Meeting up with Giles at the iconic Abbey Road Studios in London where he has his own studio, Giles explains: “I came here to do the Love project (a remix of Beatles tracks created originally for a Cirque du Soleil show) and just never left. I feel passionately about the place and we have a really good working relationship.”
Giles explains: “Around two and half years ago I was working in L.A mixing a Paul McCartney album called New and Scott Rodger, who manages Arcade Fire and Paul said that we should meet the guys from Sonos.
“I agreed to have a listen to some of the products and kind of forgot about it until a few weeks later when my wife rang me saying: ‘why have a load of speakers arrived at the house?’ I put them up and was surprised at how good they were for small speakers. Sonos was about to bring out the PLAY:1 and they sent me some samples asking if I had any comment on their performance.”
Keen to secure such a wealth of expertise to help in the development of products, John MacFarlane, Sonos co-founder and chief executive, became involved and Giles’ official relationship began with the company around one and a half years ago, being appointed ‘sound experience leader’.
The aim was to help make sure that as much as possible of the excitement and quality created during the recording process is recreated when played back via Sonos.
Giles is part of a panel that helps in this process; other members include legendary producers Rick Rubin, Hans Zimmer and Q-Tip.
Giles explains: “I was re-mixing the Beatles track Strawberry Fields Forever the other day and it really underlined to me how personal sound can be. I and the other guys on the panel all use different kit in our studios and we are always talking about how to get the best sound. We could never agree on what makes the perfect speaker, however we can help make one that we all like and can deal with a wide range of music.”
Giles adds: “My involvement with the PLAY:1 was limited as when I first got involved the project was almost finished. However, after setting them up in my place, I did feel that the performance suffered a little at higher volumes.
“This is the great thing about the way music is created and delivered now; the company was able to adjust that in the software controlling the delivery of the sound and make those adjustments after the main design phase of the speakers, making sure customers got the best sound.”
Giles and the team also had some input into the performance of the Sonos PLAYBAR: “Rick got in touch and said he was not happy with the performance. I agreed and just felt it was trying a little too hard, choosing where to put the sound rather than just recreating it and as a result, the mix stability was suffering.
“Again the Sonos team was able to adjust the performance in a software update. This is such a new concept, speakers are no longer passive boxes, but portals which can be improved and adjusted.”
The first project that Giles worked on for Sonos right from the start was the recently launched PLAY:5, the first attempt to create a high performance speaker from Sonos.
Giles explains: “The project had been on the company’s road map for some time and because of the work I had already done with them, I was confident that they were serious in their ambition to takes things to another level.
“I am uncompromising in terms of how things should sound and adjustments had to be made, such as re-creating the way the Sonos logo is placed on the front of the speaker so it does not interfere with the audio. As with the PLAYBAR we were concerned that the processing did not take over and inhibit the speaker.
“Another big challenge was to make sure the speakers delivered regardless of orientation as they are made to be used either upright or on their side.
“The stereo performance was also of course very important. Early on we were losing the centre image a little and great stereo needs to leave the centre alone as much as is possible. Acoustic engineers are not always as aware of this as they might be and some speakers can start to manipulate the sound, often pulling it too far to the right and left and loosing that nice, natural sound.
“Bass is another area where speakers often try to deliver what is not there. Too much bass also does not just mean there is too much bass; it messes with the treble performance as well.”
Giles observes: “In the end getting a speaker to sound right is a bit like trying to combine science and religion. They can sound too ‘digital’, but go too far the other way and they just sound too specialised and end up being good for only one type of music. When we sit with the whole team, we play everything and anything to get to where we want to be.”
Getting the performance right was not just about long hours of listening and feeding back information.
Giles explains: “One issue we had to deal with was the language between the voicing team and the engineers. I know what I mean when I say a speaker is too ‘boxy’, but the engineer does not necessarily, so we had to learn to communicate exactly where the performance needed tweaking and learn a little more about each other’s terminology.”
Let’s Get Happy
So as the PLAY:5 is about to hit the market, is Giles totally happy with it? “I am definitely happy, it would not be out if I wasn’t. It was not an easy process and to be honest there were a couple of points when I thought, ‘are we ever going to get there?’.
“We were not given any particular deadline and in fact one of my favourite sayings is by a friend of mine – Douglas Adams – (writer of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) who said: ‘There is no better sound than a deadline whistling past your ears’.
