Jeff Berman is one of a rare breed of AV industry writers who focuses on the business side of the market. In addition to a rich history of working in retail, he has written for M&E Daily, Smart Content News, Smart Screen News, and CDSA Cyber Security News, and also worked for six years as a contributing editor for the Consumer Technology Association's annual Digital America publication.
Google's efforts to take control of the living room are being taken two steps further in 2015--first through the arrival of the first Android TVs, and second through the implementation of its Google Cast technology in various audio products from Denon, LG, and Sony. The latter, because of its multi-room component, stands to help Google expand its reach throughout the rest of the house, as well.
You've no doubt heard before, and often, that Google wants to take control of your living room. I can almost hear you groaning and see you rolling your eyes. After all, that's what many people said back in 2010, when the company--with a little help from partners Intel, Logitech, and Sony--introduced the Google TV smart TV platform. We all know how that turned out. (It failed to catch on, just in case you didn't know.)
Google continued its efforts to expand from mobile devices into the living room two years ago with the Chromecast, a $35 HDMI streaming media dongle that connects to televisions and enables users to stream audio and video from mobile devices using their Wi-Fi networks. It was a cheaper, easy-to-use alternative to set-top streaming boxes like Roku and Apple TV--and, of course, a much cheaper alternative to buying a smart TV with the same functionality built in. Many consumers quickly gravitated to the Chromecast.
Good retail distribution has only helped the Chromecast. Walk into a Best Buy store, and you are likely to see a big box of Chromecasts placed in multiple eye-catching spots. In the 12 months through March, Google/Chromecast had a 44.1 percent unit market share in the U.S. for networked content devices, up from 36.5 percent a year earlier, according to data supplied by the NPD Group. Roku followed with a 29.9 percent share (up from 23.4 percent). Apple TV was third, its share dropping to 22.9 percent from 29.7 percent.
Google took yet another step toward control of the living room last year, when it announced the Android TV platform, a replacement for Google TV that doesn't require a separate streaming stick or set-top box to make a TV smart. Sony quickly threw its support behind Android TV, featuring the new smart TV platform in its latest Bravia smart TV offerings for 2015. Also shifting to Android TV and away from their own proprietary platforms are Philips and Sharp. Google and PC maker Asus have also collaborated on the Nexus Player, a $100 set-top box featuring Android TV.
That brings us to Google's latest living-room endeavor: Google Cast for audio. Many consumers are familiar with the Google Cast technology because it's already used in the Chromecast, as well as the new Android TV devices. Google Cast technology allows consumers to use their Android and iOS mobile devices to select and control the playback of audio and video app content on their TVs. Extending Google Cast to speakers and other audio products "made perfect sense to me," said NPD analyst Ben Arnold in a phone interview, pointing to the success of the Chromecast. Part of the appeal of the Chromecast is that it came in at a lower price than rival set-top streaming boxes, and that helped Google build a significant installed base, he said. Google declined to say what that exact installed base is, a spokeswoman telling us only that it has "sold millions of Chromecast devices to date and seen over a billion taps of the cast button since launch."
Back when Chromecast was introduced, Arnold questioned what else Google could do on the audio front. Although there were music services that Chromecast users could access among its many compatible apps, "listening to music through your TV isn't exactly a great experience," he said. Being able to stream music from Pandora and other mobile apps to good-quality speakers and AV receivers, however, would be another thing altogether. The best speakers tend to be reserved for the living room, den, or (if you are so lucky) dedicated home theater room. However, networked wireless speakers can also be used in pretty much every other room of the house.
Network-connected, multi-room audio is a growing category that's largely been driven by the popularity of the Sonos product line. Sonos had an 84 percent share of Wi-Fi streaming audio speaker revenue in the 12 months that ended in March, up from 79.1 percent a year earlier, said Arnold. The initial products supporting Google Cast for audio include wireless speakers and soundbars from Denon, LG, and Sony. In announcing its line of HEOS wireless multi-room sound systems that are compatible with Google Cast, Denon said in a January news release that "casting with HEOS is easy," requiring users to connect their smartphones or tablets to the same Wi-Fi network as the HEOS speakers, open any app that's Google Cast Ready, and tap the cast button on the mobile device to play content on the HEOS speakers. That underscores another key part of the appeal of the Chromecast and Google Cast overall: simplicity. The three current HEOS wireless speakers range in price from $299 to $599. That's a bit pricier than the $199 to $399 wireless speakers that Sonos is fielding, but a lower-priced HEOS model, the $199 HEOS 1 (shown here), is coming this month.
