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The Sonos Sound

I was walking through Grand Central Market in LA today looking for lunch. It's an incredible food hall with flavours changing as you walk from one end to the other-- everything from egg sandwiches to tacos to Chinese food. As you walk through the hub-bub you hear not only the constant barking of order takers and order makers, but the music chosen by each establishment. Hip hop, salsa, indie rock, every kind of music. 
Grand Central Market
Grand Central Market. A cornucopia of great food.

David BowieI finally made it to the end where I sat to wait for some wonton soup to be made. Today also happened to be the day that David Bowie died and the coffee shop near the Chinese place was playing his greatest hits. I love David Bowie and at first was comforted to hear his music being honored in this public place as a shared acknowledgement of his passing. The songs went from Five Years, through Let's Dance, China Girl, and all the way to New Killer Star from Reality.

It was at this point that I started to feel very irritated. New Killer Star sounded like the same drummer as China Girl, recorded 20 years earlier. "Is this a remix?" "Did China Girl have re-recorded drums?" I began to realize that each of these songs essentially sounded the same. Not the music, not the fact that it was Bowie singing in each one, but the actual sound character of each song. It was as if each song had been remixed by the same mixing engineer.

I've heard all these songs hundreds of times on a variety of stereos and given Bowie's long career, the recording styles span a really wide range of sound signatures. His 70s albums are particularly reveered for their unique production technique and thin, alienated sound which socially reflected the strife of the East/West German divide.

The worst part of the sound was that after a while, I started to realize that other than Bowie's voice, the character didn't sound like ANY of Bowie's periods. Then it hit me. I know this sound. This is a SONOS playing. I got up and looked at the speakers and sure enough... it was two Play 5s.

As I walked back through the market, I realized that most of the speakers in the place were Sonos 5s. All playing different music. All sounding exactly the same. The bass was far too fat and punchy, then a suckout in the lower mids, then a pop where vocals are, another suckout where the brilliance band is, and then a little sparkle on top. Plus, on top of the equalization, some artificial phasing effect to artificially spread the stereo imaging. From Bowie in the back to the Roots in the front, you would have thought the same band had recorded all these songs. It was a mess.

Of course, there's a reason why Sonos is everywhere. Sonos was the first company to eliminate speaker wires. And even your dad could use it. It played loud. It was small and not too expensive. It's actually incredible how quickly people have chosen the convenience of Sonos over other sound options. As a business model, Sonos is operating at the genius level.

But it struck me on this fairly emtional day exactly what you give up with a boombox system that focusses on convenience. Music all sounds the same. The memories of the music are diminished in dimension because the expression the artist had over the style of sound they chose has been coloured by an incredibly heavy handed sound signature that is becoming ubuiquitous. Should the Beatles have the same balls-to-the wall sound as Nirvana? Should Mozart sound like Metallica? Should Bowie sound like the Roots?

When you take away something as essential to music as the tonal and stylistic sound signature that the artist intended and re-equalize it to be pumped up and homnogenized like pop-radio, how much do you lose from the music? 20%? 50%? 80%? When your speaker makes everything sound the same, it denegrates every piece of music to the level of the equipment's limits.

In this case, by affecting such a strong EQ, the music becomes noise. No variety in volume or tone, character or emotion. It's background music. The fact that Sonos is taking over the position of the only stereo in many people's homes is the 3rd great shift, following from the ubiuqity of MP3 and iPod headphones. It's further down the road of dumbed down convenience.

Allow me to suggest a metaphor using the Grand Central market itself. There are 50 different styles of restaurant, each with its own passionate owner and staff making food that is some of the best of its style, all in one place. But, can you imagine if every restaurant here, whether it was tacos or Chinese all used bacon in every dish, or tons of salt, or maple syrup? Then the market all tastes the same. It negates the whole point of choosing a different food. It homogenizes the emotional experience of differnet tastes. And it overpowers the natural nourishing value of each style.

A generation ago another company dominated mass sound through a typically amped up commerical equalization and through the convnience of "one-box-that-does-it-all" - Bose. It's ironic that Sonos has so thoroughly defeated Bose at its own game in just 2 years.

With the passing of Bowie, I began to count just how many music legends are still with us and how many of today's artists will be deemed legends in 30 years time. Will the next generation of kids be able to hear these original recordings on a real stereo that doesn't whitewash everything to sound the same? How can we expect any of them to be inspired to create the next musical masterpiece if they don't have the sound to inspire them?

While convenience and cheapness are an easy sell, you can get a lot of both while also getting the real sound. Music isn't just something that can be dumbed down to fast food. It's the soul food for society and it should be a cornucopia. Hear a real stereo today.

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