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How Sonos wireless headphones could stand out from the crowd (because they'll need to)

Sonos wireless headphones
(Image credit: German Patent and Trademark Office)

Sonos is developing a pair of wireless, potentially noise-cancelling, over-ear headphones. The company hasn’t confirmed as much, but filed patents and subsequent rumours and reports all point in the same direction. 

They could be officially unveiled as soon as next month – Sonos is hosting a product launch on 16th March for, as suggested by the event’s invite, a ‘portable’ product, although behind the curtain could just as likely be a smaller version of the Move Bluetooth speaker (also heavily rumoured). Alternatively, the Sonos headphones could arrive later in the year as the company's second new product promised for 2021. Wherever they appear on our timeline, Sonos wireless headphones are almost certainly coming. The question is, does the world want them?

In short, we expect it does. The prospect of this inevitable Sonos expansion excites us, anyway. But in a wireless headphones market awash with excellent pairs, Sonos needs a unique selling point or two, not to mention competitive sound quality. Apple recently managed to separate its AirPods Max from Sony, Bose and Sennheiser rivals with Apple-centric features and a significantly higher price tag (which we found to be justified thanks to their superior sound quality).

Does Sonos have what it takes to carve out its own corner of the headphones market and garner mass appeal? Again, we believe so. And here’s how it could do it.

Sonos headphones ‘swap’

Sonos hasn’t become one of the world’s best and most popular audio brands by following the herd. It more or less spawned the multi-room speaker market nearly 20 years ago, and it continues to dominate, despite a wealth of competition. It’s maintained favour through consistent operational seamlessness, unique features and exemplar sound, and it is these strengths of the Sonos ecosystem that will need to translate into the Sonos headphones experience. 

Sonos products are all about working together, so it’s impossible to imagine a beatnik Sonos outsider that sits on the edge rather than properly inside the ecosystem. Sonos users will undoubtedly want a Sonos-savvy pair of headphones – otherwise, what’s the point? – and Sonos appears to be on the same wavelength. At least in one aspect, anyway.

In the approved patent is mention of a ‘swap’ feature, which would let owners simply and easily pass the music playing on their Sonos headphones to one (or more) of their Sonos speakers. The patent reads: "For example, if a particular piece of content play is currently playing on the wireless headphone, a swap changes the playback to play that piece of content on one or more other playback devices on the local network." 

It sounds similar to how iPhones can ‘hand-off’ music to a HomePod or HomePod mini (and vice versa) by simply putting the devices close to one another, but this would mark the first implementation of this kind of feature in a pair of headphones. We imagine a similar process would work between a pair of Sonos headphones and Sonos speaker, but perhaps the headphones could even sport a button or touch gesture to initiate this.

Maybe the user could set the headphones to automatically send music to a particular Sonos 'zone' when they detect your home network when you step in the door. It would be a neat asset (albeit, alone, not a huge selling point) that would no doubt appeal to existing Sonos users.

Sonos zones and app control

This Sonos system integration brings up the matter of a wi-fi network, which is how the Sonos system connects together. Now, Sonos is hardly going to launch a pair of wireless headphones without Bluetooth connectivity. This is almost essential to connect to your phone, tablet or portable music player while you're out and about, but including wi-fi connectivity as well could open the gateway to further Sonos-centric functionality.

For one, it’d open up the possibility of including the headphones in a ‘zone’ in your Sonos system. They could be part of your ‘TV’ zone, for example, alongside your Sonos Beam or Arc, to be used simultaneously or as an alternative. Would they have support for surround sound decoding (including Dolby Atmos, as supported by the Arc) or perhaps a proprietary pseudo-surround sound feature comparable to Apple’s spatial audio

The Sonos S2 app – the puppet-master of the Sonos system – could also step in as a useful means of headphones control. Many headphones come with dedicated apps that allow the owner to personalise their pair, alter EQ and see battery life, but the Sonos app could, if compatible with the headphones, offer wearers access to a slew of streaming services and sources – all aggregated in one place, rather than from a range of apps on their phone – offering a nifty means of control within the home environment.

Bluetooth *and* wi-fi: better sound quality?

There’s also the potential of wi-fi offering better sound quality, too. Bluetooth has come a long way to conveniently deliver high-quality, wireless audio, currently peaking with the aptX HD standard (which supports up to 24-bit/48kHz), but if owners could connect their headphones directly to a wi-fi home network, rather than only to a phone over Bluetooth, it could potentially mean longer range a more stable connection and high-resolution audio support. 

While we’re only too aware of Sonos’ neglect of the latter to date, the increase in audio bandwidth that comes with Sonos S2 app has left us hopeful for future support of hi-res FLAC and maybe even MQA music.

Again, such network reliance would surely make this feature a home-only experience, but it would perhaps make the Sonos wireless headphones the most convincing best-of-both-worlds solution out there.

Sonos Trueplay for headphones

Sonos Trueplay is an auto-calibration technology that tunes Sonos speakers for the room they live in to deliver the best sound possible. The question here is could Trueplay be adapted to customise your Sonos headphones experience?

Instead of working to ensure a speaker sounds great tucked away in a corner or sandwiched between a stack of books, could Trueplay for headphones automatically adapt their sound to your surroundings in real-time, as 'adaptive noise-cancellation' does? Trueplay for headphones could also go down the route of helping create a customised sound profile to match the headphones' sonics specifically to someone's hearing system, as headphones like nuraphones do.

Generally, with Sonos speakers, Trueplay works by using the microphones in your iPhone. The exception to this is the Sonos Move, which uses internal mics of its own. As wireless headphones tend to have mics, we think the implementation of such a feature could be a real possibility.

Nailing everything else – including price

Naturally, while the Sonos wireless headphones have plenty of potential to stand out from the crowd, they’ll also want to stand in line with their rivals when it comes to popular features and competitive specs. That includes active noise-cancellation, a 20-to-30-hour battery life with USB-C charging (including fast-charging), and increasingly common functions like auto-pause and ‘transparent hearing’ mode.

And then there’s the price. The Sonos wireless headphones have been tipped by Bloomberg sources to launch at about £220 ($300, AU$400), which would keep them well clear of the Apple AirPods Max; undercut Sony's range-topping class-leaders, the WH-1000XM4, plus the current crop from Bose and Sennheiser; and put them more or less in the firing line of still-popular, last-generation models like the Sony WH-1000XM3

Really, Sonos’ experience with driver hardware and audio processing, its near-faultless history of aesthetic and usability design, and of course its nailed-on mass appeal puts it in a great position to not only enter but usefully expand the headphones world. Let’s hope Sonos makes the most of it.

MORE:

Check out the best wireless headphones 2021 you can buy

AirPods Max teardown shows the inner workings of Apple's headphones

Sonos is working on a compact, portable Bluetooth speaker

Becky is Hi-Fi and Audio editor of What Hi-Fi?, and has been part of the team for almost eight years, with her current position preceded by roles as a staff writer and news editor. During that time she has been fortunate enough to travel the world to report on the biggest and most exciting brands in hi-fi and consumer tech (and has had the jetlag and hangovers to remember them by). In her spare time, Becky can often be found running, watching horror movies and hunting for gluten-free cake.