Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Sony SRS-RA5000

The Sony SRS-RA5000 is everything that the Apple HomePod set out to be: it’s a feature-rich speaker with built-in calibration tools that can adapt to any space, connect to most devices through Bluetooth, 3.5mm auxiliary or Wi-Fi, and fill said room with music. 

It does so with the help of a half-dozen drivers, three located on each side of the speaker, one down-firing woofer for supersized bass response and three up-firing speakers at the top. It’s the latter that enables the SRS-RA5000 to be one of the first qualified speakers to play Sony 360 Reality Audio format music that can sound even more immersive than traditional stereo audio.

The catch, of course, is that all this new tech doesn’t come cheap: Sony’s pricing the speaker at $700 (£500, AU$870) – double what Apple charged for the HomePod and more than three times the cost of the Amazon Echo Studio that comes with Alexa built-in. 

For the Sony SRS-RA5000 to find a home amongst music lovers, it will have to justify its hefty price tag with incredible performance and convenience while proving that Sony’s 360 Reality Audio can compete with other spatial audio formats like Dolby Atmos. Here’s how the Sony SRS-RA5000 is faring after having it in our home for a few days.

Price and release date 

The Sony SRS-RA5000 was unveiled alongside the lower-priced Sony SRS-RA3000 during Sony’s virtual CES 2021 event. The speakers were released together in March 2021, but won’t be feature-complete until the launch of Sony 360 Reality Audio on Amazon in April. 

In terms of price, you’re looking at $700 (£500, AU$870) for the Sony RA5000 and $300 (£300, AU$449) for the RA3000. That’s on the expensive side for Bluetooth speakers, but these are some of the first Sony 360 Reality Audio speakers, which helps to justify their premium sticker price.

Sony SRS-RA5000

(Image credit: Future)

Design

Whatever you think of the sound performance, the Sony SRS-RA5000 looks like a million bucks: with a black clothed front and three copper grilles on top, the speaker looks like a piece of modern art and at 9.38 x 13 x 8.8 inches (W x H x D) it takes up a decent amount of space on a table.

That said, because the speaker is a bit larger and requires a constant power source, finding a spot to place the speaker can be challenging. Do you want it to put it in the center of the room to get the best spot for spatial audio? Or should you stick in the corner on a table to get room-filling sound? 

Theoretically, both work just as well. In the end, we put the speaker in both spots and determined that it sounded a bit better out in the middle of the room. 

To stand up, the RA5000 has three small legs on each of the three corners while the power cord connects underneath the speaker. On the back, you’ll find both the auxiliary audio in 3.5mm jack and the NFC pairing spot, but nothing else. The lack of ports may seem a bit baffling, but that’s because Sony wants you to use this, first and foremost, as a Wi-Fi speaker for reasons we’ll get to in a minute.

Controls for the speaker are located near the top on the left face of the speaker – which you’ll need to use if you want to change the source of the audio between Bluetooth, 3.5mm and Wi-Fi.

Sony SRS-RA5000

(Image credit: Future)

Features

So why is Sony pushing Wi-Fi so hard on this speaker? The answer is because that’s how you’ll be able to hear Sony 360 Reality Audio music. Unfortunately, Bluetooth doesn’t have enough bandwidth to push the data-heavy format through the funnel and it can’t be piped through a 3.5mm audio jack either. That means you’ll need this speaker to be connected to the internet for the best-sounding music.

Connecting over Bluetooth is easy enough – all you have to do is set the speaker’s source to Bluetooth and connect on your phone – but playing anything over Wi-Fi requires you to use the Sony Music Center app that is… well, at times problematic.

For example, every time we went to use the app, it told us to connect the speaker to the Google Home app so we could Cast to it. After doing it after setup, the app asked us again the next time we went to use the Music Center app… and again after that. The same thing happened for Sony 360 Reality Audio that we had set up through Tidal. 

The good news is that, once you’re set up, the Sony RA5000 is pretty well-connected. It’s easy to cast from apps like Amazon Prime Music and you can even pair the speaker up with Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa speakers for hands-free controls. Moreover, that means you can add the RA5000 to groups through the Google Home and Amazon Alexa apps to create an almost Sonos-like setup. 

It’s also worth mentioning the automatic room calibration feature that modified the sound of the speaker to match our space. It’s something we’ve seen on other speakers and high-end soundbars, but it’s rare you see it on a wireless speaker and it’s a fantastic feature.

Sony SRS-RA5000

(Image credit: Future)

Performance

The Sony SRS-RA5000 is the culmination of years’ worth of work by Sony’s audio engineers working on the 360 Reality Audio platform. We first heard a demo of the prototype over three years ago at CES, and Sony’s come a long way since.

That said, the performance – so far – is a bit polarizing. It’s certainly room-filling with floor-shaking bass and echo-y mids, but it’s a little lacking in clarity. The soundstage at times can feel monstrous, almost like you’re listening to a live show, but it also suffers from the same issues that sitting far away at a concert has – namely, audio is missing details. 

Listening to our headphone testing playlist, a number of songs had a distant sound with bloated bass. The Way You Used To by Queens of the Stone Age had an over-pronounced guitar line with tepid vocals and a booming bass. Walk on Water by Eminem lacked some key nuances – like hearing Eminem breathe between verses – and had vocals that were, at times, almost indiscernible. Heck, even the instantly recognizable theme from Star Wars lacks key parts – like the chimes – that you have to really push your hearing to make out.

That lack in clarity is made up for, partly, by the sense of presence the RA5000 gives to your music. It can feel like you’re actually in the audience of a concert sat near a stack of speakers. It’s pretty impressive that a speaker that size can output that kind of sound in so many different directions – and yet, even with Master Quality tracks from Tidal does it approach the same level of clarity that you’d find in a pair of open-back headphones. 

Compare the Sony SRS-RA5000 to some of our other favorite wireless speakers like the new Amazon Echo (2020) or the Sonos One, and there’s a massive difference in clarity. While the RA5000 provides this stadium-like sound, the Echo and the Sonos One are more direct with heaps more clarity at the expense of a larger soundstage. The Echo and Sonos One might lack the presence of the Sony RA5000, but we found their direct, unidirectional sound is quite a bit softer and more palatable for longer periods of listening.

Of course, we’ve only had a few days with it at this point. Potentially our thoughts and feelings will change as we spend more time with it – and Amazon puts Sony 360 Reality Audio content on its Amazon Music HD service on April 6.

Sony SRS-RA5000

Sony wins on power, but when it comes to accuracy the Sonos One and new Amazon Echo put up a tough fight... (Image credit: Future)

Early verdict

In order to command a high price tag, the Sony RA5000 has to prove that it’s worth it with easy-to-use features and crystal-clear sound quality. 

Thus far, it hasn’t proved that. 

Because we got such an early review sample there’s a very good chance that Sony is still ironing out the kinks with the Music Center app and its EQ settings. These can and very likely will change in the coming months. Sony 360 Reality Audio music on the Amazon Music HD app also just launched in the last few days, which will make it easier to take full advantage of the technology.

We’re rooting for Sony's 360 Reality Audio technology to succeed because, honestly, having spatial audio in a unibody Wi-Fi speaker sounds futuristic. It’s something we’ve seen happen with soundbars over the last couple of years and now Wi-Fi speakers are going through their own growing pains as they work to incorporate spatial audio into a smaller, more compact form factor.

One day we’re going to arrive at that future… but based on all the time we've spent with it so far, we're just not sure the Sony RA5000 is there quite yet.

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