Rick Rubin is not pleased. The famed and famously hirsute record producer and cofounder of Def Jam Records is sitting in his Malibu home with Giles Martin, a fellow producer best known for carrying the torch passed on by his father, George, the man who produced every album recorded by the Beatles. Rubin leans forward on his leather sofa, listening intently.
“It doesn’t sound very soulful,” Rubin complains.
“It’s interesting that you’re saying that,” says Martin. “Do you mean around about the vocal range?”
The two men go back and forth about various frequency ranges and the sonic details they’re hearing, throwing around adjectives like “warm” and “crunchy.” Their dialogue sounds very much like what it is: Two top-shelf sound experts picking apart music in their native jargon. But contrary to how this conversation might sound, Martin and Rubin are not mixing and mastering songs. Today, they’re focused on how music sounds, not as it emanates from recording studio monitors, but at the opposite end of its creative life cycle: The way it sounds when we press the play button at home.
Instead of listening back on an $80,000 professional audio setup, as the Rubins and Martins of the world often do, they’re staring into the grill of a speaker that could easily fit on your kitchen counter: The Play:5. It’s the newest high-fidelity wireless speaker being developed by Sonos, at the company’s headquarters in Santa Barbara, California. The overhauled Play:5, along with a new room-measuring audio enhancement software feature called TruePlay, is set to ship later this fall. But first, the sound must be exactly right.
Listening sessions like this one have grown more common over the last year and a half. During this time, Martin has quietly been working as the Sound Experience Leader at Sonos, the high-fidelity smart speaker company cofounded in 2002 by CEO John MacFarlane after he and his three cofounders sold their first company, Software.com, for a reported $6.8 billion.
Back then, the iPod was brand new and the model of ubiquitous, all-you-can-stream music was still a futurist’s fantasy. But it’s one trend—much like the widespread availability of cheap Wi-Fi—that Sonos’s founders saw on the horizon when they decided to shift their focus towards high-quality, wireless home audio. This early gamble turned out to be a good one: Sonos reportedly turned profitable in 2012 as consumers snatched up products like the compact Play:1 speaker, the Playbar home theater sound bar, or bigger, more powerful units like the Play:3 or Play:5. The company won’t share revenue figures, but reports say it’s approaching $1 billion per year. Meanwhile, its workforce has doubled in the last two years.
And now, with the all-you-can-stream model becoming mainstream—a tectonic shift that the company’s leadership seems to believe is symbolized by the launch of Apple Music—Sonos could hardly be better positioned. If music is indeed becoming a monthly utility like your water bill, Sonos wants to lay the pipes in your home.
For the uninitiated, Sonos works like this: Whether you buy one speaker or several (they sync up, allowing you to play music throughout multiple rooms or play different tracks in different rooms at the same time), these sleekly designed devices connect to your home Wi-Fi network and use a proprietary app on your phone or desktop to play music from virtually any source, be it your personal MP3 collection, streaming services like Spotify, SoundCloud, Deezer, and Pandora (to name a few) or even vinyl records on your turntable (with the aid of an extra component, sold separately). Should you purchase multiple speakers, they seamlessly network together using a proprietary mesh network, which helps the system achieve a more immersive, multiroom sound that helps Sonos inch closer to its oft-stated mission to “fill every home with music.”
Sonos is, on the whole, an impressively well-executed and easy-to-use product. Some hardcore audiophiles will take issue with the specs, which are buried in a very Apple-esque, all-in-one, soup-to-nuts product design that doesn’t typically invite tinkerers and geeks to mess around under the hood. Others have criticized Sonos’s lack of support for standards like Apple’s AirPlay, Google’s Chromecast, or even Bluetooth. It’s a fair point. At the same time, your at-home Bluetooth speakers can’t network themselves together quite like Sonos speakers can. And rarely do they sound as good.
“I’m not coming in to tear up the rubric in any way,” Martin says. “My role is to listen to things differently. It’s an artistic approach to sound.”
Typically, music-industry heavyweights are courted by audio hardware companies purely to strike promotional deals, slapping a recognizable name on a pair of headphones or a speaker in order to sell more units. Not so with Giles Martin. As an employee of Sonos, he serves as a liaison between the company’s small army of acoustics engineers and people like Rick Rubin, who happens to sit on Sonos’s secretive advisory board. By taking Sonos’s products to Rubin and other producers–Hans Zimmer, known for scoring films from The Lion King to The Dark Knight, and Radiohead’s Nigel Godrich–Martin is attempting to inject the artists’ perspective into the product-development process at a company with a decidedly engineering-minded approach to acoustics.
“The most frustrating thing as an artist is to sit in that recording studio and realize that that’s the best it’s ever going to sound,” says Martin. “We’re trying to make sure that somebody can play a track through one of our speakers and instantly be satisfied. The only way you can do that is to go to the source and say, ‘You just made this track. Listen to this. Does this do it for you?’”
