Definitive Technology; from L to R: W Adapt, W9, W7, W Studio, W Amp
A veritable three-headed giant in consumer electronics, Sound United's aptly differentiated trio of brands is well-established across the category, offering products for users of all stripes, from hip millennials to discerning audiophiles. Today sees the launch of its first two wireless music systems, major releases for both the Polk Audio and Definitive Technology brands. Building on its long history as a leader in bringing top-notch audio engineering to music fans, the Polk Omni family comprises a suite of speaker options, plus a standalone amplifier and a wireless adaptor for your existing home audio system. Definitive Technology's W collection is billed as the "first audiophile-grade wireless music system," with higher-end versions of a congruent product range—two sizes of speaker, a soundbar/subwoofer combo, an amplifier and an adaptor.
DTS' Play-Fi allows for streaming via services such as Pandora and Spotify, as well as Internet radio and, of course, the user's personal music collection. Each of the systems is controlled by a dedicated app, compatible with Android and iOS and specifically designed to complement the respective hardware.
Polk Omni, from L to R: S2, S2 Rechargeable, SB1, A1, P1
We had the chance to talk to Michael DiTullo—a longtime friend and contributor to Core who also happens to be the Chief Design Officer of Sound United—about the thinking and process behind the two new collections.
Core77: Home audio, as a category, has a certain aesthetic; to what degree do you abide by these standards, and to what degree to do you try to break away?
Michael DiTullo: We try not to think of what is going on in the CE category and instead focus on what is important to our target persona and what other objects they surround themselves in. An audio product lives with a family, in their living room, in their kitchen, in their bedroom. It has to respond to these spaces to earn the right to be there. Our Polk collection uses warm metallic finishes, warm metallic off blacks, a mix of dark and light grilles and softer, mid-century modern inspired form language to respond to what is going on the space of the Polk listener and visually represent the sonic profile which is very warm.
The Definitive persona, who we call the aficionado, is more Modernist, clean, crisp, very precise. The design language reflects that with machined aluminum bases, machined cantilevered aluminum UI's, and very strong, minimal forms. Likewise, the sonic signature is very cold, precise, and forward, just like the design.
It sounds like you imagine these products in context, i.e. in and among the kinds of interiors, furniture and lifestyles of the end users.
Very much so. Before embarking on designing this collection, we conducted a series of ethnographic interviews with a range of listeners, including recent college grads moving into their first apartment, couples moving into their first home, young families with multiple children, and empty nesters who were downsizing. We studied the use cases of these individual groups, the unique pain points with trying to get an audio experience around their rooms, and were able to extrapolate the insights that went into the innovation and form factor of each product. By learning about what wasn't working for people, we could develop a collection and system that does work and is flexible enough to grow with them and continue to surprise and delight. We always start every project by answering two very simple questions: Who are we designing for, and what can our brand and expertise bring to them that makes their audio life better?
Polk Omni SB1 (wireless subwoofer & soundbar)
Definitive Technology W Amp
Polk Omni P1 adaptor (at center), pictured with RTiA1 speakers
Where do you look for inspiration outside of CE / home audio?
Everywhere. We are always observing and documenting trends in architecture, furniture, apparel, housewares, and running those through the filters of our brand aspirational personas to develop a living, breathing design language that evolves. When developing design languages, I think it is important that they capture a feeling, and emotion, an intended lead user, and not be overprescriptive. If you lock yourself into this Pantone and this radii, you lose sight of the real goal.
With that in mind, how do these two new product lines reflect the heritage of their respective brands?
Polk was founded by three friends in college in 1972 who wanted to bring the concert experience home. They were like the original college entrepreneurs. :-) In recreating that concert experience, they developed a unique sound that Polk fans love. It is this sound that has made Polk the largest traditional speaker brand in the United States. It is very rich, very warm. Through the design of these products, we wanted to reflect that history while infusing it with a very modern twist.
Definitive is a very different brand, creating products at higher price points that recreate a more studio experience. Definitive is the largest premium sparker brand in America and the only one in its category that is based here in the U.S. While creating that studio sound, the engineers at Definitive also love to pack powered carbon-fiber subwoofers into our products, making it like a svelte, sleek sports car with a massive V8 stuffed under the hood. The sound is very unique, very powerful, with lots of detail in the full audible range. It was important for the products to look equally powerful.
Definitive Technology W9 wireless speaker
Polk Omni: S2 wireless speaker at left; A1 amplifier at right
How did designing a wireless system differ from designing a traditional wired system?
We had been developing some wireless systems using Airplay (the Woodbourne) and the Bluetooth over the last few years. What we really liked about it is that we could control the entire system. The engineers could perfectly tailor the amplification and signal processing specifically for our drivers, and because we are getting the digital file streamed directly to our speaker, we can control the digital to analog conversion at the highest quality possible. In short, our engineers were amped and it was exciting for our design team to be able to work so collaboratively with them in bringing these collections to life. We were an integrated unit conducting ethnographic research; defining insights and product opportunities; and developing each product from concept to detailed execution.
On the technology side of things, did you consider wireless audio solutions besides DTS Play-Fi? What makes them the best fit for Polk and Definitive?
We did an exhaustive amount of research on ecosystems, both open and proprietary. Play-Fi was the best fit for us for several reasons—it can handle very high-res files, something our competitors don't do and something that was important to us, especially as the streaming services have raised their bit rates. Secondly, the platform is very stable and they were already making and shipping real product using it. Lastly, Play-Fi is owned by DTS which has been a long time partner of ours and knows the high-end audio business. We knew they were just as committed to building a quality system as we were and they were eager to work with us to continually improve and evolve the system.
Did the software/interface inform the design of the hardware at all?
As Chief Design Officer, I oversaw and directed the design of both. Both were done in parallel, and I think the unity of the design language can be felt because of that. There are some unique features embedded int the apps that only we can do. Each line has its own Play-Fi app that will see speakers from either line and has a similar UX flow designed around ease of use, but of course a different look and feel. Additionally, each brand has a companion app that facilitates wireless updates and, if you are using one of our wireless amps (A1 for Polk and WAmp for Definitive), there is a menu that allows you to select the exact speaker you are using and it tunes the amplifier signal output to that speaker. Because we engineered the drivers, we understand the science behind them like no one else and we can work our magic.
Broadly speaking, who do you see your competitors in the wireless audio space?
When you look at the traditional speaker market, the products are on the equivalent of an open platform. You can buy speakers and wire them to any receiver, they all play nice together. In that world, we have proven the impact of our unique sound. I think the important thing is that an open ecosystem is just the right thing from a user experience point of view. People want to be able to connect speakers and have their system grow with them as they grow.
The Polk Omni S2 also comes in a rechargeable version