Interview: Secrets of the Sonos design process

As part of the announcement of the Sonos Ray soundbar – the company’s smallest soundbar to date – TechRadar had the opportunity to speak to Brandon Holley, Head of Product Creation at Sonos, how the company develops new products.

We’ve talked about things specific to the development of the Sonos Ray itself, but Holley also talked about Sonos’ development style in more general terms, offering some interesting insight into a company that often plays its cards close to the vest.

Interestingly, Holley revealed a more iterative and open design process with prototypes used in real-life situations than you might think.

But our first question is where the idea for a product even came from, and in the case of the Sonos Ray, that was an observation about the world.

Potential boxes

“What we do know is that nine out of 10 TVs around the world still rely on built-in TV speakers,” says Holley. “It’s like: OK, there’s a huge opportunity here. We think if we can deliver a product in this price and size range, then we can capture more of these people and convince them to improve the sound of their television. . We start from a design point of view. What is the size limit that we could really tolerate for a product like this?”

Sonos Ray in the living room with a man playing PS5

The Sonos Ray is designed for gamers looking for an upgrade, as well as TV/movie enthusiasts. (Image credit: Sonos)

What does this look like in practice? Pretty low-tech, in this case.

“We’ll start with literal cardboard box models, we’ll put them together and put them in front of TVs – all kinds of TVs – and we’ll just try to look at the size,” says Holley. “These are different shapes. Some can look very tall and slender. Some can look very wide and short. So we’ll start from a purely design perspective and then we’ll also, at the same time, From a pure acoustic point of view, how many loudspeakers can we really integrate in these different models?

“So we’re going to end up with something like maybe a dozen concepts that are combinations of design architecture and acoustic architecture. And, of course, there are mechanical and electrical elements and all these other Wi-Fi elements that overlap But we’ll start with those two, and work on them on top of each other, and start noticing them, and understanding where the trade-offs are.

So how do they start moving from all of these options to versions that might actually work?

“It’s not really until we get to a point where we’ve really aligned on something like, say, the spoke height. The spoke height is a very hot number. It’s a number that we put a lot of energy into finding out, because we want to make sure that we’re not blocking a TV screen; that infrared signals are still flowing and flying around the room as they should,” says Holley.

“Once we have that, we can start looking at the height of the speaker that we can fit into it; when we look at the height of the speaker, we can start to understand how much sound is coming out of it.

“And so as we go along, you go from the design to the audio architectures that fit into the interior, and then finally, with the Ray, we got to a point where we said, ‘Hey , we have to port it. That’s the only way we think we’ll be able to deliver that size and amount of sound. And then we go back to the audio team and say, “That’s what we think we can offer inside the product. Are we able to support that from a [digital signal processor] point of view? Can we provide the network and direction we need? »

How Sonos Prototypes

Everything Holley explained above is even more conceptual than practical – all of those best-designed acoustic planes have yet to be tested in physical products. So how does Sonos start testing real units?

“Prototyping follows a very similar vein [to the design]. Design-wise, we’re going to be creating very design-driven prototypes that don’t make any sound, but they’re meant to be placed in people’s homes,” says Holley. “Some of our betas that are under NDA will actually take these models home. We will ask them to take pictures of where they would place it in their home.”

Sonos Ray in the living room with two people watching from the sofa

Sonos hasn’t shared any sample photos of prototypes from its testers, but we imagine something as glamorous as this. (Image credit: Sonos)

To be able to easily test different design ideas, Sonos uses some of the latest rapid manufacturing techniques… as well as some not-so-new ones. “

So from a design perspective, we’re doing rapid prototyping from foam, 3D printing, plastic and all that stuff,” says Holley.

That’s the aesthetic size of this one, but what about the sonic side? Turns out it’s a simple build system to achieve practical results.

“Acoustically, we’re doing the same thing, but maybe we’ll start with wooden boxes, just to represent the volume of the product, more than its actual final shape,” Holley reveals.

“And within a few months, we’ll try to create our first all-in-one prototype that has the correct shape, or the shape we want, plus the acoustic elements.”

It turns out that these first steps are not a very long process.

“It takes our team about six months for different stages of prototyping before we can get to a point where we can build a prototype that has it all.”

But the first all-in-one prototype is far from the finished product. We asked when development of the Sonos Ray began.

“It’s really hard to determine when you start a program. But Ray has been working for a few years.”

The Sonos Ray launches on June 7 for $279 / £179 / AU$399 – we’ll bring you notice as soon as we can.

Abdul J. Gaspar