Sono’s Director of Platform Strategies Michael Papish on the long road to the Sonos PLAYBASE

Today, iconic Speaker manufacturer Sonos have unveiled their latest speaker, the PLAYBASE (read more about that HERE). I had the chance to test out the system last month at Sonos HQ in Boston, and while I was there I sat down with Sono’s director of platform strategies, Michael Papish, who, in his own words, “works on the product strategy; the combination of hardware and software working together”. We took some time to talk about the new product, and what’s in store for the future of the company.

It’s been some three and a half years from inception to today… what are you most proud about this product as we approach its reveal and launch.

I mean, I think what we as a company are most proud of is that we stuck with this project and did all the hard work to end up with this extremely simple object in the end.

You described it as monolithic.

Yeah. It’s almost like a slab. I think if you were to see the PLAYBASE out of context, just on its own, on a shelf, you might not even know it’s a speaker. You’re not even sure what the heck this thing is.

From this angle it almost just looks like the base of the TV.

Exactly. I think that’s kind of a testament to singular vision about what we wanted the product to look like, and all the hard work that went into actually pulling that off. I think a lot of times you might have started with I want it to look like this, but as you went through all the details, you started cutting corners and said “well, that’s kind of hard. Can’t really get it as skinny as I want. I’m going to make it a little taller. Oh I can’t really get the grill to look right.” All of a sudden you end up in a totally different place. I think the neat thing about this project is we held ourselves really to the original vision and we said we have to really deliver on that. It has to get this right, and then we did it. It’s kind of awesome.

In that respect, has it been the most difficult product you have had to deliver?

Huh. That’s a good question. I mean, the company is really interesting because we kind of learn by doing. Almost every time we build something new, we’re taking these ideas and evolving them. Every time we build something it’s probably the hardest one we’ve built. We keep moving forward like that. I would say there’s some elements of the PLAYBASE that were especially tricky that we’re really proud of. For example, the top cover, which is the piece that’s actually supporting the television’s weight, that was an object that took us a really long time to get right. It has to be really big, right? It’s one piece that covers the entire top of the speaker. It has to be very thin but very hard and durable so it doesn’t scratch and it can support the weight of that television.

Basically we couldn’t find any materials in the world that have those properties, so we ended up inventing our own glass polymer resin. That was really difficult. Something that we’ve never done before, we don’t know if we could do it. We’re a speaker company. Obviously we have great materials, but that’s not our forte. We’re not sitting around inventing materials all day long. Then we – eventually – were able to pull that off. I think in some sense, many people in the company will say that top cover of the speaker, which is not acoustic, it’s a physical object, was the hardest thing we’ve ever engineered. That’s kind of funny right? The hardest thing we’ve ever engineered is the cover to the speaker.

How does that time frame compare to the PLAYBAR? Was it a similar length?

I wasn’t here when we built the PLAYBAR. I think the PLAYBAR was more like two years or a little bit longer. I think in some sense, I mean the PLAYBAR was difficult because we had never built a speaker for a TV before. Just the idea of making good sound for music and good sound for television, that was something we had to learn how to do. Could we create one speaker and optimise it for these two very different use cases? The form factor of that product is not necessarily revolutionary. Sound bars and the form factor had existed. We think ours evolved the form in some interesting ways, but I don’t think it’s as radical of a form change as this product is.

I mean, in regards to this product, one thing that surprised me yesterday was that you’re going to be launching at the same price point as PLAYBAR. How much did that decision go into keeping the cost of the product in mind when you were building it?

Yeah. It’s kind of a testament to the way that we think a little bit differently. When we think of the right product, it’s a combination of price, functionality, look, fit and sound. We try to keep all those intentions. Not one of those is more important than the other, so with price we didn’t start the project and say “We must have this price speaker.” We said “We need the right speaker. What’s the right price for it.” We got to a cost structure that really allows us to price it at the same price point as the PLAYBAR, which we really like because it just makes it so much more simple for the customer. I think other companies, even if the same cost structure was in place, they could have said “Oh it’s new. It’s sexy. Let’s make it more expensive because people will pay for it.” I think for us, it’s like “Well, maybe they would but that just makes it more complicated for the customer. If we could support the economics, why not price them the same?

