Behind the Era 100 and Era 300, Sonos’ new speakers

Sonos Era 100 and Era 300 smart speakers

Today, Sonos announced two new speakers, the Era 100 and Era 300, joining the company’s connected, multi-room audio range. Both devices are fascinating modern feats of sound engineering.

If the Era 100 looks familiar, that’s because it kind of looks like what would happen if the Sonos Move and the Sonos One had an unholy union, creating a slightly taller, slightly more squished baby. Rather than merely changing up the aesthetics, this is to allow the unit to produce stereo sound from one speaker, utilising two angled tweeters and a midwoofer to achieve stereo separation.

Sonos Era 100 front angle
The familiar-looking Sonos Era 100 speaker.

When I went to Sonos headquarters in Santa Barbara last month to learn about the speakers, I was shocked by how accurate the stereo sound was. I could have sworn there were two speakers in the room.

According to Chris Davies, VP of Audio Engineering at Sonos, this took no small amount of engineering witchcraft to pull off. Part of that challenge was that the pandemic started shortly after work began on the speaker. This changed a process that usually involves a lot of people in the same room listening to and discussing a speaker, to an experience spread out over weeks so people could get time with each prototype. Then, it was about making one speaker sound like two speakers.

“We would run through a lot of things where it’s like, ‘oh, let’s try this’, and we would find that it would be better on one axis and would be compromised on another,” Davies said. “So, we might make something that is spatially way better, but then from a clarity perspective it starts to fall apart, or we get the clarity back and we lose some of the stereo separation. That back and forth is where the big technical challenges in that product came up.”

From Sonos One, to Era 100 and Era 300

It has been almost six years since the Sonos One was last updated. The product started life in 2013 as the Sonos Play:1, bringing the Sonos brand into a more affordable realm and introducing a new group of people to the joy of multi-room audio. Then, in 2017, the speaker was upgraded with smart assistant compatibility, capacitive touch buttons on top, and renamed One. But the move to the Era 100 marks the most significant audio upgrade to the speaker since its introduction.

The second speaker, the Era 300, on the other hand, is a brand-new design. Sonos used to have the Play:3, but aside from being the stepping stone speaker between the Era 100 and the Sonos Five, and having one end thicker than the other, that’s where the comparisons end. The Era 300 is a speaker designed for Dolby Atmos Music, and thus looks completely different to almost every other speaker on the market.

Sonos Era 300 side angle
The Sonos Era 300.

That is because the Era 300 kind of is different to every other speaker on the market. Without going for an audiophile studio setup, or using a sound bar that is better tuned for movie and TV audio, I can’t think of a single consumer-level Dolby Atmos speaker that’s designed for music. As it stands now, if you are away from your soundbar and don’t have the cash to splash on a $100,000+ studio Dolby Atmos speaker setup, you’re pretty much stuck with Spatial audio headphones, which are great, but provide a different listening experience. Granted, there is also the new Apple HomePod, but its Spatial effect is far more limited than the Era 300, so it’s a bit of a different beast.

In my brief time previewing the Era 300 in Santa Barbara, it sounded pretty damn good, with songs like Finneas’ “A Concert Six Months From Now” enveloping you in the crowd noise at the beginning. I really felt like I’d crawled inside the song.

Using them as rears in a home theatre set up, we were shown scenes from Top Gun Maverick and A Quiet Place. I must admit to not really noticing the effect as much on the extended Lockheed Martin ad, but the Quiet Place scene was so deeply immersive. I found it hard to try and pick out details of the direction of the audio because I just felt like I was in it and wanted to run for my life. That’s probably a good sign.

The way Sonos achieves the Dolby Atmos effect in the Era 300 is by having six class-D digital amplifiers, four tweeters, two woofers and a directional horn, along with the speaker’s unique cinched design.

Reducing waste, one speaker at a time

The new ‘Era’ naming convention marks more than just a marketing buzzword, but a true new, well, era for Sonos. The focus of this era is all about sustainability. While most of the time I would just roll my eyes when a tech company talks about sustainability, because most tech companies churn out a constant flow of products designed to die, with almost pointless annual updates, and pretend that just using renewable energy in their factory filled with mined materials makes a solid difference to the environment. But Sonos actually seems to walk the talk.

9 out of 10 Sonos products ever sold are still in use. Even when Sonos recently had to move to an updated version of the app which meant that a very small number of the oldest products had to be left on the original app, they made sure those products can still work on that original, still-updated, Sonos app. Keeping products in use, thus reducing the need for unnecessary purchases of new ones, is the best way to reduce waste.

The second best way is to make them easily repairable, which is one of the biggest improvements to the Era 100 and Era 300. Older Sonos speakers are held together by adhesives, meaning that the speaker’s outer shell gets discarded if it gets scratched or the innards of the speaker need fixing. Conversely, the new speakers are held together with screws, which greatly cuts down on waste during repairs.

Sonos lab RF anechoic chambers
Sonos’ anechoic chambers as used throughout the company’s extensive testing process.

Using screws introduces new challenges because they can rattle and change the sound profile, and they can also interfere with Wi-Fi connections. According to the engineers in Sonos’ RF anechoic chambers, even just changing the colour of the speaker affects the Wi-Fi signal, so adding in a dozen lumps of metal really took that engineering challenge to the next level. While they’re not currently going to be user repairable, that is part of the plan in the not-too-distant future.

Overlooked aspects of speaker design

I spent two days touring the facility in Santa Barbara, hearing from almost every level of testing and design involved in making these speakers. Personally, the most interesting session for me was the one where the guy in charge of durability testing took us through his lab where he covered the various plastic polymers that the designers considered using for the speakers in a wide variety of household goos, like synthetic human sweat, mustard, insect repellent, olive oil, and other things to test if the material could survive it. I also got to see him drop Sonos speakers from different heights onto a variety of surfaces. Watching a Sonos Move crack a paving stone and live to tell the tale was a real highlight.

But, surprisingly for me, the second most interesting presentation was from the Director Packaging Experience, Michelle Enright, who told us about her ten-year journey trying to make the packaging more sustainable. She expects people to keep the boxes of larger products, like the Era 300, for when they move or sell the product, so those boxes need to be made to last while also being recyclable and biodegradable. For smaller products, the box still needs to be protective so the speakers don’t get damaged in transit, but not too big, and easy to open and recycle.

Sonos speaker packaging
More than just recyclable, Sonos’ packaging is built to last.

Enright went into great detail about trying to find the right paper grains from the right sustainable sources, and not making the box shiny because the glossy shininess is actually plastic film which makes the box much, much harder to recycle. It was startling and refreshing to hear someone so passionate about their area of expertise, talk in depth about something most people will never even think about, even if it is the vehicle for their first introduction to a product.

Available in stores and online on 28 March, the Sonos Era 100 will cost $399 and the Sonos Era 300 will be $749.

Alice Clarke travelled to Santa Barbara as a guest of Sonos.