The Masked Installer – Loves Sonos, Hates Selling It

Our guest blogger – The Masked installer – returns again. This time he shares his straight talking opinion from inside the Integrator industry on the ever popular Sonos multi-room music system.

I’m usually pretty clear about where we stand in respect of most of the brands we sell.  There is a small number we trust, there are a lot more we distrust and there are a select few that we loathe with a vengeance; no names, no pack-drill….erm, OK… Netstreams DigiLinX.  There’s one we have the most bizarre relationship with and it’s a favourite of this parish; Sonos.

Here’s a secret.  It’s probably not too secret but we don’t talk about it too much.  Custom Installers make next to nothing selling Sonos. Sonos are sold to the trade in the UK by an IT distributor and the margins most of us make are akin to the margins we might make on selling mice and keyboards.  Now if you sell your soul to Sonos; shift all your volume into moving their product for them, do additional marketing for them and do ridiculous levels of turnover you might make half the percentage margin you might make on a nice set of ceiling speakers or an AMX processor.  If you’ve done that you’ve probaably had to do a few of the following things.

  • You’ve sold units that can be used with the most basic DIY home network kit and that kit will certainly break
  • You’ve used Sonos in place of a product with a proper Custom Install support infrastructrure
  • You’ve almost certainly had to deal with audio and video distribution separately because Sonos is such a resolutely audio only solution
  • You’ve probably got some happy customers because Sonos is really nice to use and getting better all the time.  I count myself among them as I’ve got a 5 zone system running at home.

There then is the dilemma.  The product is great but selling it isn’t. Consider the Sonos S5 – the ultimate anti Custom Install product.  Let’s assume you are a middling Sonos dealer who jumps through most of the hoops that have put in front of you.  The S5 comes in pretty packaging that emphasises the fact that it can be controlled by a free app running on an iPod touch.  It doesn’t need speakers – one of the engines of revenue and margin for AV dealers.  Like other Sonos products it’s somewhat of an awkward child in being integrated into wider home control systems (with the honourable exception of Control4) so it’s not a great introduction to the wider world of integration and like all other Sonos products, it’s sold to the general public by Sonos in direct competition with their dealer base. So it’s not our favourite.

If we want to maintain our approved dealer status with Sonos we need to carry both the Black one and the White one as demo items.  Apparently this means we can give the full Sonos experience to the prospective punters who come in.  Presumably this will help them when they go and place orders on when they get home…

The readership on this site is pretty clued up and I’m not expecting any sympathy.  However, it might be interesting background for you if you ever go to a Custom Installer to talk about a Sonos job.  If they start looking at their watch or over your shoulder or just start looking bored, remind yourself of this; a typical installer will make more cash margin selling ONE Kaleidescape Mini system than he will selling 20 Sonos Bundles and he’ll do so with much less risk.

Now as the editor of this site has pointed out to me, this article leaves a question hanging in the air…”Masked Installer, why do you bother selling Sonos at all?”  The answer is simple.  I don’t think I can’t.  Sonos is too good to ignore.  It’s slick, it works, it offers great on-line services and an interface that everyone gets.  I’ve done three cinema jobs for someone who first came to us to talk about Sonos, I’ve sold £20K of speakers on the back of one Sonos job, I like the damn thing.  I’ve probably just got the hump because I’ve got to buy yet more pointless demo kit to protect the already feeble % margin I make selling it.

The Masked Installer

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Masked Installers Previous Posts : Sonos at Amazon : : Our Sonos Review

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20 Comments on "The Masked Installer – Loves Sonos, Hates Selling It"

  1. Jon Smirl | July 17, 2010 at 1:42 pm |

    I’m sitting on the other side of this. I admit to buying direct from the manufacturer all of the time. I do it because the value I receive corresponding to the dealer markup isn’t worth what it is costing me. I would much rather buy the hardware at wholesale and then pay the dealer directly for the installation. I’d mad at a dealer right now. He added $10,000 in markup to some hardware and just dropped the boxes at a job since someone else was installing them (install was beyond his abilities). Last time he will be used. Placing an order and dropping off some boxes is not worth $10,000. Back to figuring out how to order direct.

