As part of the announcement of the Sonos Ray soundbar, the company’s smallest soundbar to date, TechRadar had the opportunity to speak with Brandon Holley, product creation lead at Sonos, about how the company develops new products. .
We talked about things specific to the development of the Sonos Ray itself, but Holley also talked about the development style of Sonos more generally, providing an interesting insight into a company that often plays its cards closely.
Interestingly, Holley revealed a design process that is more iterative and open with prototypes being used in real life situations than you might expect.
But our first question is where did the idea for a product come from, and in the case of the Sonos Ray, it was an observation about the world.
“What we do know is that nine out of 10 TVs in 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 get a product in this price range and size, then we can capture more of those people and convince them to upgrade their TV sound.” . We start from the design point of view. What is the size limit that we could really tolerate for a product like this?”
What does that look like in practice? Pretty low tech, as it happens.
“We’ll start with literal cardboard box models, put them together and put them in front of TVs, all kinds of TVs, and just try to see the size,” explains Holley. “They’re different shapes. Some can look very tall and skinny. Some can look very wide and short. So we’ll start from a pure design point of view, and then also, at the same time, starting from a point from a purely acoustic point of view, how many drivers can actually fit in these different models?
“So we’ll end up with something like 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 are layered on top of each other.” it’s. But we’ll start with those two, and work on them one on top of the other, and start qualifying them and understanding where the trade-offs are.”
So how do you begin to narrow down all of these options to the versions that might actually work?
“It’s not really until we get to a point where we really line up on something like, say, Lightning Height. Lightning Height is a very hot number. It’s a number that we put a lot of energy into figuring out, because we want to make sure we’re not blocking a TV screen; that IR signals are still flowing and flying around the room as needed,” says Holley.
“Once we have that, we can start to look at the height of the driver that we can place; when we look at the height of the driver, we can start to understand how much sound is coming out of it.
“And as we go down the road, you go from design to audio architectures that fit inside, and then finally with the Ray, we got to a point where we said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to make that this be ported.” It’s the only way we think we’re going to be able to deliver this size and this amount of sound. And then we go back to the audio team and say, “This is what we think we can offer within the product. Can we support this from a standpoint?” [digital signal processor] Point of view? Can we deliver the array and address we need?'”
How Sonos Prototypes
However, everything Holley has explained above is more conceptual than practical: all those best-laid acoustic plans have yet to be tested on physical products. So how does Sonos start real unit testing?
“Prototyping follows a very similar line [to the design]. From a design standpoint, we’ll be making very design-focused prototypes that don’t output audio, but are meant to be placed in people’s homes,” explains Holley. “Some of our beta people who are under NDA will actually take these models to their homes. We will ask them to take photos of where they would place it in their home.”
To achieve the ability 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 standpoint, we’re doing rapid prototyping with foam, 3D printing, plastic and all of that,” says Holley.
That’s the aesthetic size of it, but what about from the sound side? Turns out it’s a simple build system for practical results.
“From an acoustic point of view, we’re doing something similar, but maybe starting with wooden boxes, to just represent the volume of the product, rather than its actual final shape,” reveals Holley.
“And by the time we get to a few months, we’ll try to create our first all-in-one prototype that’s the right shape, or the shape we want, plus the acoustic elements.”
It turns out that these early stages are not a very long process.
“It takes our team about six months of various prototyping steps before we can get to a point where we can build a prototype that has everything, all rolled into one.”
But the first all-in-one prototype is far from the finished product. We asked when the development of the Sonos Ray began.
“It’s really hard to pinpoint when you start a show,” says Holley. “But it’s been the last two years that Ray has been working.”
The Sonos Ray launches June 7 for $279 / £279 / AU$399; we will bring you a review as soon as we can.