Sonos Play:5 review (2015): a generational leap forward

29 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Review: Sonos Play:5.

It’s difficult to only “dip a toe” into Sonos. 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.

The wireless speaker, which sits atop Sonos’ line-up of multiroom entertainment products, was announced last month with upgraded drivers, a new design with more comprehensive controls, and the promise of better sound. When my colleague Owen Williams went hands-on with it a month ago, he was impressed by its new design, improved sound quality, and fancy TruePlay software that tuned the speaker’s sound depending on your room’s acoustics. 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. 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. Pre-orders of the PLAY:5 kick off today, October 29, priced at $499 in the US, $549 in Canada, $749 in Australia, €579 in Europe, and £429 in the UK. 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.

While I don’t mind the loss of the second ethernet jack for connecting to another speaker – WiFi is reliable enough on the new Play 5 that I never thought to use a physical connection – I missed the headphone jack; I often plug in my headphones when watching movies late at night so as to not wake my roommates. 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.

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. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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.

Once I downloaded the Sonos app, installing the speakers was as simple as going through a few steps, pressing a sync button behind the speakers, and potentially waiting for Sonos to install a few firmware updates to the speakers. 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. 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. 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. 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.

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. An accelerometer inside tells the speaker’s software in which of the three possible orientations it’s sitting, and optimizes the playback accordingly.

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. 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.

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. That said, it’s not perfect; stereo separation in particular still suffers from having the sound diffused behind the TV, and I’m not sure how much of an advantage TruePlay brings in over quality equalizer settings.

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. I’ve had a few Play:1s, a Play:5 and a Playbar in my house for a while now, but the updated version is louder, bassier and crisper than any other Sonos device I’ve used. It’s almost unbelievable how loud the new Play:5 can go without distorting music and the lows are insane (you seriously won’t need a subwoofer with this set up). 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.

I spent most of the time listening in the vertical stereo setup, as I found that produced the most realistic stereo imaging when sitting directly between the speakers. With Sonos’ new Trueplay software, your speaker’s sound is theoretically perfectly tunable to whatever room you put it in, regardless where you put it in the room. Listening to a sample of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, I could pinpoint where every instrument was in my imaginary orchestra – violins to the left, cellos to the right, basses a bit deeper beyond that. At launch, it has to be one of these Apple devices because according to the company, there is too much variety in the quality of Android phone microphones to reliably tune rooms.

It’s an accurate soundstage that handily beat my Yamaha bookshelf speakers and their audio receiver, as well as my recollection of Audioengine’s popular A5 speakers. Watching ‘Star Wars: Episode IV’ by connecting my TV through the line-in jack meant hearing TIE fighters whiz by from one side of the room to the other.

As for stereo in the other arrangements, Sonos does better than most with just one speaker thanks to its angled tweeters (our ears best detect positioning in the treble range), but it’s obviously still much more compressed than with a dual-speaker setup. It’s worth experimenting to see what you prefer, but if you can pony up the money, definitely go for two speakers over one; the stereo imaging alone is worth it.

Now, I don’t consider myself a basshead – I’ll take accurate sound and a neat soundstage over overblown bass any day of the week – but the Play 5 goes really low. 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. Sure, some people (including me) will lament the lack of a headphone jack, others will prefer the physical keys, but the new design, TruePlay tuning and awesome sound make it a worthwhile upgrade.

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. That said, while Sonos has remained the defacto platform for wireless speakers, it has some serious competition now in the form of Google Chromecast Audio. If you have a pair of decent speakers lying around and are mainly looking to add wireless connectivity the connectivity, it’s hard to ignore Google’s offering, especially now that it comes with Spotify support.

It’s a good thing Sonos improved its sound quality then, because the Play:5 feels worth its $499 price tag – $100 more than the previous model – on pretty much the sound alone.

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