Not too long ago, consumers who wanted “whole home audio” — the ability to play the same music in multiple rooms simultaneously, or to connect all their stereos to a single library — had to spend thousands of dollars on custom wiring and equipment. Then came Sonos, whose devices could wirelessly connect to music libraries on a home computer or the Internet. It was pricey — the first-generation starter kit cost $1,200 in 2005 — but easy to install and a big step forward in functionality.
That approach has slowly filtered through the consumer electronics industry, with a growing number of manufacturers trying their hands at connected music systems offered at lower prices. (Even Sonos has drifted down toward mass-market prices, selling a standalone wireless player for just under $300.) Now Pure, a division of Hertfordshire, England-based Imagination Technologies, is entering the U.S. market offering a whole-home audio system with a difference: its own music services.
The Jongo self-powered wireless speakers, which are due in February for $199, illustrate a pair of digital-era trends in the consumer electronics business: connectivity and integrated content.
On the connectivity front, the speakers can play content streamed from the Internet via Wi-Fi or from a laptop, smartphone or tablet computer via Bluetooth. The Pure Connect app for Apple or Android devices can also synchronize song streams so the same music plays simultaneously on all the Jongo devices in a home.
The dead spots, interference issues and other vagaries of home Wi-Fi networks pose a challenge for multi-room audio systems. With that in mind, Pete Downton, Imagination Technologies’ director of connected services, said the company focuses the “vast majority” of its engineering effort on developing products that “can cope with the reality of people’s Wi-Fi and routers.”
The other distinguishing feature of Pure’s products is what the company calls “Pure connected services,” a mix of free and subscription-only content delivered by the Pure Connect app. The free portion includes about 20,000 radio feeds and about 200,000 recorded programs available on demand, including podcasts and repeats of previous broadcasts. The subscription offering is an unlimited online jukebox akin to what the likes of Spotify, Rdio and Rhapsody provide, which Pure sells for a similar price: $5 per month for streaming only, $10 for downloadable tracks that can be played offline.
Downton said the company is aiming for the “passive massive” — consumers who buy few CDs or downloads, relying instead on radio for their musical entertainment. Pure’s products have integrated song-recognition technology, Downton said, enabling listeners to tag the songs that catch their fancy during radio broadcasts. They can go back later to buy the songs from Pure’s downloadable music store or listen to them on-demand through its subscription service.
In the United Kingdom, where Pure rolled out its music services a year ago, its customers tend to use the tagging feature on weekday mornings and evenings, then revisit the tagged songs on weekends, Downton said. The seamless ability to hear, identify and return to songs leads to more music discovery and more downloadable track sales, he said.
Persuading consumers to pay a monthly fee for music has proven to be an enormous challenge; subscription services have attracted only a few million paying customers around the world so far. Free music services are far more popular, but making a business out of them hasn’t been easy either — witness Pandora’s struggles despite its huge audience.
These travails raise the question whether it’s smarter for a hardware company to develop its own music services, as Pure is doing (and Apple has done), or take advantage of the services that are already out there, as Sonos and Logitech (maker of another low-cost approach to multi-room audio) have done.
Downton acknowledged that there’s not much margin to be found in selling music, but “we also know that if you’re delivering a great speaker, great hardware, the likelihood is that consumers will use other services from you.” And these days, he said, delivering a great hardware experience means investing in services as well.
The obvious model is Apple, whose combination of iPod hardware and iTunes software helped it to dominate the market for portable music players and 99-cent downloads. But Apple also represents one of Pure’s biggest competitive threats. It makes a $99 adapter that can turn a conventional stereo or set of speakers into a component in a multi-room audio system, capable of playing songs or podcasts in the home’s iTunes collection. Meanwhile, other consumer-electronics manufacturers are building Apple’s AirPlay technology into their audio gear, allowing them to connect to iTunes without an adapter.
Apple’s world is a walled garden; its multi-room system isn’t designed to play music that’s not available through iTunes. (There’s at least one third-party workaround.) Pure has a similar limitation, but at least its services include unlimited music on demand from an online jukebox (albeit for a fee) -- something Apple has so far shown no interest in doing.
Jon Healey writes editorials for The Times. Follow him on Twitter @jcahealey