According to a report from Protocol (opens in new tab), Sonos is hiring people to develop a "Home Theater OS" project, with lots of roles looking for experience directly related to developing apps for smart TVs.
At first glance, the idea of Sonos competing with Roku and Amazon Fire TV to be the software that powers smart TVs seems like something of a folly – does it really hope to take on the companies that have been doing this for years? Why go to this expense and effort?
The likely answer is combination of where Sonos' money comes from these days, and where TV audio technology is going in the future.
First, let's look at the Sonos side. As noted in Protocol, the last time Sonos reported revenue from its home cinema products separately to its music speaker systems, the TV-connected products nearly matched the rest of its speakers for total money brought in. That was at the end of 2019.
Since then, Sonos hasn't reported the two separately, but it's likely that these figures only go more in the favour of its home cinema products now, because the arrival of the pandemic in 2020 caused an explosion in soundbar sales. And for its part, Sonos launch the Sonos Arc and Sonos Beam 2nd Gen between then and now, to take advantage of that fact.
I think there's every chance that when looking at the numbers, Sonos is now a soundbar company that also makes music speakers. The rumours that it's planning to release a more affordable subwoofer only drive that home: a mid-range package with real bass is the big thing missing from its line-up.
So if that's true, it means that Sonos' future needs to be more focused on the TV entertainment side. That's gone great so far with its soundbars, but if you've been looking at the latest ways to watch movies at home, you might have noticed a trend: wireless connections between speakers and the TV.
No more wires
The Samsung QN990B soundbar system includes a wireless subwoofer and rear speakers pair… and if you have a latest-gen Samsung TV, then there's a wireless connection to your TV too. No HDMI needed.
The Sony HT-A9 speaker system is one of the best surround sound systems available today, and all four speakers are totally wireless. There's a little communications box that plugs into the TV, and that's it – and that'll disappear after the first generation, I bet. And if you use the Sony speakers with a Sony TV, the TV's audio acts as part of the surround setup too.
And look at the Dolby Atmos 3D sound from the AirPods 3rd Gen, AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. Thanks to head tracking, they can create a virtual surround sound system that's incredibly true to life, and they can do this not only from iPhone and iPad, but also Apple TV.
What do those examples all have in common? They all either work best with, or only work with, each company's own products. Whereas the soundbar revolution was built on the open connectivity of optical or HDMI, the scramble for next-gen wireless systems is all about trying to lock users into your own ecosystem.
There are wireless home cinema systems that are supposed to avoid locking you in – WiSA and DTS Play:Fi – but they're going to have an uphill battle against companies like Samsung and Sony going "Buy our own tech and you'll have an even smoother and better experience!"
It's all about control
And this is where Sonos has its problem. It already has the slick wireless setup and reliability down, and I'm sure it could unveil a set of totally wireless Dolby Atmos speaker hardware tomorrow if it had to. But what about connecting to your TV? If you don't control the smart TV software, how can you guarantee that your products will be as appealing as those made by the company that does?
So that would be the point of Sonos getting in to smart TV tech – not because it thinks it can do a better job of arranging streaming apps on a screen, but because it wants you to be able to connect Sonos speakers to your TV in just a few clicks of a remote.
I'm not sure it'll work, of course – at least, not in this format. The companies it would have to hustle out have exceedingly strong elbows. But I could see the end result being strategic partnerships with certain companies – particularly Roku and Android TV – to deeply integrate Sonos wireless connectivity as part of their software.
Those two smart TV systems cover a huge swathe of TVs sold worldwide between them, especially at the more affordable end. So even if you won't use Sonos OS on your TV in the future, using a Roku box or TV and being able to beam the sound to Sonos speakers without an HDMI cable in sight is exactly the kind of next step to expect for movie lovers – we'll just see whether it's Sonos or other companies who make the most of it in the end.