Your smartphone or tablet is a gateway to tens of millions of music tracks, of audio playlists and podcasts and internet radio stations. The only problem is that your smartphone's speaker is not great — and that's where wireless sound systems come into their own. And sure, you can hook up a Bluetooth speaker for a temporary high, but if you're listening at home then you can do a lot, lot better. Sonos's new Play:5 speaker is about the size of a regular bookshelf speaker — the kind that you'd have paired up next to your TV, for a small home theatre setup — but it packs so much more power.
What Is It?
The new Sonos Play:5 is a $749 wireless and wired network speaker, part of the existing family of smart, ‘net-connected streaming Sonos music devices, that has existed since 2002. Inside are six Sonos-made audio drivers — three tweeters and three mid-range woofers, arranged in a dipole pattern that projects sound both directly forward and at a 45-degree angle from either end of the horizontal speaker. An internal accelerometer detects when the speaker has been turned on its end, and optimises the volume of each mid-tweeter array to function more closely to a conventional standing stereo speaker.
The audio setup of the Play:5 is, in a way, quite simple — it's three speakers in one. Three separate stacks of tweeter plus full-range bass driver are pointed, relative to the front grille of the Play:5, directly forward, around 30 degrees to the left, and around 30 degrees to the right respectively. This physical angling of the speakers means that the same sound can be projecting across three different axes and covering a larger field of sound while the Play:5 is resting horizontally, or the power delivered through each of those three channels can be adjusted and a more forward-firing sound can be created for the Play:5's vertical orientation.
The speaker can be turned on either end and will function in a different manner on either with appropriately adjusted sound; the Sonos logo on the speaker’s centre top edge when horizontal is actually palindromic, and so will look upright no matter whether the Play:5 is used as the left or right channel in a dual, stereo arrangement. Like any other Sonos speaker, you can add up to 32 in a single network, although having that many in the one room might not be so good for your long-term hearing. If you only buy a single Play:5, you’ll definitely want to keep it in that horizontal orientation where its dipole tweeters and mids push sound over a wider listening area.
You can hook up the new Sonos Play:5 over its wired, Ethernet 10/100Mbps network cable connection, but you're far more likely to use Wi-Fi — and like other new Sonos speakers, the Play:5 doesn't require an additional device plugged directly into your router to create its own private SonosNet wireless mesh network. You can buy a Boost that'll help you cover long distances and patchy wireless networks, but it's not necessary. And, being a mesh network, one Sonos speaker only has to talk to the next to reach your Wi-Fi router and the 'net. If you want to play music directly through the Play:5, you'll have to hook up your audio-playing device through the speaker's rear-mounted 3.5mm jack.
What's It Good At?
The new Sonos Play:5 sounds amazing for its size. It's far and away the best all-in-one wireless speaker system that I've ever heard, and that's coming up against some significantly more expensive speakers and some strong competition from the big electronics giants like Sony, Samsung and LG. The first thing that you notice is the Play:5's treble response, which is singingly clear and crisp — but never fatiguing or excessively sharp, even if it's playing very loudly. The second thing you notice, milliseconds later, is the Play:5's frankly excellent mid- and lower bass response, with a single speaker enclosure more than powerful enough to shake the table it's on — or the floor, even — at moderate to loud listening volume on a bass-heavy track.
This is all straight out of the box, by the way. You get the feeling that there's a lot of headroom in the Play:5's custom-designed, software-tweaked speakers — you feel like there's a lot of distance for you to push upwards and outwards in terms of treble clarity or outright lower bass oomph. You can do exactly that tuning through the Sonos app, which is as excellent as ever and only getting better with every incremental software update, or you can use TruePlay. TruePlay is awesome. (But more on that later.)
Being a Sonos speaker, it's also extremely easy to set up. It's actually even easier to set up than other Sonos speakers, because the single button on its rear — next to the wired Ethernet port and the 3.5mm stereo analog jack — is all you need to tap to sync the Play:5 up with whichever smartphone you have searching for it through the Sonos Controller app. If you know what you're doing — if you've synced a Sonos speaker before — you'll be up and running in a couple of minutes, and that's including time spent downloading any over-the-air updates, which the Play:5 searches for via your phone the first time it's set up and connected.