You are almost in your own field by making things not just built to last, but built to get better with time. The PLAYBAR is a better unit today than it was the day I bought it. By now, most other products they’d be asking you to replace it. Buy a new TV. Buy a new phone. Whatever. Thanks Apple. *laughs* But it’s a testament to your company that that’s the case. Has that been a philosophy since day one?

Yes. Which is actually kind of interesting. I think the founders of the company saw something about the technology industry in general, the audio industry specifically, which was a lot of companies were based around single shot sale. You just try to get someone to buy something in the store and then you’re done. That person takes it home. You never talk to them again. Never see them again. Maybe they’ll come back in a couple years to replace it. Whereas with Sonos we actually think of it as a full on relationship. The first day you buy your first Sonos is the start of what we hope is a 10 year or more relationship with us.

And not because you want them to replace that, but just because you want them to fill the house with more audio toys.

That’s right. I mean, there’s all of the things that a speaker has to do on an every day basis. Once you take it home, we’re always doing more and more work to keep the system working well in your home. It’s one of the beauties of internet connected technology. We’re able to talk to the speaker. It talks back to our offices. We can update it. We can change it. We can build that relationship. We expect people to add more rooms of sound, to increase their system. That’s why we make it so modular. It really was baked into our DNA from the very beginning of the company, which was we’re not just here to sell you a speaker. We’re here to create a sound experience in your home and we want to be in part of your life for a long period of time. That has certain responsibilities. We just feel like to be a good member of your home, we should keep our products working, getting better, making you feel like you don’t need to get rid of them. That’s being a good citizen inside your house.

Collaboration is another keystone to what your doing. It’s not about trying to lock people into one product or another. It’s about how can we ensure that every audio product, every audio service is able to be streamed through you. You launched Spotify last year in terms of going directly through their own app (rather than having to use the Sonos app). Is that something that you hope to see the Pandora’s and the Apple Music’s and all that in months and years to come?

Yeah. We would like basically for all of your favourite apps to work directly with Sonos, in addition to being able to access them inside of the Sonos app, so you can do both. Really, I think it’s a reflection of how people want to use technology today. Five or six years ago, I think when we used to say one app controls all your music, that was a really simplifying idea to a lot of people. They said “Awesome. I don’t need more apps. I don’t want more apps. I just want to get the music in my home. I’m very happy.” But five years later, we’re so used to using the Spotify app all day long, or a podcast app. I mean, these are the ways we listen all the day. When we’re commuting. When we’re at work. We’re at the gym. It’s kind of weird for people to come home and not have their favourite app just directly work with their music service or with their sound system.

In our mind, we want to be able to support what the customer wants. We know that they want to keep using that app, so we want to figure out how to do that. That direct control integration is the easiest way. But we still want it to be bi-directional. We still want someone else in the home to be able to pick up the Sonos app and still control the music. We need both that direct integration, and then the ability to have the music service show up in our app so it’s seamless between those two things.

Was there a specific reason Spotify was the first cab off the rank?

There’s a couple of reasons. I mean, one thing is that we we like working with the Spotify technical team. We enjoy doing integration work with them. We’ve worked with them closely in the past, so we have a good relationship. Two, it is one of the most popular music services. Especially people really say that they love using the app for a lot of the personalization services.

On an international level as well. I know you have a good relationship with Pandora, but they’re pretty much only in Australia and here (in the US). That’s kind of it really isn’t it?

That’s right. Yeah. From licensing perspective, it’s hard for Pandora to expand globally. Obviously there’s Apple and Tidal. I mean, these are all large companies with pretty big listener bases, so we want to add them as soon as possible, but I think Spotify for a variety of reasons was a good first partner for this.

The Sonos PLAYBASE will be available globally from April 4th, and in Australia it will retail for A$999. For more details head to their official website.

The author travelled to Boston with Sonos.