By the time Sony’s first 360 Reality Audio speakers were available to the masses, it had been over two years since the company first introduced the platform. Although the immersive audio format has been part of streaming libraries since fall 2019, Sony initially relied on third-party speakers to evangelize the public. The company eventually added 360RA supports to its headphones, but until this spring, it didn’t have any compatible speakers. At CES 2021, the company officially announced the SRS-RA5000 and SRS-RA3000 (after two years of teasing). The SRS-RA5000 is the larger and more powerful of the duo — and it’s the more expensive. At $700 (£500), has Sony done enough to convince us that a dedicated 360 Reality Audio speaker is worth the investment?
Sony first showed off a prototype 360 Reality Audio speaker when it introduced the platform at CES 2019. That design would end up becoming the SRS-RA5000. The rounded prism enclosure is larger than most shelf speakers at 13 inches (33 cm) tall and weighing in at 10 pounds (4.5 kg). This thing stands out on a table, mostly due to its size. The dark gray speaker cloth covers the entire thing and copper-colored cone-shaped feet stick out from the bottom. Up top, copper rings frame a trio of up-firing speakers. In between, the cover curves inward, flaring wider at the top and bottom of the unit.
The RA5000 has a simple look, though its curved silhouette keeps it from being boring and boxy. Even the Sony branding is somewhat out of view on the top of the speaker. There’s a light along the bottom edge that lets you know when the speaker is active, but that’s it. Around back, there’s a 3.5mm line-in jack and an air duct for the woofer, but the main panels of the device are otherwise unadorned except for the controls.
All of the controls sit along the top edge of each side. They’re small icons, so they aren’t an eyesore. To the left of the front, there are buttons for power, input and sound mode. Corresponding LEDs and labels for each button sit on the top panel, around the edge from the buttons themselves. On the right side, volume controls flank a play/pause button to give you on-board options for managing audio. There’s no labels for these, but the buttons themselves are shaped to fit their function, so it’s pretty self-explanatory. Inside, the RA5000 houses seven total drivers: three up-firing, three side-firing and a woofer positioned in the middle. These are positioned in a way that beams sound out in all directions.
Setup and use
To get the RA5000 up and running, you’ll need your phone and some apps alongside Bluetooth and WiFi connections. The process is a little different depending on if you’re using Google Assistant and Chromecast or Alexa and Alexa Cast, but many of the steps are the same. For both, you start by pairing your phone with the speaker via Bluetooth. With Assistant and Chromecast, you then use the Google Home app to add the RA5000 to your WiFi network. For Alexa, the Sony Music Center app guides you through linking the speaker with Amazon’s voice controls. The RA5000 also supports Spotify Connect even though the streaming service doesn’t yet offer 360 Reality Audio content.
To be clear, the RA5000 doesn’t support on-board voice controls. The microphones on the speaker are for room calibration. In order to control music and other audio with spoken cues, you’ll need a separate device — like a Google Home Mini or Amazon Echo Dot.
Room calibration is also part of the initial setup, and should be done any time you move the speaker to a new location. All you have to do is push the Immersive Audio Enhancement button (music note) on the left and the speaker does the rest. The RA5000 plays a series of tones as it listens and adjusts to the environment in a matter of seconds.
The Sony Music Center app is not only how you set up the speaker, but it’s also where you make detailed changes to the sound profile of the speaker. Sony gives you a lot of options here, including audio presets, a manual EQ, up-firing speaker levels and more. You can also turn off the Immersive Audio Enhancement, which makes stereo content sound more like 360 Reality Audio. The app will allow you to turn automatic volume off as well, if you find consistent level correction problematic.
Sony also gives you the ability to use the RA5000 with a TV or as part of a multi-room audio setup. The speaker can connect to compatible Bravia TVs via low-latency Bluetooth if you want to make the investment part of your home entertainment arsenal. Multi-room audio is configured through the Google Home app, so the rest of your gear will need to work with Google’s tech too.
360 Reality Audio and sound quality
To the listener, the premise of 360 Reality Audio is rather simple. Tracks are configured to sound like musical elements are positioned all around you. In other words, to simulate the feeling of being inside of the song. For studio engineers, things get a little more complicated, but Sony is working to ease the burden. It has created a plug-in for DAW (digital audio workstation) software that makes the transition to 360RA — the positioning of individual elements — a bit easier.
A light at base of the RA5000 changes from white to a teal to\ let you know when you’re actually listening to 360 Reality Audio. This became important for me as early in my tests I thought I was casting 360RA music from Tidal and Amazon Music desktop apps to the speaker, but it wasn’t until I started using mobile apps that I realized that wasn’t the case. What’s more, Tidal has a dedicated 360 Reality Audio section on its smartphone app that isn’t on the desktop. There’s a lot more content there than what turns up in a basic search and the service does a better job of labeling 360 tracks when you use your phone.
