It was about a year ago when I sat with Tad Toulis, Vice President of Design at Sonos, to discuss the state of design within the consumer realm of technology: notable successes, perceived failures, with the occasional predictive stab at where home entertainment was heading for the majority of customers who ‘just want things to work’ with uncomplicated, intuitive reliability. At the time Toulis passingly hinted something significant was in the works amongst his team to better serve this silent majority of people demanding ease with flexible function without sacrificing design, but he wouldn’t/couldn’t reveal specifics. The new Sonos PLAYBASE, a television speaker that moonlights as a capable music speaker, was likely that hinted promise of technological complexity disguised in the simplest of forms.
That Toulis is passionate about the process of design is immediately obvious – ideation, editing, solving, continually questioning, and finally forming from a multitude of small and sometimes invisible details an amorphous idea into a product that is immediately engaging. In explaining his zeal for winnowing the complexity of technology into simple, yet adaptable experiences he’s prone to lean forward, calmly accompanying detailed explanations with measured gesticulation, as if sculpting his words into the physical. In many ways what Toulis does in conversation is what his team has done with their latest design: stepping over the bar to reshape a new base of experience with careful intent.
In this case, the base is an understated 2.28 x 28.35 x 14.96 slab of matte white plastic housing 10 internal drivers, each with their own Class-D digital amplifier. Isolated from a television the PLAYBASE seems shockingly large, like an Apple Mac Mini stretched every which way, but mostly wide. This wide and low stature provides not only a stable platform for televisions to sit upon (or in my case, underneath), but also gave Sonos engineers more internal space to manipulate output from otherwise tight confines, including a full subwoofer mounted horizontally rather than vertically. The sound, especially in service of television series, is invisibly wide without bringing too much attention to the dynamism of its soundstage. That means the visual wonderment of Legion isn’t eclipsed unnecessarily by artificial boom or nerve racking highs, nor does the snappy dialogue of Girls disappear into the overlapping mush best reserved for the emotions of the show’s characters. And my wife can enjoy the whispered plans of espionage unfolding during The Americans without have to regularly tap the remote’s volume control ever upward, aided by the speech enhancement setting.
Look closely and the monolithic mass reveals no visible seams, magnifying perceived confidence this base is more than up to the task of securely holding up most any modern flat panel display without stress. In quick time and from a seated position, that large slab became less and less visible – perhaps even more so in its all-black option depending in setting/decor. In such, the speaker becomes invisible both visually and aurally, allowing the viewer to enjoy movie, show, gaming, or music without unnecessary attention to itself.
After a few weeks with a demo unit, we returned with questions for Toulis about the speaker – one that sets out upon a route different from the majority of existing sound bar solutions aimed at consumers movies, music, or gaming:
Design Milk: The PLAYBASE seems immediately familiar in relation to the existing family of Sonos products, taking obvious cues from what the PLAY:5 established: the single stripe logo, the object-as-control simplicity, an unobtrusive minimalist presence. What is the intent that shaped its design?
Tad Toulis: A key element in our design approach is marrying understated design with unique details and PLAYBASE represents a significant step forward for us. Creating a seamless product with no visible part lines required collaboration across design, engineering, and manufacturing. We believe this attention to detail is something that our customers will really appreciate over the lifetime of their Sonos which, as you know, are built to last.
Design Milk: Noting this ‘seamless’ approach, and also remembering you once said,“When the object is the interface and the interface is the object…buttons and dials might not be the best conversation builder between user and speaker”, could you explain the decision to omit something like HDMI output, usually a mainstay for speakers aimed at home theater use?
Tad Toulis: At Sonos we strive to make products that are simple to use and ‘just work.’ For PLAYBASE, just like PLAYBAR, we have chosen to stick with a simple, single audio input via optical. Based on our survey of TVs in the field and market, we have found that optical is still the most common audio connector for TVs.
I have to admit, when I first unpacked the PLAYBASE, it seemed very noticeable underneath the television (even under my 65″ unit, perhaps accentuated by its white finished against my other primarily darker components and furniture). But I was surprised, even in white, in quick time this sense disappeared. Whether acclimation or by its minimalist design, it’s been easy to situate in a pretty small television room. What was the rationale to move toward a design that presents a larger physical presence of a pedestal design vs. a more streamlined sound bar approach?
Tad Toulis: On paper, yes, PLAYBASE is physically larger than PLAYBAR, but our design process focuses on the experience in the home. When you consider the visual impact of PLAYBASE in the context of watching a movie, the depth of the product becomes invisible and the extremely low height allows the product to essentially disappear.
The unique dimensions of PLAYBASE gave us the opportunity to create a product with low visual impact while significantly increasing the internal volume which, through clever audio engineering, delivers an amazing audio experience. Offering PLAYBASE in a choice of colors, black or white, provides users greater flexibility and better fit to their environment. This awareness of how a product will fits into someone’s home is quite unusual in home theater products.
The Sonos PLAYBASE is available today in either black or white, a uniquely shaped home entertainment speaker in service of simplicity, squarely aimed at anyone seeking to upgrade their television surround sound experience with plug-and-play ease.