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Giles Martin and Sonos CEO Patrick Spence believe this is the moment for spatial audio

They join The Vergecast to discuss Sonos’ new Era 300 and 100 speakers, the ins and outs of spatial audio, and why this is the time to get behind it.

Spatial audio has been sort of a mess. There are different formats for different streaming services, there are wacky mixes that throw instruments in random corners or thin out vocals in a song, and most of the time, it’s only ever heard through headphones.

Today, Sonos announced a new line of speakers — the Era 100 and the Era 300 — with the latter finally taking on this format that has been a hit-or-miss experience for music lovers, supporting Amazon Music and Apple Music’s spatial audio. Though spatial format Dolby Atmos has been supported on the Sonos Arc soundbar, the Era 300 signals a music-first approach to its speakers supporting 3D soundscapes. Sonos CEO Patrick Spence believes this is the right time to do it. “We didn’t know that, in 2022, 85 of the top Billboard 100 artists would actually release Atmos tracks, but they did,” Spence says. “We feel like we’re at an inflection point.”

On board with Sonos for this shift in music listening is record producer Giles Martin, who mixed the first-ever spatial audio album (a remix of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles album that his father, George Martin, originally produced) and several albums and live experiences in Dolby Atmos since. Martin is also the senior vice president of sound experience at Sonos and was involved in the development of the speaker. “When you’re building a product which has multi sort of use and orientations, you do prioritize ... in a way of, what’s the wow factor?” Martin explains. “The wow factor, which I think is truly extraordinary out of the 300, is the fact that it does spatial out of a single box. And it’s really compelling.”

Both Patrick and Giles joined Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel for The Vergecast to talk about the new speakers, supporting spatial audio, and why this is the time to do it.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Patrick Spence, you’re the CEO of Sonos. Giles Martin, you’re the senior vice president of sound experience at Sonos.

Giles Martin: Yeah, it’s a short title.

It means everything, and perhaps nothing. We’re going to find out. Welcome to the show. You have big new products for Sonos, a big step forward in spatial audio. I want to talk about all of that. Patrick, let’s start with the products themselves. Two new speakers: Era 100, Era 300. What are they, and what do we need to know?

Patrick Spence: This is really the next generation of Sonos. We’re doing something very unique for us. You and I, in the past, have talked about all the changes we made to bring out at least two new products every single year. We’ve never brought out two products at the same time, and they’re from the same family.

We really feel like, with Era 300, we’ve set the standard for out loud spatial audio listening. This is something the team’s been working on for three years, toiling away, and the industry’s been developing along the way to have the content we need to actually bring it all to life. And it’s hitting at the perfect time.

With Era 100, we’ve really taken our iconic Sonos One and done what I’m very proud of, which is rethink it completely — new hardware, new software, all of it — to create something that sounds significantly better and really matches the kind of visual ID you would expect of Sonos in this day and age. And so, it is a new era. We are signaling that with the names of the products as well. We’re very excited for customers to be able to experience them.

I really want to talk a lot about the Era 300, and spatial audio, which is potentially revolutionizing the music industry in a variety of ways. But let’s start with the Era 100. I think we can kind of understand this product fairly quickly. It sounds great. I listened to it with Giles earlier today. It’s a full-on replacement for the Sonos One, as you’re saying.

PS: Yes.

What was the decision for you to say, “Okay, this is a product that people will like. We’ll sell a lot of them. We’re going to just move on”?

PS: The thinking is really, if you’re not cannibalizing yourself and trying to raise the bar on yourself, then you’re not pushing hard enough. And we have these debates all the time in terms of what we’re trying to do and are we pushing hard enough.

And it comes a time — seven years that we’ve had the Sonos One out — where you do get itchy at that five-, six-year mark, where you’re saying, “Okay, can we do something much better than this?” And Giles and the team and Chris Davies on the audio side and then our design team are looking at it saying, “Yeah, we think we can. We think we have something that we can do [that] is much better, that will raise the bar enough that it’s something that we can be really proud of.”

And so we kind of take a leap of faith in that moment to say, “Okay, what are the things we need to do to make this product even better? Can we do those things? Can we fit it in there, and do we think it’s really going to stand for that leap in innovation and quality?” And we feel like we’ve delivered that with the Era 100.

So the Era 100 is a stereo speaker in a single package, two tweeters at the top. I think a bigger woofer than before?

GM: Yeah, the other One was a mono speaker — this is more of a stereo. And listen, I love and I still love the One. And it’s interesting. I can walk into a restaurant or a bar and tell whether there’s a One in the bar and in my other world of pro audio and creating content. Now, the One is used as a reference by a lot of engineers and producers because it’s a really honest speaker. Well, I mean, it doesn’t hype anything — it’s a very, very good scaled-down version of what we are trying to do in a studio.

So that’s what One does but in a mono format. That mono format is limiting because you lose things like reverb tails and voices — the reality of the things. We don’t listen to music in mono. And so with Era 100, we thought, “Okay, let’s rethink this.” Then, okay, we need to add more weight behind it. We need more base. We increased the woofer size by 25 percent. And it was tough, though. It was a really tough challenge. It’s like your children have to grow up. That’s the thing. I really felt like that when we were doing it.

One of the themes I see across the Big Tech players in audio is that they’re adding an awful lot of computation to their speakers, especially the direct competitors who sell something like the Era 100. Era 100 does not seem like it’s doing an awful lot of excessive computational tricks. There’s a crossover for the two tweeters that create the stereo field.

GM: Correct.

There’s a mono woofer.

GM: Yeah.

And that’s the game. You’re not–

GM: It’s key for us, as a company, that you listen to music and not technology. It’s one of those things where we try not to hype anything at all. We try not to. And however dull that may sound as marketing speak, it’s like having a clear window on the world of sound. You literally just switch on a light or switch on music in your home, and it sounds great.

And the strange thing about artifacts and crazy stuff that’s done, is after a while, it wears really thin, and it becomes irritating more than anything else. Someone said to me the other day, we were listening to products, they went, “They sound like Sonos speakers.” And I was like, “Well, that’s interesting” — from my point of view, I don’t try and give us a sound. And I said, “What does that mean?”