After testing 360 Reality Audio on two speakers and Sony’s headphones, I’m slowly being convinced a single speaker, even one with seven drivers, can’t produce sounds that seem like they’re coming from all around. There’s no doubt the 360RA content sounds different, but the “room-filling” sensation that Sony touts doesn’t really pan out. Based on the descriptions, and past demos I’ve sat through, I expected something akin to Dolby Atmos through one of Sony’s soundbars. That just isn’t the case. Sound quality is consistent from all sides of the RA5000, so it does deliver on the promise of beaming audio in all directions.
That being said, the RA5000 still offers crisp, clear and warm sound. The speaker excels at highlighting subtle details in tracks like the natural reverb of drums and the rattle of a snare while keys, synths and guitar riffs punch through the mix. Everything sounds like it has more space to breathe. Again, it doesn’t really seem like the instruments are positioned around you, but it is noticeably more open in the audio sense. Depending on your preference, you might say it sounds better. I certainly think that’s the case.
With a limited 360 Reality Audio content library, the platform isn’t yet to the point where I recommend paying extra for a streaming subscription to get access. As of January, only around 4,000 songs were available in 360 Reality Audio, so it’s understandable that you’d want to wait a bit longer before buying in.
However, the RA5000 is equipped with Immersive Audio Enhancement: an algorithm that takes stereo audio and upscales it so it’s closer to “room-filling sound.” Basically, the speaker can make “regular” streaming tracks sound more dynamic and immersive. The end result is similar to, but not quite the same as a 360RA track. The music is noticeably louder, there’s more presence and more detail than when the feature is turned off. Everything sounds less compressed. It’s honestly shocking how dull and muffled a normal Spotify track sounds when you turn off the Immersive Audio Enhancement.
My only real gripe with the sound profile is the lack of bass. I tried every preset and I adjusted the EQ manually, but I could never get songs like Run The Jewels’ “Walking In The Snow” or Outkast’s "B.O.B" ("Bombs Over Baghdad"), the latter of which is a 360 Reality Audio track, to have the energy and thump a great pair of headphones can muster. The attention is on mids and highs instead, so details like guitars, synths, cymbals and vocals are more prominent. When I adjusted the bass, it just made things seem a bit muddy.
Flipping back and forth between KAYTRANADA’s BUBBA in Tidal HiFi (360RA) and Spotify (enhanced “regular” streaming), you can hear how the songs are a bit subdued — in terms of volume, presence and detail. I should note you can also choose between three settings for the upward firing speakers (low, medium and high), which is another way you can alter the sound, but those drivers are still focused on mids and highs.
There are lots of connected speakers out there that will allow you to control the music from your phone without having to get off the couch. Sonos might be the biggest name here. The company’s lineup features TruePlay tech that calibrates the acoustics of its speakers to the room you place them in. However, Sonos speakers don’t support 360 Reality Audio, and the list of hardware that does remains quite small. Of course, Sonos doesn’t claim to blast sound in all directions, just to provide high-quality audio with its somewhat pricey wares.
The first speaker that allowed you to listen to 360RA was Amazon’s Echo Studio. The device arrived around the same time Sony was rolling out the audio format and the $200 unit does a solid job. It’s undoubtedly the best-sounding Echo speaker so far, but to make the most of it you need Amazon Music HD — a pricier streaming plan. The good news there is that Echo Studio also supports Dolby Atmos Music, so you’re not limited to Sony’s modest content library.
Sony also has its own alternative to the RA5000 with the smaller RA3000. This 360 Reality Audio device houses five drivers (two tweeters, two passive radiators and a single full-range driver), room calibration and the handy Immersive Audio Enhancement. It’s also humidity resistant, so you can put the RA3000 in your bathroom or kitchen and not worry about any damage from the warm and damp environment. I haven’t tested one yet, but it’s worth noting the SRS-RA3000 is less than half the price of its bulky sibling at $300 (£300).
At CES this year, Sony announced that it would work with third-party headphone and speaker companies to expand the availability of 360 Reality Audio. While this remains an on-going effort, Sennheiser has added 360RA support to its pricey and powerful Ambeo Soundbar. Of course, this is much more than a connected speaker, but it does offer the benefits of those devices while its main purpose is an impressive Dolby Atmos soundbar. More third-party support is almost certainly on the way, but there’s no timeline for those integrations.
Sony has finally released speakers that bring the immersive audio platform it has been promoting for over two years to your home. With the SRS-RA5000, the company has a powerful and pricey unit that does a solid job with 360 Reality Audio while also upgrading regular content to sound more immersive. However, more bass would give everything a little more depth, and when you’re paying $700 for a single speaker, it has to nail the sound quality. Especially when you’re also investing in an emerging platform. Instead of showing me the RA5000 means 360 Reality Audio has arrived, the hardware — much like the platform itself — is still a work in progress.