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In Depth: Sonos of anarchy: how Rage Against The Machine helped Sonos create its latest smart speaker

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In Depth: Sonos of anarchy: how Rage Against The Machine helped Sonos create its latest smart speaker

How do you make sure your latest speaker can withstand any type of music you throw at it? You test it and you test it hard.

For Sonos, this was a case of analysing some of the hottest tracks in the world and use them to stress test their new speaker, the updated Sonos Play:5. Not hot as in popularity, but using songs that actually heat up a speaker because of their ferocity.

The greatest challenge for the Sonos Play:5 was when alt rockers Rage Against The Machine were played on the machine. The band's riff-heavy, bass-laden sound was exactly what was needed to make sure the Play:5 could handle whatever consumers played through it. Sonos used Rage Against The Machine to make sure they didn't break the machine.


"We analysed the digital tracks of all of the music out there and found the ones that consume the most power, because loud speakers don't have flat power responses, circular responses generate more power, and it turns out Maggie's Farm by Rage Against The Machine is the track that is the worst out there for consuming power," explains Jon Reilly, senior product manager at Sonos.

"Maybe a listener will want to play Maggie's Farm on loop. They may also do that at 40 degrees Celsius, which is the highest operating temperature of the Play:5. So we test the speaker with Maggie's Farm at full volume at the highest temperature and we have to design a mechanism inside the Play:5 to ensure that none of the components exceed their specified temperature ranges.

"These are things that could degrade the lifespan of the product so by stacking all of those worst case scenarios together we ensure robustness and reliability."


For John and his team, this is just one facet to testing a new piece of kit at Sonos, a cog in a process that takes three years - something he is reminded of every day when he is in his office.

"It's a little depressing," says Reilly. "I have the original model [of the Play:5] that they did in the design stage, before we had an acoustic solution figured out. I have that in my office and I'm like, 'why did this take three years?' It's because it's actually really freaking hard to make that initial vision a reality."

sonos play 5

This is especially true for the Sonos Play:5. It's a speaker that replaces the company's current flagship of the same name. After five years, the range has been given a complete refresh.

"We wanted to start from scratch with the Play:5 and it was the best thing we could possibly do," says Reilly. "Nothing was reused. We took the best driver we had in house then figured out how to make it better, designing it again afresh. We took the Play:1 speaker, updated it and put three into this system."

The result is the most-powerful speaker Sonos has ever produced, created with a sealed acoustic architecture, which offers better sounding bass than the original Play:5's vented casing. Inside are three 10cm woofers, 22mm tweeters on each side and a 23mm tweeter in the middle, all of which have been painstakingly built over the last three years to withstand Maggie's Farm.

Fixing a hole

Tad Toulis, Sonos VP of Design, knows all-to well the time it takes to create something new at Sonos - he is part of a design team that makea sure that the look and feel of a device isn't compromised, even if it means things take a little longer.

One of the most-interesting aspects of the Play:5 may well be over-looked by some - the logo tag in the middle of the device. It's not just a signifier for the brand but an important anchor point for the user. The Play:5 has ditched physical buttons in favour of touchscreen controls on the top of the device. The logo is at the centre of this control, so users can swipe volume up and down without thinking about where on the speaker the touch controls are, something that had to be fought for in the design process.

Sonos Play 5

"One of the things that's fascinating at Sonos is when design and sound are in a great stalemate. It's a bit like how a diamond is formed under extreme pressure," says Toulis. "We feel that the creative process works really well when you live in that tension for a long time."

This creative process was tested with the introduction of a tag which needed to have complete acoustic transparency. If the tag influenced the sound from the speaker in any way, then the engineers would not have allowed it to take centre stage on the device.

"When two parties are asking you to move your bit, because of the importance of it, you realise you are standing on the precipice of a good problem," says Toulis. "The initial response was that you can't put anything in front of a driver but luckily we hit a breakthrough when we pointed out that the grill goes in front of the driver, so why not the logo tag?"