And he went, “It sounds musical.” And I was like, “Great. Okay. That’s what it should be.” And so, we are doing a lot of stuff under the bonnet, we really are. It’s a bit like fighter jets. They’d probably fall out of the air if they had the DSP we’re using. But I don’t want people to hear that. You want people to be able to hear a song.

Yeah. I very subtly set a trap for you about excessive processing because spatial audio is a lot of processing to make that work. So when you think about the Era 100, it does not have any spatial features; it doesn’t have the height channels. But you’re saying there is processing happening inside of it?

GM: Yeah, of course, because, for a start, we’re trying to create a bigger sound than the box is. We’re trying to defy physics all of the time at Sonos — that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re not doing any tricks with phase, but there is a slight delay going on there to create a stereo spread at the higher frequencies. You have to do that.

And at the same time, the key thing for me in this, and actually what we worked really hard on the 100 was, we could make the product a lot wider and more spatial than it is. But the detriment to that is voices. The human voice doesn’t sound as good because, when your listeners listen to music, we mix music in stereo and equal left and right is mono. And that’s generally where the voice lies, and that’s the songs you love.

If you pull that apart too much, it can sound phase-y, it can sound weird. So it’s that argument: processing over reality. Of course it’s processing, but the key thing is that it has to sound natural, and that’s done by the human ear. You can’t measure natural, weirdly enough. Things can measure completely flat in a room and then sound strange.

I’m so tempted to just immediately start talking about spatial audio, but I want to finish talking about the Era 100. Because to me, the argument with spatial audio is, when it’s done incorrectly or done poorly, you actually lose a lot of that impact. You spread everything out to too many channels, and everything is in the distance. 

GM: And at the same time, if you play around with stereo too much… We don’t spatialize stereo. Because again, it’s a bit like smashing something with a toffee hammer. I mean, everything flies everywhere, and you’re left with no middle. And its impact [is] just drums and vocals. And it’s fine, actually, if it’s a spatial audio tracker. If it’s ambient tracking, all bets are off.

And sometimes it’s the classical music that helps. But generally, most pop music or hip-hop or R&B needs that drive behind it. And it’s really important to mention: we have this sort of team of checks and balances. We have this soundboard which we run where Manny Marroquin, he’s just won three Grammy Awards. He’s now won 17 Grammy Awards. And so, he mixes Lizzo. It’s similar… we’ll play Lizzo on an Era 100, and if it doesn’t sound right, our job isn’t done.

It’s that important thing. It’s that scalability. You have to be honest. You have to be honest about what you’re making. You can’t have this Napoleon complex of a little speaker going, “Wait a second, I can beam myself through a wall.” You have to be honest. And then that becomes, that honesty translates into your home, and you enjoy listening to it.

PS: But I think that honesty is a key, and it sounds somewhat cliche, but I think to Giles’ point about the soundboard and all the people that we have on it and all the people in Giles’ network, we have them listen to these speakers and the mixes that they’ve done, whether it’s the 100 or 300 to say, “Does this sound as you intended it?” And actually go through that. And I don’t know another company that spends the amount of time we do going through that work on the way to actually launching a product. And it’s so important to making sure that we’re getting it right.

Yeah. So the Era 100, direct replacement, you’re getting itchy with the Sonos One. The Sonos One is very popular, and it has multiple configurations. Are you going to do an Era 100 SL without the microphones?

PS: We’re always considering what customers will want on that front. So we’ll see what kind of feedback we get at this point.

Are you leaving the One SL and One in the lineup?

PS: Yes.

For now?

PS: Yeah.

I noticed we talked about Alexa a bunch of times today. Does it support Google Assistant as well?

PS: Google Assistant has changed the way that they’re implementing it for third parties. And so, that’s changed, so at this point, it won’t support Google Assistant. Our existing products that support Google Assistant will continue to, but 100 and 300 will not.

Is that because Google made a change or is that because there’s ongoing litigation between you and Google?

PS: No, it has nothing to do with the ongoing litigation. As you and I have talked about before, YouTube Music, all the different aspects, Google Assistant. The teams continue to work pretty constructively, but they did make a change in terms of how they do Google Assistant on third-party products, and it’s a pretty big engineering lift for us.

And the reality is, right now, we’d like to see it back on the platform, but people are using voice for music timers and weather, as they have for many years, as you know, and we’re well covered with what we have with Sonos Voice Control and Alexa. So we feel pretty good about where we are with these products.

Did you assemble a task force to be like, “Alright, we need Bing to insult people directly from our speakers. Just let it go crazy. ChatGPT is the future. Just let people talk to the AI”?

PS: [Laughing] We’ll let you sort it all out.

Every other company had to do some sort of weird code or that exercise.

PS: No, we will focus on creating great speakers that people can listen to amazing music on.

The Sonos AI that reads all of Tumblr and says your music taste is shit is not coming?

PS: No.

Because there are people that would buy that product, specifically.

PS: Yeah.

There was like, this song sucks.

GM: Yeah.

There’s a better version of the song. It’s the original; you’re late.

PS: Well, our friends at Spotify did introduce a DJ today, an AI DJ. I don’t know if you saw that, so–

I’m telling you, this is the future. You start listening to an album, and it’s like, “I like the second album better.” I know my friends would be like, “I just want someone to talk to me about music, no matter what it says.”

GM: “I don’t have my own opinion.”

Exactly.

GM: That’s what they’re saying. I want a computer to have my opinion.

Yeah, feed in all of Pitchfork, and then Pitchfork will tell you whatever you’re listening to is a six.

GM: Something that I really like. Exactly. We can go into conversations about art, and anomalies and art, about that.

Yeah. And all of those conversations always kind of sound like you’re having them with a moody computer anyway.

PS: Yes. That’s right.

A big focus on sustainability with the 100 and the 300, lots of recycled plastic. We saw some custom screws today.

PS: Yeah.

There are more screws instead of glue.

PS: Ninety-three.

Ninety-three screws in the 100?

PS: In the 300.

In the 300. You’re the CEO, when someone says we only use screws instead of glue, also I need to make custom screws with hearts in them, specifically, that’s more cost. How do you weigh that kind of decision?