In the past, Sonos has relied on Rubin and others in the artistic side of the music industry to help critique their products–but only on a periodic, limited basis. When a superproducer’s schedule fills up with new albums to record and mix–Rubin is reportedly working with Kanye West on the new Justin Bieber album, for instance–he or she only has so much time to help out the tech company up the road. By hiring Giles Martin, who works about half time with Sonos in addition to working on other projects, the company is hoping to bake the artists’ perspective more firmly and consistently into its product development.
“People don’t think about how records are made,” says Martin. “But it is important, because that’s what we’re playing on these speakers.”
Most recently, Martin finished remastering a compilation of No. 1 Beatles hits set to be released in November, complete with 5.1 surround sound mixes of the band’s most popular songs. Meanwhile, he’s focused on restoring and remastering the audio for a new documentary directed by Ron Howard about the Beatles touring years. That is, when he’s not flying from London to Santa Barbara or Cambridge, Massachusetts, to meet with Sonos’s executives and audio team.
Can input from world famous record producers actually have a noticeable impact on the sound of a speaker? Consumers are about to find out.
This fall, Sonos debuts the next generation of the Play:5, which has been three years in the making. The speaker is very much transformed—from the custom-designed, high-fidelity drivers inside, to its sleek, Apple-esque outer enclosure and the new, touch-based controls that adorn its top (or side, should you place the speaker vertically, an action that will tip off the accelerometer inside and allow the speaker to adjust its sound accordingly). Sonically, the Play:5 has grand ambitions, aiming to bring to bridge the gap between what consumers hear in the home and what artists and engineers hear in the studio.
To help bridge that gap, the Play:5—as well as existing speakers like Play:1 and Play:3—will soon get support for TruePlay, which plays back a tone with wide-ranging frequencies (it sounds like a spaceship slow-firing lasers through the galaxy) and uses the microphone on your phone or tablet to measure the acoustics of the room. The data gathered helps the Sonos software optimize the speakers, tuning them for the room itself—and acoustically correcting for the sometimes oddball places people put these connected speakers around the home.
Developing new products like the Play:5 and TruePlay involved the work of designers, software developers, acoustics experts, and product-development folks, and all the left versus right brain push-and-pull you’d expect at a company like this. But for the first time in Sonos’s methodical, slow-crawling product-development history, there was a new voice on the team officially advocating for the people who made the music in the first place.
“I only bring in people I think know how to make really good-sounding records,” says Martin. “With Rick we brought him the PLAY:5s early on. We knew we weren’t happy with them, but we thought he should listen to them. We knew that he would speak the truth. He barely wanted to listen through them. He tried. He’s a nice guy, but he was like, ‘Good God!’”
The arrival of Giles Martin at Sonos was initially a tense moment for Hilmar Lehnert. Just a few months earlier, the German-born engineer with a PhD in acoustics was elevated to director of audio systems engineering at Sonos after spending two years as a project manager at the company. Prior to that, Lehnert spent several years at Bose, a biographical fact shared by several members of the audio team at Sonos.
Lehnert had already worked with Martin on an informal basis, bringing prototypes of Sonos speakers to Abbey Road studios in London and working with Martin and other studio engineers there to tweak their sound. But when John MacFarlane asked Martin to formally join the company, Lehnert wondered what it meant for him and engineers like Mike Chamness, another longtime acoustics veteran now working at Sonos.
“We had this conversation in Cambridge over a beer, and I said, ‘Listen, I’m not here to try and destroy anything or break anything down,” says Martin. “I’m here to provide another voice to the organization.”
Rather than stepping on anyone’s toes, Martin assured his new colleague he would serve as sort of a translation layer between creative and engineering. The language barrier and tension that exists at many modern companies—be it between designers and coders or any other combination of creatives and logical thinkers—is certainly present at Sonos.
One of Martin’s first projects at the company was fixing what he saw as a flaw in the mid-range of the speaker’s audio output. The Play:5’s lower-range bass tones sounded excellent—perhaps not a coincidence, given that Lenhart is also a bassist—but the mid-range sounded “crunchy,” as Martin put it.
“I don’t know what that means,” Lehnert recalls saying at the time. “But then Giles says, ‘It’s a little wet.’ Well, I do know what that means!”
Before long, the two settled into a common vocabulary and realized that working together wasn’t going to be so arduous after all.
“There is a meeting between what Hilmar does and what I do,” says Martin. “We’re both into the same thing, and that’s great sound. We’re not completely different creatures. He plays the bass. I play the bass. There is a musicality that goes on. It’s just two different sides of the same approach.”
The case for having somebody like Martin on the team became clear after the 2013 launch of the Playbar. The wireless sound bar made a noble play for the home theater market, going up more directly against established companies like Sony, Sharp, and Polk Audio than previous Sonos products had. It made movies and television shows sound amazing. And to most consumers, it probably made for a solid music-listening experience as well. But not everyone was thrilled with it. During the development of the Soundbar, it turns out, Rubin was busy, so he couldn’t provide his usual critique. It apparently showed.
“We spent much more time getting the video experience right than the music experience,” says Lehnert. “There were pieces that sounded a little hot.”
