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12 April 2019

Sonos’ spread strategy paying off with Ikea Symfonisk debut

Sonos saw the writing on the wall when Amazon, Apple, and Google all started gunning for a slice of the whole-home audio market that Sonos had dominated for so long. Despite its capable wireless platform, solid sound quality, and software experience, convenience and price from this trio would trump it offerings. So, it embraced Amazon’s Alexa, keeping one camp sweet for the meantime, and also forged an alliance with Ikea to develop the mysterious Symfonisk line, which has finally been unveiled.

The two products, the book-shelf and the lamp-speaker, are attempts at integrating the smart speakers into conventional furniture and furnishings, hiding away the sometimes lurid gadgetry inside Ikea’s aesthetic design language. The likes of Amazon and Google have certainly toned down their designs, making them more muted and more likely to blend into the background, but Ikea and Sonos have gone a step further.

This is important, as the feeling of a smart home needs to be somewhat omnipresent – available all over a house, and not simply emanating from a device sitting on a sideboard. To this end, our early vision of the smart home was one where a voice-enabled device would be present in every room, likely taking advantage of light fittings or bulbs, thanks to their power supplies and central placements.

To this end, voice was essential, as it was a hands-free and hopefully frictionless way of interacting with the smart home platform. Similarly, voice would be able to differentiate between speakers, enabling permissions-based commands, so that kids couldn’t unlock doors or fire up the TV after bed time, for instance.

However, on the authentication front, there has not been much progress, and on the device front, the microphone arrays within these devices mean that a presence in every room is not necessary – unless you have a particularly noisy environment. To this end, smaller homes might only need one device per floor, and even the most palatial could be canvassed with a handful – with a smartphone or smartwatch always available as a backup communication channel.

So then, the Symfonisk line is a way of blending the new devices into the background, disguising it into the Scandinavian minimalism that draws huge crowds to Ikea’s stores. Of course, the financial terms of this alliance are not available, but Sonos should have secured something of a captive market here, as for many Ikea shoppers, the monthly or quarterly visit to an Ikea store is something of a pilgrimage.

For Ikea, the audio capabilities expand upon its Tradfri smart lighting systems, as well as the (slightly delayed) connected blinds and the wireless-charging furniture it first rolled out. The new speakers provide an option for music and other audio media, which are major wants among consumers, but notably, the launch version of the Symfonisk platform is not porting over Sonos’ pre-existing Amazon Alexa integrations.

This means that Ikea does not have a native digital assistant function, which initially sounds like a strange omission until you notice that it seems to have tried to cultivate as open an approach to smartphone platform integrations as possible, and so not tying itself to an assistant seems like the logical progression in this light.

The book-shelf speaker is likely going to be most popular, given its $100 price – pretty much half that of the Sonos One. The lamp-speaker is priced at $180, and both can be stereo-paired. The book-shelf version can be used as a shelf, screwed into the wall and bringing a new meaning to the term bookshelf speaker.

Sonos’ VP of Design, Tad Toulis, told Wired “the thing about this partnership is that both organizations do something neither one of us could do independently. Ikea brings knowledge of home decor and creating products of great value for the many people, and Sonos brought its sound expertise. But you see the object first and foremost as a lamp, right? It’s not a smart engine that’s talking to you with a bunch of LEDs. It’s a lamp that can be in a home. And the goal here is to introduce sound into environments in new ways, an object that delivers atmosphere.”

Reading into this, it does sound like voice-control will become a bigger part of the offering. Currently, Sonos’ One and Beam devices will enable an inhabitant to use their smartphone to control the Symfonisk units, via the Sonos app. Moving forward, it seems sensible for Ikea to pursue either its own smart-home-focused digital assistant, or to properly open this option up to its customers, by integrating with the dominant platforms.

Ikea has a huge advantage over most in the smart home market, thanks to its stores and sales channels. It is already a household name in most Western economies, and soon more Eastern economies if its partnership with Xiaomi pans out. Its stores allow it to demonstrate how smart home technologies can be integrated into homes, as shoppers traipse through the winding corridors and interact with the products around them. There are an estimated 724mn people that will visit at least one of Ikea’s 424 stores in 52 countries.

Should Sonos be able to impress these Ikea buyers, then it might be able to upsell them to its pricier products. For Ikea, partnering with a premium brand to launch a new market segment should provide reassurance that it won’t foul it up completely. Early responses to the Tradfri lights were discouraging, but they seem to have been improved over time.

Sonos’ expertise should provide more solid footing early on, and with the popularity of the Amazon Echo and Google Home, it is clear that consumers are happy to have decent quality speakers rather than settling only for a high-fidelity experience. To this end, if Sonos can provide its traditional high sound quality inside the traditional budget-friendly price package of Ikea, then it could really help the joint offering stand out from the crowd.