Depending on what year you began buying music, you may have amassed a rack of CDs, a teetering stack of cassettes, or a shelf of vinyl. It was usually kept close to the stereo, a cabinet full of expensive equipment with two tall speakers standing sentry.
Anyone coming of age in the current century, of course, knows music mostly as digital files, stashed on a smartphone or iPod or distant server. And that is forcing makers of audio equipment like Bose Corp. and Sonos Inc., both with substantial Massachusetts operations, to tune in to changing consumer behaviors more closely than ever before.
“My daughter is 24, and she will never own a stack of stereo equipment that sits in one room,” says David Laituri, founder of Vers Audio, a Wayland maker of speakers and headphones. “There are a lot of people like her in the world now. They were born with a music-playing device in their hand.” This new generation expects that whatever device they’re using — whether phone, laptop, or tablet — it will instantly play music on speakers wherever they are.
Thousands of representatives of the home audio business, including Laituri, will gather in Las Vegas this week as part of the Consumer Electronics Show. Sonos, a California maker of wireless home audio systems, will be among the exhibitors. Bose, headquartered in Framingham, typically skips it. Many of the players there will be hoping to shape, or at least understand, the future of music in our homes.
Sonos doesn’t have a high profile locally, but the company employs 150 people in East Cambridge. The company sells what you might think of as the 21st century’s version of the old home hi-fi. A small wireless “bridge” device hooked up to your home’s Internet connection enables you to stream music to Sonos-made speakers in various rooms; you can also buy a $500 Sonos amplifier that allows you to use your own speakers. You can then play DJ using one of Sonos’ controllers ($350), or an app on your tablet, smartphone, or computer.
“Our goal is that when you feel like listening to something, you should be able to play it anywhere in your house, without thinking about it,” says Dave Perri, Sonos’ vice president of product development, who works in the Cambridge office.
Perri says that Sonos is focused on music in the home, and doesn’t plan to release a portable wireless speaker to bring up to the ski condo, for example. “We’re small enough where we need to focus on one thing,” he says. Sonos has raised nearly $200 million in funding since the company’s 2002 founding.
Bose chooses to sit out the Consumer Electronics Show, unveiling new products on its own schedule — like Apple. Last September, it started selling two new standalone speakers called the SoundLink AirPlay and the SoundLink Bluetooth II. Both are about the size of a small hard-cover book standing on its spine, and include a rechargeable battery so they don’t need to be plugged into an outlet at all times. Listeners receive music wirelessly from Apple devices using Apple’s AirPlay technology, and the other speakers can receive music from any device with Bluetooth transmission capability. The former sells for $350, the latter for $300.
“The business of selling fully installed stereo systems has declined, though it hasn’t gone away,” says John Roselli, director of product marketing at Bose. “What is replacing it is this much more personal listening experience, where you might have headphones or a wireless speaker that you can carry around with you.”
But smaller players are starting to shake the bedrock beneath Bose and Sonos, both privately held companies. Vers Audio, Laituri’s company, made a nice splash last year with a line of palm-sized, wood-wrapped Bluetooth speakers called the 1Q (priced at $120). With minimal marketing expense, it found 1,300 customers using the website Kickstarter.
In 2010, Jawbone, based in San Francisco, introduced the Jambox, a rectangular metal speaker with a stylish honeycomb design on the front ($200). Like Bose’s SoundLink, it has a rechargeable battery and can be carried around the house, or outdoors. But the Jambox also doubles as a speakerphone, comes in your choice of 100 color combinations, and can be enhanced with new features downloaded from the Jawbone website. Libratone, based in Denmark, makes a nifty $450 portable speaker shaped like a cylinder and wrapped in what looks like a wool beer koozie.
All three products make Sonos’ and Bose’s offerings look pretty generic. “The Bose Bluetooth speaker looks like it’s military issue,” says Steve Krampf, a Brookline-based audio consultant, and Sonos hasn’t freshened up the look of its products, either, which are available in your choice of either black . . . or white.
At Bose, Roselli says that we may be witnessing the end of the “dedicated device” in our homes that is responsible solely for playing music — a.k.a. the stereo. But the new technology is still “sorting itself out,” he says, for instance when it comes to reliably transmitting music wirelessly, without interruptions. “It’s not clear exactly how things are going to play out”
Transitional moments like these, when industries must adapt to new technologies and the habits of a new generation, can create new power players — and knock established ones off their pedestals. Both Bose and Sonos seem content to be seen as high-priced, premium-quality brands, without much aesthetic panache. I think that strategy could start sounding a bit dissonant in 2013.