Sonos conquered wireless music years ago, before wireless music was even a thing to be conquered. With the new Play:5, the company revisits its flagship speaker with a stunning new design and powerful sound customization. The refreshed Play:5 might be the coolest speaker Sonos has ever made.
What Is It?
An overhauled version of the now ages old Play:5 speaker designed to work with Sonos’ multiroom wireless audio system. It features three tweeters, three mid-range woofers, and a good-looking design.
The Play:5 costs $500, and ships at the end of November.
Why Does It Matter?
Digital music has made it possible for me to listen to almost anything in the world on a whim. 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. For the first time, I was listening to my Spotify outloud because Sonos made it simple.
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. We wrote about how we loved Sonos five years ago. It was so simple, and made life at home so much more joyful, that the fact the speakers happened to sound very, very good was almost an afterthought. Sonos is even better today.
Still, though Sonos remains a market leader on wifi audio, it’s hardly your only option these days. 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.
Perhaps more importantly, Bluetooth is no longer the scourge it once was. 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. Not to mention the fact that there’s a simplicity to Bluetooth pairing, which makes it ideal for situations like playing music from the phone of anyone at your house party. Are you really going to make friends download an app just to play a song?
Sonos is still great, but that might not be enough anymore.
The redesigned Play:5 is a very handsome, 14-pound hunk of speaker, just a bit too large to fit inside the box for my size 11 Air Jordan hightops. In your arms it feels like a plump newborn, except twice the weight. The speaker’s lightly rounded lines give the it a fresh contemporary appearance that makes the old boxy model look very outdated and boring. The six drivers are hidden inside a matte-finished shell with a completely acoustically transparent black grill.
Here’s what the speaker looks like if you peel back the polycarbonate grill.
The Play:5 is designed to work in two vertical orientations and one horizontal position. An accelerometer inside tells the speaker’s software in which of the three possible orientations it’s sitting, and optimizes the playback accordingly. As with previous Sonos speakers, the Play:5 can be paired with another Play:5 to create a traditional stereo experience.
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. Though they look like buttons, the control panel is really broken into three touch-sensitive areas. Touching in the center toggles play/pause. Tapping on either side increases or decreases the volume. The button configuration correctly adjusts depending on how you’ve got the speaker oriented. So if it’s lying flat, the left side of the touch panel is volume down, and the right side is volume up. When the speaker is in vertical position, up is up, and down is down.
The new Play:5 is designed to work in both vertical and horizontal orientations.
Sonos has also unobtrusively incorporated track skipping into the design. A swipe across the three touch areas and you skip the current track. Swiping the opposite direction skips back.
And though Sonos is designed to be a wireless system, there is a little input jack suitable for connecting your computer.
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. In the past, you needed an additional piece of hardware called the Sonos Bridge, which plugged directly into your router and created the mesh network necessary for Sonos to synchronize all of your different speakers.
This hardware is no longer necessary, which makes setup even easier than before. Simply connect the speaker to power, open the Sonos app, and you’ll be guided through the setup process. I won’t bore you with the nitty gritty because this process is so, so easy that anybody can do it.
Trueplay and the speaker’s sound
Sonos speakers all sound very good, and the new Play:5 continues the legacy. It’s got plenty of low-end power and a realistic soundstage, even when you’re using it in a single speaker configuration. The sound is generally pretty clear and balanced across frequencies. Provided you put the speaker in the right place and EQ it to your taste, you’ll be a very happy owner.
But! There’s a twist. 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. The idea is that you don’t have to worry about putting the speaker in a room’s sweet spot.
The tuning works by using the microphone on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch to take a reading of the sound in whatever room you place the speaker. 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. Apparently, Android phones have tremendous manufacturing variance even within a single model.
As with everything else, Sonos holds your hand through the tuning with simple and easy-to-follow instructions. The actual process is pretty funny, and admittedly a little embarrassing if somebody watches you do it. The speaker(s) in a room play what are called “sweep tones” for 45 seconds while you walk around and measure the sound with your device. The folks at Sonos describe the tone’s sound as waterfall lasers, and that’s pretty accurate. You literally walk around your room slowly waving your phone around like this for one minute:
OK, so I’m faking it in the GIF above. In reality you should do it much slower than this. Also, this is obviously shot in our office and not my living room.
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.
Using the room settings in the Sonos app, you can toggle the Trueplay tuning on and off, and I spent quite a bit of time studying how exactly the sound was changing with and without tuning in different rooms. My conclusion is that though it definitely works, the effect can be extremely subtle.
For example two Play:1 speakers in my bedroom are in a pretty good spots, and Trueplay made very little difference. Without the tuning, the speakers sound slightly muddier, and lack some high-end detail, compared to the tuned setting. In my living room, I placed the Play:5 exactly where my other speakers are, which is the most logical spot in the room. In this case difference between the tuned speakers was virtually indistinguishable.
The Trueplay only makes a big difference when you place speakers in shitty spots. 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. No sane person would put a speaker here because it would sound terrible—muddy, gross, way too bassy. With Trueplay, it sounded great.
The Sonos software
The truly wonderful thing about Sonos is that it’s easy to set it up, then once it’s ready, you basically never have to mess with it again. Unfortunately the software has its drawbacks.
The only way to play music is through the Sonos app. This means that if you want to use a streaming music service, it has to play nice with Sonos-and you have to use it through the app. Sonos supports basically everything you could want, except Apple Music. The company says Apple Music is in the works, though.
Using your favorite music service through the Sonos app is not as fun as using your fit normally. For example, Spotify looks like this on my phone through Sonos:
Instead of like this:
And the problems aren’t just graphical. Sonos requires that you use its awkward queue system to play music. It’s not the hugest deal to learn, but it’s certainly not incredibly efficient. Streaming music services are deliberately designed to get you from startup to music as quickly as possible, and Sonos flatly isn’t.
This didn’t used to matter so much back in the day because Bluetooth sucked and the magic of Sonos’ simple setup made it OK. But Sonos is seeing a major challenge on the wifi front, and it’s coming from Spotify of all places.
Launched a few years ago, Spotify Connect effectively allows manufacturers to give their internet-enabled speakers built-in Spotify powers, such that you can control them straight from the Spotify app. This fall, some of the biggest manufacturers like Bose, Denon, Harman, LG, and many others are launching speakers that support Spotify Connect.
It’s understandable that Sonos wants to control the experience as much as possible. After all, that’s what allows the company to perform unique tricks like Trueplay tuning. Unfortunately, the drawbacks are becoming increasingly apparent as more viable competitors stick their heads out of the ground.
Beautiful design. Great sound. Elegant setup.
Ignoring Bluetooth just feels regressive at this point. Software UI feels dated.
Should You Buy It?
As a Sonos user myself, I’m torn. This new speaker is incredible at what it does—but it’s also awfully expensive for something with limited features. I think Sonos has another winner here—but only because it was the de facto winner before.
If you already have a Sonos system, and you’re looking for a badass, pricey speaker that sounds fantastic to add to your set up, go ahead and buy in. 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.
New buyers should carefully consider how they’re going to use the system. If you’re really only going to use a speaker to listen to digital music, Sonos is a dream. Still, some people might find a speaker with Bluetooth connectivity more versatile.