If These Walls Could Play Music

Steven Saftig

Global Head of Editorial

When we set out to collaborate with IKEA on the SYMFONISK Picture frame speaker, a flat speaker that’s also a piece of art, they were firm: it couldn’t be any thicker than 60 millimeters (about 2.36 inches). Find out how we created a panel speaker with sound that’s anything but flat.

At Sonos, we thoughtfully design each one of our speakers to look like a work of art. With the most recent addition to the SYMFONISK product range as part of our collaboration with IKEA, we took our design philosophy to a new, more literal level. Of course, that’s the thrill in our collaboration with IKEA—finding innovative ways to create incredible-sounding speakers under the guise of traditional home furnishings.

After the success of the debut of SYMFONISK in 2019, which launched with table lamp and bookshelf speakers, we were enthusiastic to find even more unexpected ways of bringing sound into the home. We started by reviewing customer research, which told us that there are certain spaces in a home where some people feel that a traditional speaker just doesn’t “fit.” A variety of reasons were given for this, from not having enough counter space or wall outlets to technology not being a part of a particular space’s intended design aesthetic. With this in mind, the acoustic engineers at Sonos and the product designers at IKEA set out to answer a question: how do we hide a speaker in plain sight? During the joint ideation, the concept of a speaker that could be hung on the wall like a picture surfaced. And with that came a number of challenges, including, how to design a speaker with a thin enough profile to be hung on a wall. IKEA ran the numbers and came up with the maximum depth for such a product: 60 millimeters.

“The challenge with creating such a thin speaker is that it requires space to make sound,” said Sara Morris, Principal Product Manager at Sonos. “Because ultimately, a speaker creates sound by moving air. And the less space you have to move air, the more expensive it gets. So, we had to get creative.” Rather than daunting the engineers at Sonos, the space constraints only served to invigorate them.

The Dining Room Dilemma

At the beginning of development, the team had to acknowledge a seemingly obvious fact: people would place the picture frame speaker where they wanted a piece of art in their home, which is not necessarily where they would normally place a speaker. Chris Davies, Senior Director, Audio Engineering at Sonos explains, “With a conventional speaker, it's not too hard to envision where somebody will set it up. But when you've got something that's hanging on the wall, it's not the same decision process. It's like, there is a spot on the wall and I'm going to hang it there. And what you get out of it will be what you get out of it. So our need was to think about how we could make this product as flexible and functional as possible.”

Davies elaborates: “If you have a speaker on the wall in a dining room, someone who is sitting right in front of it is going to have a very different experience than someone who is sitting much farther away. So our challenge was to create a speaker with coverage that was as wide and consistent as possible for everyone in a given room. That way, the person who is sitting right in front of it isn’t hearing excess high frequency content and the person who is sitting on the other side of the room isn’t hearing something that sounds dull.”

The Garden Hose Solution

To address this, one of the biggest things the team tackled was the “hot” high frequency sounds made by a tweeter. Morris steps in with a vivid, all-too-relatable explanation, “The way sound works is that low frequencies are omnidirectional and high frequencies are extremely directional. The way to think about this is when your neighbours are having a party. From your home, you can probably hear the bassline easily. But you probably can’t make out what specific song they’re playing because you can’t hear the singing or any of the other high frequency elements of the song. If you’re at the party though and close to the speaker, you know exactly where the sound is coming from because the high frequency sounds are coming directly at you.”

So, to ensure that the picture frame speaker would not be uncomfortable for someone sitting right in front of it, the team did two things to the tweeter. First they created a unique geometric shape around it, then they placed a star-shaped "lens" directly over it. Both of these things serve to help diffuse the high-frequency sounds throughout the room, creating a more consistent experience for everyone listening—regardless of how close or far they are from the actual speaker. Morris comes through with another vivid analogy to explain: “It’s like putting your thumb over water coming out of a garden hose. It’s going to force the water to spread out—or in this case, the high frequency sound—which will more evenly distribute it throughout the space. That way, everyone in the room gets a nice mist rather than just one person getting soaking wet.”

Unexpected Advantages and Big, Flat Complications

While the limited depth of the picture frame created constraints elsewhere, the overall volume of the speaker actually allowed for quite a bit of bass. But what seems like an advantage also came with its own set of challenges. As with all Sonos speakers, having well-balanced, natural sound was crucial for this product. Therefore, the team was careful to use a woofer that would provide the perfect amount of bass, something that wouldn’t overpower the mid- and high-range frequencies.

The large overall area of the speaker created another complication. “The flip side is that because you've got something that is big and flat, big and flat things tend to bend,” said Davies. “So we did a lot of work with the construction on the inside of the speaker, adding in ribbing and a bunch of mounting points so that you get something that holds together really well and doesn't deform or buckle as it’s making sound.”

An Inflexible Approach to Flexibility

While it was important for the picture frame’s physical structure to not be too flexible, Sonos and IKEA wanted the ways that people could place and enjoy the speaker to be as flexible as possible.

With exchangeable cover art and multiple ways to place it (horizontally, vertically, on the wall, on a piece of furniture, or even on the floor), the SYMFONISK Picture frame speaker was designed to give a plethora of options for any home. Each orientation is supported with subtle but useful touches, like a custom power cord guide and adjustable feet.

You can also easily integrate it into your existing Sonos system. Group it with other speakers throughout your home, pair two together for stereo sound, or use two as rears for a home theatre setup when you don’t have a ton of space behind the couch. Combine this with dozens of streaming services, Apple AirPlay 2, direct control from your favourite apps, and Trueplay tuning for unique room configurations, and you have one of our most versatile speakers yet.

Complementing the extensive thought and effort that went into ensuring incredible sound from a flat panel speaker, is the care and expertise IKEA brought to the aesthetics and overall look of the SYMFONISK Picture frame speaker. To learn more about how IKEA and Sonos created something beautiful enough to hang on your wall, read more on IKEA Today here.