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Inside the secretive, long-term collaboration between Sonos and Ikea

Ikea’s new Symfonisk line, developed with Sonos, is three years in the making. Here’s why it took so long to come to market.

In 2016, a team of Swedish designers from Ikea flew to Santa Barbara. They weren’t there for the sunshine or the seaside boardwalk. They were there to learn how to build speakers—from Sonos, the 17-year-old audio company that’s based in the California city.

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The talk went well. Ikea and Sonos agreed to a secretive partnership to build a series of products dubbed “Symfonisk,” to be sold exclusively in Ikea stores. Now, for the first time, the companies are sharing the fruits of their partnership. Launching this August, they are a pair of uniquely designed, Wi-Fi audio devices that rethink speakers as actual pieces of furniture rather than electronics.

“We’re trying to take our attitude and blend it with their attitude, to find ways [speakers] can show up from a Trojan horse perspective and have double functionality,” says Tad Toulis, Sonos VP of design.

[Photo: Ikea]

The first Symfonisk product is a $100 “bookshelf” speaker. Most bookshelf speakers are really just small speakers that are meant to fit on a bookshelf. The Symfonisk bookshelf is a functioning bookshelf—it actually mounts to your wall and supports 6.6 pounds of additional weight, and its bracket design can be directly incorporated into other Ikea storage solutions like the Kallax, Bestå, and Eket cabinets.

The second Symfonisk product is a $180 speaker-turned-lamp. It’s a round speaker that’s similar to Sonos’s own Play:1 in terms of its audio engineering—except that it’s also a functioning lamp.

Ikea has been trying to crack the code of the smart home since it began working in this space in 2012, when it launched its first tech line, called “Home Smart.” In 2015, Ikea debuted bedside tables with built-in wireless chargers for phones. “We did that on insights that 95% of people have their mobile phones charging on their bedside tables at night,” says Björn Block, business leader, Ikea Home Smart. The company also delved into smart lighting, creating some pretty provocative (if not always reliable, in my testing) connected LED bulbs that could dim or light up automatically.

Rather than enlist outside partners, Ikea has taken on these projects mostly on its own, basing its design on its deep consumer research. But lighting and handy chargers aren’t enough to make a home feel like home. “We have stats telling us that for 59% of people we talked to—of 10,000 to 20,000 people—the number one factor of creating atmosphere at home is actually music,” says Block. “In lighting, we had 40 years of experience … But we knew nothing about sound and music. That’s how we came across Sonos.”

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Only after that first meeting in Santa Barbara did the two companies realize their common goal: to leverage technology to create a sense of place.

Yet it took almost three years for Sonos and Ikea to bring something to market. That’s because, rather than white label an existing Sonos speaker, perhaps changing its colorway, or adding fabric, and swapping out some internal components to drop the price (Sonos speakers typically start at $150, a bar of entry Ikea has dropped by 30%), Ikea wanted to start from scratch.

“To make a white labeled product and put that on the shelf, that’s actually quite impossible from an Ikea point of view,” says Block. “All of the products we sell at Ikea are designed by Ikea. We don’t sell other company’s products like that. We don’t take shortcuts like that. We start from a customer need, and tap into every aspect of democratic design.”

[Photo: Ikea]

The Symfonisk line required all sorts of necessary reengineering and testing on Sonos’s part. Ikea knows how to build a floating shelf, for instance, but Sonos speakers are generally supported by stiff internal structures. The audio company had to rethink how to handle acoustic vibrations, isolating them into the right areas. The lamp was a whole other engineering challenge: Wrapped in so much fabric, both sound and heat from the device can build up while both should flow freely.

The designs aren’t what I imagined from this long-teased collaboration—the black, white, and gray colorways seem to nod more at technology than the cheeky, colorful Ikea furnishings we know. While I’ve yet to hear them with my own ears, the first products from the two companies’ partnership effectively challenge prevailing notions of speaker design, mixing Ikea’s research on consumers with Sonos’s expertise in audio engineering. Time will tell if Ikea customers take to this balance of value, design, and engineering, but a $100 Sonos speaker on sale at Ikea stores around the world could potentially prove very successful. According to Block, these won’t be the last Symfonisk the companies will produce, either. “We were not afraid of exploring any path as a starting point, but this is a starting point,” he says. “This is a long collaboration. There’s more to come.”

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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