7 things Sonos’ first headphones will need to get right

Sonos headphone patent diagram.
A headphone diagram from a Sonos patent application. sonos/uspo

If the various rumors, leaks, and teases by the CEO are true, Sonos is on the verge of releasing its first wireless headphones in 2024, and the benefits for Sonos customers could be considerable. Being able to use one set of headphones for travel, office, and home use — that also integrate with the Sonos ecosystem of whole-home wireless speakers — would be convenient.

And, assuming the new headphones work with Wi-Fi (like the rest of the company’s products), they’ll be the first wireless headphones to deliver lossless, high-resolution audio without the need for special codecs, perfect wireless conditions, or anything else. Will be one of. Accessories like headphone DAC/amp.

Still, the success of potential Sonos wireless headphones isn’t certain. It is a very mature market with intense competition. If Sonos wants to make this product a must-have for its customers, the company needs to avoid several pitfalls.

comfort is king

Simon Cohen is wearing head unity.
Head Unity is the world’s first Wi-Fi headphone. They are also very comfortable. Simon Cohen/

It should go without saying, but headphones need to be comfortable. Any pressure points caused by a poor fit or poor selection of materials will limit how long you can wear them before fatigue sets in.

Even companies that have been making headphones for years may inadvertently create a product hindered by an uncomfortable design. This was certainly the case with the Shure Aionic 40, a great-sounding set of cans that I couldn’t wear for more than an hour.

When you consider that Sonos has no history of designing products like headphones, earbuds, or other devices that require a strong ergonomic component, there’s a risk that its first effort won’t hit the bullseye.

home and away

Sonos Move 2 in white on a green park bench.
Second generation Sonos Move. Simon Cohen/

Wireless headphones have become our constant companions, whether we’re using them to listen to podcasts during our daily commute, to block out unwanted distractions at the office or local coffee house, or to make voice and video calls from anywhere. Are doing it to take. In short, they go where we go.

Sonos headphones need to offer all the flexibility and portability we’ve come to expect from brands like Sony, Bose and Sennheiser while we’re away, as well as a seamless transition to our Wi-Fi network when we get home.

Sonos has a good track record so far. The Sonos Roam and Sonos Move 2 speakers can be used away from home – thanks to the built-in battery and Bluetooth connection – and then automatically connect to the network when you return. This would be a must-have capability for Sonos headphones.

Where Sonos has proven weakest is its lack of app support when its devices are in Bluetooth-only mode. It doesn’t matter if you can’t use the Sonos app when your Sonos Roam speaker is away from home – Bluetooth speakers only have a limited number of adjustments. Wireless headphones are a different story. We are used to having full control over settings like active noise cancellation (ANC) and EQ at all times. Sonos would have to adjust its app to do this.

peace and quiet

At one time, it would have been acceptable for a company like Sonos to sell wireless headphones without ANC. But that is ancient history. Today, you’ll find highly effective ANC on $60 wireless earbuds. Sonos needs to offer ANC that’s at least in the same ballpark as Apple, Bose, Sony, and Sennheiser, even if it fails to beat them.

The same is true for transparency mode – arguably a much more difficult feat.

Multiple Uses, Multiple Devices

As I said earlier, we’re just as likely to use our wireless headphones for Microsoft Teams meetings as we are to listen to the latest Olivia Rodrigo album, so it’s not enough for the audio to sound good – We need to give good sound to our callers.

This means that Sonos headphones should have enough microphones to capture our voices clearly as well as block out unwanted external sounds.

They will also need to support Bluetooth multipoint so that we can connect to two devices simultaneously.

killer spatial audio

Bose QuietComfort Ultra headphones: earcups/logo close-up.
The Bose QuietComfort Ultra headphones have excellent spatial audio. Simon Cohen/

With its Beam Gen 2, Arc and Era 300 speakers, Sonos has proven that it understands the importance of spatial audio, whether it’s Dolby Atmos for shows and movies or Dolby Atmos Music for streaming music services.

Still, spatial audio for speakers is a very different thing from spatial audio for headphones. With headphones, complications abound: Do you use Dolby’s technology for binaural rendering or roll your own? Do you offer virtual spatial audio, which attempts to give any stereo source a more immersive experience, or do you stick only to content made for Dolby Atmos or other 3D audio formats? Finally, do you count the inclusion of head tracking – a sensor-based technology that Apple is heavily promoting on its AirPods and Beats family of wireless earbuds and headphones?

It’s surprisingly difficult to get it right. Apple has chosen to work only with Dolby Atmos content (with and without head tracking) without virtual spatial audio. Depending on the source, this may sound great. Bose has taken another approach, letting you virtualize any audio into a 3D version, again with and without head tracking. It has also been successful.

But I was less impressed by the version of spatial audio on Jabra’s Elite 10 earbuds, and as with some products like the Soundcore Liberty 4, it feels like a gimmick.

must be true tv

A viewer uses AirPods Max headphones to experience spatial audio on the new Apple TV 4K
AirPods Max headphones deliver an excellent spatial audio experience on Apple TV 4K. Zeke Jones /

Currently, if you have a Sonos soundbar like the Ray, Beam Gen 2, or Arc, you’ll get the best possible Dolby 5.1 or Dolby Atmos signal from your TV via HDMI or optical. If you want to share that sound with other Sonos speakers in your home, you can do so by grouping them.

However, your grouped speakers – even if they are also soundbars – will only get a downmixed, stereo version of the TV audio with no low-frequency channel (subwoofer) information.

That’s not going to fly with Sonos headphones. They should offer parity with the Apple AirPods Max, which can sync wirelessly with the Apple TV 4K, and get a fully head-tracked Dolby Atmos presentation of compatible content.

Additionally, if there are multiple Sonos headphones in a household, each one needs to achieve the same high level of audio quality.

battery blues

Sonos knows that battery life matters. One of the most impressive things that changed when it introduced the second generation Sonos Move was the more than doubling of the speaker’s endurance from 11 hours to 24 hours.

This is the kind of thinking that Sonos will need to apply to its headphones. Wi-Fi traditionally consumes more power than Bluetooth, and with the added demands of processors, sensors, and microphones, modern wireless boxes can demand much more energy.

The Head Unity – the first Wi-Fi headphones on the market – are a cautionary tale. Even when using Bluetooth alone, they’re only rated for about eight hours of use. This may be acceptable for headphones that are destined to stay at home, but a set of travel-friendly boxes would do much better.

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