Deezer’s high-def audio service comes to Sonos speakers worldwide

Deezer’s high-definition music streaming tier is expanding beyond the U.S.: Sonos owners around the world can soon stream their music as high-definition FLAC files with bit rates of 1,411 kbps or higher by subscribing to Deezer Elite, as the new tier is being called. This comes after Deezer launched Deezer Elite to U.S.-based Sonos owners last September.

Deezer is rolling out the new tier in two phases: Existing Deezer subscribers can upgrade to Deezer Elite right away for no additional cost. New users that already have a Sonos device will be able to sign up by March 19th, but the company hasn’t announced yet how much it will charge customers at that point. Deezer is charging users in the U.S. $14.99 for high-definition streaming with month-to-month billing.

Deezer USA CEO Tyler Goldman told me during an interview last week that Deezer Elite is part of the company’s mission to build specialized tiers that cater to certain audiences, rather than offering everyone the same music service. “We are going to super-serve the needs of audiophiles” with Deezer Elite, he said, adding that the company has gotten a lot of positive feedback from U.S.-based Elite subscribers.

The most striking data point may be the engagement that Deezer is seeing with Elite: Goldman told me that the typical Deezer subscriber streams for close to two hours per day. With Deezer Elite, the amount of listening almost doubles, he said.

Deezer is just one of a number of companies trying to cash in on high-definition audio. In December, HD music streaming service Tidal launched on Sonos as well, and Neil Young’s Pono recently started to sell its HD music player on the web and in select stores. Pono’s model is a bit different in that it is based on digital album sales as opposed to a all-you-can-eat streaming service like Deezer, but Young told me during an interview at CES that it would be possible for Pono to team up with a streaming service down the road as well.

Sonos wants to launch an API for third-party apps

Sonos is getting ready to open up its speakers and let music services integrate Sonos support into their own mobile apps, according to a job offer posted by the company earlier this month.

Up until now, Sonos users have had to use the company’s own mobile or desktop app to access most music services. Sonos executives have talked in the past in general terms about potentially giving services direct access to its speakers. But a recent job posting for the position of a software test engineer spells clear plans to open up. It reads, in part:

“Sonos users want to control their Sonos systems with their favorite music service apps. Help make that a pervasive reality by designing and testing simple and elegant APIs to play and control your music on Sonos, allowing third party music services to easily integrate their apps with Sonos.”

Sonos has done a few experiments with third-party support in the past. The company integrated support for its speakers into QQ’s messaging app in China in 2013, and last year allowed Google to add direct playback to its app when the company brought its Google Play Music service to Sonos.

However, an open API would make it possible for any Sonos partner to add the same functionality to their apps, potentially allowing consumers to relay playback of their music and podcasts from apps like Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, Deezer and other services. It’s unclear when Sonos is going to make this API available to its partners; I’ve asked the company for more details, but have yet to hear back.

Sonos is facing increased competition from other speaker manufacturers, some of which have teamed up with powerful partners. At CES, Denon, LG and Sony announced that they will support Google Cast for audio, which uses Google’s Chromecast technology to enable the same kind of third-party app playback that Sonos is now looking to launch.

However, so far, none of these competitors have been able to steal Sonos’ thunder. Sonos CEO John MacFarlane said at Gigaom’s Structure Connect conference last fall that the company expected to generate a billion dollars in revenue in 2014.

Here’s a video of MacFarlane’s talk at Structure Connect:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJTMxvA9jik

LG wants to take on Sonos with cheaper connected speakers

LG thinks it has a shot to take on Sonos with its new Music Flow connected loudspeakers, and it’s banking on two thing: Content and costs. The Korean consumer electronics giant has teamed up with Google to add Google Cast to its Music Flow devices, allowing consumers to cast audio straight from apps like Pandora, Rdio, TuneIn and others. And it may sell its cheapest connected speaker for as little as $100.

lg music flow

LG is showing off a variety of Music Flow speakers, including a sound bar with subwoofer and a battery-powered mobile speaker, at CES in Las Vegas this week. The company hasn’t announced any firm release date or details on a suggested retail price yet, but I was told by one of the LG spokespeople on the floor that Music Flow speakers will be available this spring, and that the price will be “significantly cheaper” than the competition. I wanted to know more, so I asked another representative, who told me the plan was to sell them for half of what the competition is charging.