    I will pay full rates for people to do work. Don’t hide behind the margins, if your work is good, just bill for it.

  2. Another installer | July 17, 2010 at 1:55 pm |

    Hi TMI, as another list installer I pretty much agree with all your comments. Yes the margin is the smallest of all products I sell, and the list price published all over the place. People often see adverts for 2 zone bundles not realising that one of the zoneplayers is the unamplified ZP90. I have even been asked “what’s an amplifier?”.

    But Sonos does do certain things very well that other multi-room systems either don’t do or don’t do as well.

    Sonos isn’t very customisable as you can’t set static IP’s nor does it have trigger outputs or IR control.

    At home I also have Sonos but only 2 zones, with 1 of those being a ZP90 feeding into source 6 of a NuVo Grand Concerto 8 zone system. At least it has keypads fixed in the wall in the bathroom and ensuite that no-one can run off with.

  3. “Another installer” – as you rightly point out Sonos isn’t easily “integrated”.

    But in a way this shows it’s strength. A product that was never meant for custom installs is being adopted by CIs simply because its so good – and blows away most ‘proper’ hard wired multi-room systems (as you point out).

    Hopefully they are working on the integration stuff for the future.

  4. I’m not a pro CI – hell, I’m not even in the business, but I’m interested enough to want to know what’s the best multi-room system available for a given budget. I get from this article that the Sonos system is well regarded, but Sonos isn’t, due to it’s poor trading relationship with its dealer network, and its choosing to compete for retail against said dealers.

    I’d like to know what’s so good about the Sonos system that makes it worth the extra effort on the part of the dealer, despite the poor margins, and what’s missing from the Sonos system that makes it such hard work for the CI.

    Maybe there’s an opportunity here…

  5. I agree whole heartedly with TMI, My wife has a custom curtain and soft furnishing business and the scenario the TMI mentioned regarding the potential customer demoing the gear then going online to buy from the manufacturer is a real headache, this is often avoided with our wallpaper sales by each design in a wallapaer book having codes bespoke to each individual seller therefore a potential customer quoting code 123 means nothing to the seller online. It does gripe that such an awesome piece of gear such as Sonos is proving such a thorn is the side of the CI with regards to making a living especially in these times. Perhaps if Sonos was to branch out into the video market as well then this perhaps make the whole package to the consumer. I would love some setup like Crestrom but I know that I will never be able to afford it, thats why I have Sonos for my multi room audio (3 zones and 2 sub zones) and Media Center for video. If Sonos only did HD video…


  6. Another installer (AI) | July 17, 2010 at 8:19 pm |

    Otto-mate + Duncs – unfortunately I’m told Sonos aren’t working on integration stuff for the future. I met with them last week and asked about the possibility of Sonos bringing out video distribution hardware after we spoke about the demise of iMerge and likelihood of greater use of HD (and SD) IP based video disti as done by Plex and XBMC. Unfortunately I was told that wasn’t going to happen.

    Sonos seem quite content with keeping their product range very small, which can be sold to retail customers in existing homes as well as used by CI’s in new builds. Maybe video distribution at this stage would make self-install too difficult for the masses, and although they “say” that the CI side of the business is very important to them I do think the retail mass market to where they base their sights.

    Sonos have not brought out any product that is designed for CI use more than self-install. Indeed the latest unit being the S5 goes the opposite way, making it even easier for anyone to add another zone seeing as it has speakers built-in. Don’t get me wrong, I like the S5 but the fact is as a CI I’ve yet to sell one and certainly do not want to have to stock one of each colour just to keep my narrow margin on the range. The S5 to me is for getting sound into areas not considered when wiring or for existing houses where it is difficult to cable. If we are involved in a new-build it is unusual if the client has not considered what rooms music will be cabled for. As such the S5 is not something I plan to ever design into a new build multi-room proposal.


  7. AI..

    > unfortunately I’m told Sonos aren’t working on integration stuff for the future

    I’ve yet to meet a serious company that will tell you what it’s working on in the future.