Sonos Play 5

To make it work, the design and engineering teams came up with a solution that was acoustically sound. This small tag was perforated with 800 holes, all lasered, to make sure there was no audible difference. This is on top of the 60,000 holes that the grill has to make sure the acoustics are as clear as they can be.
"To me that's a perfect example of making things work," says Reilly. "There looked to be no outcome that was acceptable but we threw out our preconceptions and found a solution that met the criteria."

True detectives

The launch of the Play:5 comes at an important time for Sonos as it coincides with the launch of something that may well end up overshadowing its flagship speaker - Trueplay.

This is the name of the company's brand-new tuning software, which it hopes will drastically improve the sound coming from Sonos' speakers as it 'tunes' in accordance to wherever your speaker is in the room.

"A lot of people don't realise that where you put your speaker makes a big difference. But the key thing is that people shouldn't have to realise that," says Giles Martin, Grammy award-winning producer and Sonos Sound Leader.


"I am from a studio background, based in Abbey Road Studios and we position our speakers precisely," he explains. "I know some engineers who measure where their head is according to their speaker setup.
"In the consumer space, you shouldn't expect that to happen. You should be able to put your speakers wherever you want and then listen to them. They should have great music without thinking and this is what Truesound does."

Sonos Play 5

Martin hopes Truesound - which takes around 45 seconds of walking around a room while strange sounds are emitted - will enable those in homes that aren't equipped for big speaker setups to be able to listen to better-sounding music.

"The appealing thing for me is to give people a good soundbed, a good sound experience that they don't have to think about. That's the fun stuff, rather than having to explain it to people. Great music should be heard in the home without you thinking about it - we do all the nerdy stuff for you."

Sonos HQ

Great sound in every room has been Sonos' mantra for some time now - a belief that stretches back to the company's creation in 2002. Speaking to techradar at the Sonos' Santa Barbara's offices, CEO and co-founder John MacFarlane explains that 2015 is perhaps the biggest year yet for Sonos for two reasons: the software Sonos is set to release, Truesound, is now as important as its hardware and that Apple's launch of Apple Music has fundamentally changed the perception of streaming for the mainstream.

Sonos Play 5

"The software is now the dog, not the tail, in Sonos," says MacFarlane. "The psychology of the company is very funny to watch. You would see people out in the field not caring about a launch unless it was a new piece of hardware. Then suddenly with Apple Music and Trueplay this has swapped. After years of telling people that the software makes the product better, they finally see it.

"We also saw it with the iPhone controller app. The amount of people buying into Sonos increased because of that. The psychology just shifted - how you predict that zeitgeist change is not very easy but it is fun watching it."

Democratising music

Co-founder Tom Cullen agrees. Currently Vice President, Product Marketing in the company, he spends his days explaining to the world how Sonos is changing the listening experience.

When we ask him about whether he feels Truesound would democratise high-quality audio, he just smiles.
"Yes! I fundamentally believe we are democratising great sound," he says.

"Rick Rubin [record producer and ambassador for Sonos] has got these $40,000 speakers - I have heard them and they are beautiful - but what Rick sees us doing is trying to deliver some piece of that greatness to everyone."

Tom Cullen at Sonos HQ

Cullen is such an advocate for what Sonos is doing with Trueplay, he can see it changing how the company makes speakers in the future.

"The future of speaker design is going to be different because of Trueplay," Cullen explains. "We don't completely know how but we have really good minds thinking about.

Cullen believes that while the current iteration of Truesound is great, we won't fully realise its potential for three years.

"That's how long it takes us to make stuff and we are only just coming to terms with the true implications of Trueplay," he explains. "It means products that come out in the next two years will take advantage of Trueplay, they just won't be designed with it in mind."


Given both MacFarlane and Cullen started together in software (founding Software.com), it's clear to see why they are both so excited with Trueplay and the small fact that Apple Music is finally here, the importance of which MacFarlane cannot state enough.

"It feels like a one-time moment in music, the same as when you first heard about the internet. With Apple coming into streaming, more changes have happened in the last 13 weeks than 13 years," says MacFarlane.

"As you see the number and consumption of users increase, there will be an awareness with streaming music. It's a fantastic time for music that's only going to get better and better. It's once in a lifetime and we have a wonderful role to play, filling people's homes with music."

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