PS: Yeah, we’re building products for the decade, as we look at what we’re trying to do. We think the biggest thing we can do for the environment, for our customers, is make sure these products last for a really long time. But we’re always looking and pushing on, what parts can be used from recycled, how do we do all of these things? How do we improve repairability? That’s been a huge issue. And so, the screws come in big when we’re thinking about being able to repair instead of using adhesives and being in situations where we have to throw away a product because you just don’t want to do that.

So what I’m most proud of is we’re getting better and better, not just on those fronts but as well in terms of energy usage with each of the products. But I always feel like, at the core, the most important thing is, are we building something that can reasonably last in someone’s house for a decade? And I think we do that better than anybody else out there.

And we will continue to push on what other parts can come from recycled materials and all of those things. How do we get better on repairability? We’ve made a huge leap with Era, which is why we’ve decided to call this a whole new line. I’m proud of that, and we’re going to keep working on it. And it all makes sense when you’re playing the long game, from a cost and investment perspective, because I feel like you get more than that back over time in customer loyalty and everything else that we’re trying to build.

Speakers are one of those products that sit around people’s houses for decades, if not more.

PS: Yeah.

Obviously, Sonos has had a number of different approaches to upgrading products, trading products in, this is something you can take apart. Do you have a thought that one day maybe we will just replace the sort of computer elements of these speakers and leave the drivers alone?

PS: I have a real hope that one day that’s a possibility. People call me crazy for doing it. Giles might, even right now. But I do think that’s a potential possibility in the future, and I’d love to see something like that, and I’d love to see us pushing on how to be that company.

Yeah. From your perspective on the audio front, a great pair of vintage speakers in a stereo setup, like people worship at the altar. I’m one of these people, I’m just going to admit it. But they last forever, and the sound there is lasting in a way that some people would argue cannot be defeated. A small computer with a bunch of radios in it that happens to have a digital amplifier and a driver. Do you think that can be as long-lasting?

GM: It’s based on CPU. I mean, I would argue that people blow old speakers all the time, and I’ve been in situations where I’ve been in very high-end audio places where they play back a mix and I’ve gone, “Your left channel’s a bit weird.” And they go, “Our valve’s just gone. Sorry.” So there’s a lot of ways of looking at this, there really is.

Yeah.

GM: Yeah, I think we proved, actually, that Rick Rubin had an old Play:5 outside his porch for 10 years in the rain, and it lasted, that’s not even–

I think the last time Patrick was here, I was like, “Why don’t you make an outdoor speaker?” And he was like, “I know a famous producer who has a Play:5–” So thank you for outing him.

PS: Oh yeah, it’s great. I’m that good.

GM: Actually, I went, I did his podcast recently. But he’s a good mate. So yeah, I think I love the idea and the ethos of Sonos. I mean, actually, it’s one of those things that… I got involved in Sonos nine years ago now because they were the first company that asked me what was wrong about the sound of the speaker as opposed to “tell us how great we are.” And then, on top of that, I love the ethos of “we want these products to last” — because why not. We’re not asking you to replace them; we’re asking you to put more into your house. That’s the thing.

And I think it’s expensive for us to do that. It’s expensive for us, for a number of different reasons, to keep products in the marketplace. But it’s the right thing to do. And I think there’ll always be a place for… I have a whole load of speakers. I have a full studio, so I have Abbey Road to use. I think there’s a place for things, but just as far as that ability to go think of a song and thinking of a song to listening to it to waking up with music or have music in your house or gathering your mates to listen. “Sonos is just brilliant” — that’s what everyone says to me.

And from my own experience, before I got sent a Play:3 and Play:5, I met a guy, and I was in the studios in LA, and they sent it back, sent it to my house in London. My wife was happy for me to have these speakers in the home, which is very rare. Well, my dad, who was George Martin, a famous record producer, we had no speakers. He used to listen to mixes in the car. And suddenly we had music in our house. And that’s the thing is that there’s two different ways, and I think everything is, there’s no better or worse. It’s like vinyl or digital, what’s your choice? It’s like, just enjoy music.

There’s a big push toward lossless, and we’re going to talk about spatial, but lossless and spatial seem to have come along at the same time, at least for the major streaming services. Can you hear the difference between 192 and lossless on the Era 100?

GM: No. The Era 100, no. But it’s not that type of unit. It’s not a reference. We’re not trying to build reference speakers. Again, it’s like, we’re trying to build the best possible scenario so you can enjoy all the music in the home. And there’s an interesting point about this, because I have a quarter-of-a-million-dollar setup in my studios.

Yes, I’m head of audio and sound for Universal Music Group, and I work, I consult with Apple and other streaming services over the quality of their codecs, and all that sort of stuff. Yes, I am that person. However, there’s a point where, shouldn’t you just enjoy a song? Do you know what I mean?

Yeah.

GM: And people talk to me about numbers all the time. “What do you prefer, 192 or 96?” It’s like, wait a second. I’m involved in this. it’s just… and I can hear the difference between certain things. And we’ve done tests with Sonos because we’re really interested in this.

This is super interesting because we have to make decisions based on this, with pros, like mastering engineers, and I have this brilliant guy … who works for me. He invented the system where we’d send Pro Tools sessions out with 96 [kHz] / 24 [bit] files, Spotify streams, Apple streams, streams unnamed, and people’s songs they’d mixed. And we’d sit them together, “Which one do you prefer?” Out of completely blind listening. And it’s amazing how many people didn’t want to do it.

Yeah.

GM: There we are. I think what we need to do is focus on the best possible experience for people. And that is, I mean, listen, farm to table, as you’d say, is the best possible experience. How do we get to that without transients and other objects, artifacts, going on, and being honest about it is key.

The last question on the 100. There’s no height channels. There’s no spatial push with the 100. You can still use them as rears.

GM: Yeah.

But why no height channels? Why no spatial in the 100?

PS: We’re in the early days of spatial, for sure. We wanted to really make sure that, as we bring a product to the world that delivers the best experience and sets the bar, we wanted to start with the 300. And we think they’re, to Giles’ point of listening to music and people listening to music, that there’s room for stereo speakers as well. So you’ll see, we keep the Five in the portfolio as well for people that want to enjoy that.

And we’re in a transition period, to me, that’s similar to the mono-to-stereo transition period, where there’s a lot of emotional energy about that transition. It took actually decades, if you look back on it. And there was both, for a while, mono and stereo, and going through that. I think there’s going to continue to be over this next period, and we want to be there for customers no matter what they choose.

Yeah. I think there are people who are wondering, “Okay, I want the full Atmos setup from Sonos, particularly for movies.” To get upfiring rears now is a $900 investment. Am I looking at a future where it will always be a $900 investment, or are you planning on building that out over time?

PS: Well, I mean, what is that? Ninety dollars a year, as you think about it. Or we’re talking $10 a month kind of thing, as we go through it, 10, 20 bucks. So I think, for the kind of experience that we deliver, I think there’s value for money in that, for sure.

Yeah, from your perspective, as you think about the split between using these speakers for spatial audio, Atmos music, and then what’s required for a great movie experience. Is there a tradeoff that you’ve made? Is there a balancing that needs to be done, or is it…

GM: No, I mean, the first... It’s funny, when you’re building a product which has multi sort of use and orientations, you do prioritize. You do prioritize in a way of, what’s the wow factor? The wow factor, which I think is truly extraordinary out of the 300, is the fact that it does spatial out of a single box. And it’s really compelling.

Yeah.

GM: To me, there’s nothing else on the planet that does what this does. I’m saying this as a creator. And other creators as well. I mean, I say to people, and I’m not really Mr. Jargon at all; I’m pretty honest, and I love music, I love sound, I’m passionate. And I’ll say to people, I mean, I was at CES with a bunch of producer engineers, and I went, “It really is amazing.” And they come to my suite, and they go, “Oh my god, this really is amazing.” Guitars are over by... I had a bar area because that’s the way I roll. It’s over by the bar area, that’s where the guitars are.

And it’s like, “I told you,” and they went, “Yeah, but we didn’t...” So the single boxing was great, and then, if there’s two of them, it’ll do pure stereo and Dolby Atmos sort of stereo. Interestingly enough, the way we think about it doing stereo Atmos, or two speakers creating Atmos, is creating front-firing heights / sides / rears, and if you turn those around the other way, that’s your home theater setup you’re adding. So it’s kind of the same problem, if you like an audio perspective, or the same solution is probably a better way of putting it.

So that’s the way we work. And there is an additive and compelling drive behind doing this. You’d be surprised. I mean, I started working with spatial audio a long time ago. I think The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s [Lonely Hearts Club Band] album was the first album done in spatial audio, which I mixed. I then did Kick by INXS, and they were both used for — they played them back in theaters. When I did Kick and they made the Blu-ray, because that’s going back that far, I went to Capitol Studios, and the rears were too loud. I went to Dolby in Wootton Bassett, and the sub was too loud.

I went to Dolby in Soho Square, and the right-hand speaker was too loud. With discrete systems, you can be in a situation where people don’t set them up correctly. The elegance of having one box multichannel systems, like Arc plus two 300s, is a pretty good chance for Trueplay, it’s going to be an even, balanced sound, it’s going to be rendering. And the dangerous thing about spatial audio, in fact, you get the channel mix wrong, it’s worse than mono, but we have to make sure we get that right every time.

The height channels are based on bouncing off the ceiling, right? Do you need to do Trueplay to get the full-out most effect?

GM: No, you don’t. But Trueplay will adjust delays and levels in EQ. We do Trueplay for a reason. Indeed, you might find that we might even reduce the height channel SBL because of Trueplay. All it does is, it’s matching levels. So it’s not like your heights won’t work if you don’t use Trueplay. But your bounce will improve and your sound will improve if you do use it.

“If we’re going to do it, we’re going to try and really set the bar”

So the Era [300] is kind of the big step forward here. It’s a big investment into spatial. We are looking around, we are pretty sure this is the first standalone spatial audio speaker that is not connected inherently to a streaming service. Apple obviously makes the HomePod, Amazon makes the Echo Studio. They would argue that there’s some inherent connection there that makes everything work together better. What made you think, “Okay, we have to invest in this, this is the next great audio format.”

PS: It was really hearing from Giles and Chris Davies and our audio team. We had a ton of debates in the lossless period and high-res HD. “Can you hear a difference? Should we invest in this? What should we support or not?” And we landed in the, “Okay, there isn’t a difference. We’re not going to go just chase this next technology.” And I mean, Sonos is known for taking our time to consider what’s happening. And it was really an understanding of what was happening with the artists and were they beginning to embrace it.

And they were, and so, we saw that three years ago — and the labels starting to embrace it. And it seemed like there was actually momentum in the industry starting to happen. It was a chance, though, at that point. Because we didn’t know that, in 2022, 85 of the top Billboard 100 artists would actually release Atmos tracks, but they did. And so, that’s a good thing. We feel like we’re at an inflection point, where more and more people are releasing in Atmos, which is great.

But that was the bet that we basically made, and it was on the back of Giles and Chris and the team basically saying, “No, no, this is special, and this is one that mimics that jump from mono to stereo, and this is the next big one that artists are actually embracing.” For us, then, it’s like, “Okay, we’ve got to be there, and we’ve got to do this right.” So that took some time to go build as well and do it right. But if we’re going to do it, we’re going to try and really set the bar, and I feel like we have with this product.

You are launching with support for spatial from two services: Amazon Music HD and Apple Music. They are not quite the same, right? There are some format differences between how the services deliver spatial audio. That seems weird to me. What’s going on there?

GM: It’s not down to us. If it was, it wouldn’t be the sound. It’s not down to the music, bearing in mind that I have this weird position where I am head of audio and sound for both Universal and Sonos. So I’m at the beginning of the source and at the end of the source, which is kind of useful and actually beneficial, too. When Universal approached me after Sonos — Universal has been three years, four years. And I said, “Listen, I’m loyal to Sonos” and [they said] “We think it’s a good thing.”

And we work together because I knew, at the top of the source, the stream, that there’ll be Atmos. The spatial audio was coming down the pipe. So I’m going, “We need to embrace this.” The way that Amazon or Apple deal with this is not down to us. And it’s not down to Universal, either. It’s down to them. And we have to partner with people, and we have to be Switzerland. That’s a very old reference as far as — this is important to us that we provide an ecosystem, that the music lover just, “I want to use this service, so I should listen to it.”

