Sonos Play: 5 (2015) Review Roundup: $499 But Totally Worth It

31 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

New apps for Apple TVThe new speaker, out November 20th, will also cost $100 more than the previous edition–so you’ll have to decide whether you want to spend the extra money, but I can tell you this: The beauty of the Sonos system is that you can buy multiple speakers and put them all over the house, without having to worry about how to connect them. Sonos is well known for its Wi-Fi connected, multi-room sound systems and virtually every new speaker it introduces is a variation on its theme of room-filling, connected audio.Apple says it will do for the TV experience what it did for mobile phones and tablets with apps, and “innovative ways to connect with your screen.” The apps are featured on the revamped Apple TV, which is coming to stores as early as Friday. While the sound quality is fair to good – I’ve heard better and I’ve heard far worse – the ease of use, the simplicity of setup, and the access to millions of pieces of streamed content far outweighed any grumbling I had about not hearing the highest highs and lowest lows. Sonos says the end goal was to put “massively better sound and wireless performance in a really iconic package.” The company wants these products to last as long as 10 years in a customer’s home, and the Play:5 fits that part pretty well with a simplistic but stylish design that’s available in either white or black.

But Cord-cutter alert: If you’re looking to pick up Apple TV to ditch cable, you’ll need a good antenna to get the broadcast networks on a day and date basis. Particularly with the white model, you can set it in a corner of your living room (any room, really) and never worry about it picking up dust or fingerprints. It has double the number of drivers found in the Play:3, as well as three woofers and three tweeters, and can produce intense, clear and thumping office-filling sound. Do that, and you’re looking at hundreds and hundreds of dollars in set-up costs (this stuff is pricey), but you do end up with a kick-ass experience. Aside from a button used for setup on the back, the other controls — play/pause, volume, and track controls — are all capacitive touch buttons that automatically adjust for the Play:5’s orientation.

Every speaker you plug in gets similar treatment and you can either connect multiple speakers together in one room or you can put Sonos devices throughout the house. Around back is also a 3.5mm input jack, giving you the flexibility to play pretty much anything through this speaker if Sonos’ app can’t do what you need it to. What you won’t find, at least for now, according to Apple’s website, are the most popular mobile apps, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Amazon. • Storehouse is an app that lets you combine your mobile photos and videos with text to become a visual story.

But as music has become increasingly tied to my ever-mobile laptop and phone, my listening has gradually drifted towards headphones—until I got a couple of Sonos Play:1 speakers a few years ago, that is. Sonos speakers come in a variety of sizes–the system starts at $199 for the Play:1, $299 for the larger Play:3, and now $499 for the top of the line Play:5. While I’ve never experienced this “party” mode – I have very few close friends – the times I brought NPR podcasts or a little Celine up in party mode accidentally were amazing. Sadly it can’t be removed to showcase all that’s new inside: Sonos has designed six drivers (three tweeters and three mid-woofers) in-house, and the company takes great pride in the fact that it builds each component from the ground up.

In tests I saw at Sonos headquarters in Santa Barbara, the app brought a speaker with muddy sound to a crisper, more full sound, but when I tested the app at home, it didn’t make much of a difference. Backing up, Sonos was the first company to get wireless multiroom audio right—a central system, which allows you to control speakers in many different rooms. The company got out in front of everyone by creating a great wireless experience when basically your only other option was the original Jawbone Jambox. All of this results in a product that Sonos claims is “several generations ahead of where we’ve been in the past.” And to my ears, it sounds pretty fantastic.

Over the course of several days, I had the speaker playing music for hours, constantly hopping between genres so I could better gauge its versatility. Whereas before the Play:5s I had paired near the back of the room barely registered these new speakers took over and truly added to the complete sound field. There are a ton of competitors making similar (clone?!) systems now: Bose, Samsung, Polk, Yamaha, and Denon, just to name the a few of the noteworthy. One thing that’s immediately noticeable is that the Play:5 sounds rich and full at any volume; the Play:3 can sound a bit weak if you’re not cranking it.

