This past week, Sonos—makers of speakers that have become popular for their ability to play music directly from a wide variety of streaming services—made two big announcements: An evolutionary update to their Play:5 flagship speaker (out November 20), and one almost-magical software feature called TruePlay.
Sonos’ New Products Are A Win Against Forced Obsolescence
First, lets back up. As far as consumer electronics companies goes, Sonos is a strange beast. The gadget world is notorious for an unending train of forced obsolescence. Whether it’s an operating system update that slows or freezes an aging gadget or the addition of a must-have new feature, your year-old devices never quite seem good enough. Sonos largely ditches that playbook, opting instead to keep its products on shelves for years, while releasing new ones on a blue-moon basis. To put some numbers behind this, the last major Sonos release was way back in 2012, when the company released the bookshelf-and-bathroom-sized Play:1.
Sonos is also a company that tends to nurture its existing product line. Longtime Sonos users will notice that regular software updates fundamentally change the way their years-old products operate, giving these devices the smarts of brand-new gadgets, without forcing consumers to spend more money. When the Play:1 launched three years ago, it required a device called a “Bridge” to hook into your home network router before its wireless magic could do its thing. Today, updated software allows these same Play:1 devices to stream songs sans Bridge. And if you happened to already have a Bridge, it’s not wasted: Sonos’ new software allows them to serve as network extenders for the Sonos system, making it easier for speakers in the far reaches of a large house to play nice with each other.
Which brings us to TruePlay, which may be the most ambitious effort I’ve ever seen to breathe new life into old electronics. This feature, which comes arrives via an update to the iOS version of the Sonos mobile app sometime prior to the Play:5?s November 20 release, is designed to map a room’s unique acoustic properties, and then use this information to optimize the way each speaker plays. According to Sonos reps, this important because consumers tend to be pretty haphazard in terms of how they place their speakers. Sure, audiophiles may know these things matter, but the average consumer is just as likely to leave speakers behind a nightstand, or facing a wall, or squished together in a corner. “We visited hundreds of homes with Sonos and it became super clear that the real world is really messy in terms of what speaker placement and room acoustics do with the sound,” says John Reilly, a Sonos product manager.
TruePlay works by having the user slowly walk around the perimeter of a room, waving their iOS device around in the air. The entire process takes about 45 seconds (after a short tutorial video), during which time the Sonos speakers play a high-pitched chirp that sounds like it came from a Space Invaders-esque video game. As it moves around the room, the iOS device’s microphone picks up this chirp, and uses all sorts of software and algorithmic wizardry to tune the speakers accordingly. If you use a modicum of common sense when placing your speakers, you’re unlikely to notice a huge change in the way things sound, but if you tend to shove things in the corner or behind books (hey, I have friends who do this!), you’ll probably be pretty pleased (and possibly astonished) with the improvement.
And while one can be forgiven for viewing such support for old speakers as a sign that Sonos doesn’t actually want us to buy their new products, the company has one worth looking at. The brand-new Play:5, which replaces a years-old model of the same name, is the company’s biggest and baddest sound speaker yet. A slick rounded box, the Play:5 contains six discreet speakers behind its grill: three tweeters and three midwoofers, each with a dedicated amplifier. These guts deliver what Reilly describes as “well over two times the acoustic horsepower” of the old Play:5, making this speaker plenty loud and plenty clear at these high volumes (I never once felt like my room was anything less than full of sound), with a surprising amount of base for a standalone box. Like other Sonos speakers, the new Play:5 also works as an expandable set, with the ability to easily pair it with a second Play:5 for an impromptu stereo performance.
In many ways, Sonos’ strategy feels like a throwback to the old days of hi-fi, when speakers were treated more like furniture than gadgets, and built and bought to last for years—or even decades. With software as a tool, Sonos reps told me their goal is to design products that last at least 10 years. And in era where we’re used to throwing out our phones every year or two, this is an approach I can get behind.
Sonos Play:5 hands on
I’ve really been enjoying listening to Sonos’ new revamped Play:5 speaker.
Music sounds richer, deeper and lifelike.
