Sony’s new SRS-RA5000 is a $ 700 single-unit speaker that is loaded to the brim with drivers, has handy features like Spotify Connect and built-in Chromecast, and is capable of producing immersive 360-degree sound.
Although only coming to market now, the RA5000 goes back to CES 2019, where Sony exhibited it as a prototype speaker for its new 360-currently 360 Reality Audio format. So it’s been in the container for a while. The same goes for the smaller, cheaper RA3000, which Sony demonstrated a year later at CES 2020. Now they have both evolved into consumer products and look virtually unchanged.
The RA5000 is 13 inches high and is much larger than any smart speaker. And yes, from the top it certainly looks like an oversized electric razor, thanks to the three round speaker grilles. If this thing was completely white, you might confuse it with some sort of futuristic humidifier or air purifier. But Sony has stuck with the mix of black and pink gold that has been the signature look of many of its recent headphones and earbuds. I continue to dig the contrast this creates, and the speaker sides are covered with a knitted fabric that hides the insides. There are touch-sensitive buttons on the left and right sides. You get volume and player / pause on the right, with handling power on the left side, mode selection (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or auxiliary input) and a calibration function that adjusts the sound no matter what room the RA5000 is in.
The internal design breaks down as follows: there are three speakers facing upwards, three outward-facing speakers located in the middle of the speaker sides and a single subwoofer at the bottom. Around the back is a 3.5 millimeter input and a small NFC icon, which you can hold an Android phone to for quick pairing. Under the speaker is where the power cord is connected, and the RA5000 comes with a large, squeaky external power supply. It was something I did not expect to see considering how big the product already is. It must always be connected to power, so Sony’s fancy speaker is wireless, but by no means portable.
The setup process is … a lot. Sony’s mobile app guides you through many steps such as adding RA5000 to the Google Home app, bringing it aboard the Wi-Fi network, connecting it to Amazon’s Alexa platform and more. The speaker initially had major problems connecting to Wi-Fi at home, but with a little endurance it worked in the end. By default for Sony, the app is not very polished or pretty, but it gets the job done.
The RA5000 offers lots of flexibility for playing music on it. You can connect a device to the speaker via Bluetooth – AAC and SBC codecs are there, but not LDAC – but you get far better quality when the music comes via Wi-Fi. Chromecast audio support is built-in, and the RA5000 can also be added to a speaker group with either Google Home or Amazon Alexa. I would have loved that Sony rounded up the streaming options with AirPlay 2, but no luck. The speaker hardware includes a microphone, but this is used only for the calibration function. You have to rely on another device to play music on the RA5000 with your voice, but since it is compatible with both Alexa and Assistant, this can be done wirelessly with a cheap smart speaker or your phone.
In traditional stereo mode, this speaker is a powerhouse, although you might expect more bass for size. (There are EQ options in the Sony app if you want to increase the low end.) It easily covered both my living room and my bedroom with sound; The driving drivers help you give it a very full presence. In my average listening, I never pushed the volume beyond the 60 percent range. Going much higher will probably result in some very annoyed neighbors if you are in an apartment. But despite the loud, loud sound, the RA5000 is not mistaken for the right set of stereo speakers. It sounds like the only cabinet it is.
And that brings us to the prominent trick: 360-degree sound. Sony’s 360 Reality Audio uses object – based spatial sound to try to build a captivating sound image. The pitch is that it can feel “as real as if you were there at a live concert or with the artist recording in a studio.” When you close your eyes and listen to 360 Reality Audio, the RA5000 definitely sounds bigger and wider than the physical footprint. It is a noticeable change from regular stereo. But does it put me in some impressive musical sphere that comes from all directions? No, not really.
When you jump between 360 tracks, you will notice that not all the content really takes advantage of its scope. It’s still unclear how involved and invested most artists really are when it comes to these 360 mixes, so I’m skeptical of any claims that this is how songs were meant to be heard. Jazz sounds great; the instrumentation really benefits from bouncing off walls and ceilings. Concert recordings, such as Liam Gallagher, who performs the Oasis hit “Champagne Supernova” with an enthusiastically accompanying audience, also have an impressive breadth that feels different from regular stereo sound. The LED at the bottom of the speaker lights up green when playing real 360 Reality Audio music.
Only a few music streaming services, including Tidal, Deezer and Nugs.net, currently support Sony’s 360 Reality Audio. Amazon Music HD also lets you play 360 audio on the RA5000 starting April 6th. You can throw 3D sound directly from these apps to the speaker. But even among services that offer 360 Reality Audio, adoption from musicians and labels has a long way to go. Not a single song in Tidal’s “Top Tracks” section had 360 Reality Audio, nor any of the best albums. It really speaks volumes. There is a separate section in the exploration tab where you can easily browse playlists and albums such as do supports 360-degree sound. A large majority of it is older stuff, but recent posts like Haims Women in music Pt. III are also there, as hit singles like Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar.”
To make up for the lack of content that is truly blended for 360, Sony includes an “immersive sound enhancement” setting that attempts to recreate the same effect for two-channel music tracks. This algorithm-driven approach does not work nearly as well. When you turn it on, you get a clear layer of artificial reverberation and atmosphere to everything you play, and you lose the sound image precision that is there with real 360 Reality Audio content.
At an overwhelming price of $ 700, it is difficult to find direct “competitors” for the RA5000. It’s a HomePod-looking device in Sony’s promotional video, but that Apple speaker was less than half the price and is now history. The $ 500 Sonos Five is my favorite speaker device, but it sticks to stereo sound. Then you have luxurious, luxurious audio options like the $ 900 Formation Wedge speaker from Bowers & Wilkins, but again, it aims for a stereo experience with audio file. Sony’s speaker surpasses the $ 200 Amazon Echo Studio and can soar much higher – but that’s exactly what I expect given the huge price gap.
So the question I am left with is this: who is this speaker to? It sounds great, can satisfactorily fill any room in normal size, and 360 Reality Audio is a fun party trick. But the price request is difficult to get over. Many people who are serious about audio equipment would rather pay for a nice pair of stereo speakers than drop $ 700 on this device. I think Sony is trying to make the RA5000 a jack of all trades – led by immersive sound and a host of convenient streaming options. But I get lost and feel that this speaker is just trying to do too much, especially when the value of the headline function remains untested and often inconsistent.
Photograph by Chris Welch / The Verge