Sony’s new SRS-RA5000 is a $ 700 single speaker that is packed to the brim with drivers, has useful features like Spotify Connect and Chromecast built in, and is capable of producing immersive 360-degree audio.
Although it’s only now on the market, the RA5000 dates back to CES 2019, where Sony showcased it as a prototype speaker for its new 360 Reality Audio format. So it’s been in the hopper for a while. The same goes for the smaller, cheaper RA3000, which Sony demoed at CES 2020 a year later. Now they have both evolved into consumer products and look practically unchanged.
With a height of 13 inches, the RA5000 is much larger than any smart speaker. And yes, from above it definitely looks like an oversized electric shaver, thanks to the three round speaker grilles. If this thing was all white, you could be mistaking it for some sort of futuristic humidifier or air purifier. But Sony has stuck to the mix of black and rose gold that has been the signature look for many of its recent headphones and earbuds. I keep digging into the contrast this creates, and the sides of the speaker are covered in a knit fabric that hides the guts. There are touch sensitive buttons on the left and right. You get volume and play / pause on the right side, with control power on the left, mode selection (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or auxiliary input) and a calibration function that adjusts the sound for any room the RA5000 is in.
The internal layout is as follows: there are three upward firing speakers, three outward firing speakers in the center of the sides of the speaker, 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 for quick pairing. Below the speaker is where the power cord connects, and the RA5000 comes with a large honking external power supply. I didn’t expect to see that, given how big the product already is. It must always be plugged into a power outlet, so Sony’s sleek speaker is wireless, but certainly not portable.
The installation process is … a lot. Sony’s mobile app walks you through numerous steps, such as adding the RA5000 to the Google Home app, getting it on board your Wi-Fi network, connecting it to Amazon’s Alexa platform, and more. The speaker had a hard time connecting to my home Wi-Fi network at first, but with some persistence, it eventually worked. As standard with Sony, the app isn’t very polished or pretty, but it gets the job done.
The RA5000 offers enormous flexibility in how you play music on it. You can pair a device to the speaker via Bluetooth – AAC and SBC codecs are there, but no LDAC – but you get much better quality when the music comes over Wi-Fi. There’s built-in Chromecast support for audio casting, and the RA5000 can also be added to a speaker group with Google Home or Amazon Alexa. I would have liked to see Sony finalize the streaming options with AirPlay 2, but not that luck. The speaker hardware includes a microphone, but it is only used for the calibration function. You’ll have to rely on another device to play music 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.
In traditional stereo mode, this speaker is a powerhouse, although you’d expect more bass for the size. (There are EQ options in the Sony app if you want to boost the bass.) It easily covered both my living room and bedroom with sound; the emerging drivers ensure that it is a very full presence. In my average listening experience, I never pushed the volume above the 60 percent range. Going much higher would likely result in some very annoyed neighbors when you are in an apartment. But despite its big, boisterous sound, the RA5000 is not to be confused with a good set of stereo speakers. It sounds just like the single case it is.
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 an engaging soundscape. 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 its physical footprint. It’s a noticeable change from regular stereo. But does it put me in a stunning atmosphere of music coming from all directions? No not really.
When you jump between 360 tracks, you will find that not all content really benefits from its scope. It remains unclear how engaged and invested most of the 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 reflecting off walls and your ceiling. Concert recordings, such as Liam Gallagher performing the Oasis hit “Champagne Supernova” with an enthusiastic sing-along audience, also have an impressive breadth that sets it apart from ordinary stereo sound. The LED on the bottom of the speaker lights up green when you are 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 will also allow you to play 360 audio on the RA5000 starting April 6. You can cast 3D audio directly from these apps to the speaker. But even with services that offer 360 Reality Audio, the acceptance of musicians and labels still 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 is a dedicated section on the explore tab where you can easily browse playlists and albums To do support for 360-degree audio. The vast majority are older, but recent records such as Haim’s Women in Music Pt. III are there too, as are hit singles like Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar.”
To make up for the lack of content that is truly mixed for 360, Sony has added an “immersive audio enhancement” setting that tries to recreate the same effect for two-channel music tracks. This algorithm-driven approach doesn’t work nearly as well. Turning it on adds an obvious layer of artificial reverberation and atmosphere to everything you play, and you lose the soundstage precision that is present with true 360 Reality Audio content.
With its dazzling price point 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 one-piece speaker, but it sticks with stereo sound. Then you have high-quality, luxury audio alternatives such as the $ 900 Formation Wedge speaker from Bowers & Wilkins, but again, that strives for an audiophile stereo experience. Sony’s speaker outperforms the $ 200 Amazon Echo Studio and can run a lot louder – but that’s exactly what I’d expect given the huge price gap.
So the question that leaves me is this: who is this speaker in front ofIt sounds great, can fill any regular-sized room to your satisfaction, and 360 Reality Audio is a fun party trick. But the asking price is difficult to take over. Many people who take audio equipment seriously would rather pay for a nice pair of stereo bookshelf speakers than drop $ 700 on this single piece of equipment. I think Sony is trying to make the RA5000 an all-rounder – guided by immersive sound and a range of useful streaming options. But I get away with the feeling that this speaker is just trying to do too much, especially when the value of the heading function remains unproven and often inconsistent.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge