Digging into the Details of the New Sonos Flagship Store

Whitney Walker, the GM of Stores, walks us through the brand's first retail space

After more than 18 months in development, Sonos has opened their first-ever retail store—and to call it that would be insulting to the head-to-toe custom-made experience that it is. The skylit space at 101 Greene Street in NYC’s SoHo neighborhood has been designed to make your first or hundredth experience listening to music through Sonos “epic,” but also comfortable and seamless. Leave past experiences at the door: those hushed sanctuaries selling high-end hi-fi audio equipment, home theater demos at mall stores, even Apple’s brick-and-mortar stores—with seven state-of-the-art listening rooms to intimately learn (and they’re hoping, fall in love with) the smart speaker system’s capabilities it’s easy to get comfortable and take in the music. This is something custom-built entirely for the Sonos customer—including a remarkable effort to acknowledge their place within the city’s important musical heritage.

The brand has been a favorite of ours since we first wrote about them in 2004. They have consistently innovated and defined the connected home music market, always evolving their products’ functionality, design and ease of use. They’ve gone from a techie audio nerd brand to smooth consumer brand with a great visual identity, clever marketing and impeccable industrial design. Now they can add retail innovators to their list. Though they’ve had listening lounges/event spaces, this is their first retail store, and they’ve set the bar very high for the category. We toured the innovative, immersive space with Whitney Walker, General Manager of Stores at Sonos, who pointed out design details along the way.

How long have you been planning this space?

About 18 months. We started developing the concept in a warehouse in southern California. We built a full-scale prototype of it, and what that allowed us to do was continue to refine certain details about the design and the experience. I try to describe the store to people in the simplest terms: we wanted to create a place where people could come and fall in love with our product. And one of the best places, we found over the 15 years that we’ve been in business, to fall in love with our product is a friend’s house. We wanted to find a way to capture that magic that happens at a friend’s house when you experience our product, so we held that as a brief. We also knew that whatever we developed, our product had to sound great in a space; it had to look great in the space.

The store is impressive on first glance. There’s a portrait of Rick Rubin when you walk in, the product is clearly presented, and the design feels really fresh.

Rick Rubin is one of our core collaborators…we felt that no better way to honor him, and also honor the neighborhood because Rick started Def Jam Records right up the street in his dorm at NYU and worked with a lot of bands that are local to the area. So it’s kind of a perfect moment for us.…I think that we’ve done a pretty good job on all counts. There’s three main components of the store. There’s the gallery on this level, the lounge down in the cellar, and then there’s the listening rooms. If falling in love is the metaphor, the listening rooms are really where the moment of truth happens. The courtship happens in the main gallery and the lounge space.

Sound is obviously an important component for the store and customer experience. How have you addressed it in the space?

We followed a simple rule in the development of the store and that’s kind of a 50/50 rule. 50% of the space, of the surface area in the store, needs to be either diffusive or absorptive, and then the other 50% of the surface area in the store is reflective. Concrete floor, mirroring, this baffled ceiling. The baffled ceiling is a diffusion feature, and then beyond that, that black material you see is acoustic foam. What we’re really trying to do is capture sound and let a little bit of it reflect off the ceiling, but we want most of it to be absorbed in the area behind. So anywhere in the store that you see felt, foam, perforated metal, perforated wood, those are all acoustic features to achieve that 50/50 (ratio).

In terms of just pure aesthetics, we used our product design language as inspiration…and the best way to celebrate that was really to pick up on that design language in a way that we explored lines and materials in the space. So perforated metal sort of harkens back to the grills on our speakers, made from the extruded aluminum. The curvature that you see here in this product display really mimics the design language of our product. Similarly, the way the listening rooms are designed with the soft curves, sort of that modular sense that you could pick one of them up and move it to another part of the store like you could move a speaker around at home is another expression of that.

Tell me about this whole-wall full of speakers at the rear of the store. There’s sound coming out of it.

This sound sculpture on the back wall does a couple things: 1) it’s a working sound feature in the store. 300-odd speakers in the back wall are all production-made models, then we built this sound sculpture. Only about eight of them are active and on, but if you notice from the front of the store to the back of the store in the gallery space, the volume hasn’t changed no matter where you’re standing.

I shouldn’t be surprised, but the sound design is really impressive.

There are no hotspots or cold spots in terms of the audio experience, and the same goes for the sound feature on the back wall. So interspersed in there you’ll see there are these black boxes because they’re shaped after our different products. Those are acoustic foam that’s then been wrapped in the fabric that you would see traditionally in a wood cabinet speaker on the grill of the speaker. What that does is help us achieve that 50/50 principle that I mentioned.

What is the setup like in the listening rooms?

So each of the listening rooms, with exception to the one downstairs, is configured in a very similar way. The experience is exactly the same throughout each of them. There’s only two things that really vary from room to room. One is the design identity in the room, and then the second is which speakers are in which position in the room.

The living room will always have a Playbar, a Sub and two surrounds to complete the home theater setup. And the study, which is on the right wall here, will always have a stereo pair. It may be a pair of Play:5s, it may be a pair of Play:3s, it could be a pair of Play:1s, but there’ll always be a pair up here in the study. Then in the kitchen here on the left wall will always feature a single speaker. So it’s just a way for us to show people how our product can work in different ways and in different configurations to be appropriate for different rooms, but also that all of our products can work in that same way.

What do you feel the obstacles are for educating new customers?

Bluetooth is a big obstacle because it’s become so universally understood. If you think of the three paradigms there are for home audio there is the component system, the box with knobs on it, and speakers that are hardwired into that. 
There is the iPod dock and then there is the Bluetooth speaker, right? Those are the three dominant paradigms, and our product tends to resemble in its form factor the Bluetooth speaker the most. Many people would look at it and say—especially if someone were surfing the web, they’d look at it online and go okay, so what can this do that a Bluetooth speaker can’t do?

Well, 1) it sounds a whole heck of a lot better; 2) when your phone rings, the music doesn’t stop; 3) if you go out for beer and take your phone with you, everyone else at the party doesn’t get deprived of music. That’s just the beginning, that doesn’t even get into the whole idea of home audio and the fact that you can play a single track throughout your whole home and anywhere you have a Sonos speaker, or you can create individual personalized music experiences in any one of those rooms at the same time.

But it’s still a big educational challenge…

I mentioned we built this full scale prototype: that was one of the core things that we tested. From the very first time we built just one of these (rooms) in the warehouse and brought test subjects in and tested it, the first thing we were looking for was that comprehension of whole home audio. It’s not as simple as just putting the Sonos app in the room and turning people loose in it. What we found was we needed to build some additional things, some helpers into the experience. But in any case, we had to build those things and work on those interactions in a way to really wrap the experience in the right amount of education so that people could have that sort of first time experience and have it be epic.

What are the different design identities inside these listening rooms?

In this room, we took an array of vintage wallpaper patterns and we worked with a local artist named Mark Chamberlain, he does a lot of fine interiors and fine art. And what we asked him to do was to recreate the patterns, but in some way integrate the Sonos brand mark into the design, so you’ll see here in the banana leaves, you’ve got Sonos spelled out, then you’ve got the wi-fi in that floral design.

It’s a risky brief but he did a great job. It’s not too branded. What about the next listening room?

We commissioned Mark Stamaty, who chronicled the NY music scene…to create a new work for us, which is really to chronicle the SoHo music and cultural scene in his style. Carpet too. So we worked with Mark on this and it turned out so well that we decided to carry it forward into our collateral, so it started to show up on our business cards, in the design—the interior of our bags are lined with his artwork.

The wood on the walls at the end of the store near the staircase have perforations too, mixed with panels that don’t. Let’s take a look downstairs at the lounge the listening room. That Dieter Rams for Braun component set…

This is a really special listening room. You’ve followed the brand for some time, so the story of Sonos connecting to legacy audio is not unfamiliar to you. We wanted to create one room in the building here we could really tell that story and tell it in a compelling way. And we think one of the more compelling ways to tell the story is through a legacy system and playing back vinyl because it’s so juxtaposing against our product, right, because we’re all about streaming and digital, playback of digital sources. So to playback an audio analog source through our product we thought was really pretty spectacular. A Dieter Rams-designed component system, the vintage Eames chair; we really organized [this room] around two principles—old meets new and that core hi-fi moment.

Who did you collaborate with on this room?

We worked with Thurston Moore to create this art installation. And it had to be special because it had to tell the story of old meets new. Thurston Moore has a very extensive collection of audio cassettes from the noise era, so this is a mixture of one-of-a-kind mix tapes, bootleg tapes from the noise era that Thurston has collected. I had no idea that he had this collection, no idea it would have this stunning visual appeal, but just the idea sounded so right to me, and the fact that somebody would share this personal artifacts and have them displayed in the store…someone who would have such relevance to the New York scene and you know, felt right for our brand.

Visit the Sonos store in NYC at 101 Greene Street.

Black-and-white photos by Josh Rubin; all other images courtesy of Sonos