Sonos Play:5 has booming sounds and intriguing smarts

30 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Review: Sonos Play:5.

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. Sonos has just announced that the brand new PLAY:5 wireless speaker is available today for pre-order over on the company’s website. “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. 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. 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. Functionally, every detail matters, down to the placement of the almost 60,000 individually drilled holes in the grille and the carefully selected material for each and every part. 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.

A separate controller app, available on Android and iOS – as well as PC and Mac – allows Play:5 owners to operate the speaker with their smartphone. Unlike most of Sonos’ other speakers that you can easily lift with one hand, the Play:5 is a 14 pound, 14-inch-by-8-inch-by-6-inch deep device that will easily fill a bookshelf or demand attention on a hutch. 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. The new speaker – which can sync with Sonos’ previous speaker models – can either be set up as a standalone speaker for ambient sound in home or at office, or can be paired with another Play:5 for stereo sound.

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. The Sonos Play:5 also comes with the Trueplay feature, which gauges your room’s acoustic, sending back several statistics on how sound reflects off different objects and surfaces, and tuning the sound based on these statistics and readings. 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. 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. 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. 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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