Three weeks before opening day, the scene at Sonos feels more like a recording studio than a retail outlet. A massive, hand-painted portrait of Rick Rubin, the prolific music producer and cofounder of Def Jam Records, adorns a wall in the entrance lounge on SoHo’s Greene Street near a “family tree” display of the brand’s products. An assemblage of vintage music magazines such as New York Rocker and East Village Eye are exhibited along a corridor that leads to a massive installation of speakers dubbed the “Wall of Sound.” Dispersed throughout the listening rooms—pod-like structures meant to replicate the home sound experience—are teams of employees in the midst of a training exercise. There’s an afroed guy flouncing to a hip-hop beat and laying down witty raps as his coworkers ding xylophones and triangles; a group next door is writing lyrics and sampling tracks. Their task? Create a Sonos theme song, an assignment that has the team of moonlight DJs, musicians, and producers in their comfort zone. “We’re trying to recreate the experience of going over to a friend’s house, and the staff are the hosts,” Dmitri Siegel, the global brand vice president of Sonos, says.
He’s referring to the seven custom-built jam dens, souped up with steel-framed doors and beveled glass walls, and individually inspired by SoHo’s artistic roots—and by a bygone era when listening to music was a shared activity instead of an insular, headphones-driven one. Sonos decided to open a brick-and-mortar to showcase the range of its sound-centric products in an environment where every element is designed for optimal performance. But there’s also a more existential force behind the move: to help consumers rediscover the euphoria of a 360-degree musical experience. Technology has unlocked a world of artists, albums, and songs on a seemingly infinite scale, but has it been beneficial for how we hear them? “I think it’s been a negative over the last five or 10 years in that people have been reduced to listening by subpar means: hearing your friends texting over the music on a Bluetooth speaker, or walking into the other room and the sound cuts out,” Siegel says. “Technology has made access to music incredibly convenient, but the experience of listening to it is pretty crappy.”
In addition to resurrecting the communal aspect of the record store era, the brand wanted to explore the intersection of sound and visual design. “Music, in all parts of life, is truly like a soundtrack. Just as there are more than one genre of music, there’s styles of interiors,” says Anthony Sperduti, cofounder of the design firm Partners and Spade, which also fashioned custom credenzas and ottomans for the store. “It was important that we conveyed a range.”
So they paired audio in-house talent, including Hilmar Lehnert, doctor of psychoacoustics and Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin, with visual collaborators like the French illustrator Thibaud Herem, whose architectural renderings and sketches line one of the pods; Mark Chamberlain, the decorative painter behind the botanical wallpaper; and Village Voice contributing cartoonist Mark Stamaty, who created a custom black-and-white neighborhood-scape of the local characters that inhabit downtown Manhattan. Various accoutrements such as Bruce Springsteen biographies and 3D-printed wire-framed model cameras add to the living room-like feeling of the spaces, with each one telling a different design story. Materials—Brazilian walnut, felt, blond beachwood—are as eclectic as a playlist on shuffle.
It’s the subterranean audiophile room, though, that will hit children of rock ’n’ roll with a wave of nostalgia. Below an orange, vaulted ceiling lies an Eames lounge chair by Herman Miller, a portion of Thurston Moore’s original cassette collection, vintage reel-to-reel Braun tape deck designed by Dieter Rams, and vinyl turntables. It’s a quintessential hi-fi man cave for customers who want to integrate their classic equipment with their modern Sonos systems. “Home is where you connect with people you love and can be most creative. It puts you in that mind space. Our products are thought of as an electronic decision, but we see it as a home design and lifestyle decision about trying to slow down,” says Siegel. He notes that people’s lives are so programmed now, which is why listening to music communally has disappeared. “Go sit in that beautiful chair you have, look at the books you curated on the shelf, and that picture is enhanced by sound.”
At the shop, employees emerge from the pods to perform their songs. A bearded kid taps two drumsticks together while a girl in a Teklife hat toys with effects on a remote. A slinky melody plays as the dreadlocked frontman starts rattling off lyrics:
S O N O S guess who’s the best
Not B O S E it sounds too messy
Sonos, Sonos, Sonos, Sonos
Your home, your home, your home, your home
I got me a Play 1, Play 3, Play 5, Playbar at home