Neither of them directly mentioned Sonos, but it’s pretty clear that the company is on top of LG’s mind: Even the design of the Music Flow line-up closely resembles the connected loudspeakers that Sonos is selling.

LG’s Music Flow app.

 

However, there are a few differences. Aside from the ability to use Google Cast, LG also allows users to communicate via SMS with their speakers to set alarms, start playback or even automatically generate a playlist for a certain mood. Music Flow speakers come with their own app that can be used to configure zones as well as access third-party music apps, and each speaker connects directly over Wifi without the need for a hub or bridge — something that Sonos also recently added to its products.

lg music flow

Google announced on Monday that it is bringing Google Cast, the technology that also powers the company’s Chromecast streaming stick, to connected speakers. LG, Denon and Sony are all launch partners for what’s being called Google Cast for audio.

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With Tidal, Sonos adds its second HD music service

HD music subscription service Tidal launched on Sonos Friday: Tidal is now available to Sonos owners in the U.S. and Canada, and the company announced that it plans to launch in the U.K. soon.

Tidal’s catalog offers access to more than 25 million tracks from all major labels, as well as 75,000 music videos, which Tidal subscribers can access on the web as well as through the company’s iOS and Android apps. Tidal is offering its HD streams in the open source FLAC audio format, as well as Apple’s own ALAC format, as 44.1kHz / 16 bit recordings with a bitrate of 1411 kbps. Those extra bits will also cost a bit more: With a monthly fee of $19.99, Tidal is twice as expensive as your regular Spotify subscription.

With Spotify being the undisputed streaming music market leader, HD music increasingly is becoming a differentiating feature for anyone trying to carve out a lucrative niche — and the kind of people who spend money on something like Sonos speakers seem like a really good target audience.

That’s why Deezer already launched its HD streaming tier exclusively on Sonos earlier this year. Just like Tidal, Deezer is charging consumers extra for high bitrates, albeit a bit less. Deezer Elite, as the tier is called, is costing $14.99 per month.

With CES coming up in January, one should expect more such HD audio announcements, both from services as well as connected speaker manufacturers. These services will directly compete with companies like Pono, which is trying to get consumers to buy its own hardware, as well as individual downloads.

Billion-dollar Sonos raises $130M to let employees cash in

Sonos has raised $130 million from investors, according to a FCC filing made public this week. A Sonos spokesperson confirmed the raise when asked about it this morning, but said that contrary to a TechCrunch report, the new money isn’t going towards expanding the company’s business: “The funding is just a secondary round strictly raised as a part of our ongoing liquidity program for employees not a new round of capital.”

In other words: Sonos investors decided to make some cash available in order to allow employees to cash in on some of their options, and in turn help the company retain talent. This kind of secondary funding isn’t that rare for large late-stage venture-funded companies. The benefit for institutional investors is that they don’t have to share a seat at the table with anyone buying stock options from employees through secondary marekts.

However, both timing and volume of the raise are significant: Sonos CEO John MacFarlane recently told us at our Structure Connect conference that his company is on its way to sell a billion dollars worth of connected loudspeakers this year.

At the same time, Sonos is facing increased competition from consumer electronics manufacturers, traditional Hi-Fi brands and startups, all of which are trying to get a piece of the connected audio pie. Some of these companies are likely looking to recruit talent from Sonos to better compete with the market leader. Sonos is obviously willing to give long-time employees some significant cash to hold onto its talent.

Check out Gigaom founder Om Malik interviewing John MacFarlane at Structure Connect below:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJTMxvA9jik]