As I've written many times in the past, I'm part of the vast chorus that praises the Apple Store. And not just for the uncluttered product displays, the no-pressure sales people (who aren't on commission), or the Genius Bar that provides expert help, but for the impressive architecture. Apple beautifies existing venues (Regent Street in London, rue Halevy near the Paris Opera) or commissions elegant new buildings, huge ones at times.
It's a relentlessly successful story. Even the turmoil surrounding John Browett's abbreviated tenure as head of Apple's worldwide retail organization hasn't slowed the pace of store openings and customer visits. (As always, Horace Dediu provides helpful statistics and analysis in his latest Asymco post.)
It has always struck me as odd that in Palo Alto, Apple's heartland and Steve Jobs' adopted hometown, Apple had only a modestly-sized, unremarkable venue on University Avenue, and an even smaller store in the Stanford Shopping Center.
All of that changed on October 27th when the black veil that shrouded an unmarked project was removed, and the newest Apple Store -- what some are calling a "prototype" for future venues, a "flagship" store -- was revealed. (For the civic-minded -- or the insomniac -- you can read the painfully detailed proposal, submitted to Palo Alto's Architectural Review Board nearly three years ago, here.)
I came back from a trip on November 2nd, the day the iPad mini became available, and immediately headed downtown. The new store is big, bold, elegant, even more so at night when the very bright lights and large Apple logo on its front dominate the street scene. (So much so I heard someone venture that Apple has recast itself as the antagonist in its 1984 commercial.)
The store is impressive… but its also unpleasantly, almost unbearably noisy. And mine isn't a voice in the wilderness. The wife of a friend walked in, spent a few minutes, and vowed to never return for fear of hearing loss. She'd rather go to the cramped but much more hospitable Stanford store.
A few days later, I heard a similar complaint from the spouse of an Apple employee. She used to enjoy accompanying her husband to the old Palo Alto store, but now refuses because of the cacophony.
'Now you know the real reason for Browett's firing', a friend said, half-seriously. 'How can you spend North of $15M on such a strategically placed, symbolic store, complete with Italian stone hand-picked by Jobs himself...and give no consideration to the acoustics? It's bad for customers, it's bad for the staff, it's bad for business, and it's bad for the brand. Apple appears to be more concerned with style than with substance!'
The sound problem stems from a combination of the elongated "Great Hall", parallel walls, and reflective building materials. The visually striking glass roof becomes a veritable parabolic sound mirror. There isn't a square inch of sound-absorbing material in the entire place.
A week later, I returned to the store armed with the SPL Meter iPhone app. As the name indicates, SPL Meter provides a Sound Pressure Level (SPL) measurement in decibels.(Decibels form a logarithmic scale where a 3 dB increase means roughly twice as much sound pressure -- noise in our case; +10 dB is ten times the sound pressure.)
For reference, a normal conversation at 3 feet (1m) is 40 to 60 dB; a passenger car 30 feet away produces levels between 60 and 80 dB. From the Wikipedia article above: "[The] EPA-identified maximum to protect against hearing loss and other disruptive effects from noise, such as sleep disturbance, stress, learning detriment, etc. [is] 70 dB."
On a relatively quiet Saturday evening, the noise level around the Genius Bar exceeded 75 dB:
Outside, the traffic noise registered a mere 65 dB. It was 10 db noisier inside the store than on always-busy University Avenue!
Even so, the store on that Friday was a virtual library compared to the day the iPad mini was launched, although I can't quantify my impression: I didn't have the presence of mind to whip out my iPhone and measure it.
Despite the (less-than-exacting) scientific evidence and the corroborating anecdotes, I began to have my doubts. Was I just "hearing things"? Could Apple really be this tone deaf?
Then I saw it: An SPL recorder -- a professional one -- perched on a tripod inside the store.
I also noticed two employees wearing omnidirectional sound recorders on their shoulders (thinking they might not like the exposure, I didn't take their pictures.) Thus, it appears that Apple is taking the problem seriously.
But what can it do?
It's a safe bet that Apple has already engaged a team of experts, acousticians who tweak the angles and surfaces in concert halls and problem venues. I've heard suggestions that Apple should install an Active Noise Control system: Cancel out sound waves by pumping in their inverted forms -- all in real time. Unfortunately, this doesn't work well (or at all) in a large space.
Bose produces a rather effective solution…in the controlled environment of headphones.
This prompted the spouse mentioned above to suggest that Apple should hand out Bose headphones at the door.
Two days after the noisy Apple store opened its doors, Browett was shown the exit. Either Tim Cook is fast on the draw or, more likely, my friend is wrong: Browett's unceremonious departure had deeper roots, most likely a combination of a cultural mismatch and a misunderstanding of his role. The Browett graft didn't take on the Apple rootstock, and the newly hired exec couldn't accept that he was no longer a CEO.
Browett's can't be scapegoated for the acoustical nightmare in the new Apple Store. Did the rightly famous architectural firm, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, not hear the problem? What about the highly reputable building contractor (DPR) which has built so many other Apple Stores? Did they stand by and say nothing, or could they simply not be heard?
Perhaps this was a case of "Launchpad Chicken", a NASA phrase for a situation where many people see trouble looming but keep quiet and wait for someone else to bear the shame of aborting the launch. It reminds me of the Apple Maps fiasco: An obvious problem ignored.
What a waste spending all that money and raising expectations only to move from a slightly undersized but well-liked store to a bigger, noisier, colder environment that turns friends away.
Having tacitly admitted that there's a problem, Apple's senior management can now show they'll stop at nothing to make the new store as inviting as it was intended to be.