A tower of refinement that marks a turning point in speakers
As promised, here is a chance to look into how “Sountina-the-Great” (authors remark) came to life and who stood behind its conception. I am always fascinated by ingenious designs and ideas that Sony folks have and it is great to see some of it come to life, though at a pretty penny. So read on and see if this is something than can capture you like it did for me.
Omnidirectional sound from an organic glass tube tweeter. Introducing the “Sountina” NSA-PF1, currently in the limelight as an elegant speaker system offering a room-filling soundstage. Such original technology also proved a font of inspiration for the designers, but how did they channel their creative energies into this sonic sculpture? Here, the designers reveal how the Sountina is another paragon that casts light on the best direction for Sony design.
Chief Art Director
Information Design Manager
A breakthrough heralding a new listening style
Matsuoka: I’ll never forget the first time I saw the original model for the Sountina. That was more than two years ago, at a presentation by engineers announcing the results of development. When I walked in, I saw a glass tube standing upright in the middle of the room. I could hear the clear sound of a bird chirping, coming from nowhere in particular. That glass tube turned out to be the tweeter. Normally, tweeters determine the positioning and orientation of sound. But here, the glass tube in front of me produced consistent sound no matter where I stood as I circled around it. I even backed up against a wall, but there was hardly any change in sound pressure. It was truly an eerie experience, as if every nook of the room were filled with sound.
I knew then that this was a breakthrough promising a new listening style. It was also good timing. I happened to be working in the U.S., where my colleagues and I were exploring the frontiers of audio entertainment. We realized that typical two-channel audio systems keep listeners captive in front of the speakers, if they want the best performance. It’s a little futile using these systems when several people want to enjoy music together. That’s because the optimal listening position is focused in one area. Why couldn’t we develop a system that drew people together around it instead? Like a campfire people gather around. This kind of free, flexible listening style was what my group had been seeking.
The glass tube in front of me embodied this concept perfectly. I couldn’t help but feel excited. When I finally returned to work in Japan, I went to see and hear the Sountina, which had been under development all the while. It exceeded my expectations, and I was truly delighted.
What’s behind the original structure
Tsuge: I, too, felt the tremendous potential of this “sonic glass tube” the first time I saw it. Conventional speakers produce sound through a diaphragm, using magnetic coils. As with car tires, the basic mechanism has not changed in a very long time since it was introduced. People haven’t succeeded in changing it. With the technology to overturn convention right in front of us, we were obviously eager to share it with the world. This aspiration brought many people at Sony together in product development from an early stage—people in R&D, engineering, and product planning.
In product design, I listened carefully to the sound produced by the Sountina as I worked. The organic glass tube tweeter produces the most natural, clear sound, free of inherent characteristics and orientation, at ear level. For this reason, we arranged the main unit at the base to ensure the ideal tube height. The unit incorporates a cone-type midrange speaker and woofer, as well as an amp. In this way, the Sountina functions as a three-way active speaker system aligned on a vertical axis.
The four columns linking these parts contain oscillators to vibrate the organic glass tube. Proprietary elements contract to drive the tweeter, offering excellent power and responsiveness. The result is vibrant, high-resolution sound conveying subtle nuances. In design, we combined all the pieces in the basic structure in a logical way to make this happen.
A single wire underlines the identity of this system
Tsuge: What should we as designers do to express how innovative and original this technology is? From the start, I thought we should focus on the organic glass tube.
It’s fascinating how the tube, which is the tweeter, vibrates to produce sound. But if we didn’t jazz it up somehow, it would look just like any ordinary glass tube. We wanted to avoid any extra frills, but then how could we convey what’s special about the Sountina? To solve this dilemma we ran a single wire through the glass tube. Passing a wire through this glass column gives it a core, creating a pleasant sense of tension. Although it serves only an aesthetic purpose, this line also resembles the string of a musical instrument, which produces sound by vibrating. It seemed a fitting symbol to adopt in audio equipment.