But as a music lover, I know now when I’m listening to Apple, “Okay, there’s an Atmos logo here.” These often sound better than the generic spatial audio logo. And this whole thing sounds different than what Amazon is doing. What are the differences there that you have to contend with?

GM: Okay. So I don’t think, I’m not hearing a massive difference between Amazon Atmos and Apple Atmos. There’s also the Sony 360 to bear in mind.

Yeah, and Amazon supports that as well.

GM: Yeah. So occasionally — and then there’s the headphone thing as well. So if you listen to headphones, the way that Apple renders binaural is different from the way that Amazon renders binaural, which is confusing. When you listen to an Era 300, it’ll be the same.

The Atmos mix will be the same.

GM: So if you think about it ... I was surprised. I created this [The Beatles] Love show in Vegas with 7,000 speakers in a room, which is essentially the sort of template of Dolby Atmos. We have obviously a lot of height channels because it’s in the round… and I made this 5.1 album, which I thought was going to be the future of audio, but then I could never listen to it on a system because people don’t have 5.1 systems at that stage. I never thought the first steps in spatial audio would be headphones.

Yeah.

GM: What’s interesting — headphones, actually, have become exponentially better, as an experience, really, really quickly. I thought it was unlistenable about three years ago–

Same.

GM: And now, it’s pretty good. However, the confusing thing for the consumer, which goes off the top of Sonos but it’s something that we care about because we care about sound experiences for everything, is that you can have a different experience on different headphones spatially as well as spectorally.

So EQ as well spatially. And then on different streaming servers, whether it’s Amazon or Apple. And in the Universal group itself, we’re working with both Apple and Amazon and manufacturers on unifying that experience.

Because it’s bad for the artists, if nothing else. And it’s the feedback we get from artists, whether it’s like Mick Jagger or Lizzo or whoever, going, “Well, I’m not sure I want to do this.” Because you lose control. It’s like Whack-A-Mole. “Suddenly I’ve put on my music, and I don’t”...  so you need that stability to the ecosystem to make it work.

One of the things we’re doing with Era 300, which is really groundbreaking and benefits the artists as well as benefits Sonos, is that we’ve developed a bunch of units for artists where they can mix directly through as a reference speaker, which gives the bonus a) it reassures them that the mixes can sound good out of a single box and b) they can give us feedback if they don’t like anything we’re doing so we can change. So with the binaural codec, that should happen as well. There should be a reference of what it should be, and that’s where people get confused about where it’s rendered.

So I would say that I thought headphone spatial audio was really where I heard the loss of impact, and it felt almost like, I don’t know, you were going through a ’90s CD player that had the stadium button.

GM: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.

And we just spread everything out.

GM: Yeah. Correct.

And sort of empty everything out.

GM: Yeah

The demos I heard today — obviously, you were there, you made sure they sounded good.

GM: No, but you say that, and you asked me this question. So, listeners, we were in a room, and picture this, the two of us in a room together. We’re in a room where they drew the curtains on the windows.

Yeah. It’s like an eight-by-eight box with a flat ceiling and a glass wall.

GM: “Is this space designed so you can hear spatial?” I was like, “No, this is designed so you can’t.” [Laughing]

Yeah.

GM: The speaker’s in the corner of the room because we had an Arc in front of a TV. If it’s the center, if you had an even balance, all this kind of stuff. But I think that’s cool. I don’t believe that that’s the only time you’re going to listen to the product. So it’s okay.

Yeah.

GM: And it’s so important. The impact is the most important thing. Emotional connectivity is much more important. That’s why mono is kind of cool, and that’s why here I talk about spatial, which you’ve probably invested a million dollars in: that impact. It’s funny, I listened to a Chemical Brothers track, two new tracks with them, and I listened to it in a Dolby Atmos room. And I had an Era 300 on top of the center speaker.

And I was playing around, but the first time, I was playing around with the interface where we were switching between the two, and actually, I kind of liked the central, like that immediacy you get from the Era 300 is like, that’s hitting me in the face. Like you did today, where you’re absolutely right. Sometimes with spatial audio, you get that feeling. It’s like, “Wait a second, have I hit the stadium button on my amp?”

Yeah. Where’d it all go?

GM: Yeah. Wait a second. I’m wading through audio all of a sudden. It shouldn’t be like that. And that’s the tricky thing is that we have to, as artists, as record labels, and as manufacturers of products, we have to work on experience.

One of the, I would say, more cynical criticisms of spatial across the industry is, well, you know why Spotify can’t do it, it’s because the rights to distribute spatial are more expensive, and Apple and Amazon are just paying the money. And spatial is a thing that you can hear, right?

GM: Yeah.

You can’t hear lossless. I think we’ve all talked around the idea of not being able to hear lossless. Most people can’t hear lossless, especially on their AirPods.

GM: Yeah.

But as a format shift, is it something you could charge higher rates for? Is it something you could charge the consumer more [for]? Spatial is hearable in a way that could lead to different rate structures. Has that been the background of your conversations about why to support this format, that the industry is doing this because it represents a format shift from vinyl to cassettes to CD on to the next thing? Or is it, there’s actually something very meaningful here that improves the experience?

PS: It started from the experience, from where we are, because for us, we’re not involved in any of that part of it.

Well, he is.

PS: From our perspective, partially, but that’s not how he’s paid departmentally.

GM: He is. I mean, God, I wish I was.

Well, I’m just wondering.

GM: You can renegotiate my consultancy with Universal. I’ll be delighted. No, but it’s a–

Call him up, and let’s do this.

GM: Yeah. It’s a really valid point. But I think, I base things… It’s funny, when I, way back, seven years ago, I mixed Sgt. Pepper’s spatial audio. David Arnold phoned me up and said he went to a room and listened to it, and he went, it was the single most emotional audio experience he’d had.

Yeah.

GM: I was like, “Wow, thanks David,” and I then paid him. [Laughing] The point is that you can really touch, you can travel through space and time, and that sounds crazy. But I did this [The Beatles: Get Back] thing with Peter Jackson last year, this [Get Back documentary] series, and we did that in spatial. But then I mixed “Let It Be,” and I can put the room that Paul McCartney was in where he sang the piano on the walls of your house.

Yeah.

