe it is part of an overall surround-sound system is a table included in the filing that indicates the S18 was tested with the Playbar, which is Sonos' wireless home theater soundbar for streaming music. The Playbar is listed as the "master device" and the S18 is a "wireless smart speaker (right)."

Chart and table from FCC filing of Sonos new speaker

Image source: FCC.

Tech blogger Dave Zatz noticed the S18 has touch controls similar to those found on the Sonos One smart speaker, which indicates the presence of far-field voice controls that allow you to talk to your speakers from across the room.

That could give the Playbar more functionality since it doesn't currently support voice controls or have Bluetooth connectivity, and a diagram in the filing positions it to the right of the master device in a setup that would be similar to a surround-sound system.

Can you hear me now?

Typical microphones like those found on your computer are horrible at picking up sound from a distance, but far-field voice control includes sound-canceling technology that makes it possible to say "Hey Google," "Hey Siri," or "Alexa" to wake up the speaker from afar.

Sonos does offer two surround-sound bundles now, one at a pricey $1,678 that comes with the Playbar, and the other with a Beam, Sonos' Alexa-enabled soundbar for connected TVs, for a few hundred dollars less. Both configurations come with Sonos One speakers for left and right channels, so the S18 could be a way to reduce the footprint of the setup.

Or it could be, as Zatz suggests, that the new speaker might really be a cross between an Echo Dot and the Sonos Play:1 small speaker with the ability to interact with Alexa, Google's AI, or other similar devices.

Sonos One speakers

Image source: Sonos.

Sonos wants more users

Sonos users can currently pair the Play:1 with an Echo or Echo Dot to get the same kind of smart-speaker functionality. And there are ways to connect the Playbar, too, though they're not as sleek and seamless, which is why the possibility for Sonos to come out with its own smaller device similar to the Echo Dot is tantalizing.

Known best for providing premium quality sound systems loved by audiophiles, Sonos sells products that have also come with a premium price tag. Lately, however, it has been pushing back on that image to tap into the upper ends of the value market. The Sonos One, for example, was sold for $199 to appeal to a wider audience. A new, smaller speaker with presumably a lower price would help Sonos move further into that market.

A Reddit forum also shared a customer survey that Sonos sent out asking what kind of devices users would most like to see at various price points, and it included devices like a new, low-cost subwoofer and a pair of speakers featuring Dolby Labs Atmos technology. It's possible the speakers are also what's referenced in the FCC filing.

Not standing still

Amazon, for its part, has been trying to move upmarket, announcing a slew of new products to appeal to audiophiles, such as the Echo Sub subwoofer; the Echo Link and Link Amp, to connect existing equipment for multiroom capabilities; and an Echo Input, to turn "dumb" speakers into smart ones.

There's little chance Sonos is going to flood the market with cheap devices the way Amazon and Alphabet's Google have, but it is putting up resistance and not ceding the field to its rivals. Whether as part of a surround-sound system, a new Echo Dot and HomeMini type device, or new satellite speakers with enhanced sound technology, Sonos' secretive S18 speaker suggests the company wants to be competitive with those looking for a premium sound experience at a reasonable cost.

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