The new speaker, out November 20th, will also cost $100 more than the previous edition–so you’ll have to decide whether you want to spend the extra money, but I can tell you this:
In A/B tests between the new speaker and the $299 Play:3 that I own–it was no contest. The Play:5 packs in way more sound.
The beauty of the Sonos system is that you can buy multiple speakers and put them all over the house, without having to worry about how to connect them. They operate via your home wifi system, not speaker wires.
You can control the speakers with one master remote–your smartphone or tablet. You can also use the app on the computer, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as the mobile app–since that’s where most folks are these days. (When you have multiple speakers attached is when the Sonos app really shows the magic–you can adjust the volume on all, within the app.)
Via the app, you play the music you want to hear from your computer or streaming service. Sonos can tap into your iTunes, and most of the popular services–including Spotify, Google Play and Pandora. Missing in action is Apple Music. Sonos says that will be fixed by the end of the year.
Sonos speakers come in a variety of sizes–the system starts at $199 for the Play:1, $299 for the larger Play:3, and now $499 for the top of the line Play:5.
Beyond the new speaker upgrade, Sonos also has a new app set to debut TruePlay, which autotunes new speakers to adjust to the room’s acoustics.
In tests I saw at Sonos headquarters in Santa Barbara, the app brought a speaker with muddy sound to a crisper, more full sound, but when I tested the app at home, it didn’t make much of a difference.
Perhaps that’s because the TalkingTech garage is a large, cavernous place with big ceilings and great acoustics. Who knows?
The new app is expected to be available around November 10th, while Sonos is taking pre-orders for the new Play:5 on its website now.
Sonos Play:5 review
Six years is a long time in the tech world. Back in 2009, we were all proudly carrying around netbooks, the iPad didn’t exist and we were only just getting to grips with some streaming company called Spotify. Dark days, indeed.
It was also around this time that Sonos launched the original Play: 5, its first wireless speaker and the one that, until now, had sat as its flagship. Finally, Sonos has decided it can do more.
The new Play: 5 is a speaker that’s been redesigned from the ground up to sound better and be even more of a breeze to use. The result is a speaker that’s fully deserving of its flagship title, and then some.
The cleaner, more modern look and feel of the Play:5 is almost entirely different to the original, which means it’s a little unexciting. Sonos has gone for a plastic grille over metal this time too, but there are solid reasons for both design choices.
Unlike the original, the new Play:5 can be orientated three ways – on either side, vertically or horizontally. There’s only so much you can do design-wise when you need to ensure a speaker remains alluring from all angles, so keeping things simplistic works for this Sonos.
As for the plastic grille, Sonos gave metal a go but found it affected the Play:5’s Wi-Fi performance too much. While the original had a plastic base to build the antenna in, the new model doesn’t and performance has to come first.
It still looks smart, and this is helped further by a series of slick new touch controls on the top panel. You’ll find controls for volume up/down and play/pause, plus gesture controls that allow you to swipe backwards and forwards to skip tracks.
No need to worry about any dodgy touch controls here – they’re immediately responsive with subtle tones that sound as your touch is registered. They’ll even change functionality automatically depending on orientation, to whichever order makes the most sense.
It’s on the inside that counts
It’s not just the Play:5’s external design that’s seen an overhaul. Sonos started from scratch on its insides too, and to sterling effect.
For a start, it jumps from a five-driver design to six, with three 10cm woofers along the bottom and three tweeters along the top. This woofer design is borrowed from the one found in the Play:1, although it’s bigger and more powerful, while the two outside tweeters are in horns to help project sound wider.
By making the casing much deeper, the acoustic volume of the speaker has been drastically increased too, allowing for a much deeper bass response without the need of a bass port. This is because the original suffered from port-chuffing at certain frequencies – a ridiculous name for a really annoying sound you might get listening to bassier tracks at reasonable volume. Now you can turn it up to 11 and really upset your neighbours.
Sonos has long been the king of hassle-free setups and the new Play:5 is no different. In fact, it’s arguably simpler than ever with the new sync button on the back of the speaker, which along with the free Sonos Controller app for iPhone and Android, is all you’ll need to get your speaker up and running and on to your network.
