Sonos Five

Sonos made its name with its Play range of multi-room speakers, but it’s gradually been phasing these out. The original Play:1 (HFC 381) was replaced by the Sonos One (HFC 433) at the start of 2019, while the Play:5 (HFC 412), was revamped and renamed as simply the Five.

Available in black or white, the new Five looks very similar to its Play:5 predecessor. The basic audio architecture remains essentially the same, with three low-frequency drivers and three tweeters housed inside a sturdy, reverb-dampening cabinet. However, the smart technology inside has had a significant update, providing improved wi-fi connectivity and a more powerful processor to handle multi-room audio, as well as support for AirPlay 2, the new Sonos S2 app and Sonos Radio service. Unlike some of its recent products, the Five doesn’t include a microphone for voice control, although it can be controlled via a smart speaker if you’re so inclined.

Although it’s too tall to sit under a TV set, the six drivers inside the cabinet are arranged rather like a small soundbar. There’s a single tweeter on each side, facing out to the side but angled forward to create what Sonos calls “spatial extension”, with a third tweeter positioned right in the centre of the front to enhance vocals. The three bass drivers in the lower half of the cabinet simply face forward in a single group, although they follow the gentle curve of the front panel to spread the sound a little more widely. The cabinet can be turned on its side and paired with a second Five to provide two-channel stereo output (although stereo pairing with the older Play:5 doesn’t work).

The Five can be used to form part of a multi-room speaker system when connected to any other Sonos speaker, while AirPlay 2 allows it to connect with similar AirPlay speakers from other manufacturers. An Ethernet port around the back provides an alternative to wi-fi, but like most Sonos speakers the Five turns it nose up at Bluetooth for streaming audio. The cabinet does at least include a 3.5mm line-in for wired input, but it’s a shame that that’s your lot for audio inputs. It’s also somewhat irritating that Sonos chooses to withhold some quite basic technical information, ignoring significant details such as the frequency response, file formats and the size of the drivers.

Setup is fairly straightforward as the new S2 app for iOS and Android uses Bluetooth to automatically detect the speaker and guide you through the calibration process. The app provides support for an impressive selection of online streaming services, from Absolute Radio to Zdigital. There is, however, a potential fly in the ointment for owners of older Sonos speakers who may still be using the original S1 version of the app. Sonos did initially appear to be abandoning support for its older speakers, until the outcry from its substantial user base forced a U-turn. Even so, successfully combining old and new Sonos speakers that use different versions of the app may require some careful reading through the help files on the website.

Sound quality
It always proves a challenge for a one-piece speaker setup to create a convincing sense of space, but the Five does an admirable job all things considered. Streaming via wi-fi from my iPad, Kate Bush’s vocal on My Lagan Love feels haunting and ethereal. Her voice is warm, yet sharp with emotion and the Sonos captures the full range of her vocal, whispering softly one moment and crying out in pain the next. It creates a relaxed, open soundstage, too, and her sustained notes feel light and free as they fill the air around me.

The Big Sky is a far more muscular song, but the Five copes well with the layers of cascading drums and chanting vocals. There’s a satisfying bite to the slap-bass and the speaker manages to keep sight of the gentle shimmer of the tambourine as the drums and vocals begin to pile up and drive the song forward.

Even more extreme is the riotous Planetary Go! by My Chemical Romance, in MQA from Tidal. This head-on collision of thrashing guitars and EDM keyboards can all too easily degenerate into noise, but the Five has the precision needed to separate out the high-speed riffing and the arm-waving electronic keyboards and give them room to breathe, while the firm slap of the drums sets the pace and holds the chaotic sonic mash-up together. It can crank up the volume too, easily filling the room while avoiding any distortion.

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Flight From The City combines precision with a relaxed, open sound as the opening notes of the piano hang in the air with an almost painful stillness. It’s easy to miss the entrance of the violins, so delicate are those first gentle notes, but the Five captures the urgency as the strings rise to strike a sharper note. As the strings fade, it’s the equally delicate electronic chimes that take to the air, while the speaker allows the rich texture of the piano to murmur sadly in the background.

There’s a similar sense of space and melancholy on Max Richter’s Shadow Journal, with the looped electronic samples forming a haunting backdrop for the sharp strings. But Richter’s fondness for subterranean bass effects reveals a limitation as the Five can’t quite capture the ominous sense of menace as the electronic bass rumbles away into the distance. And, while it succeeds in creating an attractive sense of space, there’s little stereo separation evident when Brian May’s guitar solo goes bouncing from left to right on A Kind Of Magic. That’s a lot to ask from a one-piece speaker such as this, but it is also possible – if somewhat expensive – to pair two Fives together for a more superior stereo output, while the addition of the Sonos Sub (£700) makes for a more rounded soundstage.

If you simply want a powerful, speaker that can fill your room with clear, detailed sound, the Sonos Five will work a treat. And, with its versatile streaming capabilities and support for multiple online services, it can earn its keep as the centre-piece of a multi-room speaker system. CJ    

Product: Sonos Five
Type: Wi-fi speaker with multi-room streaming

●  3x tweeters; 3x bass drivers
●  3.5mm line-in
●  Wi-fi; Ethernet; AirPlay 2

Read the full review in  Issue 470