Two ex-Googlers create hardware that allows you to stream Pandora onto any speaker
Music streaming services such as to Pandora, Spotify and the just-launched Beats Music are no longer newfangled "apps of the moment," but have become the standard way of listening to music. While new apps and services for listening to and discovering tunes are continuously being developed and updated, hardware still lags far behind. Chromecast was perhaps a response to the increasing number of users who watch TV and videos on the internet rather than cable; while Netflix and YouTube videos were previously limited to the size of your laptop screen, the USB device allows your television to access the content—wirelessly, no dongle or HDMI cable required. SF-based start-up Beep, founded in 2012 by two ex-Googlers Daniel Conrad and Shawn Lewis, is hoping to do the same for music. CH met up with the team to demo the product in person.
"We're building a music streaming platform for the home," says Daniel Conrad, Beep CEO. "It's USB-powered, 3.5mm jack out. So that's where we're different from Chromecast: they're HDMI out and we're audio—and we're multi-room. And we're shiny and copper—better-looking, in my humble opinion." We agree; the Beep device is exceptionally pleasing to the eye with its minimalist and contemporary, geometric design. It's a stark contrast from, for example, small black Bluetooth receivers that try to blend with the background—the Beep is meant to be seen and touched.
Conrad says, "It's a simply unit to connect your existing powered speakers to the cloud [over Wi-Fi]. Everyone's transitioned over in the last few years to Pandora, Spotify and other streaming services but we don't have the right hardware at home. The streaming services come onto apps on your phone or on your laptop, and we want to get that on your speakers without having you plug in a cable, which is mostly what we see people doing."
For people who are more familiar with Bluetooth technology, Conrad explains the differences: "Architecturally, instead of streaming from the phone to the Beep device, it's totally independent. You don't need your phone; you can turn it off and this will keep playing music. If you get a phone call, your music won't get interrupted. It's not draining your phone battery while you're streaming music. The main difference, though, with Bluetooth is that we can do multi-room." With multiple Beep devices, you can connect all of the speakers (even if they are different brands) throughout your house; you can also create groups to play different music in separate rooms—an added bonus for parents or teenagers, or housemates with opposing taste in music.
Since the phone is independent of the streaming music, users can walk around freely without any worry about the music stopping. "With Bluetooth, they say 30 feet, but inside a home environment, when you have Wi-Fi network and other stuff on the 2.4GHz network... most people leave their phone right next to their speaker, otherwise it's going to start cutting out," says Conrad. Thus, the phone is only needed when you want to switch stations on Pandora, for example. With Beep, phones and laptops function more like remote controls; they aren't the actual source of content as Beep connects directly to the internet. When you change the volume on your phone, it's reflected in the Beep dial through its LED lights. Likewise, basic controls are available directly on the Beep device; control volume by twisting its dial, or pause the music with a push.
Pandora has already jumped on board. "Instead of building a new Beep app, and then rebuilding the interfaces for all the services [which is what Sonos does], we're going to do direct integration," says Conrad. Going into Pandora's app, he shows CH, "And a lot like Chromecast, you see this little "cast" icon—we click that, and select the Beep system." And just like that, you can get music to stream on your speakers. There's no need for a separate, "clunky" third party app, Conrad says, when services like Pandora and Spotify spend so much time and effort to continually upgrade their own apps for a seamless user experience. Beep, however, is not yet compatible with Spotify. As another option, you can play your own music files located on your device through the Beep app.
Pandora isn't the only company that's stoked—Beep has received investments from well-known names such as Dolby Laboratories board member David Dolby, reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh.
"The dream is actually to build a ubiquitous platform that ends up in every speaker in the world"
Conrad, who worked on the Nexus 1 (the first piece of hardware that Google sold), is applying some of the practices he learned to his new start-up. "The next piece of the story, this kind of goes back to my Android heritage—so this is the first product that we're shipping but the dream is actually to build a ubiquitous platform that ends up in every speaker in the world. If you look at the industry, I was talking about how everybody's streaming music and there isn't a good hardware solution for the home. We've seen that transition where the media shifts, and then the hardware needs to shift. With CDs, you needed a CD player. With mp3s, you needed docks. People didn't really know that until iPods were ubiquitous and it was like, 'Oh wait, these Bose docks work really well.' And we've seen the shift to streaming services and we need a hardware solution for that."
Conrad continues, "This is as simple as we can get to connect your existing speakers but down the road we want to actually embed this into speakers and we want to do that with partner manufacturers. We're trying to build this as—kind of like an Android approach, to building a platform we can actually embed. We have a reference hardware design which is a relatively inexpensive thing for speaker manufacturers to add to their speaker designs. It's really a connected computer inside that we keep up-to-date and add services to over time." Keep an eye on Beep as they start changing the relationship between our smart devices and home speakers, but also the way we think about sharing music with others.
Beep will be available in two colors (rose copper and gun metal) and retail for $149, but the pre-order price is a discounted $99, available today, 6 February 2014, from Beep. Shipping will begin later this fall. There is currently a promotion that will credit $10 back to you for every successful referral on Facebook and Twitter.
Images courtesy of Beep