Audi gives Sonos its first in-car audio win in the new Q4 e-tron EV

Audi and Sonos have quietly partnered on in-car audio, the connected speaker company's first foray into automotive, with the technology first showing up in the new Q4 e-tron all-electric crossover. Audi previewed the cabin of the new EV earlier this week, along with its augmented reality head-up display, but it was a handful of surreptitious Sonos logos on the speaker grilles that caught the eye.

The Q4 e-tron will be Audi's smallest vehicle in the North American e-tron EV line-up, at least for the moment. A compact SUV, it's Audi's first model to use VW Group's MEB all-electric platform, something the automaker is expected to tap for not only features like all-wheel drive but the potential for a much smaller price tag compared to previous e-tron models that have skewed toward the luxury space.

Final images of the exterior of the electric crossover haven't been released yet, only with the Q4 e-tron in camouflage, but Audi has shown a sizable gallery of cabin images. They show features like the new AR HUD, which will be optional, and the new infotainment touchscreen which can be configured up to 11.6-inches in size. Audi will also offer both traditional fabrics like leather for its seats, and animal-free versions using textiles.

However, eagle-eyes over at Protocol spotted a familiar logo on the speaker grilles. Whereas the Audi Q5 SUV offers a Bang & Olufsen audio system as an option, as is available on most of the automaker's models, the Q4 e-tron has Sonos speakers instead.

Sonos CEO Patrick Spence confirmed the partnership during an investor event on March 9. He's been vocal in the past about wanting to expand the company beyond the home and into new markets, in a more ambitious way than the current Sonos portable speakers like Move and the freshly-announced Roam. Indeed, he pointed out to investors, a sizable proportion of the money spent on audio equipment is on in-car systems.

"Like we've said, we want to be in all the different categories of audio, and so one of the big ones – if you think of the 90 billion that's spent every year in audio – a big chunk of that is in auto," Spence explained. "And so we're excited, our first partnership of bringing our sound experience to automobiles is with Audi and the Q4 e-tron. You'll see a lot more on that very shortly, so stay tuned for more."

Neither Audi nor Sonos have said how, exactly, the EV's system might differ from other in-car audio systems. In the B&O system in other Audi models, for example, it's the Danish company's 3D sound technology that has been implemented, with the upgrade package including more speakers in the cabin and a beefier amplifier. According to Spence, though, we might expect more from what Sonos has in mind.

"The way we think about all of this is, how can we bring that overall experience, right, into new areas of audio? So you saw it today with Roam," he explained. "As we thought about that product, how do we make sure that it's not like so many products that have been out there that get thrown in a drawer and forgot about? We want to build it in a way that it's really easy for people to engage it. And we do that by creating and inventing technology like Sound Swap, which allows you to easily move the music."

Sound Swap is a new system developed by Sonos, to bridge the functionality of the Roam portable speaker when it's moving between Bluetooth and WiFi modes. In the former, it connects directly to a Bluetooth device – such as a smartphone or tablet – but when it moves within range of a WiFi network on which a Sonos speaker system is installed, pressing and holding the "play" button will automatically swap the current audio to the nearest Sonos speaker. The system also works in reverse, Sonos says.

"And so as we've thought about auto, thinking about how it connects to the system, and how we make it easy for customers, is really what we're thinking," Spence continued. "That's not all going to come in the first iteration as we go through this, but every category of audio that we go into, we want to bring that unique experience, that unique connectedness that we talked about, to it. And so we see doing the exact same thing in auto, over time, and we love to be getting started with Audi. They're very innovative on this front, and willing to experiment. So, early days, but you can expect us to be thinking, and bringing, our connectedness to all areas of audio."

It's not hard to speculate on what that sort of Sonos "connectedness" might look like an automotive situation. Being able to seamlessly transition audio playback from home Sonos speakers to the car when you have to leave the house, for example, and then do the same in reverse when you return, is one possibility.

Meanwhile, Sonos products like Sonos Radio – its free streaming music platform – and the subscription-based Sonos Radio HD version that adds quality and does away with advertising would be obvious additions to the car. Currently they're only available for playback on Sonos speakers over WiFi, but with all of Audi's recent models offering embedded cellular data connections, the ability to stream to a vehicle would make sense.