For a first time setup, there are a few more steps to get going, such as entering your Wi-Fi details and adding your streaming services of choice. Once you’ve completed this process for the first time, adding future speakers for a multi-room setup is done with one press of the sync button to get them on your network.
Setting up a stereo pair is equally easy, though you understandably have to do it with two of the same type of speaker – there’s no pairing a Play:3 and a Play:5 for example. Sonos will show you the options available to you, and if you choose one, it’ll just ask for you to press the sync button on the left hand speaker to get it set up. Easy peasy.
Once you have all your speakers online, you’ll control them using the dedicated Sonos app, which allows you to stream from just about any streaming service out there (though Apple Music is still in development), as well as playback up any music stored on your local network or device, up to CD quality (16-bit/44.1kHz).
TRUE SAY, TRUEPLAY
Sonos has added a new feature into the newest version of its controller app, which aims to adapt the sound of your speaker to suit the room you have it in. It’s due to launch at the same time as the new Play: 5, but will work with all Sonos speakers (apart from the Playbar for now) and is well worth a go.
It prompts you to use your iDevice (iPod touch, iPad or iPhone) to listen to a series of tones emitted from the speaker, before analysing them and tweaking the sound as required. The whole process takes a couple of minutes.
For now, Android devices aren’t supported, but you only need to borrow an Apple device off a mate for the setup process if you don’t own one – afterwards you can control it with your Android device as before.
Results are good. In our testing rooms, Sonos admitted that Trueplay couldn’t make much difference to the Play: 5’s sound, but shove the speaker in a corner or on some dodgy shelving and the improvements are much more noticeable. We noticed bass tighten up and clarity increase through the midrange.
More sound for your pound
All of this would mean nothing without great sound, and thankfully the Play:5 exceeds expectations by some margin. We’re not sure we’ve ever heard such a big, spacious sound from a single box design… and we’ve heard a lot of wireless speakers.
Not only will it go loud (tinnitus-inducingly so) and maintain its composure, it’s also capable of a wonderfully wide soundstage for something so compact, and will fill the majority of rooms with no trouble whatsoever.
Listen to Earned It by The Weeknd and the Play: 5’s dynamic know-how is laid out for all to hear, really driving home the drum strokes with impact and clout, while still lending a rhythmic fluidity to the strings in the instrumental.
You certainly won’t go wanting for bass either. A playthrough of A$AP Rocky’s L$D shows there is plenty to go at here, but it’s kept tight and punchy. More neutral ears might prefer to take it down a notch in the EQ settings, but it all helps to create the powerful, exciting sound that the Play: 5 is so capable of.
One of the best things about the Play:5’s sound is the clarity through the midrange, which means vocals are always crystal clear and front and centre. Even the busiest instrumentals can’t get in the way, which really helps the Play: 5 deliver when it comes to expression and detail as well.
Old vs new
So, should owners of the old Play:5 should make the upgrade to the new speaker? It’s a tricky one – the Trueplay software release will do a lot to help tune up your old speaker and make it sound better, but there’s no doubt that the Play:5 is head and shoulders better than its predecessor.
The improvements are across the board, too. Bass is not only capable of going deeper, but it’s also more controlled. Clarity through the midrange, particularly on vocals, is much improved, and it’s a considerably bigger, wider sound than the old Play:5 is capable of.
Stereo pairing works much better with this version too, thanks to the more flexible design, and when it comes to quality sound at volume, there’s simply no comparison. Make the upgrade and you certainly won’t be disappointed you did.
Sonos Play:5 verdict
With the new Play: 5, Sonos has truly delivered on its quest for a new flagship speaker. It has overhauled the design to really push the boundaries of what we expect from a wireless speaker. For current Sonos owners with the cash to spend, adding this to your line up is a no brainer.
It won’t be the perfect solution for everyone though – high-res music is still off the cards and its connectivity is much more limited than you’ll find on its Bluetooth competitors. If you like the idea of multi-room setup and want a talented streaming speaker, it doesn’t get much better than the new Sonos Play: 5.