Local Technology: Sonos


Thomas Hurst

The industry of consumer electronics conjures up images of row after row of silent cubicles full of oxfords . However, one company based out of Santa Barbara would change that to t-shirts and fill the air with everything musical from alternative-pop to death metal. Sonos, a growing home audio company, has a mission to fill every room in your house with sound.

Nestled in downtown not far from the Paseo Nuevo shopping center, I found Sonos just off the street with unassuming villa architecture and a few employees enjoying lunch on the benches next to the fountain. I met up with Thomas Meyer, head of PR, who introduced me to the company culture that Sonos fosters and the types of employees it is home to. The reception desk had a display of the range of Sonos products, playing “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga with crystal clear sound right off of Pandora (an internet music streaming site). I met a few of the technical support representatives (no offshore call centers here), and I quickly noticed something. There wasn’t a single office or cubicle that didn’t have a Sonos product in it. You couldn’t walk five feet in this office without running into not only a user of their products, but an enthusiastic advocate of those products.

I then met the test engineers, who put Sonos’ products through the ringer, and found even more Sonos evangelists. Every person from the power supply designer to the accounting interns were telling me how Sonos’ products were easy to set up, easy to use, years ahead of the competition, and linked in to every internet music you could hope for. It was a sure bet that Sonos employees looked forward to working on challenging problems with a product they loved every day.

After meeting all of these excited people, I had to know how a company had been able to build this type of product and culture. Sonos started in 2003, at the end of the dot com bust, when four friends from Software.com came together to figure out what their next venture would be. They came down to two competing ideas, either aircraft instrumentation, or home audio. A few of them were remodeling their houses, and began to notice that a full home audio system was cumbersome, expensive, and exclusive. This just didn’t seem right to them. In 2004 they launched with their first ZonePlayer, and set out to fill every room with music.

Sonos isn’t just limited to a great corporate culture and a fun startup story though, they are on the forefront of wireless audio as well. The key to Sonos’ success and their high quality wireless systems called SonosNet. This is a type of wireless network similar to that used by laptops and smartphones to access the internet, but operates on one big change.

In a standard WiFi set up, you have a router that sends and receives information with the devices connected to it.

When applying this to home networking, this explains why you may have trouble getting good WiFi reception at the edges of your house, as these are out of the range that the central router can reach. SonosNet overcomes this by using a different type of network, called a mesh network. In a mesh network, every user is also a router, or in other words, each user can send and receive information with each other user.

You can imagine that this makes a much denser area of wireless coverage. While a mesh network is not simple to implement with laptops and standard internet devices, it is perfectly suited for Sonos and their need to get a single type of dedicated information to every one of the devices connected.

These devices are called ZonePlayers, and every one of them is its own wireless hub, capable of connecting and adapting to other ZonePlayers around it, and building a dense mesh of wireless connectivity over an entire house, leaving no corner with poor reception. This unique networking ability allows a house full of ZonePlayers to seamlessly play music in any number of rooms specified, and be able to switch from room to room without skipping a single beat.

The latest in Sonos’ lineup is the S5, a 5 speaker all in one music player that can be hooked up to an internet connection by ethernet and be playing off of your iTunes, a huge range of internet radio stations, or even Pandora in a matter of minutes. Other ZonePlayers in the lineup can be hooked up to your home theater, or even your own selection of speakers, and can be integrated to let music follow you anywhere throughout your house.

Another innovation from Sonos is their controller systems. Your home system can be controlled from any Mac or PC on the network, from your iPhone by a free app, or with the Controller 200, which I got a demo of at Sonos. The controller is sleek and simple, including the functions you need without any cluttered menus or other user interface follies. I watched as with a press of a few touchscreen buttons and a flick of the finger, Mr. Meyer pulled up internet radio stations for Reggae right out of Jamaica. That’s right, stations, there was a selection all the way from the Caribbean.

But the key was the simplicity of the device, you could access music in any room in the house, from almost any device, and you had a vast selection at your fingertips, both your own and from the unending streams of the ‘net. Sonos has heaps of customer testimonials supporting what I saw; the devices were so simple and solved such a basic human problem, that they opened up new worlds of listening and a new discovery of music that was hiding from people all along.