Sonos, the maker of multi-room networked speakers, launched Sonos Radio
The other is Sonos Radio HD’s secret weapon: technology that uses AI and machine learning to produce programming that sounds like someone slaved over it in a recording studio before it aired. But it’s all done automatically and in real time. The technology comes from a startup called SuperHiFi. Sonos Radio HD is the first instantiation of a toolkit called Conductor that SuperHiFi has just released, which enables other digital music distributors to create similar types of programming.
The programming on Sonos Radio HD features audio elements such as tight segues between songs and song-to-song progressions that are smooth and not jarring. DJ banter, ads, artist interview snippets, and other between-songs content overlaps with song intros and ends just as the vocals start (radio DJs call this “hitting the post”). Sonic logos and “bumpers” are used amply. All this would take hours of work using ProTools or another similar recording studio tool, but it’s all automated.
SuperHiFi calls its technologies for knitting together programming in real time MagicStitch3 and Dynamic Content Curator (DCC). DCC figures out which content element to pull in next; MagicStitch3 analyzes qualities of audio signals such as mood, tempo, volume, key, rhythm, and other characteristics, and figures out how best to do the transition to the next element. MagicStitch3 can be customized for various styles of transitions, called segue personalities. DCC also uses customer-supplied metadata tags to assist in content selection.
In the case of Sonos Radio HD, Sonos builds playlists for each of its stations and provides SuperHiFi with a library of audio assets including voice-tracked DJ banter, artist interviews, sonic logos, bumpers, and ads. SuperHiFi’s technology takes these elements and puts them together into seamless radio-like programs.
SuperHiFi began four years ago and has been working with various types of audio service providers including iHeartRadio, Napster, and Peloton, as well as PlayNetwork, a provider of music services to retail locations for stores such as Uniqlo, Gymboree, Starbucks
There’s a big difference between the kind of lavishly-produced audio that comes out of a professional recording studio and an Internet radio service such as Pandora that plays playlists of songs, one after another (possibly with ads in between), even if the playlists are customizable. It was unthinkable for services like Pandora (and other legacy Internet radio services—Slacker, Shoutcast, Clickradio, etc.) to offer such levels of production, especially for services that enable real-time customization of music selection.
SuperHiFi’s technology enables music services to approach what’s possible through manual production work. Yet it’s also a direct extension of technology that’s been available in the radio industry since the 1990s. Using voice tracking, radio station chains could produce a day’s worth of programming for multiple stations out of a single studio in a couple of hours by having DJs sit in a booth and record their breaks continuously. This saved station owners like Clear Channel
As for Sonos Radio HD, it’s an interesting experiment for the connected speaker company. On the one hand, other music service providers have tried launching “Internet radio plus” services before. These offer features not available in free Internet radio services, such as unlimited skips, rewinds (repeat the last song or last few songs), and no ads; and they are priced below the standard $10/month for full on-demand services like Spotify Premium, Apple
On the other hand, Sonos has a few compelling business reasons for launching Sonos Radio HD as a paid service with roughly the same feature set as above—plus the CD-quality audio and the high production values. First, Sonos is a publicly traded company that sells consumer electronics and has been growing revenues solidly but could stand to diversify its revenue streams. A paid content service is a natural next move—as it was for a certain other electronics company located in Cupertino, CA, back in 2004.
Second, Sonos—unlike Apple—has been selling devices that have effectively been empty vessels for other people’s content. Sonos has long touted its speakers’ ability to work with all your favorite music services; but it has gotten none of the revenue associated with those services. The same is true for more recent Sonos models, which are compatible with both Amazon Alexa and Google
Sonos’s model of selling Internet-enabled speakers without content is now an old model with a shrinking audience. You bought your Sonos speakers, plugged them in, configured them, and then had to rely on other services to supply content. Sonos started solving this problem back in April by giving consumers Sonos Radio right out of the box. And the service is proving quite popular with Sonos buyers: in only a few months it has become the no. 4 most popular music service used on the devices. Sonos has found that 50% of its customers’ listening is to radio services, as opposed to interactive on-demand services like Spotify; that’s a much higher percentage than the market in general. Sonos users evidently prefer the “lean-back” experience of radio to the “lean-forward” experience of on-demand services.
ore generally, Sonos Radio HD represents a solution to the conundrum facing all digital music services these days: there are many alternatives in the market but not much to distinguish among them. One way out of this situation is commoditization and consolidation: lowering subscription prices and thereby forcing some services out of the market. Apple attempted this strategy six years ago; the major labels would not allow it.
The other way out is to invent new ways to differentiate one service from the others. Back in the mid-2010s, the solution was to use cutting-edge data analysis technologies to improve the quality of recommendations and discovery—such as the Echo Nest technology that came out of MIT’s Media Lab, which Spotify acquired in 2014. That approach—as epitomized by Spotify’s enormously successful Discover Weekly personalized playlist feature—has reached a point of diminishing returns. The next wave may well be to go beyond simple music programming in an automated and scalable yet also compelling way. What Sonos is doing with SuperHiFi may be the key to this next round of innovation that keeps the market moving forward.