Sonos, Shut Up and Take My Money! - Is Spatial Audio Finally Here?

Stephane BoucherMay 24, 20231 comment

Although I generally agree that money can't buy happiness, I recently made a purchase that has brought me countless hours of pure joy. In this blog post, I want to share my excitement with the DSPRelated community, because I know there are many audio and music enthusiasts here, and also because I suspect there is a lot of DSP magic behind this product. And I would love to hear your opinions and experiences if you have also bought or tried the Sonos ERA 300 wireless speaker, or any other spatial/3D audio product.

Some Context

My passion for music and audio systems has been a constant throughout my life.   As a very young child, I would spend hours in the living room, inches away from my parents' audio system, listening to their vinyl records and watching them spin with fascination on the Marantz 6300 turntable.  

Then came the DJ years, in the late 80s, when I was in high school.   Back then, you couldn't call yourself a DJ without owning a pair of iconic Technics SL1200 turntables. I still remember the day I could finally afford one, for around \$600 CAN. I still own this SL1200 and amazingly, I could easily sell it for \$1,000+ today. What other electronics product gains value over 30+ years???

Fast forward to the 90s, this passion of mine led me to consider doing a PhD on Spatial (Binaural) Audio but life had other plans for me and I ended up getting a job doing DSP for a telecom company to support my growing family of five. 

While I was busy raising my kids for the last 25 years or so, the audio landscape has evolved significantly.  From cumbersome setups with multiple components and storage space for CDs, cassettes, and vinyl, we now have the convenience of streaming music through smartphones and enjoying it with a single, high-quality active speaker. However, one aspect that had eluded me for years was the promise of spatial audio becoming mainstream.

Introducing the ERA 300

One of the times when I listen to music is when I cook or do the dishes. This means that I spend probably around an hour of my day in the kitchen. For the last few years, our kitchen speaker has been the UE Boom, which has served us well. Small, inexpensive, great battery life, decent sound, easy to connect... It did the job for many years, but I felt ready for an upgrade. So a couple of weeks ago, I googled for current wireless speaker options.  

Some recent 'best of' lists (like this one) had the ERA 300 listed as their top pick.  My initial intention was to skip any speaker with a price tag of over \$300, but then I saw the words 'spatial audio'.  I started digging, and digging, and digging...  Reviewers seemed to agree that the ERA 300 sounded amazing and was able to produce genuine spatial audio. My decision was made, I ordered one, and I couldn't wait to receive the speaker and hear for myself.  

When I received the speaker, I opened the box with the enthusiasm and excitement of a kid.  I went through the setup process, followed the instructions to calibrate the speaker (DSP magic?), and opened up Apple Music to listen to some of my favorite songs mixed with Dolby Atmos (required for spatial audio).  

At that moment, my expectations were so high, that my first reaction was (mild) disappointment.  Don't get me wrong: The speaker sounded great - much better than our UE Boom - but I couldn't feel the spatial audio effect and the promised dopamine rush as much as I hoped.  Either I was doing something wrong or the reviewers had more sophisticated ears than me.

After some online research, I found out that in order to fully benefit from the spatial audio capabilities of the speaker, not only did I have to select Dolby Atmos tracks, but they also had to be played from inside the Sonos app.   The reason for this is that Airplay 2, which is used to send the music from Apple Music to the speaker, doesn't support Dolby Atmos.  Note to Sonos: This should be made clear/obvious (maybe it is and I missed it?) in the setup process. 

WARNING - if you want to experience the full potential of this speaker, make sure to play Dolby Atmos tracks FROM INSIDE the SONOS app.

Once I understood this, I added Apple Music to the Sonos App and proceeded to play some songs from the playlist Made for Spatial Audio.  

BOOM!  Blown away.

Conveying into words the experience to you will be difficult.  And some songs are rendered better than others.  But listening to Like a Prayer by Madonna, for instance, and hearing the choir from all around me, almost made me shed a tear.  The depth of the back vocals in Bohemian Rapsody gave me goosebumps.  And the multidirectional violins in Max Richter's rendition of Vivaldi's "Winter" left me in a near-euphoric state.  

Protip: position yourself about two feet away from the front of the ERA 300, aligning your ears with the speaker's height. In my experience, this proximity enhances the spatial audio effect, taking the experience to new heights.

It's been two weeks now since I received the ERA 300.  I've never enjoyed cooking and washing the dishes so much, to the delight of my beautiful wife.  I have rediscovered many songs, now mixed with Dolby Atmos, that I had lost interest in over the years.  Listening to these songs with a spatial audio speaker just completely changes the experience.  

Currently, only a fraction of Apple Music's vast library is available in Dolby Atmos. However, I believe and hope that once more people experience what speakers like the ERA 300 can do, we will witness a surge in music remixed with spatial audio.

In the meantime, I want to commend the Sonos team for introducing such a groundbreaking product to the market.  If you work for Sonos and are reading this blog post, I would like to extend an invitation for a DSP/Acoustic/Audio engineer to give a talk at the upcoming DSP Online Conference (September 2023).  While acknowledging that certain proprietary details may remain undisclosed, a presentation discussing the fundamental concepts, challenges, and breakthroughs behind the ERA 300 would undoubtedly captivate the DSP community.

To conclude, did the ERA 300 bring me happiness?  I'd say it did, but only for a few minutes, until the feeling of bliss was interrupted by a little voice in my mind that said "more! more!".  The ERA 300 is my first Sonos purchase but now, like a drug addict that's never satisfied, I find myself daydreaming about adding a second ERA 300 to my dining room and envisioning the "Ultimate Immersive Set with Arc" for my basement TV.   Sonos, what did you do to me (and to my wallet) ???

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Comment by yatesJune 8, 2023

Stephane, thank you for this blog. Being a near-Luddite, I hadn't yet heard of the ERA 300. 

This is interesting to me because it stirs up an old fantasy I had near the beginning of my DSP career. I was fascinated by the concept of "transaural audio," championed by Duane Cooper at the University of Illinois/Urbana. The goal was to recreate in the listener's inner ear the same acoustic response that the listener would receive listening to a binaural recording over binaural headphones, but USING SPEAKERS.

The technique required the solution of several problems: 

1) The room's impulse response had to be canceled.

2) The L->R and R-> bleedthrough had to be canceled.

3) The conch resonance had to be compensated.

And after all that, the solution would require you to "lock" your head in one position to enjoy the experience. 

Needless to say, it never got off the ground, and all I ever did was read papers about it, but it sure seemed cool anyway. Glad we have something that works finally in 2023!

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