GM: So he is in the room with you. Now, you can talk about finance and ecosystems and things. That’s why I do it. I do it so I can sit with Finneas in Abbey Road, and he can talk to me about how he liked [something], will I do this mix in Atmos? And I go, “Have you tried mixing Atmos?” And he then delivers like a cracking… we listened to cracking mixes in Atmos. And his engineer has an Era 300, which he uses as a reference, and it’s fun.

Yeah.

GM: Why do I do it? Why do I do this stuff for Sonos? It’s fun. It’s super cool. It’s fun. Now, so Lucian [Grainge, CEO of Universal Music Group], who I respect, I definitely respect, but it’s like, that’s not why I’d sit with Patrick and go, “Listen, Patrick, we need to look at this because…”

Yeah.

GM: And then, Patrick, you listen. You sat in the room we were sitting in today and go, “Check this out.” And it’s like, we were with your daughter. It’s like, “Check this out.”

It’s amazing.

GM: You’re not listening to cash registers, you’re listening to music.

Some people think they’re listening to cash registers.

GM: Yeah, well they’re not my friends. [Laughing]

It’s weird that you mentioned Blu-ray is a spatial distribution format. I would say that it’s not a mainstream distribution format.

GM: Yeah.

I’m very careful. I’m in a room with you two and a bunch of Verge nerds. There are a lot of Blu-ray players in a small vicinity here.

GM: Yes, there is. The question I got today from someone, quite angry, is like, “Why do you not release Revolver in Atmos on Blu-ray?”

You have to understand, our producers, Andrew [Marino] wants to know the answer to that question.

GM: [Laughing] He wants to know the answer to the question … we might do it.

It’s not a mainstream format — except for this room — it’s weird that you can’t own a spatial audio track. You can’t buy one from Apple; you can’t buy one from Amazon. It’s all streaming all the time. Right? Is that just the nature of consumer preferences?

GM: I think you can. Blu-rays are released.

Okay, so Blu-ray is your answer.

GM: Yeah, yeah. I mean, how else would you like to own it?

I would like to download a file. 

GM: Oh, download a file. 

There’s something underneath all of this, which is, as part of a consumer experience shift, there’s a business model shift, there is an ownership shift, there is an underlying bet on streaming. And to me, I’d like to have my music. I’m serious about it. And there’s a weirdness where it’s like, “I’m going to invest in this product from Sonos, and to get the most out of it, I have to pay Apple or Amazon for the rest of my life in order to get the most value out of this product.” And that just seems... I don’t think it’s in your control, but it seems like it’s part of the change here.

GM: I’ll argue the same thing about television.

Yeah.

GM: Adolescence. Like what if I want to watch that movie? 

Well, you’re the one bringing up Blu-ray.

GM: No, you brought up Blu-ray first, Mr. Blu-ray guy. [Laughing] No, I think there’s, I mean, that is the nature of the beast. Of course, it’s not down to us, he says, now talking as half of Sonos, which I am.

I really lured you in here to put you in an existential crisis.

GM: Yeah, welcome to my life. Luckily, my family’s standing by during this difficult time. No, it’s not down to us. That analogy of the window and the world of sound,  we deliver whatever’s coming through, and if someone wants to download it, I think you can. And you can download HD tracks. It’s funny, I’m sure that there’ll be a stage when you can download Atmos tracks. 

PS: Yeah, I would think so, too. But it is an interesting point to think about, because I haven’t really seen that. 

GM: Listen, going back to the previous conversation, your honor, about financial services, I’m sure that if there’s an “HD Tracks Universal,” we, speaking as Universal, we’d go, “Let’s do a deal where we’re providing downloaded Atmos files for a subscription fee, and you can download them.” That’s not a conversation that we have to work out the ecosystem of storage.

Well, Sonos started as a literal client-server model.

PS: Yeah, that’s right.

There’s a long history here.

PS: You’re right.

GM: And then we’d have to work out a system of, I mean, open a can of worms for us to ask the question of storage, and then playing back from a library, which actually we can do because we test files that way, but yeah.

From your perspective, Sonos runs a radio service. You’ve thought about recurring revenue models and different kinds of subscriptions. Is this something that you would light up as well? “Okay, we’re going to have a spatial service or we’re going to need to invest in spatial versions of the radio service.”

PS: Absolutely. I think we want to keep making sure that Sonos Radio is there in terms of the best quality. We have the HD service today, so we want to make sure that we’re there. That’s something we’re definitely focused on for the future.

“I do expect a whole bunch of people to experience spatial the first time with Era 300.”

Do you think the Era 300, as a new product for Sonos, is going to increase the number of spatial audio listeners, or do you think it’s going to capture a rising trend of people using spatial on their headphones?

PS: I believe this is a moment where there’s enough energy from the streaming services, from the labels, and then with this product that it’s going to bring spatial to a whole new set of people. That’s why we’re doing it because we feel like we want to introduce them to spatial in the right way, and this is the right way to do it. I do expect a whole bunch of people to experience spatial the first time with Era 300.

GM: And there’s been an interesting shift, sorry to butt in, on age groups, and listenership in spatial audio, which we see through the record industry, of people leaning in and listening and a new generation of listeners listening to even old catalog, there’s been a huge boost.

And I think they’re going to want to know what it sounds like out loud. And the weird thing is that, until now, I don’t believe — there are niche systems, but I think the Era 300 does provide, I know it does, from working with creators in a creative standpoint…

It provides a very real way of experiencing it. And I’ve found, personally, that I’ve really enjoyed exploring music on it. That’s the thing. It’s like, wait a second, that’s Miles Davis. It’s like, “This is cool.” It’s like he’s in my room. I mean, I’m not sure I want Miles Davis in my room for a long period of time. It’s kind of crazy. But it’s like, “This is great.”

I’m excited for our headline to be “Giles Martin calls HomePod a niche system.” That’s going to be great.

GM: That was very clever.

PS: Don’t say anything.

There have been more niche systems than the HomePod. Sonos makes soundbars. There is a lot of Atmos soundbars in this world. There are ways to get Atmos audio into soundbars. What do you think the difference is? If you’ve got a 5.1.4 soundbar setup at home or whatever, is this a meaningful upgrade over that? Is it going to be different because it’s focused on music first?

