To simplify whole-home audio, Sonos starts to embrace your Wi-Fi router

Sonos wants to make it even easier for consumers to set up their first internet-connected speaker, which is why the company won’t require its users to set up dedicated wireless networks anymore. Instead, Sonos speakers now directly connect to your home Wi-Fi network. And to make that network go even further, Sonos is also introducing its very first Wi-Fi range extender, dubbed the Boost.

That’s a departure from the way [company]Sonos[/company] has traditionally streamed music across the home: Ever since it launched its first product in 2005, Sonos required users to bypass their home Wi-Fi network, either by directly plugging into a router with an ethernet cable or with the company’s own Bridge device, which operates its own dedicated wireless network optimized for audio streaming.

“We were paranoid about the quality of the networking,” remembered Andy Schulert, Sonos VP of quality. “In hindsight, that was the right decision in 2003,” when the company started working on its first products, and Wi-Fi routers still were riddled with problems, he said.

However, Wi-Fi has evolved over the last decade, and most consumers nowadays have routers that easily cover their entire home. Plus, Sonos isn’t the only application requiring connectivity and quality of service for media streaming anymore. People use Netflix and YouTube all over their house, and frequently upgrade their routers when their home network isn’t capable of accessing these services, optimizing network performance for Sonos speakers in the process.

Sonos has been working on switching from its proprietary network to open Wi-Fi for about two years, and during recent months tested Bridge-less setups with thousands of customers and close to 400 different home Wi-Fi routers. Schulert said he feels confident that the company’s speakers will work on home Wi-Fi in most cases, in part because Sonos speakers still use their own mesh technology in multi-room setups. If you have one Sonos speaker in your living room and one in your kitchen, then only one of them will access Spotify through your router, and then relay the signal to the other one, provided both are within reach.

Of course, sometimes, that’s simply not the case. That’s why Sonos will launch a kind of specialized range extender called the Boost for $99 later this year that will use the company’s proprietary wireless networking technology to reach every last corner of your house. And Sonos will continue to sell the $49 Bridge as well, as the device is still required for 3.1 or 5.1 home theater set-ups.

For Sonos, switching to regular Wi-Fi is all about making things easier for new customers. The Bridge requirement “was a little bit of a speed bump,” said Schulert, even though retailers frequently bundled the device as part of special promotions. Now, consumers will be able to buy a speaker and get started without a bridge or an ethernet cable, which should help the company during the coming holiday season.

What does all of this mean for existing customers? Sonos actually wants them to keep their Bridges plugged in. “Don’t change a thing,” Schulert told me. He added that it’s possible to switch existing systems to a Bridge-less setup, but the company would rather people stick with what’s already working. That’s understandable from a customer support perspective; after all, changing a working setup can possibly introduce new points of failure — but as a Sonos user myself, I have to say that I can’t wait to get rid of my Bridge.

My colleague Stacey Higginbotham interviewed Sonos’ VP of product management about Bridge-less playback and his company’s plans for plugging into the internet of things for her weekly IoT podcast in May — have a listen:

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This post was updated at 10:00am with additional information on the new Sonos Boost product.