Sonos: How a Santa Barbara-based Speaker Company Competes with Tech Giants

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Illustration by Alyssa Long | Staff Illustrator

Raymond Matthews

When thinking about pioneering technologies, one usually looks to the innovative landscape of Silicon Valley. However, Santa Barbara has its own claim to fame with the popular speaker company, Sonos. Since its founding in 2002, the company has earned worldwide notoriety for its cutting edge speaker technology.

Sonos was co-founded by UCSB alum John MacFarlane along with Craig Shelburne, Trung Mai, and Tom Cullen. Each of the four founders had roots in the Santa Barbara community, whether through family ties or professional experience.

They realized that laying a foundation between Los Angeles and Silicon Valley allowed them to observe changes in consumer tastes and builders’ means of production among the biggest tech communities. As a result, Sonos became headquartered in Santa Barbara.

MacFarlane’s first idea for a startup company did not involve speakers he originally wanted to provide local-area networks for airplanes. However, his co-founders weren’t sold on the idea.

Eventually, all four of the co-founders found common ground through their mutual love for music. At the time Sonos was founded, listening to music was much less convenient than it is now. Home sound systems were contingent upon the purchase and storage of countless CDs and a willingness to pay for pricey wire and speaker installation.

The founders of Sonos sought to solve this problem by allowing consumers to play music of their choosing, anywhere in their homes, but technology hadn’t yet evolved to meet this demand. Sonos decided to create the technology, recruiting one of America’s foremost software engineers, Nick Millington.

Millington proved instrumental in developing the mesh networking technology that would allow Sonos speakers to communicate wirelessly in a home audio setting. Mesh networking was traditionally used in military settings for on-the-go communication, but Millington would prove that it had a place in a wireless home setup.

The notion of mesh networking existed, but not in any audio products,” Andy Schubert, Millington’s manager, explained on the Sonos website. “Almost no one anywhere was working on embedded systems with Wi-Fi. There were no good Linux drivers with Wi-Fi. We were building our own hardware that we hadn’t fully tested. Nick’s the best developer I’ve ever worked with, by far.”

By the summer of 2004, Sonos had perfected its speakers’ prototypes and had begun debuting them to industry professionals. Their breakthrough as a company occurred when they caught the attention of industry professionals at the 2004 D: All Things Digital conference. They were viewed as superior to their primary competitor, Apple’s Airport Express, which debuted at the same conference.

The Airport Express required the user to use their computers to control the music, while Sonos offered more advanced, user friendly technology available at your fingertips. The encouragement Sonos received at this conference incentivized the company to make their prototypes publicly available the following year.

Sonos continued to steadily expand, with a notable spike in business with the launch of the iPhone in 2007. Later, in 2009, they would release the PLAY:5, a smart speaker that offered users a combination of strong audio quality and remote usage. PLAY:5 was able to work independently or simultaneously with up to 31 other Sonos speakers.

With this launch, the company experienced a spike in revenue that allowed them to expand on a global scale and enjoy sustained sales growth. This meant that they could steadily upgrade and improve their products with an emphasis on overall audio quality.

In recent years, Sonos has debuted their new soundbar, designed to work with voice services from Apple, Amazon, and Google.

Millington has become the company’s chief product officer, making it his responsibility to guide the company through the changing speaker landscape. Sonos will have to keep with new developments such as graphene speakers, which are as small as an earphone that uses a graphene-based diaphragm. This new design has made strides in transistor design and particle physics, threatening traditional speaker platforms as it gains notoriety amongst industry professionals.

If Millington can match his past engineering innovations, Sonos will continue to innovate and set industry standards, perhaps even mobilizing their technology to move outside of the home.