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Consumer Electronics Show: Sonos and Rdio make music together

January 6, 2011 |  6:32 pm

Sonos, the Santa Barbara-based manufacturer of whole-home music systems, announced at the Consumer Electronics Show its plan to enable yet another subscription-music service to play through its devices: Rdio, a music-on-demand service that uses social tools to help customers discover songs and artists.

When it becomes available on Sonos in early 2011, Rdio wlil bring a new element to the devices: the ability to follow the musical choices of the tastemakers you choose. Yet it fits into the existing Sonos mission of enabling customers to fill their homes with music from the broadest possible library.

The hurdle for Rdio is persuading people to pay a monthly fee for music they can't keep. The basic version of the service, which is available only on computers, is $5 a month. The version for mobile phones and Sonos costs $10.

But Sonos CEO John MacFarlane said his customers didn't seem to have a problem with the subcription model. Two-thirds of Sonos owners subscribe to at least one music service, and they use it a lot, MacFarlane said, adding, "Their local collections go away."

The company's devices aren't cheap; its entry-level player has a suggested retail price of just under $500, and that doesn't include the cost of the iPhone or iPod Touch used to operate it. (The Sonos players don't have screens; they rely on a smart remote control to help users navigate through the huge amount of music available.) So it's not too surprising that Sonos users wouldn't balk at the idea of paying $10 or more a month for a music service.

MacFarlane, though, believes subscription services can appeal to the masses. The services themselves are improving, the major record companies have become more flexible about business models, and there's rich content available online. They also enable subscribers to play whatever they want without worrying about having to pay per track -- not unlike the original Napster, except with a monthly fee.

He wouldn't get into specifics about Sonos' next products, saying simply that the company planned to enable more sources of content (one likely candidate is MOG, a music subscription service that blends a vast on-demand catalog with Pandora-like personalized radio functions) and more ways to interface with the devices -- for example, by creating a Sonos app for Android phones and tablets.

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-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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