Sonos Play:5 review: Worth the money on audio quality alone

Sonos Play:5 review: Worth the money on audio quality alone

About a month ago, Sonos announced its first refresh of its original speaker, the Play:5, and it’s essentially a complete revamp. When my colleague Owen Williams went hands-on with it, he was impressed by its new design, improved sound quality and fancy TruePlay software that optimized the speaker’s output for your room’s acoustics.

After we both spent some more time with the speaker in our own homes, we came away even more impressed.

Hardware and design

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Sonos thoroughly redesigned the Play:5, and it’s mostly for the better.

Capacitive strip instead of buttons
The Sonos Play:5 uses a capacitive strip instead of buttons

Gone are the physical buttons above the speaker, replaced by a capacitive strip with volume up, volume down and play/pause buttons. To skip tracks, you can simply swipe from left to right and vice versa.

Meanwhile, the back is now cleaner, with just a power connector, a 1/8″ line-in jack and an ethernet port. That means you’re losing the second ethernet port and headphone jack.

While I don’t mind the loss of the extra 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 when watching movies late at night so as to not wake my roommates.

Sonos Play:5 back
The back is a lot cleaner this time around.

The sacrifice might simply  be because there’s not enough space inside. Sonos has installed an extra tweeter, for a total of six drivers: three mid-woofers and three tweeters. Two of those face outwards for better stereo separation when used in landscape mode. It makes the speakers surprisingly heavy, at 14 pounds each.

Sonos speakers with three mid-woofers and three tweeters

The speakers also now feature an orientation sensor, and will automatically tune their sound depending on whether you place them horizontally or vertically. And because the Sonos logo is symmetrical, it never looks upside down no matter which way you place it. Clever.

Setup and TruePlay

As a first time Sonos user, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of the setup process. I’m wary of configuring most wireless audio devices due to being an old school cables guy, but I was up and running in just a few minutes.

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 waiting for Sonos to install a few firmware updates to the speakers.

Similarly, pairing a second speaker for stereo sound added just another couple of minutes; the app will instruct you to press the sync button to identify the left speaker, and you’re ready to go.

Thankfully, I never experienced any connectivity issues despite living in densely populated NYC building with dozens of Wi-Fi networks around me. I was particularly worried about the lack of 5 Ghz connectivity as that was a big issue with the old Chromecast, but in practice, performance was never a problem.

If you’re on iOS, Sonos will ask you to setup its TruePlay functionality, which adjusts the speaker’s sound to compensate for your room’s acoustics and keep sound consistent no matter where you put your speakers. If you don’t have an iPhone or iPad, you can borrow a friend’s and the speakers will remember your settings.

Sonos TruePlay functionality

The Sonos app will guide you through a tuning ritual, which involves waving your device up and down in the air slowly and pacing around your room while the speakers play this sci-fi-sounding wavy noise. It plays for about 50 seconds, and then you’re good to go.

Sonos tuning process
Beginning the tuning process.

The surprising part? It works… mostly. I was a perfect test subject: there’s not much space for me to place the speakers in my small apartment, meaning I often kept them directly behind my TV or on the floor. Obviously, that’s not ideal, which is where TruePlay comes in.

Placing the speakers behind my TV mainly affects the treble, muffling voices and killing much of the stereo separation. TruePlay was able to recover most of the highs, such that I couldn’t notice a big difference compared to when I placed the speakers in front of the TV.

Sonos does an impressive job of making its speakers sound nearly as good behind my TV as in front.
Sonos does an impressive job of making its speakers sound nearly as good behind my TV as in front.

Likewise, my colleague found it significantly improved the sound when he placed the speaker in his kitchen, though it was less noticeable in larger rooms.

For the record, Sonos also gives a brief description of the degree it changed your speakers’sound to match your environment after you complete the setup process. Keeping the speakers in front of the TV, Sonos said it only had to make small adjustments, whereas when placed behind the TV, the app notified me of larger acoustic differences.