You can't talk about the value of the Play:5 without talking about the value of the entire Sonos ecosystem. If you buy a Sonos Play:5, you can hook it up to a Play:3 or a Play:1, or a pair of Play:1s, or a Playbar, or a Sub, in the simplest and most straightforward multi-room setup you could imagine. You can pair two Play:5s with each other and have them playing the discrete left and right channels of a stereo audio track, or you can keep them in standalone mode and just boost overall volume by adding more speakers. Sonos' speaker setup is so versatile and straightforward and easily scalable from a single room to an entire house; there's a very good reason that Sonos is the name you associate with multi-room listening.
What's It Not Good At?
If you want to place the Play:5 in a vertical orientation, to save space in a bookshelf or to sit it carefully on an especially small end table, it'll automatically switch to the tight-dispersion, stereo-friendly sound output mode. That's fine if you have two Play:5 speakers, of course — and it sounds amazingly immersive and has excellent stereo imaging to boot — but with a single speaker, the sweet spot for ideal listening where bass and treble are correctly positioned is significantly smaller. Given the dimensions of the new Play:5 — 203mm is a lot smaller than 364mm — it might be hard to find a small and convenient place for it to live that is not upright.
This is tangential to the Play:5, but Sonos's excellent new TruePlay feature — which optimises each speaker's sound for your living space, whether it's a bathroom or a living room or kitchen, is only currently available on iOS devices. (I actually couldn't get it working on the new iPad Mini 4, either, but Sonos says it should be up and running now.) It does a very good job, so it's just a pity that you have to have an iPhone to use it — at least it's set-and-forget, for the most part (unless you move your speakers), so you should only have to beg, borrow or steal an iOS device once to get TruePlay working.
Where other multi-room and single-room wireless audio systems and standalone speakers have integrated Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Direct or AirPlay, the Sonos Play:5 goes without. There's no way to broadcast sound from the Play:5 that isn't via the Sonos Controller app, and that also means it as a speaker system isn't quite as appropriate for an impromptu YouTube marathon on your smartphone or tablet as a Bluetooth speaker like the UE Boom 2. This isn't a huge inconvenience, especially considering that you have to buy into the Sonos ecosystem in the first place to get the Play:5 set up, but it's worth considering as a value proposition when you're choosing between Sonos and its competitors.
The Play:5, too, is very expensive as wireless multi-room audio speaker systems go. A single Play:5 will set you back $749, which means a twin-channel true stereo setup will cost you $1500 with a bit of change left over for a coffee. This is a lot of money considering the lesser $299 price of the Play:1 and the $449 price of the Play:3, themselves already excellent speakers in their class, and the $999 price tag of the Playbar — which has the extra functionality of plugging straight into your TV and supercharging your home entertainment system too.
Should You Buy It?
The $749 Play:5 is the best speaker that Sonos has ever made, and it's the best by a pretty significant margin. The previous Play:5 is still very good, but it was starting to show its age — the original chassis was designed in 2007, and the internal networking hardware couldn't keep up with Sonos' seamless multi-room aspirations. The new speaker sounds amazing — seriously amazing for its size, but amazing even considered in abstract — and it looks great and it works with Sonos's existing software and hardware systems. It bests the Play:1 and Play:3 and the Playbar easily for the verve that it lends the music or internet radio or podcasts that you listen to it with.
I think Sonos has easily proven that it — as a company — has incredible staying power, and has an approach to multi-room audio that clearly works. You need a complementary device — whether it's a smartphone or tablet, or a PC or Mac — to run the Sonos Controller app, and you'll need appropriate subscriptions to Spotify, Rdio, Tidal, Deezer, Apple Music and the like, but those much are a given with any other multi-room system and are a given if you want to listen to any kind of music that's not streaming internet radio or crappy YouTube uploads. Yes, a Sonos system is a significant investment, that can become very expensive, but it's just worth it.