Starting November 20th, the new PLAY:5 is shipping and on shelves all over the U.S., reaching the rest of the world starting Wednesday, November 25th. Here, Sonos Studio illustrates the collaborative approach between design and engineering teams that led to our new flagship smart speaker. This article originally appeared in the print edition of Sonos Studio Zine, Vol.3.
“You gotta get beyond thinking about a speaker. You gotta think beyond to what does it mean to hear music.” – Chris Kallai, Director of Engineering at Sonos.
Chris Kallai, along with Tad Toulis, VP Design and Industrial Design, and Mieko Kusano, Senior Director of Design at Sonos, have been pushing themselves to think and design beyond the boundaries. Together, their teams have been designing and developing the future of sound.
The future feels closer than ever thanks to unprecedented advances in software and hardware, including two new products that represent the apex of collaboration at Sonos. Trueplay is updateable software that will allow listeners to adjust and tune speakers based on the acoustics of a room, and the all-new PLAY:5 is Sonos’ most technologically advanced hardware yet.
“We’re really trying to make products that fit great in the house, sound amazing, and look beautiful in the home,” says Kallai. “And having the design team push the product development team into these spaces forces us to think about innovative ways to solve problems.”
“Our best solutions are formed under good, constructive pressure,” agrees Toulis.
For the design and engineering teams at Sonos, that “good pressure” is the spirit of collaboration, and the sonic output of this is a “diamond” borne from pressure and passion colliding.
How the future will feel
New forms are often a response to new technology, but in the audio world, that interplay is also informed by emotion and experience.
The teams at Sonos have spent a lot of time thinking not just about how an audio element will look and sound in the future, but how it will behave. “A lot of people think about speakers as cool hi-fi equipment in terms of performance,” says Kusano. “But when you think about a modern day home and how people actually enjoy music, it’s more through streaming.”
That’s why the design and engineering teams at Sonos have focused on making products that reflect the quality of high fidelity sound combined with the latest technology, especially streaming.
“When I got my first Sonos product, I was amazed that I had been listening to such dirty music,” says Kallai. “My whole music experience had sort of disintegrated down into what was on my laptop, and that was okay only because it was expedient, not because it was great sound. I think we’re getting into a space—not just our company but the whole technology field, where hi-fi and tech blend and streaming music becomes more and more a part of the way people are living their lives.”
“…It’s all on us to really design amazing hardware and software. It’s going to have a more organic feel. It’s not tech for tech’s sake.” – Tad Toulis
The future of audio, agrees Toulis, is about the experience. “Music is something that’s innate to human-kind,” says Toulis. “So it’s all on us to really design amazing hardware and software. It’s going to have a more organic feel. It’s not tech for tech’s sake.”
According to Kallai, the future is as close—and as far away—as another room in your own home. “What’s going to be exciting is… maybe the product is in the other room and I’m hearing it in the living room,” says Kallai. “You get to violate these expectations.”
How the future will look
“I think we’re gonna find that technology will allow us to do different things…so rather than having six products, you have one thing that does six things,”says Kallai. “We do less things, but we expect more out of each one.”
The idea of simplicity, and “less things that do more” is in the Sonos DNA.
“At Sonos, we like to design things from the inside out, which means you have all of these different disciplines working together—radio frequency engineers, acoustic engineers, mechanical engineers, and designers.” – Mieko Kusano
This minimalistic philosophy allows Sonos to emphasize the little details in one simple form. That attention to detail shows up in elements that the team at Sonos sees as part of designing for the future, such as a redesigned and universal power cord, the removal of PVC and halogen in favor of environmentally-friendly materials, and the introduction of a signature detail that responds to surface touch and gesture control on every product.
“At Sonos, we like to design things from the inside out, which means you have all of these different disciplines working together—radio frequency engineers, acoustic engineers, mechanical engineers, and designers,” says Kusano. This process helps the team come up with the best solution with no extraneous elements.
“One of the things I thought about before I joined Sonos was what would be the apex of design in this space,” says Kallai. “One thought was a brick with no open area that is transmissive of air and soundwaves. But how do you build that thing in a way that actually works and doesn’t overheat?”
While that brick has yet to be made, the design and engineering teams at Sonos have been working on new products that are just as intriguing.
Making a diamond
“The design of the PLAY:5 has been three years in the making,” says Kusano. “It was a massive challenge to overcome, to make something that sounded great in orientations and then at the same time was stable forward, backward, and sideways.”
The PLAY:5 has spawned new solutions, like a perforated grill with 60,000 holes individually located on the curved surface and intuitive touch controls, while remaining aesthetically minimal, sleek, and future-oriented.
“No one realizes on the inside there’s six transducers, huge amplifiers, multiple antennas, the best cutting-edge wireless on the planet, sensors to know what orientation you’re in…all that stuff is jammed in this tiny little box. Yet it looks simple and sexy.”
“The coolest thing about that product is that we’ve worked so hard to deliver a speaker that looks like a speaker, because the category has a lot of stuff that feels heavily influenced by consumer electronics,” says Toulis. “The minute you see [the PLAY:5], you know you’ve seen it before, you just haven’t seen it ‘that’ way. I think from a design perspective, when you can do that – is when you know you’re talking with someone’s subconscious.”
“No one realizes on the inside there’s six transducers, huge amplifiers, multiple antennas, the best cutting-edge wireless on the planet, sensors to know what orientation you’re in…all that stuff is jammed in this tiny little box,” says Kallai. “Yet it looks simple and sexy.”
Kallai, Toulis, and Kusano emphasize that creating software products like Trueplay and hardware like the new PLAY:5 wouldn’t be possible without the constructive tension created through collaboration.
“Having pressure over the various teams ideally generates a diamond out of a chunk of coal,” says Kallai. “It loops into this concept of right product where we’re making sure that it looks amazing, it sounds amazing, it has great wireless performance, we can manufacture the thing in millions…having that healthy tension of debating between great sound and great looks, advancing hardware through software innovation, at the end of the day makes an awesome product.”