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

Still, I never expected it to create miracles. It takes a couple of minutes, and it mostly ‘just works.’ More importantly, it can provide a huge boost in sound quality for the average user who isn’t as persnickety about sound and isn’t willing to spend hours tuning his or her EQ just right.

Also worth noting: TruePlay is coming to all Sonos speakers, so you won’t need a new rig to try it out.

Sound Quality

So how do they actually sound? In a word: awesome.

I don’t have too much experience the previous generation of Sonos speakers, so Owen chimed in to compare with his old Play.

The new Play:5 is a huge improvement over the old one. 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.

Since the last Play:5 — the first device Sonos ever released — the company has learnt a lot, and it shows. 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).

When testing, I used them for both music and as stereo speakers for my TV, which was awesome. The fact that they can sit in different orientations makes it perfect for a home theater setup as they can slide in nicely regardless of the space you’ve got, and they deliver perfect range for a mid-range speaker set up for your TV that happens to also play music.

If you’ve got an old Play:5, you might be tempted to upgrade — I am. If you’ve got the money yo spare, it’s absolutely worth it. The difference is night and day, and you’ll be surprised by how much more sound the updated version can put out.

My own impressions were similar. For reference, 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.

And I do mean realistic. Listening to a sample of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, I could pinpoint where every instrument was in my imaginary orchestra – violins to the left, trumpets left of center cellos to the right, basses a bit deeper beyond that.

Likewise on more modern tracks, sparkling treble reproduction made it easy to hear every shake of the cymbals in Paramore’s ‘Ain’t it Fun‘. And once again, the excellent imaging meant it felt like Hayley Williams was singing right in front of me.

It’s an accurate soundstage that handily beat my amplified Yamaha bookshelf speakers, as well as my recollection of the KEF X300A (an audiophile favorite at a similar price). Watching ‘Star Wars: Episode IV’ by after connecting my TV through the line-in jack meant hearing TIE fighters convincingly whiz by from one side of the room to the other.

Sonos vertical stereo arrangement
The vertical stereo arrangement provides the best experience for single listener. Not recommended for kitchen countertop use, however.

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. Meanwhile, the horizontal stereo arrangement creates a wider soundstage for bigger spaces, at the expense of some accuracy.

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.

Equally impressive is the bass, whether you’re using one speaker or two. 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. Sonos doesn’t provide a frequency response chart, but I found the Play:5 could handily rumble all the way down to about 25 hz before the speakers gave out. My old speakers had pretty much fizzed out completely by around 60 hz.

And you can push them further too. By default, Sonos keeps the sound relatively tame; you can feel a physical kick on some tracks and movies, but it’s nothing too overwhelming. But then I crank up the bass in Sonos app’s EQ, and suddenly everything in my house was shaking. I never dared keep the max setting on for long.

To reiterate my colleague’s comments: there’s pretty much no reason to get a subwoofer, especially if you live in an apartment with other people around you like I do. There’s about as much sub-bass rumble as you’ll ever need.

If you have the money, they’re worthy contenders

Sonos gets almost everything right with the new Play 5. Sure, some people (like 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.

Sonos speakers - side view
They sound good, and look good while at it.

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. At just $35 bucks, it can turn any old speakers into a wirelessly connected system. 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. For most people who already own speakers, Chromecast Audio will simply be the better value.

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. And if you’re not a particular about sound quality, Sonos has the cheaper Play:1 and Play:3. The Play 5 is meant to be the best of the best.

Sure, you can probably create an audiophile rig with a pair of bookshelf speakers, an amplifier and Chromecast Audio that will be comparable for the price, but not with this level of connectivity, convenience or easy tuning via TruePlay. And certainly, there’s nothing like it for a single-speaker setup, though I’d definitely recommend springing for two for to get the most out the Play:5.

In any case, the Sonos app still has some advantages over Chromecast Audio – mainly its tight integration of various different music services all from one app, and the fact that you can keep music playing even if your phone or computer is turned off.

If you’ve got the budget and are looking for some connected speakers, the Play:5 are definitely worth consideration in time for their November 20 launch date. Your ears will thank you.

Sonos Play 5

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