GM: Listen, I mean, it’s been great that Arc has been used as a reference system in studios. I mean, there’s an Arc in Capitol, an Arc in Abbey Road. And we’ve been seeing, for Atmos music, Arc has been the main reference amongst pros. We start off, when we’re doing home theater, we actually start off with music because music is much more fragile than home theater, he says arrogantly being– [Laughing] But actually, I mix film, so I can say that.

But there’s much more of a fragility to music. If a song goes wrong, you hear more than the film soundtrack going wrong. And Arc has been used for that, but it’s not built for that. It’s a home theater system first. And by its fit and form, it has to be, by it being a tube, if you like, to be frank. So yeah, it’s like, would I personally listen to an Atmos track on Arc, which has been used as a reference system, or an Era 300? Era 300, without question. But watching movies, Arc is great.

But that is sort of the default Atmos experience for most people right now, whether it’s the Arc or another soundbar. Is it worth saying, “I need to put an Era 300 in this room as well?”

GM: Yeah, I think people will hear it, and they’ll say, “Yes, it is.” And I think the way that the Era 300, and you heard it today even in the curtain room, where you asked what trickery we’re up to. I think that the spatial aspect, the way it projects discrete audio, which sounds very real. It’s not blurred — like a guitar can be on your far right-hand side. It sounds like a guitar. It’s kind of amazing, I think. Yeah, I mean, I’d have one. I have one.

PS: And I think it’s the simplicity, too. Just like, you know, it’s a speaker. You know what’s there. You know it’s for music in terms of what’s there. There still is a, there seems to be a mental barrier for many people, in terms of listening to music in their home theater kind of setup. And so, it’s another room. Is it a kitchen, a living room, a sitting room, an office — wherever it’s going to be. But there’s something that screams music about the Era 300.

Yeah. This is the part where I just start asking you for new products directly, Patrick. Where is my receiver with Sonos built in and Trueplay built in–

PS: Did you see our work with Sony that we did that works with Sonos — work on their receiver? So there you go.

But I still got to buy another thing. I want you to make it. I want you to be responsible for it.

PS: If I can get your updated list, I’m happy to take your updated list and start with it.

I do feel like I need to end by asking more expansively about Sonos. There’s a big split now. I listened to your last earnings call before the Era 300 was announced. Speaking of HomePod, you were basically like, “Yeah, Big Tech stopped competing with us. There’s like nothing on the market that competes with us.” For a minute there, that seemed like an existential threat. The Big Tech players are coming; they were locking the streaming services to various products. Why do you think that threat has passed, and do you see a sort of resurgent moment for Sonos right now?

PS: I absolutely see a resurgent moment. You only have to look at our holiday results. And if you look at what happened over that period, there just wasn’t, as I said, a lot interesting happening in the space from anyone, quite frankly, whether legacy or Big Tech side of it. We’ve always been very focused on how we build this for the long term in a sustainable way. We didn’t get caught up in some of the hype around, voice is going to be the next mobile operating system–

ChatGPT on these speakers, man. You got to do it. 

PS: Exactly. And I think we live in a day and age where very quickly people’s attention turns to the new thing. We get all fired up about it. It dominates the headlines for three to six months. I mean, whether it’s voice or whether it’s crypto or whether it’s Web3 or whether it’s now AI.

Bitcoin’s on the speakers.

PS: Right. And we don’t, we try to think about what do these things mean for consumers, as you think about a decade-long period. And we continue to innovate in terms of what you see with the Era 300 and the Era 100 — products that are going to last for a long time. And it’s never with an ulterior motive of trying to capture your data, or sell you another service, or all of these things.

I think our clarity of what we do and why we do it has helped serve us well in competing with strong legacy audio brands — that we had to come from nowhere to be in the position we are in today. And then, even when Big Tech jumped in and infringed all of our intellectual property, we could still keep innovating, keep competing, keep growing, and make sure that we would come out stronger. So I think it’s a testament to our focus and our commitment to doing what we do really, really well.

And I think it shows you that. Hopefully, it gives hope to other companies that just because Big Tech’s going to jump into your space, it doesn’t mean you should follow what they’re doing necessarily. If we had built a $25 or $50 speaker, I think that would’ve been a huge mistake, and you and I talked about that before. I don’t think you respond in that way.

You look at where your strengths are, what you need to do, and how do you compete uniquely in that situation and build on your strengths. And Era 300 is a perfect example of building on our strengths and going after that. So hopefully this is a bit of an inspiration to others that are building their companies and want to compete in an era where we know it’s been very difficult with Big Tech coming in and jumping into all these new categories.

The last time I spoke to you, you did not have the head of sound experience. You had your lawyer, you had your general counsel with you. And we talked about the Big Tech lawsuit.

GM: Thank God, it wasn’t me, is all I can say.

I think, honestly, you guys should switch spots. 

PS: Yeah, yeah.

He’s like, “When I did Love.”

GM: Yeah.

How many speakers has the lawyer put up before? Is it 7,000?

GM: Yeah.

But no, how is the Google lawsuit going? Are you closer to a resolution? We saw the antitrust bills in Congress sort of come to nothing.

PS: Yeah.

What’s going on there?

PS: So in the spring, we have the Northern District case happening, so we’ll see how that all plays out. In the fall, we have the Southern District case, which is the federal circuit off the back of the ITC that we won very handily. So these things continue to progress through the courts. We’re 10 for 10 against Google in terms of their frivolous actions against us to distract and make us spend money.

So we feel good about where we stand today, and we’re going to keep fighting for our intellectual property. And if people infringe it, we’re going to work with them first, but if they don’t come to the table, as Google didn’t, then we will take it to the courts.

And we are in a position, thankfully, because of a lot of hard work and everybody’s efforts where we are in control of our own destiny, and we can do that. And I feel that it’s important for all the inventors at Sonos, but I also feel it’s important for society that we stand up in these situations and say, “No, you can’t go and infringe what somebody else does.” And so, I have faith that the courts will ultimately help us, and we’ll prevail.

Across the spectrum of Big Tech, it’s actually kind of inconsistent how they’re supporting this next standard. Apple and Amazon are doing it. Google is not doing it. Spotify, I think, most notably, is not supporting it yet for any number of reasons. They actually announced it, HiFi, two years ago.

PS: That’s right.

