I go way back with IKEA, as the first store in the United States opened decades ago just few miles from where I grew up in Philadelphia. The Volvo-driving set from up and down the east coast somehow had gotten the memo on this momentous late 1980s occasion, and they showed up en masse. Support was so enthusiastic that this first IKEA location sold out of nearly all its furniture. I was able to sucker my Dad to go over on Saturday afternoon to load our shiny red Jeep Cherokee with enough oddly named packages to make for what would ultimately be my high school bedroom set, as well as my audiophile listening room at the same time. Polk floorstanding speakers, a remote-controlled NAD stereo receiver, a Nakamichi Music Bank CD changer, Monster cable, and of course an IKEA Poang chair. I was styling back in the day thanks to the power of IKEA and Bryn Mawr Stereo.
Roll the tape forward more than 30 years and I still have an affinity for IKEA, even if I sometimes go “Spinal Tap” with my architect, designing my own furniture and having it custom made. There is still a place in our life for IKEA, and thankfully now Task Rabbit to install the stuff. In our new house, we picked up a number of IKEA products for guest bedrooms and our somewhat lame walk-in closet, which helped add much needed drawer-based storage without having to buck-up for a $10,000 California Closet or some solution like that. It was on that trip to IKEA (located down where the Goodyear blimp parks) that I first saw and bought an IKEA Symfonisk Sonos-driven Table lamp and WiFi speaker ($179).
This mushroom-looking speaker is an LED lamp first and foremost. It comes in two different colors: a somewhat orange globe with black fabric, and a grayer color scheme. I chose the gray color as a match for the IKEA Malm bed and nightstands in our guest room. As a lamp, it works pretty simply: you just plug it into the wall and adjust the amount of light via a round knob--not too much unlike the old rheostats that dimmed our lights back in the 1980s, but in this case, you’re dimming an energy efficient LED light.
Where this IKEA lamp becomes more than a lamp is when you have a Sonos system, which I didn’t until a few weeks ago. The proprietary mesh network audio solution has become the default standard for distributed music even for high-end custom installers these days, which is how I ended up with. I currently have eight of the Sonos Connect amps, some of which we are bypassing to use an Anthem multi-channel amp with ARC room correction for my in-wall, in-ceiling, and mostly invisible speakers.
But that’s not how the IKEA Symfonisk connects. The Symfonisk setup process is based around you having the Sonos app. which is pretty important in the Sonos world, although I look forward to having this via Crestron and on an iPad in the coming weeks. From the Sonos app on my phone, I was able to configure my account, which then allowed me to add the speaker to my system. The app searches around your home via WiFi for any Sonos-capable speakers and walks you through the process in a straightforward manner. You could also use the app to create stereo pairs, or add a Sonos-branded subwoofer for a bit of extra bass reinforcement.
The most impressive part of the setup for me was when the IKEA Symfonisk asked me if I wanted to use my phone’s internal microphone to perform Trueplay Tuning, aka room correction. Are you kidding? I sure do. The app shows you a silent video of a woman walking around the room with her phone out of its case and upside down (to give access to the mic) and gently-silently waving the phone around the borders of the room. It was as if she was spraying a can of Febreze after something terrible happened in the bathroom next door, but I digress. A mere 45 seconds later, the speaker was EQed more for the room. That is really unexpected feature in a wireless speaker costing so little.
While I didn’t opt to buy a pair of Symfonisk speakers, I learned that you could in fact do that and run them as a stereo pair. If I wanted that I would look to wireless speaker products from the likes of Kanto or SVS or something a little higher-end, but it is a cool option.
Sonos offers a mind-numbing number of audio streaming options. Historically, I’ve been a fan of Pandora, not as much for its sound but because of its truly excellent relational database that is still the best streaming option that I have found for saying, “Oh, you like ‘Super Freak,’ then you might really like…” and then adjusting course accordingly with plus-or-minus feedback. With that said, most of my listening tests were from Amazon music, which I am getting more and more into as a $15 per month streaming service with tons of HD options. Why this isn’t included in Amazon Prime is beyond me and perhaps the topic of a different article.
On Bill Joel’s “She’s Always A Woman to Me,” I liked the 360-degree openness of the Symfonisk’s sound, even if the imaging is much less specific than you would get with a simple pair of stereo speakers. The gentle flute and classical guitar blend in nicely with Joel’s piano, with his voice presenting itself nicely and above the overall mix. The sound as a whole isn’t harsh at all, but nor is it dull or overly rolled off. Not bad for an under-$200 lamp/speaker.
