Tech Review: Sonos Play:5 (2015)

Sonos has long been the go-to device for in-home music streaming. The company’s whole mantra is built on filling every room in the home with music but takes that concept and makes actually setting that up very easy. The problem with is that great sound, at least in this case, comes with a hefty price tag.

It used to be that Sonos were the only name in music streaming speakers, but that was 2009 when they first launched the Play:5 (then referred to as the S5). Today, just about every major audio brand has a speaker system built around multiple-room audio streaming. This new version of the Play:5 brings a new design and the single biggest update to Sonos’ proprietary software in a long time with the release of a feature they’re calling Trueplay.

If you’ve owned a Play:5 previously, then you may only superficially recognise this new device as being from the same family. The speaker has been completely overhauled, inside and out. It’s look bears a resemblance to its predecessor but it’s rounder, and there’s a few very small legs for it to stand on now. You’ll find these legs on the bottom and on the side of the device, the reason for this being that you can now use it horizontally or vertically. Shifting the speaker into either position trips an internal sensor that adjusts the sound to keep everything warm and full. Sonos suggests pairing two of these new Play:5’s up to create stereo sound. True enough, it would allow you to build the best-sounding home theatre in the world but for those who aren’t made of money, this simply isn’t an option.

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Physical buttons have been removed from the exterior as well with capacitive touch-based controls taking their place along with a small Sonos logo on the front plate. On any other audio device, this logo placement might be a problem but Sonos were way ahead of the purists, making the little guy “acoustically transparent”, lasering some 800 tiny holes into it to allow sound to pass through. The logo is the centerpiece for the unit’s touch controls, showing you where you can track forward and back. There’s no markings to indicate the panel’s presence so it’s a piece of interesting design to say the least.

The unit comes in your choice of black or white, but the front facing grill is black regardless of preferred chassis. There are no pointless bells and whistles with this design. The things you need are where you need them to be and it looks quite stylish, allowing it fit almost anywhere in the home without looking out of place.

The rear of the device has been overhauled too, now sporting only an ethernet port, 3.5mm audio jack, the power cable jack and a sync button for connecting to a setup already in place. This sync button makes the Play:5’s setup phase one of the easiest and fastest facets of using the device but it does mean that those who prefer optical out, like on the Sonos Playbar, are left out. It also means the Play:5 has dropped back from two ethernet ports to one, which may be cause for concern for some running very particular setups.

It’s under the hood where the most drastic changes have appeared. Three 10cm drivers power the mid range, replacing two-mid woofers in the previous version. A pair of 20mm tweeters on the left and right and another 22mm tweeter in the centre. The power behind this speaker is absurd and you’ll know it the moment you hear it.

These drivers and tweeters are hidden behind an acoustic enclosure that has been sealed, another point of difference from the last version which had a vented design. I’m sure this presented a problem in terms of heat dissipation but it can’t be argued that the change does nothing but improve the quality of the sound and keeping noise to a minimum.

Setting up the device is simplicity itself. You grab the Sonos app on your phone from the app store, tap Add New Speaker and hit the sync button on the back of the Play:5. Using an iOS device, the app will get you to run a reconfig on your speaker using the new Trueplay software. Trueplay will eventually find its way to Play:1 and Play:3 as well but it’s making its bow on the Play:5 and for good reason. What it does is create the perfect sound environment, no matter the room. Audiophiles are constantly searching for the sweet spot in any room, and this tech seeks to simply weave it out of nothing.

The app explains quickly and clearly what you need to do to get Trueplay to work its magic: walk slowly around the room the speaker is in, waving your iDevice up and down so that it can draw a map of the room you’re in. The speaker spits out a metronome pop as you do this for around 45 seconds before quietly calibrating itself. Having said that, I used the device in a number of rooms and in an outdoor setting and on every occasion the app told me that it didn’t really need to change the settings that much because the speaker was already positioned rather well. This is by far the easiest time I’ve ever had tuning a speaker and it never feels like you need to get the lasers out and your engineer friends over to do the math for you. There is an equaliser you can use if you really want to tweak your sound but I never had to use it.

Due to the fact that Android devices tend to come with mics that vary in quality from “garbage” through to “decent”, Sonos say they have no plans to bring Trueplay to the platform in the near future. For Android users, your best bet will be to borrow a friend’s iPhone or iPad if you plan to use Trueplay.

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But, alright, enough with the extraneous bits. Let’s talk about how it sounds.

It sounds amazing.

The device comes with a booklet that urges you to play five specific tracks to give you an idea of what it can do: ‘Morning” by Beck to test the acoustic performance, “Earned It” by The Weeknd to demonstrate the frequency separation, “Peel Me A Grape” by Diana Krall to show off its ability to make vocals really pop, and “L$D” by A$AP Rocky to show off the bass response. All four tracks are great choices and really show off the things the Play:5 is best at. R&B and hip hop sound punchy, snares blasting but never overwhelming. Rock creates the exact wall of sound you want from the experience. Everything is lovely and distinct, instruments never get crowded out and there is zero distortion. No matter what you put on, the Play:5 knows exactly how to make it sound amazing, especially when you crank the volume. And, holy crap, can this thing get loud.

There’s only one real downside here and it will be for those who prefer their audio in the highest possible resolution. Right now, Sonos is only able to provide sound up to 16-bit/44.1kHz which means higher resolutions aren’t supported. Similarly, Apple Music isn’t supported either but Sonos says they’re currently working on it for a future update. Otherwise, your Spotify, Google Play Music and Tidal accounts will work with the Play:5 without a problem, however you may find it a bit confusing at first as you figure out what is queued up and how to access that information.

This is a truly impressive speaker, even in its eye-watering price range (AU$749, £429, US$499 USD). It’s a top-tier price but so is the performance. This is an upgrade that is well worth the hype surrounding it. Sonos have proven once again that nobody does in-home sound quite like they do.

Review Score: 9.0 out of 10

Platform: Sonos Play:5
Highlights: Incredible sound; Trueplay works a treat; Stylish design
Lowlights: Playlists in Sonos app need reworking; Sky-high price point
Released: October 27, 2015