On June 6th, Sonos launched its new $399 Beam soundbar, a combination Sonos connected speaker, assistant-agnostic smart speaker, and home theater soundbar. Though the device is a logical progression from the company's existing line of connected speakers, high end TV-centric solutions (Playbar and Playbase), and Sonos One agnostic smart speaker, it represents a significant point in the market's progression towards voice-driven interfaces as the interconnect across home media consumption.
The device marks Sonos' position as the second to kick off the new smart soundbar category within the CE market, with traditional audio boutique brand Polk due to ship its Alexa-enabled Command Bar approximately two weeks before Sonos' July 17th availability date. Both companies will have beaten JBL's Link Bar soundbar, teased at Google I/O, to market. Overall, Sonos is expected to lead shipments in this new category until heavier-weight CE companies such as Harman, Samsung, and LG inevitably enter the category either later this year or at the 2019 CES. Sonos, however, is expected to be the sole assistant-agnostic choice in this segment for some time, and this stance is expected to buoy their growing smart-enabled line despite impending commoditization of the smart speaker market. Alexa is currently supported, and Siri-based playback is indirectly supported via AirPlay 2 support launching in July, with Google Assistant support to be launched later in 2018. The company also is the sole smart speaker manufacturer to be layering voice assistant capability on top of an existing, mature, agnostic multi-service connected music platform, giving it intrinsic advantages in music-related use cases.
Beam is a downmarket compromise from Playbase and Playbar, with a lower price tag, smaller form factor, and reduced driver count. Reflecting the newer trend in consumer soundbars of offering full-range reproduction with a subwoofer upgrade option, the Beam contains four full-range drivers, three passive radiators (two front, one rear), and a single center-mounted soft dome tweeter. The design incorporates a five-mic array for voice recognition duty, and also is intentionally designed to be more consumer friendly in being able to be placed in front of the TV without blocking the remote control IR sensor.
The most interesting functionality of the new Beam, however, is its incorporation of direct HDMI CEC based voice control of the TV itself. Though previewed with the JBL Link Bar, Beam is expected to be the first smart soundbar to debut this capability, allowing voice commands to directly control power on/off, channel changes, menu navigation / selection, volume control, and more over HDMI CEC.
Though Android TV based TVs, Fire Edition smart TVs, TVs with Chromecast Built-in, and TVs with Chromecasts attached collectively allowed some variety of voice based control of either streaming content playback, use as playback destination for Alexa or Google Assistant, or even Google Assistant-based powering on/off (only TVs with Chromecast attached), these are different and/or more limited-use-case scenarios. Connected devices such as Fire TV or Fire TV Stick also allow control via Alexa and HDMI CEC, but require either input via the separate voice remote, or a smart speaker.
Within TV households that increasingly incorporate a soundbar, smart soundbars utilizing HDMI CEC potentially offer a more consumer-friendly device consolidation scenario, offering standalone far field voice-based control of TV functions without the need for a separate dongle, box, voice remote, and/or smart speaker to enable it, and replacing a living room smart speaker at the same time. JBL's Link Bar takes the consolidation concept one step further, incorporating a full Android TV-based streaming set-top box within.
Smart soundbars will not be the only devices bringing consolidation and voice assistants in the living room, as the JBL Link Bar is expected to be joined by other soundbar / smart speaker / STB devices in consumer and pay-TV scenarios. The pay-TV industry and set-top box manufacturers have already experimented with combination STB / smart speaker devices, and set top boxes with far field voice recognition. It is extremely likely more of these products will be brought to market over the next two years - particularly as the pay-TV industry continues its steady march towards Android TV (and Google Assistant within) as the most common platform for the majority of its future set-top boxes arriving over the next few years. Both future Android TV set-top boxes as well as the aforementioned combination devices are expected to increasingly incorporate direct voice-based HDMI CEC control of basic TV functions.
Sonos' Beam represents a solid step for the company in the living room and in further solidifying its unique, agnostic position in the smart speaker market.
The device also is the latest high profile glimpse into how digital assistants and voice control will increasingly be interwoven into all realms of media consumption in the home - including primary control of the biggest screen in the house.