Sonos Radio HD — has a third way to listen just arrived?
The pandemic-induced lockdown created a listening boom for traditional radio, along with an uptick in the streaming of more comforting genres (classical, easy listening, soul) with catalogue music enjoying another wave of popularity around the world. With long hours working from home, I for one bought into both of these trends, listening to far more radio than I have for years. I also returned to catalogue and made the discovery that streaming services really don’t do catalogue that well at all.
But, by the time the ‘second wave arrived’ I found that I had become suddenly bored of the radio and I began to switch it off pretty quickly. There are two primary problems: while the familiarity, personality and variety continue to serve well, radio is not really designed for listening all day long. Should you not like a song on the station’s playlist for example, you don’t want to hear it five times a day. Listen all day, every day, for more than a week and the rotation of tracks on traditional radio simply does not reflect the wide variety of new music available, nor the depth of catalogue.
On the other hand, with streaming you have a different problem. While playlists have been getting steadily longer as the streaming services ‘lean back’ more (i.e. try and be more like radio) they tend to follow a narrow genre focus, and when it comes to catalogue well, all I can say is — there is a distinct lack of imagination. The other obvious gap with streaming is that it lacks the personality, warmth and company that radio can provide.
It is for all of the above reasons that Sonos Radio drew my attention. The original Sonos Radio free service was launched in April (and continues) as an ad-supported service, but Sonos Radio HD comes with high-definition/CD quality streaming, skip functionality and of course, no ads.
With Sonos having put most of its efforts so far into integration with streaming services (makes sense), the brand must have reached the point where it was ready to produce its own content. The growth of streaming has meant that audio brands, telcos and others have stepped away from investment in content curation, and so I was pleased to see Sonos step up to the plate — but is the offering any good?
Sonos Radio HD is wholly human curated by an in-house team (and some high profile guest artists — read on) but is powered by Super Hi-Fi, an AI based backend service that does a few different things: it stitches together the tracks via something called MagicStitch that smooths out song segues (through volume control, fade-in/out etc.) much as a human DJ might, and it also has a Dynamic Content Curator — another AI feature that delivers ‘contextually relevant’ sound clips, interstitials and so on. These include pre-recorded human voice tracks, podcast snippets, sonic logos and possibly news announcements and advertisements (though Sonos HD is a paid service — so no news or ads on this occasion).
While the above may scare the living daylights out of a traditional radio enthusiast (or radio station employee), it also provides the possibility to bring a little variety to simply track-after-track playlists (Super Hi-Fi is pitching to provide services to both traditional radio networks and streaming services for very different reasons).
From my perspective I was intrigued thus: does all the above actually work well enough in practice to offer a ‘third way’ listening experience somewhere between a radio station and a streaming service? And even if this appears to be the case initially, does such a third way service have staying power?
Should Sonos Radio succeed in carving out a third way, then not only does the service stand a good chance of longevity but it may prove to be a catalyst for a new wave of investment in music curation (gaming platforms, audio brands and fitness brands have all stepped into the space recently — providing some much needed competition for the streaming giants).
To try and understand whether the service does add something new to the mix, I need to set out some criteria. First and foremost, I am looking for some benefits that I am not really getting from streaming services or from radio, but then if I am going to replace either of those options with another way to listen, I don’t want to lose too much of what they have to offer either. I’ve set out 10 criteria thus:
- Deeper track selection from known artists (something terrestrial radio continuously fails on) within a curated or themed show e.g. Yacht Rock.
- Wider artist selection within a themed show.
- Relevant, skilled curation e.g. indie for Sunset Fuzz, vintage rock for Rock Pantheon.
- Consistency and depth of mood developed while listening to a themed show.
- Good segues.
- Low skip rate (I try my best to resist skipping, but sometimes you have to).
- Discovery of some genuine gems that are new to me.
- Discovery of some genuine new artists that are new to me.
- Stickiness. Since discovery is a tough ask and often requires bookmarking for later, I’m adding a criteria that embodies much of the above but leaves you happily tuned in — ‘stickiness’ if you will, of the station overall.
- Some surprises.
As you can see, I set my expectations pretty high. However, I don’t stop there. Since the service calls itself HD and comes with the sound quality expected from Sonos — I wanted to hear new things I could not hear on radio or streaming playback. Finally, with the functionality offered via Super Hi-Fi, I wondered whether the stations would have anything of radio’s ‘warmth’ when powered by AI rather than real presenters.
So how does Sonos Radio HD do against these? I’ve made some notes below, while applying a scorecard against the above criteria for the six stations I spent most time listening to.
There are a lot of stations to choose from (but not an overwhelming choice which is also good) and it would be unfair to review those that didn’t appeal to me. The Dolly Parton curated Songteller radio was too twangy for me — I feel the way to acquire the taste for country music is to slip in through the back of the ranch via less traditional material. Likewise after short trials, I’ll exclude other stations that are outside my area of expertise if you like — the classical stations, Hip Hop, country and pop.
I was curious as to how I would respond to the AI programmed aspects but these worked perfectly well. I have heard other US fm stations use a similar approach — presumably as a necessary economic measure (i.e. not paying for presenters/producers) and it’s okay if you’re not expecting the live radio experience and the AI doesn’t pretend to be human. The Sonos service seems to have the balance right.
The interstitial snippets are about the right length — short and sweet — just enough to give you that little bit of context on a forthcoming tune to pay attention. And with the artist stations, the voice clips do enough to convince you that they did indeed enjoy the experience of selecting the tracks you hear. The segues worked okay, but then the art of the segue can only ever be improved upon. Overall the tracks flowed nice and even across most of the stations I tried.
