AUSTIN — It’s been about 17,300 years since our ancestors first painted on the caves at Lascaux. We’re still decorating walls with pictures. So isn’t it time our wall art caught up to the modern world?
The startup Soundwall is a strange new company whose titular object sits squarely (and often rectangularly) at the intersection of art, music and technology. A Soundwall is a painting that is also a wireless speaker, a hangable piece of artwork that can connect to your smartphone or tablet and play music through its canvas.
You’ve heard of the Picture of Dorian Gray? This is the picture of Macy Gray.
Here’s how it works: Like hundreds of other art dealers, the Soundwall website sells canvases, with modern paintings from professional artists, that you can hang on the walls in your home. You can also choose to upload your own image, and Soundwall will print it for you on one of its canvases. Unlike traditional paintings, however, the surface of the Soundwall painting is a music speaker, a sheet of polystyrene that diffuses sound out over the entire surface of the canvas.
A Soundwall behaves just like a typical wireless speaker: It simply looks nothing like the black grilled speakers we’ve become accustomed to. Technology critics like to compare the sleek hardware made by companies like Apple and Sony to works of art. Soundwall’s speakers actually are works of art.
Here’s one below, on display at the company’s outpost here in Austin, at the technology portion of the South by Southwest conference:
Here’s another Soundwall, in a frame:
This isn’t just a painting with a speaker shoved into the back of the frame. The smooth surface of the painting itself is the speaker, and you can feel the canvas vibrate if you run your finger over it while a song plays.
The painting is WiFi connected, so you don’t have to plug anything into the speaker to play: You can hook up your iPhone or iPad to the painting through the wireless AirPlay feature, or your Android phone through an app called BubbleUPnP, to stream your device’s music through the painting itself.
The only wire you need, in fact, is to power the speaker: You do have to plug the painting into the wall, which means an ugly wire will be dangling from the frame, unless you pay an electrician to hide it. Soundwall creator David Hose told me the company had experimented with a battery-powered version but could not find a battery that was both powerful enough to energize the painting and light enough to make the painting manageable. The company stuck with wired.
Most Soundwall owners, he told me, do choose to drill holes in their walls to hide the wires. That might sound like a prohibitive added cost. “But if you’re already spending $2,500 on a Soundwall,” Hose said, what’s a couple hundred more to make sure it looks nice?
And, yes, the Soundwall is more expensive than, say, a speaker from Sony or Jawbone. There are five different sizes: The smallest, a poster-size Soundwall, costs $950; the largest, a 40 × 60 inch “epic” print, runs $2,500. This is not a speaker for a budget shopper. It is a conversation starter, a centerpiece, a marvelous expenditure.
Sound quality is good, though not stunning. Audiophiles will want to stick with fancier systems. The Soundwall plays music that is both clear and loud, however, and is acceptable to anyone who just wants to listen to the radio or her MP3 collection.
The appeal of the Soundwall, clearly, is not in the audio quality: It’s the idea, the presentation, the grand reveal to your houseguests that the music is coming from inside the painting.
Yes, much of the allure of the Soundwall comes from its novelty. (“A painting that also plays music? What will they think of next?!”) But the Soundwall is easy to operate; much of the art is attractive and modern; and audio quality is high enough that you will not be disappointed.
If $2,500 doesn’t represent an enormous expenditure, it’s worth a look, and a listen. Because haven’t you always dreamed that your Norman Rockwell — well, rocked?