    As for Video I don’t need or want Sonos to do that. If it did it would be a completely different product with a very different price too.

  8. Due to the low margins, we normally get the clients to buy the Sonos gear direct. We tell them what to order. They then let us know when its arrived and and they pay for us to hook it it all up for them.

  9. AI, I suspected as much, it is more of a wish and you can understand Sono’s view with the fact they have a very good product which is one of the market leaders and they want to keep it that way.

    TMI – A friend has just moved into a new ‘executive’ house and one of the options was a full multiroom audio setup installed, the developer’s show houses tend to be running a single ZP-120 running to a speaker switch an then onto the rooms. I am led to believe the markup on any devleoper’s options is massive, but I suppose that would stay with the developer and not get passed to the CI.

  10. Paul Bendall | July 18, 2010 at 8:15 am |

    If you want integration and customisation the alternative to Sonos is the Squeezebox line of devices. I can’t compare because I’ve never had a Sonos but I love my Squeezebox Touch, Radio, Boom and SB3.

  11. The Masked Installer | July 18, 2010 at 8:52 am |

    @John Smirl
    The scenario you describe is a bad one. $10k of MARKUP for a simple delivery service is not acceptable and is made worse by the fact that the dealer is incapable of installing what he’s selling.

    That said, if someone came to us and asked us to install a Lutron Homeworks / AMX / Kaleidescape system but sourced the kit themselves I know we wouldn’t do the work (to be honest it would be difficult to source that wholesale anyway). We charge for design, programming, installation and project management and we make margin on the products we sell. We’ve made substantial investments in people and training, we’ve made substantial capital investment in demonstration equipment so we’re familiar with and good at installing the stuff we use. We don’t hide behind margins, we make margins and I think that’s perfectly acceptable

  12. The Masked Installer | July 18, 2010 at 2:48 pm |

    I wouldn’t say Sonos has a particularly poor trading relationship with its dealer base. The fact that it sells direct rankles and the margins are poor. I think what grates with us is that their sales operation don’t really differentiate in their treatment of CI and retail dealers. Having to carry both colours of a product that is the antithesis of what we do and which we never sell is just daft. The S5 is a retail product, pure and simple.

    So, we don’t necessarily like their approach (though I do have a sneaking admiration for their discipline), we dislike the margins (and the prescriptive conditions attached to those margins). It’s a relatively minute part of our business, we probably make 75x more cash margin in a year selling Lutron lighting control. And yet we still sell it, and we still jump through the hoops Sonos and their distributors put in front of us. I think that last point probably tells you enough about how good a product it is.

  13. Another installer (AI) | July 18, 2010 at 3:50 pm |

    > I am led to believe the markup on any developer’s
    > options is massive

    IME the markup each developer charges varies greatly. Some charge a reasonable 7% on top of the supplier/contractors charges and others I’ve seen quadrupling the cost.

  14. From yet another installer.

    We do sell sonos. For a couple of reasons, and with a couple of problems.

    First, we are wire addicts. No reliable system relies solely on wireless. Wireless is 99% perfect when it comes to 433MHz short (a few milliseconds) commands.
    Wait, let’s narrow that a bit more : wireless is okay in the hands of the customer. Because decades of clumsy (standard-issue) infrared control have teached the users that if pushing a key is not having the usual (never mind expected) effect, pushing it again should do the trick. Wireless wall controls are not allowed such failures.

    But, now and then, we get called by a customer who either didn’t call us early enough, or just can’t have a contractor pull wire in his walls and ceilings.

    At the very least, we try to find a way to wire an Ethernet “backbone” between the zone players. Especially where it’s easy to pick up 10 or more neighbors’ wireless networks.

    Then, these customers are reasonably happy with their sonos. We give them the sonos assistance number and explain these guys are way more available than us anyway.

    Not being tailored for integration is the strength of the sonos. If it doesn’t work, and the remote control is not saying the file can’t be found, then there’s no question some part of the sonos is down.