The improvements to both the physical enclosure and the audio quality are enough that I’d recommend it not only to those looking for their first speaker, but also those who are expanding an existing Sonos setup. If you want loud, Sonos’ latest speaker can outperform everything else in the company’s stable. (I tend to disregard the Playbar here, since it’s really meant to be a home theater piece. At $500 each you could feasibly put one of these in a room and listen to some great sound. however, there is some value in picking up two and setting them up as bookshelf or tabletop speakers.

The protocol’s connectivity is now solidly reliable, and the codecs for transferring Bluetooth audio ensure identical audio quality to what’s possible over wifi. The key to making everything sound balanced and smooth is a new feature called Trueplay, which employs the microphone in your iPhone (sorry, Android users) to tune the Play:5 based on the acoustics of the exact spot it’s in. Moving a speaker even a few feet can have a pretty major impact on what you hear, and with Trueplay, Sonos is promising that its products will sound superb in almost any placement.

Sonos still dominates the multi-room audio market, even as other companies like Samsung and LG try to provide the company with something resembling competition. The company has managed to eliminate old annoyances and complaints by making its entire system wireless, ditching the need for any ethernet connections or extra hardware. All the speakers are Wi-Fi connected and, using the app, you can run them together to create house-filling music, or play different audio in different rooms.

And its smartphone app remains an impressive central hub where you can tap into your music libraries with Spotify, Soundcloud, Google Play Music, Rdio, Tidal, and other services. There are many similar offerings on the market, from the cheap to the outrageously expensive, and Sonos has consistently offered the most interesting product at the most interesting price. The Devialet Phantom, for example, pumps out sound like a beast, allowing you to fill an entire McMansion with sweet treble and bass but it costs a little under $2,000 and the streaming features are wildly primitive. An accelerometer inside tells the speaker’s software in which of the three possible orientations it’s sitting, and optimizes the playback accordingly.

Some aspects of the software can feel very clunky or unintuitive at times, likely because Sonos tries to make so many music apps work nicely within the same controller app. The Play:5 now has three distinct orientations: By itself, either horizontal or vertical; paired with another speaker vertically to provide a tight stereo image; or paired with both speakers sitting horizontally, to provide a wider, more room-filling stereo image. Sonos Trueplay asks you to turn your phone around and wave it up and down to assess the audio conditions in the room and use those readings to adjust your Sonos Play:5 settings. You start to realize how much thought went into the Play:5’s three-year development when you consider the touch controls, positioned in the panel adjacent to the Sonos branding. Trueplay is automatically part of your initial setup, but you can always go back and “retune” the speaker, which is something you would do if you move it from room to room.

The company’s controller software runs on any phone or computer, and it lets you stream different audio sources to multiple locations around your home all at once. If that’s your main objective, the Play:1 and Play:3 remain fine (and cheaper) options, especially when you pair two of them together for a fuller soundscape. Here’s the good news: The Sonos Play:5 is a fantastic sounding speaker with far more audio power than you can use in an office or even a full-sized cafeteria. The process of setting up a Sonos system hasn’t really changed for the Play:5, but it has gotten simpler since the company released its tiny Play:1 speaker two years ago.

It’s an extremely well-crafted device, with sensitive, touch buttons on top for controlling play, pause, volume and skipping back and forth over tracks. Trueplay rolled off the treble or pumped up the mids depending on where I put it. (If you move the speaker to a different location, you can just run the test again and recalibrate it.) But I usually preferred to listen to the unaltered playback of my files—especially if it was music that I know well enough to know how it’s supposed to sound.

After you’ve done this little sound tuning mating dance, your speaker should be calibrated to algorithmic perfection for its exact placement in that exact room. I took the Play:5 down from its perfect perch and put it on the ground near the corner of my living room, next to our big plant, where it’s sort of blocked from projecting well by both the couch and the coffee table.

People already satisfied with the simple minimal setup of Sonos are going to be even happier after Trueplay, which takes the guesswork out of placing your speaker in the right place to optimize sound.

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