The Inverse Interview

Sonos’ Lead Designers Get Nerdy About the New Ace Headphones

The audio company’s VP of Design, Dana Krieger, and Senior Industrial Designer, David Keating, go deeper into what makes the upcoming Ace headphones so special.

Originally Published: 
The Ace are Sonos' first pair of Bluetooth wireless headphones with active noise cancellation, price...
Photograph by Raymond Wong

Sonos is finally giving everybody the audio product they’ve been asking for: headphones. Next month, on June 5, Sonos is launching Ace, its first pair of headphones with active noise-cancellation (ANC), worldwide.

Twenty-two years after making a splash in the home speaker space with the ZP100 speaker for audiophiles, and then later creating what has become the premier connected speaker system for consumers, the Ace headphones deliver the company’s most personal audio experience ever.

Priced at $449, the Ace will launch to a market already saturated with competitive over-ear ANC headphones, such as Apple’s AirPods Max ($549), Sony’s WH-1000XM5 ($399), and Bose’s QuietComfort Ultra ($429).

All of these premium ANC headphones tout terrific sound quality and often come with a special feature or two that makes them stand out. The Sonos Ace are no different: A press on its Content Key button can instantly “swap” audio from a Sonos soundbar (connected to a TV) to the headphones for private listening and vice versa. That’s on top of the many niceties of the headphones that you get for the money.

“We’re not taking a speaker solution and putting it on your head.”

Sonos invited me a week ago to listen to the Ace headphones in New York City. I also had time to pick the brains of Sonos Vice President of Hardware Design Dana Krieger and Senior Industrial Designer David Keating about all the little — and in my opinion lovely — design details about the new headphones.

“It’s a really state-of-the-art product and it’ll compete with anything in the category on a function basis, but it doesn’t feel like a technology product on your head,” Krieger tells Inverse. “We’re not taking a speaker solution and putting it on your head. We’re taking our philosophy and our point of view around how great audio can be done and tailoring that specifically to wearables.”

Elevated Design

Sonos’s Vice President of Design, Dana Krieger, shares some design details about Ace, the company’s first pair of Bluetooth wireless headhones.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

You’ve worn one pair of over-ear ANC headphones, you’ve seen them all, right? Considering the myriad ANC headphones available at every imaginable price point, Sonos somehow managed to make the Ace familiar, but still true to its family of soundbars and speakers. But first, what’s in a name? Why Ace?

“We’re really aiming for something excellent,” Krieger says. “Our focus for the whole project has been doing something really to the best of our ability.”

Unlike AirPods Max, which are stylish but heavy, or Sony’s WH-1000XM5, which are lightweight but look generic, the Ace feel like the right balance of form and function. The ear cups and headband are made of 17 percent recycled virgin plastic; the adjustable “arms” and tactical Content Key from stainless steel; and the cushioning for the removable ear pads and headband from vegan leather. Together, the entire aesthetic looks and feels sophisticated, with a slick Sonos logo embossed only on the right ear cup, and an asymmetric design specifically engineered for comfort and sound quality. Whether worn on your dome during a commute or at home kicked back on a couch, I think Sonos nailed the look.

The Sonos Ace ANC headphones come in two colors: “soft white” and black, which has a special coating to reduce fingerprint visibility.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

Both the black and “soft white” colorways look great, but it’s the latter that Sonos went the extra mile with the design details. According to Keating, Sonos considered 26 shades of white before developing its own “soft white” shade, which is an off-white color that can appear white, light gray, and silver at various angles.

“This is our first wearable, so we had to really carefully consider what wearing Sonos meant, Keating tells me. “We didn’t want to just take the colors that we used on our soundbars and put them on headphones. It’s a brand-new color that was developed specifically as a wearable color. We think this just works a lot better for more skin colors.”

Despite the “soft white” Ace being a different shade of white than a matching Sonos soundbar or speaker, Krieger adds that it still looks and sounds like a Sonos product. “Everything’s been finessed to really work on your body.”

“We think this just works a lot better for more skin colors.”

Whereas it can feel like Apple is allergic to plastic when it comes to its premium-priced products like AirPods Max — the downside of metals like aluminum or stainless steel is weight — the Ace embraces plastic for its lightness and comfort. The headphones weigh 312 grams compared to AirPods Max (385g). The Ace are also heavier than the WH-1000XM5 (250g) and Bose QuietComfort Ultra (253g), but they didn’t weigh my head down (my hair, though, did get flattened). For the Ace, Sonos angled the ear cups as well as the cavities for the custom 40mm drivers inside to direct sound into your ears. Obviously, everyone’s ears are differently sized and positioned on our heads, so a one-size-fits-all design is nearly impossible. But the Ace at least follow headphones conventions established by audio experts like Sony and Bose’s products, rather than going for Apple’s symmetric design.

The inside of the ear cups are different colored so that it’s easy to grab the headphones and know which side is left or right.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

The ear cushions are removable and replaceable. When they’re worn out, you can just buy new ones instead of replacing the whole pair.

Photograph by Raymond Wong
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I made myself comfy at various Ace listening stations — sitting up, leaning back, laying on my side — and I could easily imagine myself wearing them at home in bed or on a sofa comfortably watching a feature-length movie. There are some things I can’t get a good feel for until I actually test a pair out, like whether they make your ears hot long-term, how good the ANC is at blocking out loud street or train noise, and how long the battery life (30 hours according to Sonos) lasts, but my initial impression is that Sonos seems to have considered everything. Even a tiny detail like making the interiors of the ear cups different colors (green for the right cup on the “soft white” and light gray on the right cup on the black model) that will go unnoticed for most people. This extra touch makes it easier to immediately grab the headphones and know which side is left or right; it’s also more accessible design.