“With a big concern like Sonos there is obviously pressure to get it done, but we were given the time we needed to get it right and now it’s ready, I would argue there is no better sounding speaker on the market at this price. They are just great to listen to music on and that was our goal from the start.
“If I had to describe them, they sound natural, that’s the biggest complement I can pay them. People often don’t like the idea of processing, but all sound is processed, even when creating a vinyl recording often imagined to be more ‘organic’. The trick is to get to a place where the equipment used is unbiased and delivers the full range.”
Giles adds: “A big moment I remember in the process was when I played the new speakers to Hans Zimmer and Tom Holkenborg (Junkie XL). We listened to the sound track from the recent Mad Max movie, created by Tom and a wonderful thing happened. We all forgot we were supposed to be assessing the speakers and just enjoyed the sound: the best result you can have.
“Another time I had left the speakers set up in a room at Abbey Road. When I came back, they had gone. For a moment, we thought they must have been stolen and started panicking about intellectual property and so forth, but actually one of the engineers here had listened to them and was so impressed he moved them to another room to show one of the other engineers. I gave him a bit of telling off for moving the kit, but actually it was a big compliment.”
Giles sums up: “Ultimately the PLAY:5 is a platform because of the way it works with the Sonos software. Maybe in the future we can say to people: ‘hey you know that speaker you bought? Well through a software update, it can now do this!’ There is a real chance for the audio and software guys to create new experiences. I believe for installers it is a great opportunity – to create high-performance systems with minimum fuss and no mess.”
A further improvement that Sonos has made to its performance is the Trueplay concept. Using measurements of the room created by the software, the audio is adjusted to compensate for room shape and objects which might interfere with the audio.
Giles explains: “Tim Sheen of Sonos demoed it to me just using the PLAY:1s and it sounded great. Software like this can really transform the experience and although there is nothing official yet, clearly there are others areas of audio where software like this can be used to create experiences as new audio formats and configurations become popular.”
This is a journey into sound
As someone intimately involved with the creation of music, naturally Giles has some interesting insights into where we are headed: “There is no doubt that generally audio over the last 15 years has been worse than in the previous 15 as people started to listen to music through laptops and frankly anything that has a tiny speaker on it.
“Convenience became king; music enjoyed on poor speakers with friends is for lots of people much more enjoyable than sitting on their own listening to high-end kit. However, we are closer than ever to bridging the gap between those two worlds.
“In terms of the delivery of high-quality sound from the studio to the speaker, we are at the dawn of a new era. The quality of the speaker we can put in a person’s home discretely and easily is now very high.
‘From the farm to the table’ – like in the high-quality food world, we are moving to a place where there are far fewer middle men between producing the content to the listener hearing it.
“We are not quite there yet for the mass market, but in theory in the future we could create a master recording and deliver it uncompressed to the listener direct into their system. And with software such as Sonos Truplay, performance and convenience can meet as never before.”
Giles underlines that music free of any physical format is still really in its infancy, especially where high quality is concerned: “We are still learning about digital music. When CDs first came out, many were terrible in terms of quality, but as people got familiar with the format, they got a lot better.
“Even with vinyl – often seen as the dream format in terms of quality – sound can be terrible if it’s not treated right. The same is true of a digital file. The real trick is to capture and recreate the sound with as little processing as possible, it’s then that you really capture what the artist was trying to say.
“So if we can create music and deliver it direct to the home with as few bits of equipment and wires in the pipeline as possible, tuned especially to be listened to at home, then performance will be very special.”
However, Giles argues the issues are not just technical: “There is a big gap between the music creation industry and the music reproduction industry. Not to mention the rivalry between record labels.
“So technically all this is possible and we are getting there with services like Spotify, TIDAL and Pono as well as Sony with its Hi-Res Audio in terms of higher-quality, but we have to get everyone on board – no easy task.
“The truth is most people are listening to MP3s and not even reaching CD quality files. A realistic goal would be to get everyone back up to ‘CD quality’ in their digital music listening and we can build from there. But there has to be strong desire from the music industry to get there.
“Today’s market is different, it’s the people who decide which format is king, it’s why the music industry in the end had to embrace streaming. It’s in everyone’s interest to deliver quality, but we are at a point now where technically it is possible. John and his team at Sonos bet on this happening 10 years ago and you have to say they were right.”
Sonos in detail