    Almost. We suspect a sonos to be responsible for the loss of a couple of tweeters. Because more often than not one wone player is tapped into a proper audio system. And when no sound can be heard, you can’t stop the customer from turning the volume up. If the sonos kicks back in, because some microwave is now off… bye-bye tweeters. (at least that’s our guess).

    Bottom line is : sonos has one of the most sexy, responsive, and efficient user interface. Add deezer, Internet radios, and no competing solution can stand the comparison.

    Maybe appleTV would be a valid competitor. More open to integration, and only slightly more complicated.

  15. The Masked Installer | July 20, 2010 at 9:54 am |

    “Bottom line is : sonos has one of the most sexy, responsive, and efficient user interface. Add deezer, Internet radios, and no competing solution can stand the comparison.”

    Agree with all of that. It’s the best client around. It’s worth the money for that alone

    The point about wired / wireless is interesting. In principle we totally agree and we’ll always use a wired backbone for our systems but Sonos is different. Sonos intends to be wireless. It’s how it’s designed and strangely enough it’s how it should be used. If you can get a Sonos system to run wireless you probably should. Every time you add a wired Sonos player to the network you’re adding another cheap 10/100 switch.

    If you’re designing a network infrastructure you don’t pack it with no provenance, slow switches. There’s no good reason to do so just because you can wire in a Sonos Zone Player

  16. “Every time you add a wired Sonos player to the network you’re adding another cheap 10/100 switch.”

    In fact, the “backbone” term is not proper. Make it an ethernet star, with a proper switch.

    I agree that wireless is not so bad with Sonos. Our main concern with it ? We may walk out a fully tested system, and get a service call because the guys in the next appartment changed their ISP. And the new box uses a new wifi channel, or is closer to one of the Sonoses.

  17. The Masked Installer | July 21, 2010 at 5:49 am |

    Totally agree. We have a star wired topology going back to nice quiet Gigabit switches. Nothing particularly exotic, we use the fanless HP Pro-curves.

    Sonos is an awkward proposition for the Custom Installer in a few ways but it’s interesting to see how many of us on here use it.

  18. The Sonos System is an excellent product and people want it.

    The dealers need to stop whinging and spend that effort being creative and offer value added services with it.

    Think Sonos is bad? Try dealing with Apple!!

  19. The Masked Installer | July 23, 2010 at 7:11 pm |

    [quote]The Sonos System is an excellent product and people want it.[/quote]

    Agree; it is and people can buy it from Sonos, seems fair enough to me.

    [quote]The dealers need to stop whinging and spend that effort being creative and offer value added services with it[/quote]

    No we don’t, we need to develop a balance of product and service sales that allow us to do the job well and make a living doing so.

    [quote]Think Sonos is bad? Try dealing with Apple!![/quote]

    Try dealing with Sky and BT

  20. The Masked Installer | July 24, 2010 at 10:17 am |

    I want to expand on my last post. Although it doesn’t read like it, I actually agree with Prem on his core point. Custom Installers do need to develop added value propositions to continue to be viable. Reliance on product margins alone is not going to be sufficient. The iPad is a more extreme example than Sonos, installers aren’t going to make anything selling them but there’s no doubt that there is a clamour for people to use them as a platform for automation work.

    There is a model that does build an added value layer around the Sonos product line and it works for some. It’s probably not one for us, though if we do Sonos work we make sure that we do provide products and services around that. I suspect we’re more in the added value layer around AMX / Lutron / Kaleidescape / Data and Comms products. Sits better with the skills in the team and our market proposition.

    So if I agree with Prem (and I do really apart from the fact I’m not even going to attempt it using Sonos as a platform) why does this whole subject get me so ratty? I think it’s the simple fact that I don’t particularly like being told what to do. No other manufacturer we carry insists on what we carry as demo items, how we should use Point of Sale and what we have to do with their product in our own premises. It’s the kind of behaviour you get from Brand Leaders and while Sonos are probably brand leaders by volume in their category, they’re certainly not by value in this market segment.

    I said in the original blog that I don’t really expect sympathy. I still don’t. It’s been quite cathartic getting that lot off my chest. So thanks to you all for listening 🙂

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