Swapping Sound To and From the TV

Sonos soundbars and speakers are known for their clean and minimalist industrial design; they have few buttons (only the absolute essentials) and the company generally has good taste in designing its app to be as intuitive as possible. (Many consumers have expressed their strong dislike for the Sonos app redesign released in April, though.) Keating, who’s been a senior industrial designer at Sonos for almost three years, tells Inverse that the Ace uses curves and soft lines to help humanize the headphones since they’re something you wear on your head, often in public.

“Home theater is a great system integration point to start with.”

On the left ear cup, there’s a single pill-shaped power and Bluetooth connection button. Next to that is a USB-C port. (Included in the box is USB-C-to-USB-C charging cable and a USB-C-to-3.5mm line-in cable.) On the right ear cup, there’s a round “Noise Control” button for turning ANC on and off, activating “Aware mode” which is Sonos’ version of an ambient or transparency mode that mixes sound from your environment in with playing audio, and summoning your device’s voice assistant. A stainless steel Content Key serves multiple functions: slide it up and down for volume; press it in for play/pause; press twice to skip forward; press three times to go to the previous track; long press on it to activate TV Audio Swap. The Content Key can also be used to control phone calls.

David Keating, senior industrial designer at Sonos, showing me the flat case that comes with the Ace headphones. It’s made of 75 percent recycled felt.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

It’s the TV Audio Swap function that differentiates the Ace from other ANC headphones and might make it worth the sticker price. At launch, if you have a Sonos Arc soundbar connected to your TV, you can set up the Ace so that sound can be swapped between the two. Support for Sonos’ Beam, Beam (Gen 2), and Ray soundbars will be added “soon.” For example, this would be useful if you’ve just come home from a commute where you were watching a TV show or movie on Netflix on your phone. You turn on your TV (with connected Arc) and fire up Netflix, press and hold down the Content Key on the Ace that are still on your head, and — voilà — the sound immediately comes through them. Long press the Content Key again and the sound returns to the soundbar for all to hear. In my demos, TV Audio Swap worked instantly; there was no lag (at least not anything perceivable). I’ll have to see how that works in my own apartment, though.

The Ace’s Content Key has many functions, including controlling volume, media playback, and swapping audio to and from a Sonos soundbar that’s connected to a TV.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

Why might anyone want this? I can think of a few scenarios. Maybe you live in an apartment and it’s late at night and you don’t want to disturb your neighbors, or maybe you have roommates or a partner and you need a private listening experience. Maybe you’re a parent and just put the kids to sleep and don’t want to wake them up, so you put on the headphones. Sonos tells me there’s a bunch of algorithmic magic happening in the background that reduces latency so you could use the Ace for any non-competitive gaming. Or maybe, you’re fancy and your space is so large and the walls and ceilings are so far apart that getting an immersive spatial audio experience is really hard. The Ace support head-tracked spatial audio (Dolby Atmos) with and without a Sonos-developed “TrueCinema” feature that creates a customized surround sound experience for your space. (This feature is coming via a software update later this year). According to Sonos, TrueCinema isn’t simulating another home theater experience, it’s creating a personalized one specifically for you based on your space in front of a TV and Sonos soundbar.

The recently redesigned Sonos app can be used to turn on TV Audio Swap, adjust the EQ settings, and more.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

“Home theater is a great system integration point to start with,” Krieger tells me when I ask why the TV Audio Swap feature only works with soundbars and not other Sonos speakers like the Era 300 spatial audio speaker or the Era 100 stereo speaker. To be fair, multi-point Bluetooth connectivity enables easy and fast switching between non-soundbar devices and speakers. “A personal listening experience has been present in our thinking for a long time. So while we’re developing a soundbar, even if we’re not specifically product-developing headphones, we want to think about how that ecosystem can work for people.”

Sonos Wireless Earbuds Next?

An exploded view of the Sonos Ace ANC headphones.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

With ANC headphones, Sonos is entering a new chapter of products made for personal listening. To consumers, the Ace are a big finally moment. They look really good, sound really great, and the TV audio swap feature is legitimately useful if you’ve got a Sonos soundbar and find yourself often in a situation where you could appreciate private TV listening through headphones.

Under the watchful eyes of Sonos personnel, it wasn’t possible for me to get a realistic listening experience, especially one representative of the real outside world, where there’s tons of noise, so I’ll save the detailed thoughts for a review. Ditto for how the Ace’s ANC compares to other leading ANC headphones. That being said, the headphones sounded solid from my brief listening — the mids are clear, highs are bright and crispy, and the bass has a strong low end without much distortion, even at high volumes. I’m somewhat confident the sound quality will have no problem delivering, considering Sonos’ commitment to valuing audio engineering first.

“Sonos has a history of charting our own path and using our values to make great products,” Kreiger says. “We really believe we’ve found a good balance of the various attributes [of what makes headphones sound great and comfortable].”

“Sonos has a history of charting your own path and using our values to make great products.”

Before I let Krieger and Keating shuffle off to their next interviews, I can’t resist asking them if we’ll see Sonos wireless earbuds soon. Some people like over-ear headphones; others like ANC wireless earbuds (that won’t mess up their hair). Sonos sells a family of soundbars and speakers. Wireless earbuds would be a natural addition.

“Sonos can add value in any space, so we’re always looking at different places where we can delight customers,” Krieger tells me with a gentle twinkle in his eye. I had a feeling I wouldn’t get a real answer, but I had to shoot my shot. I suppose the Ace will have to do for now.

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