While it's held back by some software issues, the slickly designed SRS-X7 offers the flexibility of both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi wireless connectivity, including Apple AirPlay support.
In 2013, Sony put out a fine Bluetooth speaker, the SRS-BTX500 . In the US, it was a little pricey at $300, but it delivered impressive sound for its size and measured up well against competitors such as the Bose SoundLink Wireless II and Jawbone Big Jambox.
For 2014, the company has opted for a more feature-loaded wireless speaker at the same price point ($300 US, £265 in the UK, and AU$400 in Australia). The SRS-SX7 is sandwiched between the new SRS-SX5 ($200, £170, AU$280) and SRS-SX9 ($700, £600, AU$800). Not only does it offer Bluetooth connectivity but it also gives you the option to stream over Wi-Fi -- via Apple AirPlay for iOS devices, Macs, and Windows PCs running iTunes, as well as DLNA support for nearly anything else.
While it's a bonus to have the Wi-Fi option -- it does offer expanded range and better sound quality over Bluetooth -- it can be a little tricky to set up and it doesn't offer much of a performance boost. (Depending on how good your ears are, you may or may not notice a difference.)
Don't get me wrong. I like the speaker overall. It's classy looking and offers good sound for a compact portable wireless speaker. But at the same time, it doesn't seem like a step up from the older SRS-BTX500, which you can find online for around $225, and it doesn't outperform its closest competitors.
The boxy SRS-SX7 has a sleek, minimalist design that you'll either love or think is a bit underwhelming. It's got a glossy top with touch-sensitive buttons (except for the power button, which you can physically press down on) and brushed aluminum on the sides. Because the glossy top shows fingerprints, you will have to wipe the speaker down from time to time to keep it from looking a little grungy.
Weighing in at 4.3 pounds (1.95 kg) and measuring 5.2 inches tall by 11.8 inches wide by 2.4 inches deep, or 13cm by 30cm by 6.1cm, it's got some heft to it and has both the look and feel of a premium wireless speaker. In other words, for the most part, you can understand why it costs $300.
Around back there's a retractable wireless antenna, which is supposed to improve Wi-Fi performance, and a nice set of connectivity options that includes an Ethernet port, audio input, and a USB charging port (for smartphones and tablets).
I'm not going to dig too deep into what it takes to set up Wi-Fi streaming, but there are a few different ways to do it: via your PC, via Sony's free SongPal app, which also features some equalizer settings (bass, treble), or via WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Set-up) if your wireless router supports this feature.
It didn't go smoothly for me. The setup seems fairly simple on the surface, but if you run into any snafus with your network or wireless router or the SongPal app, you can end not making a connection and becoming frustrated. Neither the app nor the instructions are incredibly intuitive.
In my case, I had some trouble upgrading the speaker's firmware. When I tried to do it via a PC, it didn't work. I eventually got it updated when the speaker finally connected to my Wi-Fi network at home (it had some trouble with our office network) and I learned that I had to touch the "update" icon that had lit up on top of the speaker and hold it for a few seconds.
Once you do get the Wi-Fi streaming set up, you can do a few things. One option is to AirPlay your music to the speaker from your PC using iTunes or your iOS device. The other is to set up your PC as a DLNA server and stream music to the speaker that way using the SongPal app as a "remote."
I don't feel like doing a full review of that SongPal app, but suffice to say, it's serviceable but not all that polished or user-friendly. It will hopefully improve and become more reliable.
One of its noteworthy features is that you can use other apps within the app, so, for instance, you can run Spotify from within SongPal and have your playlists stream to the speaker over Wi-Fi. At launch, SongPal also supports Pandora and Music Unlimited (Sony's music service), as well as HBO Go, Netflix, SlingPlayer and TuneIn Radio.
If this all sounds a little more complicated than it should be, it is. That's the nature of Wi-Fi streaming and that's one of the reasons AirPlay speakers haven't taken off (price is another).
In contrast, connecting via Bluetooth is a breeze. There's tap-to-pair NFC for phones and tablets that support the feature, as well as AptX support (the NFC didn't work so well with my Samsung Galaxy S5 test unit, even after I downloaded Sony's NFC Easy Connect app). AptX is supposed to make Bluetooth sound better -- more like Wi-Fi streaming -- though it's hard to tell the difference, particularly with a speaker as small as this.
One feature that's missing is an integrated microphone for speakerphone capabilities. The Bluetooth-only BTX500 and SRS-X5 does have an integrated speakerphone while Bose SoundLink speakers do not.
The SRS-X7 is one of those speakers that can sound excellent for its size with certain tracks but falls off a bit with others, particularly at higher volumes. With less demanding material, such as Nora Jones' "Come Away With Me" and John Legend's "All of Me," it sounds clean and vibrant and will certainly impress. But run some complicated tracks (lots of instruments playing at the same time) through it at higher volumes and it doesn't handle them so well.
For instance, Pink Floyd's "Astronomy Domine" and "Interstellar Overdrive" sounded pretty rough around the edges. The other issue is that with tracks that have a lot of bass, the speaker vibrates at higher volumes and can move around on smoother surfaces such as a table or counter.
While the speaker doesn't have huge bass, there's some punch to it and there's a reasonable amount of treble detail. But ultimately, the X7 is strongest in the midrange (vocals, acoustical material).
The speaker did play loud for its size and should fill a small to medium size room with sound. However, it doesn't play quite as loud as the Bose SoundLink Wireless III or sound quite as smooth.
Nor does it offer as good battery life, which is rated at 6 hours with Wi-Fi off ("network off") and 3 hours with Wi-Fi on. The Bose is rated at 14 hours.
With some tweaking in the SongPal app, you can adjust the sound, although the default setting, with ClearAudio+ engaged, seemed to work best. As I said, overall this speaker sounds good for a compact wireless speaker and should impress folks who don't push it too hard or aren't critical listeners.
The only problem is that it doesn't sound better than its closest competitors or the older SRS-BTX500. And it also doesn't sound as good as Bose's SoundTouch 20 Wi-Fi speaker. True, that model costs $100 more, but it's more multiroom friendly. Likewise, something like the Sonos Play:1 ($200, £169, AU$299) or Play:3 ($300, £249, AU$449) are far better multiroom solutions, too, and setup on them is a breeze -- but they're not Bluetooth-compatible.
There's been a a little bit of push lately by certain companies to add more robust wireless options to their speakers. For instance, Bose has its new multiroom SoundTouch line with integrated Wi-Fi and so does Samsung, with its Shape speakers.
Interestingly, in going the Wi-Fi route, Sony hasn't talked up multiroom room audio and is billing the SRS-X7 as a single speaker solution. In that regard, I'm not sure I completely understand the thinking behind it. For better or worse, it's a classy looking and good performing Bluetooth wireless speaker that gets a little muddled by the inclusion of Wi-Fi streaming and the problems that can accompany its set-up.
In some ways, I think Sony would have been better pulling out some features and lowering the price a bit to undercut such strong competitors as the Bose SoundLink Wireless III . To a certain degree it's done that with the $200 SRS-X5, a bit smaller and a less powerful Bluetooth-only speaker that has built-in speakerphone capabilities. While it may not sound quite as good as this speaker, the X5 may be the better choice and better overall value in Sony's 2014 portable wireless speaker line.