We could have explored designing the speaker to look more like a lamp or an object of art. If we had taken the approach of concealing signs that the unit is a speaker, it might have seemed more surprising or innovative. That would have been sufficient if all we sought was a product with striking design. Transparent speakers are not new. Omnidirectional speakers, with the diaphragm arranged to radiate sound, have also been developed before. We sought something that would clearly set the Sountina apart. Because it’s the first product to introduce this new speaker technology, we didn’t compromise on sound quality, and in the same way, we sought the appearance of a serious speaker system. To express this, I chose a single wire to underline its identity, so to speak.
More than meets the ear: exceptional quality in all users see and touch
Tsuge: We refrained from any purely superficial flourishes. For example, the spindle-shaped part holding the wire on top is not merely a decoration. It channels sound more effectively. We studied the shape and cross-sectional area carefully to eliminate distortion. The wire itself is specially coated to reflect illumination from the base of the organic glass tube and conduct light to the top. The color and intensity of illumination are adjustable, and to confirm remote control operations involving bass and treble (which may be difficult to discern while listening), the intensity changes subtly in response.
The remote is constructed of an aluminum panel. Buttons are individually cut, for better tactile feedback to one’s fingertips.
The base housing the amp and woofer of the Sountina is metallic silver. Owners can slip on a genuine leather sleeve to enjoy a different appearance. The sleeve is constructed of a single sheet of leather, and ordering the material at this size was not easy. But it was something we insisted on. The sleeve projects a desirable sense of quality in public places, and it’s a luxurious material that feels right at home in one’s living room.
Sony hospitality, to owners and to their guests
Kubota: The moment I first saw a Sountina prototype, it cleary embodied Sony Design to me. There’s a sense of surprise and uniqueness from Sony. We wanted to convey the same sense of originality and excitement about this new listening style in the user manual.
Awatsuji: Manuals are something users see after their purchase. Our readers already know why the product is compelling and valuable to them. That’s why normally, all we need to do is describe how to use it. But this time, we described how to enjoy the system and explained details of the technology at work because the Sountina can make a great centerpiece of conversation. Besides informing owners how and why the system works, we saw the manual as an opportunity to enliven conversations with guests, as owners respond to questions about the Sountina. We think that’s a purpose we might expect manuals to fulfill. After all, manuals cover instructions and tips for enjoying products, but they’re also a resource owners keep for future reference.
That’s why we rejected a stiff, formal style and would not settle for regular, single-color printing. The slim format recalls the shape of the unit itself. This size is ideal for having full-page product photos on one side when you turn each page. This reflects our regard for nonverbal communication—conveying the product’s interesting points without relying on words. After layout, we focused on printing, where it’s essential to capture product details. Here we sought meticulous support at all stages, on a level rivaling the production of books of photography. It involved many refinements at the printer and five-color printing, but the quality is tangible and worthy of admiration.
We invested this much effort in the manual hoping it would be a thoughtful gesture from Sony that even benefits the guests of Sountina owners, through owners’ hospitality. A manual that invites owners to rediscover what they appreciate about the Sountina after purchase. A manual that inspires communication, bringing owners closer to their guests. These are the roles we’d like the manual to fulfill.
Bringing people together, at the center of attention: superb sound and design
Matsuoka: Omnidirectional speakers haven’t gained widespread acceptance yet, in my opinion. That’s a good reason to hope the Sountina catches many people’s eye, and reaches their ears. When people who first hear it in a public setting decide to take it home, I’m sure it will expand the market. It will also encourage this new listening style.
Audio entertainment has been caught between two extremes for years. On one hand there’s the indulgence of setting up exclusive “front-row” seats in your home, in front of imposing speakers. On the other hand, with portable audio players, people are immersed in their own private zone of music. Neither of these is necessarily the wrong approach, but I would like to see audio entertainment also take a turn in the direction of inviting many people to listen freely at the same time.
And it is with the hope of popularizing this listening style that we present the Sountina.