Today, on the day that we’re talking, and it’s come to nothing. Are those conversations you’re having like, “Hey, we’re going ahead with spatial audio. This is the future of music. Are you coming along for the ride?” Or are they just missing out?

PS: We’ve definitely been out there talking to all of the streaming services trying to rally everyone around this because we believe it will be the future. And people just work on, they have their own roadmaps and timelines and strategic priorities and all of those things, but make no mistake, we’ve been out there, absolutely, letting them know Era 300 is coming, trying to get their support, make sure we’re all lined up. So yeah, we’ll keep doing that.

GM: And I think, again, experience and consumer reaction will decide as well.

PS: True.

GM: So will automotive, which is becoming bigger in spatial audio.

Did you see the Mercedes E-Class announced today with built-in spatial for Apple Music?

GM: I’ve been inside one. 

 Did you do the TikTok camera?

GM: I didn’t do the TikTok camera.

So it has a selfie camera inside of it. You make TikToks while the car drives itself. This is the entire future of all media, is my feeling.

GM: This is becoming desperate.

Yeah. The headline was, “Supports Atmos from Apple Music.” And the sub-headline was, “Selfie camera for TikToks.” And I was like, “We should split those around.”

GM: Yeah. Yeah, we are not putting in selfie cameras for TikTok in any way.

PS: No, we’re not.

But you think it’s coming to cars, right? I mean, every car has had some sort of a fake surround mixer in it.

GM: And I think, again, the experience has to be good.

Yeah.

GM: It’s like, and that’s the thing about spatial is, if it’s done right, which I think we’ve done, then it’s a really compelling experience. And I think companies will get it right, not just us. And that will then shift the consumer experience, and therefore, that will influence people. Spotify will then have to come to the table.

Do you think there’s going to be a wave of overly aggressive Atmos mixes in this period? Because that’s what I hear–

GM: Aggressive Atmos mix is people throwing things at studio walls and stuff like that.

Yeah. Just like the guitars are over by the bar, for no reason.

GM: Well, it’s interesting because, in lockdown, I was sort of overseeing spatial audio and quality control with a team of 50 engineers that were... It was mixing, mixing, mixing. And there were times where it was just like early stereo. Early stereo was crazy. And absolutely, I think it settled down. I’m hearing people do mixes now, which are just truly outstanding and not advanced as far as spatial goes. They just sound good.

And that’s the point. Okay. I mean, I know from experience that I’ve just done a whole load of big artists in Atmos, something like The [Rolling] Stones or The Beatles. In The Rolling Stones’ “Angie,” you don’t want things flying around your head. It’s like acoustic guitar, strings and drums and bass and vocal. Chemical Brothers, you want things flying around your head and going through you and hitting you in the face and all that sort of stuff.

Yeah.

GM: So I think it’s music-dependent. And that’s the great thing about building an Era 300 is that you should then have that product that realizes that in your space. So for instance, I can put Paul McCartney back in Abbey Road, singing in Abbey Road, and it will rip the walls of your home. That’s super exciting. That’s really compelling. The Chemical Brothers, you’re at Coachella or whatever. And I think that’s just one creator. There are people who are doing amazing things in spatial audio.

And you talk to creators, we did a panel in Santa Barbara with a bunch of creators. It was really interesting. And Manny Marroquin, who mixes just about everything now, he was talking about how it freed him up, how spatial audio frees him up, thinking about mixing Lizzo or someone like that. He’s having to put everything in two speakers, and now, he can open it out. And we just have to represent that in the home.

I was definitely complaining about spatial with somebody who knows, and I said, “What are you doing?” “Listening to Tiësto.” And I listened to Tiësto. I thought, this would be amazing if I was on drugs. And that’s the highlight. I was not yet on drugs. Yet. I want to end here. You are the expert, Giles. There’s no way I could offer this instruction to our audience, so I want to ask you for it.

We’re about to come into a wave of hype around spatial audio, right? I would say the Era 100 is the tip of the iceberg in terms of product launches, in terms of hype around this stuff. In terms of listening at home and not a soundbar. What should people be listening for? How do you listen intelligently to a spatial mix to know if it’s any good? Because I think, right now, everything is just like, “What if it was all around you?” And that doesn’t seem like the right answer.

GM: Listen to your heart, is what I would say.

All right, we’re done here.

GM: No. You know what? You can dismiss that. But you can sit there. But honestly, it’s like people... And this is from someone who has to analyze sound. And I have all of this opinion. There’s nothing better than someone putting on music and you being with a friend listening to it. And it’s another question. Certain spatial audio, you can close your eyes, and you can think about where everything is and how your room… And this is what I love.

Don’t think about the speaker you’re listening to, think about the song you’re listening to. And technically, for a bunch of different reasons, we can achieve that in the artist space and the product space a lot better with spatial audio because we can project sound and because we have channels of projection. Spatial audio is multichannel, stereo is two-channel, mono is one-channel.

We have this channel camera where we can actually project color on the walls of your home. And that’s what you listen to. But above all else, just see whether you enjoy it, see whether you dig it, and that’s the thing. And it’s really interesting, sometimes you listen to a track and you go, “This isn’t very spatial, but I’m enjoying it.” It doesn’t have to be wide for you to enjoy it.

Yeah. I think that’s a great point. (To Phil) What’s your favorite spatial track?

PS: The one I heard from Finneus today. It is, oh my gosh. It was incredible. I don’t know what the name of it is, but it’s a new one that Finneus just did. And it is, oh, you’ve got to hear it because you feel it. I think that’s the thing to me, is you absolutely feel it.

GM: A concert five years from now.

PS: A concert five years from now. You feel it when you’re there, and it feels like you’re somewhere else, which, I’ve been in tech long enough to be cynical about all these things, and I really do think Giles nailed it with, do you feel it, fundamentally, and when you close your eyes, what does that feel like? And for what we do, that’s about as good as it gets.

Yeah. Well, Patrick, Giles, thank you so much for joining us today. This is great. I can probably talk to you about spatial audio for another five hours.

GM: I can come back.

Between The Beatles fans losing their minds, and your comms people losing their minds, it is time to go.

GM: I’ll get the Blu-ray, okay? I’ll get them for you, so you can have Blu-ray from now on. 

Amazing. That was great.

GM: Thank you.

The Vergecast /

A podcast about technology and emotions

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