By that time, Sonos had an informal relationship with Martin, who was introduced to the company by Thomas Meyer, Sonos’s director of artist and industry relations. At the time, Martin was busy producing Paul McCartney’s 2013 solo release New, but Meyer managed to get a pair of Sonos speakers in front of Martin at Abbey Road. He was impressed.
The company’s relationship with the artist community was already a productive one—Rubin reportedly brought in the engineering team behind Adele’s debut album to provide feedback on the Play:3—but it was too loose and informal.
“It became apparent that John [MacFarlane] had hired some of the best engineers in the world,” says Meyer. “But what we lacked was a true understanding of the art of creation.”
After providing some unofficial consultation on the sound of the Play:1 speaker, Martin found himself at dinner with Meyer and MacFarlane in Santa Barbara, where the trio discussed the need for Sonos to formalize its relationship with artists by hiring somebody. Surely, Martin knew somebody. Much to McFarlane’s surprise, Martin raised his hand and volunteered himself for the job.
The first order of business was fixing the Playbar.
Lehnert and Martin set up shop in Abbey Road Studios for a few days to try and make the Playbar (which retails for $700) sound better than a pair of Play:1 speakers (which would total $400) when playing back music. “I wasn’t going to leave until we were happy,” says Martin. “It was a completely non-engineering outlook to doing an incredibly technical thing.”
The duo invited other audio engineers in to listen to songs on each speaker set up side-by-side and rank them both using a list of listening criteria.
“If something sounds crunchy, boxy, bright, glossy, whatever, I can say to Hilmar, It sounds a bit harsh right around 2.5 kilohertz for me,” says Martin. “Let’s try this.”
The team went back and forth in the studio, debating each quality and watching as a software engineer tweaked the sound of the Playbar in real time. “It was like going to the eye doctor,” says Lehnert. “Is this better? Is that better?”
One of the unsung perks of the Sonos model—and one of the things that attracted Martin to the company in the first place—is its software-heavy approach to acoustics. Of course, the architecture of each device—and the drivers, tweeters, and amplifiers contained within—presents some physical constraints that software can’t penetrate. But like your smartphone or tablet, the features and user experience of each Sonos system is easy to enhance with a simple software update.
Whatever tension may naturally exist between a brain like Lehnert’s and one like Martin’s seems to easily give way to a playful dynamic. Serious, highly technical exchanges are punctuated by off-color jokes and personal jabs. There are dozens of other people involved in engineering the sound of Sonos speakers, but this particular relationship seems to grease two important gears in the whole process: the artistry and science of the sound itself.
“Hilmar is so brilliant at engineering and the scientific,” says Martin. “And then you’ve got this dumb English guy sitting there like a tasting chef, going, ‘Hmm, maybe a little 2 gigahertz here.’ And Hilmar’s like, ‘Can we measure something?? What can I measure?’”
It’s also a highly educational alliance. For Martin, a deeper and more scientific understanding of sound flows from Sonos’s team of acoustics PhDs and other audio engineers. Meanwhile, Lenhart gets to see how things work from the vantage point of the recording studio engineer’s soundboard. During one of his first visits to Abbey Road, Lenhart sat down with some of the studio’s engineers to learn how the mastering process works. “An hour later, I’m a lot smarter than when I get in,” Lehnart says.
That isn’t to say that it doesn’t get tense at times.
“For me, the biggest challenge on the Play:5 was actually approving the stereo-out-of-one-box solution,” says Martin. “At one stage I remember saying to Hilmar and Mike [Chamness], just get rid of it! Please, I can’t bear this any more!”
Martin grew concerned with how the internal architecture of the Play:5 was making some music sound more “electronic” than its creators likely intended.
“It was challenging, because I knew that I would throw my toys out of the pram about it, as we say in England,” says Martin. “That I wouldn’t let it lie. He knows that I can be a real pain in the ass.”
Eventually, the team reached a point at which the Play:5 finally sounded ideal to Martin, Lehnert, and the rest of the audio team. At that point, it was time to go back to producers like Godrich, Rubin, Zimmer, Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, and others to make sure all the sound tweaking hadn’t butchered the sanctity of what the music’s creators intended for people to hear.
“Most of the feedback is very consistent,” says Lenhart of their interactions with producers. “They tend to agree about what they like and what they don’t like, and you consciously listen for that.”
And while the team had involved record producers in the process early on, they were still anxious about sitting the refined Play:5 back down in front of its harshest critic.
Six weeks ago, Martin met with Rubin one more time to get his feedback on the Play:5. “I think we were shitting ourselves to a certain degree,” admits Martin. “Oh my God, what if it’s the same reaction? We actually think they’re really good now.”
Back in his home in Malibu, Rubin sat cross-legged on his leather sofa, once again listening carefully to tracks that he had recently mastered. Somewhat nervously, Martin looked on, mentally cycling through all the critiques Rubin had leveled at the Play:5 so many months earlier. This time around, he had much less to say.
“Damn. That’s good.”