Sonos has a brand-new flagship multiroom audio speaker, and it's a major improvement over its predecessor in every way -- though it costs more, too.
In the last few years Sonos has been steadily adding wireless speakers to its multiroom audio lineup, but its flagship tabletop speaker, the Play:5 hasn't changed in six years. Until now, that is. This is the new Play:5 (2015), and it's a bigger, sleeker, and significantly better-sounding speaker. It costs $500, £429 or AU$749. That's around $100 more than the previous model, but after hearing it, I'd say it's worth the extra dough.
It comes in two colors -- white and black -- and can be placed either horizontally or vertically in three different orientations. I personally liked the look of it standing vertically, and while the Play:5 works well as a single speaker with a wider soundstage and better clarity and bass than the previous model, if you can spring for two of these guys, you can create a stereo pair and get some real separation.
In the past, Sonos did have some problems with speakers not delivering a focused stereo image (it was diffused). However, in our tests of the new Play:5, which Sonos refers to as the Play:5 (gen 2) is its set-up menu to differentiate from the older Play:5 (gen 1) , that problem is fixed as we got a much more focused stereo image (it was dead center between the speakers).
This speaker appears to be about 20 to 25 percent bigger than the previous Play:5 and it delivers significantly more bass -- it's got six drivers, including three mid-woofers and three tweeters -- so if you have a pair of them it isn't necessary to add a separate Sonos Sub to get decent low-end performance.
The speakers do sound a little different depending on the way you orient them. Sonos says that when you pair them vertically they deliver "top-of-the-line stereo sound with a focused and intense sweet spot." Paired horizontally, they create "a larger stereo image" for more room-filling sound. That said, we preferred the sound when we placed them horizontally.
As you'd expect, the new speaker works with all of Sonos' existing "smart" speakers, which are designed to be wirelessly linked together in a multiroom audio setup with an initial wireless connection to your Wi-Fi router (Sonos speakers communicate with each other through their own mesh network).
If you're Wi-Fi connection is a little spotty, you can opt to add a Sonos Bridge ($50) or Boost ($100), both of which connect to your router to create a very reliable wireless connection to your Sonos components and further simplify set-up. The speaker itself is equipped with six antennas -- the most in any Sonos speaker to date -- to help maintain a rock solid wireless connection.
Update, Dec. 14, 2017 at 3 p.m ET: We have adjusted the score from 8.4 to 8.0 after comparisons with the Google Home Max.
Everything is set up and controlled through a free iOS or Android app on your mobile device, which acts as a remote. You can control every room in your home through a single app and stream music using such services as Pandora, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play Music and Groove, or play your own collection music stored on computer or networked drive.
Along with the Play:5, the company has also created a new Trueplay tuning system to help you get the best sound out of your Sonos speakers based on their placement in a particular room. Sonos discovered that customers were placing speakers in less than ideal spots -- on the floor in a corner, for instance -- and Trueplay compensates for bad placement with adjusted equalizer settings that helps punch up the bass and add more clarity.
You calibrate your speaker -- or speakers -- using a free app and the microphone on your iPhone or iPad. I tried it out with a badly placed Play:1 speaker and it definitely sounded better after the calibration. Initially, at least, Trueplay is iOS only and supports Play:1, Play:3 , and Play:5 speakers. (The orginal Play:5 has been discontinued but can be calibrated using Trueplay.)
The speaker itself has new touch controls that enable you to play, pause, adjust volume and change the track. And what's cool is that smart sensors in the speaker make the touch controls responsive to all orientations, so the volume-up is always facing up.
As I said in the intro, the new Play:5 (gen 2) sounds significantly better than the old Play:5. The first thing you notice is the amount of bass it outputs. It also plays louder, has better clarity, and doesn't sound stressed at higher volumes like the original Play:5 did.
We put a wide variety of music through it and while it sounded decent with most material, it stood out for its performance with bass-heavy material. I could feel the bass with hip-hop and EDM (electronic dance music). By that I mean it has some visceral impact and didn't make me think I needed a sub.
I had a listen with with home audio editor Ty Pendelbury and Steve Guttenberg, who writes CNET's Audiophiliac blog. Steve wasn't blown away by the speaker, particularly for the price (he said it delivered a lot of bass but otherwise sounded a little "boxy" and had some sibilance in the treble). But Ty and I were more enthusiastic about it because we've listened to a lot of these tabletop wireless speakers and don't have such high expectations.
Sure, the price is somewhat lofty for a single speaker (or a pair) and you're probably going to get better sound for the money from a good set of affordable wired bookshelf speakers hooked up to a budget amplifier. We also know a single speaker just isn't going to produce a monster sound stage and have good stereo separation. But this is a different breed of speaker, one that's sought out for wirelessly integrating into a whole-home system through a user friendly set up. And the fact is it's hard to make wireless speakers sync perfectly from room to room or join them together in a stereo pair.
We compared the Play:5 to the less expensive Polk Omni S6 , which also sounds good for a Wi-Fi speaker (it's a Play-Fi speaker) and comes across as a little more balanced than the Sonos. It did really well with jazz and acoustic material but didn't output as much bass and didn't have the kick the Sonos did with bass-heavy tracks.
Although performance for both speakers varied from track to track, I thought the Sonos sounded like the bigger speaker. It was also the clear winner in terms of design -- it really is a great looking speaker.
We haven't had a chance to compare this yet to the Bose SoundTouch 30 Series III, which costs the same as the Play:5 and may be its most direct competitor as mainstream consumers consider Bose's multiroom audio options . But we will soon and update our review.
While the new Play:5 is more expensive at $500 -- and perhaps a little out of reach for price-conscious consumers -- it's a big step forward in terms of design and performance. It may not fully impress audiophiles, but it is the best-sounding Sonos speaker yet.