Artist curated stations
The artist curated stations needed checking out, since Sonos has put these on the top carousel menu and launched them with considerable fanfare. This is not without risk. Whether music artists make good curators depends on that artist’s own music tastes and knowledge, the time they spend on curation — but also how much they are thinking about their audience. Moreover — are artists looking to actually create a certain mood or just play a random selection of their favourite stuff? Matt Berninger, Lorde and Dangermouse do great Spotify curated channels — though these are lost in the mass of playlists available and not promoted on Spotify’s menus.
First to Thom Yorke’s ‘In The Absence Thereof’. Let’s face it, it is an exciting prospect for any Radiohead fan to tune in to a curated Thom Yorke channel. Knowing Thom’s music tastes a little I had some idea what to expect here — avante garde modern classical stuff with an electronic (and analogue) flavour. If I had all the time in the world (or a spare hour even) I would just lie down and listen, since the station is a meditation channel as much as anything else — but it is not relaxing — it is very much a proactive listening experience. Some of the selections stopped me in my tracks (not ideal for a work from home backdrop) and many of them are quite lengthy instrumentals. This is no Spotify or YouTube “music to study to” channel. When it comes down to it, the station is more niche than Thom’s billing might suggest. It is very much an acquired taste and seems for specific listening occasions when one is prepared to give yourself up to the music. A rarity.
I had more success with Brittany Howard’s offering ‘The Encyclopedia of Brittany’. This was more fun, with a lot of genuine discoveries and some real surprises. It had me drifting over to Spotify to search for new artists I’d never heard before like Beverly Glenn-Copeland (which might mean the station is too good, after all — Sonos needs these stations to stick, not prompt you to hop back to streaming).
Both left me wondering though, for how long will they be prominently featured? Will these artists continue to curate, or will Sonos rotate more artists in the top carousel? Somehow, as interesting as Thom Yorke’s selections are, I suspect the station is not that engaging for listeners. With Brittany, while the station was more lightly enjoyable — it is eclectic as well and therefore not within a defined genre or mood. You might dive in for curiosity but for how long? I wonder about the longevity of the artist stations. If the artists were paid, then it could turn out to be an expensive luxury for Sonos too. I can’t help but think that the artist stations would be better if branded “an hour in the company of”…with a limit on the content bringing with it that sense of scarcity.
Sonos branded genre stations
I’ll start with ‘Cruise Control’: the ‘yacht rock’ offering (good name, indeed the same name as the Song Sommelier’s own Yacht Rock themed playlist — way before Sonos Radio launched I might add).
For yacht rock, right away the mood I’m looking for is pre-defined: easy-going, sundowner cocktail inducing, evocative of the American west coast and with a retro vibe: relaxed but not cheesy (Yacht Rock is a notch or two above ‘guilty pleasure’ territory).
I did encounter a few issues early on it must be said. The Shins should not be on a Yacht Rock playlist, nor should a Post Malone instrumental.
On the other hand, yes! Christopher Cross with a track new to me: ‘All Right’ (i.e not Sailing, Arthur’s Theme or Ride Like the Wind) — that’s one-up on radio and streaming services and exactly what we need. Cruise Control is soft rock rather than yacht rock — and there is a difference. There’s work to be done here.
Next, comes ‘Sonos Sound System’. This one is tricky — a multi-genre playlist without a DJ/presenter to string it all together is a risk. “Brilliant sound meets music discovery” is the tagline for this station. The idea being to show off the speaker brand’s superior sound quality and new music knowledge. The music is different and impressively alternative — but it makes for an erratic listen — since there is no mood to ease into.
I would argue that Spotify is doing a better job with Lorem and Pollen, but they set standards that are possible to surpass with more effort. I would recommend that Sonos employs a similar strategy and goes for a more coherent ‘total station sound’ on this one — or expands the concept to several stations perhaps.
Onto ‘Rock Pantheon’. I chose this because classic rock has been much maligned in the streaming era. The rock focused streaming service Music Aficionado stepped up to the plate to some extent, but on the mainstream services rock seems somewhat a ‘cinderella’ genre not much above Jazz or Classical. The flavour of a more classic or let’s say ‘vintage’ rock station is an appealing idea. I had especially high expectations here and two tracks in, when Thin Lizzy’s Emerald came blasting out, I was tempted to set those expectations up a notch further. The station performed really well, cranking out consistently good and yet lesser known songs from familiar artists including Kiss, Foreigner, Cheap Trick: the usual suspects but deeper cuts, exactly what I was looking for.
Last but not least, ‘Sunset Fuzz’. This was the most coherent listen of the bunch for me. Tagged ‘romantic noise’ the station is mostly mid-tempo indie and has a wide field to draw from. The selection pulsed away nicely with some excellent segues, fun new discoveries and almost nothing too obvious (the usual suspects — Kruangbin, Beach House, Real Estate, all merging nicely into the mood). It did wear a little after a couple of hours but that’s fine I guess, just choose another station…
So, after a couple of weeks in the company of Sonos Radio HD, I would say I’m moderately impressed and have found a couple of stations — Rock Pantheon and Sunset Fuzz (though I don’t like the name) that float my boat, and I’m sure there are others too. I do wish Cruise Control would do a better job, and the artist stations haven’t really stuck.
I’m about to give the service a second stage test — holiday music. I’m rather choosy about selecting what to listen to at Christmas, as the choice is huge and listening time is limited to December only (well it should be!). For Sonos, here is another opportunity to do Christmas better than the streaming services and so I’ll report back sometime in December and hope to have made some new discoveries.
For Sonos, I hope they continue to invest and develop the service. Investment in curation is good for artists, good for music fans and good for the industry. Overall, it’s a commendable effort and worth a run for your money.