Sonos PLAY:5 (2015) Review

29 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Review: Sonos Play:5.

MP3, iTunes Plus, WMA (including purchased Windows Media downloads), AAC (MPEG4), AAC+, Ogg Vorbis, Audible (format 4), Apple Lossless, Flac, WAV, AIFF Sonos, where have you been all my life?

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. I know, I’m really late to the Sonos wireless speaker party, but after a spending a week with the new Play:5, I’m about ready to empty my wallet directly into Sonos’ bank account to kit my entire flat out with these things—it’s that good. Not only is the Play:5 the best sounding all-in-one speaker I’ve ever heard—even better than the legendary Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin—it’s one of the best sounding audio systems I’ve heard full stop.

It’s boasted that the refreshed Play:5 brings with it six custom-designed drivers – three mid-woofers and three tweeters – to produce a wider soundstage than what’s usually found in a single speaker system. 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. The new SONOS PLAY:5, smart speaker is designed from the inside out and delivers the” purest, deepest, most vibrant sound yet,” according to the company’s announcement earlier today. Sure, you can go nuts with valve amps and floor-standing speakers and dedicated DACs (as I’ve done in the past), but for something so elegantly designed and simple to use, the Play:5 is unmatched. 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. You get all the multi-room streaming options, the ability to group speakers into stereo pairs, and you can throw the audio of the baseball game from the TV’s sound bar to the speaker in the kitchen. 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.

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. 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 addition to horizontal orientation as a standalone speaker, two SONOS PLAY:5s paired together vertically deliver top-of-the-line stereo sound with a focused and intense sweet spot. 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. That said, while there are some excellent free options like SoundCloud and TuneInRadio, to make the most out of the Play:5 you need to subscribe to at least one music streaming service, or have a bunch of music stored locally on a PC or NAS.

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. Entering your details to log into your chosen streaming service is pretty much the only fiddly thing you have to do during the initial setup, other than deciding where in the room to place the actual device. Functionally, every detail matters, down to the placement of the nearly 60,000 individually drilled holes in the grille and the carefully selected material for each and every part.

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. Control every room in your home with one easy-to-use app that brings together your favorite music services such as Pandora, Spotify, TIDAL, Google Play Music, and SoundCloud. 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. While that might ring alarm bells for anyone into who’s had a cat brush up against an Xbox 360 in the middle of a heated Halo game, the buttons aren’t overly sensitive.

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. 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.

The app is lightweight too on iOS, Android, and Mac (I haven’t had a chance to test the Windows version just yet, but hopefully it’s as good as the others), which helps with keeping it feel snappy and quick to load songs. 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. There’s support for pretty much every type of file out there, up to 16-bit/44.1kHz (sorry 24-bit fans), although older Apple “Fairplay,” and WMA DRM files won’t work.

From there you just select the Sonos device you want to send music to if you have more than one, browse your library for the song you want, and hey presto, you have music. 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.

The top of the screen shows what device you’re currently sending music to—yes, you can send different music to different devices all at once—while tapping on the menu button shows your music sources and settings. Most of the time you just search for the artist or track you want, after which Sonos gives you results organised by things like Track, Artist, Album, Station, and Playlists.

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. Sonos doesn’t quote wattage (which admittedly isn’t all that useful anyway), but suffice to say, this thing is easily loud enough to drown out a crowd at a house party. 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.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all Wat HiFi? on you, but bass response is staggeringly good for something of this size, and it doesn’t come at the expense of any other frequencies either, with vocals and guitars and other mid-heavy instruments gushing forth with clarity and separation. If you prefer a slightly more bass-heavy or mid-heavy sound, or any combination you like, there’s a simple three-band EQ you can tweak to your liking.

Sonos does, however, think that the sound of its devices sometimes need tweaking, and it’s come up with new software solution to do that automatically. Typically, most homes don’t represent the best acoustic environment for listening to music, particularly when speakers are shoved in the corner of rooms, or on cramped bookshelves. While a living room would typical contain surfaces like rugs and curtains that absorb certain frequencies, the tiles in a bathroom reflects them, changing how the music sounds.

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. Using the room settings in the Sonos app, you can toggle the Trueplay tuning on and off, and I spent quite a bit of time studying how exactly the sound was changing with and without tuning in different rooms. It uses the microphone on an iOS device (and only an iOS device for now) to analyse a special tone emitted by the Sonos speaker, calculating how sound reflects off walls, furnishings, glass, and other surfaces in a room. To test it, I set up the Play:5 in three different areas of my living room: in the centre on top of a small stool, on top of my dining table besides some windows, and on an enclosed bookshelf. Aside from listening for differences with my ears, I also set up a Behringer ECM8000 measurement microphone—which has a relatively flat frequency response—in front of the speaker each time, and hooked it up to a laptop running software that measures frequency response.

Like our ears, the mic picks up the room reflections too, while the frequency response of the mic and the interface it was plugged into (a Focusrite Scarlett 2i4) weren’t taken into account. I’ll admit I was pretty sceptical about TruePlay when I first wrote about it in September, but gosh darn it, Sonos went and made something that actually works.

No, you don’t need to use TruePlay, and no, it won’t stand up to studio scrutiny, but it’s a nice value-add for those considering a Sonos, and for those who already own one.

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