Sony's SRS-X77, SRS-X88, and SRS-X99 wireless speakers range in price from $300 to $700, and its two Google Cast soundbars--the HT-ST9 and HT-NT3--will cost $1,499 and $799, respectively, when they ship in July, said Aaron Levine, Sony Electronics product manager of home audio. That, too, is more expensive than the $699 Playbar soundbar from Sonos.
The pricing of the Denon and Sony speakers, combined with the huge head start that Sonos has in the wireless multi-room speaker category, could make it a challenge for Denon and Sony to gain major market share. However, the pricing strategy being used by LG for its first MUSICflow speakers (shown, right) featuring Google Cast could help that company--a newcomer to the wireless networked speaker category--gain some traction in the space. LG shipped four wireless speakers featuring Google Cast in March priced $179 to $379, including the 30-watt H4 at $199 that is battery-powered. It also shipped three LG soundbars with Google Cast at $399 to $799.
"They don't have a long history or legacy in audio," said NPD's Arnold of LG. "As a way to boost their presence in this very much growing category, maybe coming down a little bit on price is a good strategy for that, and we'll see if that is effective," he said.
LG isn't a complete newcomer in the audio category overall. The company has long fielded a line of home-theater-in-a-box products and also offered some iPod docks, standalone Bluetooth speakers, soundbars, and portable audio systems, said Tim Alessi, LG Electronics director of new product development. The company also sells home theater receivers, but not in the U.S. As stereos, TVs, and other audio and video products continue to become more and more connected, "it was just a natural progression" for LG to enter the hi-fi audio category in the U.S. with multi-room speakers, said Alessi.
LG made a very concerted effort, especially with its new soundbars, to come in at a lower price at the entry level of rival products, said Alessi. As a newcomer to the networked wireless speaker category, where Sonos is so dominant, "we thought it was probably a good idea" to price the LG speakers lower and "add a feature that they don't have, which is Google Cast," he said.
One key ingredient that Google Cast brings to the table is a platform that "has a very familiar and comfortable user interface because the consumer can just use whatever compatible app is available, just the same way that they've always used it" on other devices, said Alessi. Supporting Google Cast also was an easy way for LG to expand the amount of content partners that are available for users of its products, he said, pointing to the availability of such apps as Pandora.
Chromecast users are an obvious target market for speakers supporting Google Cast for audio. However, not all Chromecast users are necessarily going to be attracted to such speakers, said Alessi. "I think you need to first understand what the benefits of multi-room audio are," he said. If you do, then "certainly if you have some experience with a Google Chromecast stick and understand the simplicity of how it's used by just tapping on that cast button from a compatible app, that's certainly going to help tell the story," he said. However, "I don't know if the ability to stream Netflix from your phone automatically makes somebody want a multi-room audio product," he said.
Indeed, it's not yet clear how many of those Chromecast users will be making the leap to multi-room audio devices featuring Google Cast. Nor is it clear just how effectively retailers will be demonstrating the feature with the new Denon, LG, and Sony speakers. Although LG already shipped its initial speakers featuring Google Cast by press time, they were only just starting to arrive at retail stores like Best Buy. I attempted to find a speaker featuring Google Cast for audio at two Best Buy stores in Long Island, but had no luck.
So, will Google really be able to take control of our living room--or our entire house--any time soon? For now, it seems quite unlikely, based on the huge head start that Sonos has in multi-room audio, the fact that Roku and Apple remain major players in the streaming networked video device segment, and the strength of LG, Samsung, and Vizio in the smart TV segment. What could significantly help Google's efforts could be speakers featuring Google Cast that come in at even lower price points than LG's initial entry-level offerings--something that Alessi said isn't off the table. Or Sonos support for Google Cast for audio. (Sonos didn't comment on the chances of that happening.) [Editor's note, 6/9/15: Although Sonos declined to comment on whether it will support Google Cast for audio, the company pointed out that it already partnered with Google last year with support for the Google Play Music streaming app for Android and iOS mobile devices...so another partnership is not totally out of the question.]
In the meantime, mobile devices will likely continue to shift some TV viewers away from their big-screen TVs, and on that front Google will continue to battle Apple for mobile market share for the foreseeable future. Given all the strong rivals that Google continues to face in the AV space--which also includes the videogame consoles of Microsoft and Sony--don't expect there to be a winner for control of the living room anytime soon.
• Pros and Cons of Today's Top Streaming Media Players at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Can DTS Play-Fi Dethrone Sonos? at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Can We Sell Hi-Res Audio to the Mainstream Music Lover? at HomeTheaterReview.com.