Following the urge to push the limits of such a modest speaker, I cued up “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden and upped the volume accordingly. The echoey guitar resonated nicely in my office where I did most of my listening. Chris Cornell’s vocals beam more in the verse than the more crowded and grungier chorus, but by all means the speaker was up for the task of getting Seattle-nasty if need be. The bass was realistic and controlled for what you get within realistic expectations for a small, wireless speaker. I wouldn’t have you set your expectations much more than you would for a small bookshelf speaker, but with the room correction in effect and the speaker located near a wall, the low end was absolutely respectable--even without a subwoofer.
In a sadistic audiophile reenactment decades after the crime, I decided to make the IKEA Symfonisk live through the worst moment of my Philadelphia teenaged audiophile career. To my mother’s absolute disgust, I bought a used pair of legendary Dahlquist DQ10 speakers to replace my Polks, which were fine but not esoteric enough for me at the time. I had new speaker cloth neatly installed on them and they looked pretty spiffy, but the truth was that they sucked the 125-watt life out of my NAD receiver’s internal amp. So, I did what any kid with a little money in his pocket would have done at the time, which was to go to a different stereo store and buy a B&K ST-150: a standalone stereo amp with far more current.
I lugged this amp up to my IKEA-outfitted, teenaged audio salon, connected a 3-meter pair of interconnects, and cued up “Welcome to the Machine” from Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here in the old Nakamichi Music Bank CD changer. This iconic track starts out with some of the nastiest low-frequency rumblings you could ever ask a stereo system to reproduce. Within 30 seconds, I blew the living hell out of my DQ10s, requiring the first (but not last) speaker driver repair of my life.
So how did the IKEA Symfonisk fare with “Welcome to the Machine”? I can say it was a hell of a lot better than my audiophile rig back in the day. At high but more age-appropriate volume, one would want a big, mean subwoofer in a perfect world, but you can’t really have that here. With the room correction engaged, though, the Symfonisk made it through the minefield of the first minute or so of the song suitably.
The Symfonisk is a polite speaker that never ever gets harsh--even with the volume up. It also never loses its 3D sound. At the same time, it doesn’t image with that razor-sharp focus that you are going to get with a really nice pair of bookshelf speakers and a nice receiver. But then again, the form factor of the IKEA Symfonisk Sonos is just so easy for so many applications that you likely can forgive that.
Comparison and Competition
There is a $99 IKEA/Sonos wireless speaker that isn’t a lamp, which also confusingly goes by the name Symfonisk. To be frank, this one looks pretty awful to my eyes. I guess it is OK looking stuck in an IKEA bookcase, but when mounted on the wall it looks pretty assy. It has no place in my home.
Sonos has its own lineup of products that could compete with the IKEA Symfonisk offering, most specifically the battery powered Sonos Move speaker. At $399, it is more portable but it doesn’t come with that Nordic look, nor of course the lamp functionality. A more even competitor would be the Sonos One ($169), which also lacks a dimmable LED, but features a built-in microphone and built-in Amazon Alexa functionality.
There are, of course, countless other wireless speakers on the market that have nothing to do with Sonos. The Bowers & Wilkins Wedge is much more expensive at $899, but sounds significantly better, has a more Mid-Century design, and images like a real pair of audiophile speakers. Add a subwoofer and the price is almost $1,800, however; but the Wedge represents some of the best audiophile performance for a wireless system even if it isn’t capable of connecting to a Sonos system.
Audiophiles historically crap all over Bose, and on a lot of levels Bose has earned their scorn. But one thing you can’t fairly criticize Bose for is their multi-channel sales distribution model. Bose sells their products everywhere: big box retail stores, Amazon, custom installers, outlet malls, airport catalogs, even vending machines. This Sonos partnership with IKEA is a good example of how Sonos can similarly expand its reach, making those $2,000,000-per-30-second Super Bowl ads resonate better with real-world customers. IKEA gets a chance to cash in on electronics a little too.
In the end, the Symfonisk lamp, when connected to the Sonos environment, punches above its weight class as a wireless speaker. My expectations were well exceeded, as I thought the speaker would pretty much suck except for perhaps as a white noise generator (and as a lamp) in the guest room, but why not toss one in the cart and see? When I did, thankfully, I got much more than I expected and one might suggest what I paid for. This speaker could be a really nice way to introduce kids to music. It would be perfectly suitable in a dorm room. The IKEA Symfonisk Sonos speaker could be used to easily fill out a Sonos system in a larger home without making any kind of large investment. Give this speaker a listen before you tell me that I am crazy for gushing over an IKEA lamp-speaker, as it very possibly could win you over as a fan.