Speaker

Sony RA5000 speaker review: extravagant sound at an unreasonable price


Sony’s new SRS-RA5000 is a $700 single-unit speaker that is filled to the brim with drivers, has convenient features like Spotify Connect and Chromecast built in, and is capable of producing immersive 360-degree audio.

Though it’s only coming to market now, the RA5000 dates back to CES 2019, where Sony exhibited it as a prototype speaker for its new-for-the-time 360 Reality Audio format. So it’s been in the hopper for a while. Same goes for the smaller, less expensive RA3000, which Sony demonstrated a year later at CES 2020. Now they’ve both evolved into consumer products and look practically unchanged.

At 13 inches tall, the RA5000 is much bigger than any smart speaker. And yes, from the top, it absolutely looks like an oversized electric razor, thanks to the three round speaker grilles. If this thing was all white, you might confuse it for some kind of futuristic humidifier or air purifier. But Sony has stuck with the mix of black and rose gold that has been the signature look for many of its recent headphones and earbuds. I continue to dig the contrast this creates, and the speaker’s sides are covered in a knitted fabric that hides the innards. There are touch-sensitive buttons on the left and right sides. You get volume and play / pause on the right, with the left side handling power, mode selection (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or aux input), and a calibration feature that tweaks the sound for whatever room the RA5000 is in.

There’s no denying the electric razor resemblance.

The internal layout breaks down like this: there are three up-firing speakers, three outward-facing speakers positioned at the middle of the speaker’s sides, and a single subwoofer at the bottom. Around back is a 3.5-millimeter input and a little NFC icon, which you can hold an Android phone to for quick pairing. Underneath the speaker is where the power cord plugs in, and the RA5000 comes with a big honking external power supply. That’s something I didn’t expect to see considering how large the product already is. It needs to be plugged into power at all times, 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 numerous steps like adding the RA5000 to the Google Home app, bringing it aboard your Wi-Fi network, linking it to Amazon’s Alexa platform, and more. The speaker initially had a lot of trouble connecting to my home Wi-Fi, but with some persistence, eventually it worked. As is standard for Sony, the app isn’t very polished or pretty, but it gets the job done.

The RA5000 has touch-sensitive capacitive controls.

The RA5000 offers a ton of flexibility for how you play music on it. You can pair a device to the speaker via Bluetooth — AAC and SBC codecs are there, but not LDAC — but you’ll get far better quality when the music is coming over Wi-Fi. There’s built-in Chromecast support for audio casting, and the RA5000 can also be added to a speaker group with either Google Home or Amazon Alexa. I’d have loved for Sony to round out the streaming options with AirPlay 2, but no such luck. The speaker hardware includes a microphone, but this is only used for the calibration feature. You’ll have to rely on another device to get music playing on the RA5000 with your voice, but since it’s compatible with both Alexa and Assistant, this can be done wirelessly with a cheap smart speaker or your phone.

When in traditional stereo mode, this speaker is a powerhouse, though you might expect more bass for the size. (There are EQ options in the Sony app if you want to boost the low end.) It easily blanketed both my living room and bedroom with sound; the up-firing drivers help give it a very full presence. In my average listening, I never pushed volume beyond the 60 percent range. Going much higher would probably result in some very annoyed neighbors if you’re in an apartment. But despite its big, boisterous sound, there’s no mistaking the RA5000 for a proper set of stereo speakers. It sounds every bit like the single enclosure it is.

It dwarfs most other smart speakers.

And that leads us to the standout trick: 360-degree audio. Sony’s 360 Reality Audio uses object-based spatial audio to try to build a captivating soundscape. The pitch is that it can feel “as real as if you are 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 its physical footprint. It’s a noticeable change from plain stereo. But does it put me in some mind-blowing sphere of music coming from all directions? No, not really.

When you hop between 360 tracks, you’ll notice that not all content really takes advantage of its scope. It remains 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 fantastic; the instrumentation really benefits from bouncing off walls and your ceiling. Concert recordings, like Liam Gallagher performing Oasis hit “Champagne Supernova” with an enthusiastic sing-along crowd, also have an impressive breadth to them that feels distinct from regular stereo sound. The LED at the bottom of the speaker illuminates green when you’re playing true 360 Reality Audio music.

The speaker supports music over Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or aux input.

Only a few music streaming services, including Tidal, Deezer, and Nugs.net, support Sony’s 360 Reality Audio at present. Amazon Music HD will also let you play 360 audio on the RA5000 as of April 6th. You can cast 3D audio 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 did any of the Top Albums. That really speaks volumes. There’s a dedicated section in the explore tab where you can easily browse through playlists and albums that do support 360-degree audio. A vast majority of it is older stuff, but recent records like Haim’s Women in Music Pt. III are there, too, as are hit singles like Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar.”

The unconventional looks fit the novel 360-degree sound.

To make up for the lack of content that’s truly mixed for 360, Sony includes an “immersive audio enhancement” setting that attempts to re-create the same effect for two-channel music tracks. This algorithm-powered approach doesn’t work nearly as well. Toggling it on adds an obvious layer of artificial reverb and ambience to everything that you play, and you lose the soundstage precision that’s there with genuine 360 Reality Audio content.

At its eye-popping price of $700, finding direct “competitors” for the RA5000 is complicated. There’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 single-unit speaker, but it sticks to stereo audio. Then you’ve got high-end, luxury audio alternatives like the $900 Formation Wedge speaker from Bowers & Wilkins, but again, that’s aiming for an audiophile-grade stereo experience. Sony’s speaker outperforms the $200 Amazon Echo Studio and can crank much louder — but that’s exactly what I’d expect considering the huge price gulf.

So the question I’m left with is this: who is this speaker for? It sounds excellent, can satisfyingly fill any normal-sized room, and 360 Reality Audio is a fun party trick. But the asking price is hard to get over. A lot of people who are serious about audio gear would sooner pay for a nice pair of stereo bookshelf speakers than drop $700 on this single unit. I think Sony’s trying to make the RA5000 a jack of all trades — led by immersive sound and an array of convenient streaming options. But I come away feeling like this speaker just tries to do too much, especially when the worth of its headline feature remains unproven and often inconsistent.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge

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