Even if you can find a place to put it, you'll need patience.
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Sony’s take on the upward-trending 3D music format, 360RA was first introduced in select Sony headphones like the popular WH-1000XM3 and XM4, employing advanced audio mapping to spread music around the soundstage. For home theaters, the aim is to create immersion not only on the horizontal plane but also on the vertical using height speakers that beam sound upward.
With the RA5000, Sony hopes to utilize 360RA for an immersive musical experience in a single, multi-drive speaker. Most appealing, unlike the majority of current 3D sound systems which require hardwire connection to outboard devices for 3D audio, you can stream 360RA directly to the RA5000 from your smartphone through select apps, including Tidal HD, Deezer, and as of April 6, Amazon Music Unlimited. Amazon’s Echo Studio helped start the 3D streaming party, and the RA5000 aims to take it up a notch (or two).
The design immediately begs the question of placement.
On the surface, the RA5000 presents an utterly impressive, if not somewhat bizarre design concept. Covered in sleek acoustic fabric and sporting copper-colored drivers poking out of the top in a pyramid pattern, the speaker looks like a mannequin torso at a high-fashion clothing store. It provides a speaker driver each for the front, left, and right sides matched by similarly oriented topside/height drivers. Designed to bounce sound off your walls and ceiling, these drivers are complemented by an interior woofer that outputs clean, potent bass.
On the speaker’s sides are playback and volume controls, as well as buttons to switch inputs, pair the speaker via Bluetooth, and activate a calibration system for adjusting the sound to the speaker’s orientation. That requires a microphone, of course, but unlike Amazon’s handy Echo Studio, Sony’s $700 job doesn’t support built-in smart assistants. While it can be controlled using Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, you’ll need a separate speaker for voice commands.
More surprising, though, is just how huge and—for my home—awkward the speaker is when it comes to placement, starting with which way to point it (the Sony logo goes in front). Because it’s designed to bounce sound off the walls, you’ll want it somewhere front and center. But at over a foot tall and nine inches across at its widest point, just where it fits is somewhat mysterious.
I tried placing it on my coffee table but it was both too big and too close. I next tried my TV console, but even as a temporary solution, the screen created so much sound reflection it sounded pretty awful. What’s more, the cord that plugs into the power brick is surprisingly short, further limiting placement options.
I finally ended up clearing off an end table. While it wasn’t ideal for listening from my couch, the RA5000 is designed to create “ambient, room-filling audio” anyway, so it seemed workable.
The short cords further complicate placement and orientation.
Unlike the simple, one-touch experience of connecting a Sonos speaker, setting up the RA5000 reminded me of old-school Wi-Fi speakers. In the box were three different sets of multi-step instructions. The 12-step Google Cast method seemed most pertinent to easily “cast” 360RA Audio from one of the handful of compatible services, though you’re forced to connect to Bluetooth first and then go through the Google Home app. Once I finally got everything working through Sony’s own Music Center app things went smoothly—until they didn’t.
Music Center seemed to get confused about whether I wanted to cast tracks from Tidal over Wi-Fi (the only way to get 360 audio) or stream via Bluetooth. The speaker defaulted to Bluetooth every time I stopped playback or returned to Tidal from another setting. Sony’s reps told me to unpair Bluetooth, and claimed the speaker’s Bluetooth confusion was something they hadn’t encountered (I seem to attract such issues).
But even putting that aside as a fluke, the Music Center’s playback interface is oddly lacking, offering volume control but no controls for song skip or even play/pause. Using the Tidal app alone worked just fine for uninterrupted 3D playback, and Spotify Connect worked swimmingly over Wi-Fi as well (though it doesn’t support 360RA, of course). As such, the simplest solution was to simply bypass Music Center altogether. I will give the app credit for offering a multi-band EQ and a few other handy features such as height channel tuning, but it definitely needs work.
The drivers pack impressive punch and that signature Sony zeal.
Whichever path you use to stream audio to the RA5000, one thing is clear: it’s capable of pristine Sony sound. Especially for stereo tracks, the sound signature is crisp, clean, and accurate. Instrumental attacks are brilliantly punctual, allowing the speaker to do shimmering acrobatics when tasked with speedy instrumental runs.
The speaker takes full advantage of Tidal’s Hi-Fi audio tracks in this mode, demonstrating a delicate touch thanks to the impressively low noise floor. You’ll hear every detail, from the buzz of strings in a standup bass to the breathy push of air across the reed of a saxophone just before it warms the air with brassy goodness.
In short, the drivers inside the RA5000 are excellent, and even when you’re not listening to 360RA tracks, there’s plenty to enjoy about the sound quality from this tri-pillared creation.
The height drivers are pointed in a tri-pod position to bounce sound off the walls and ceiling.
Pristine sound fidelity notwithstanding, the RA series is foremost an investment in Sony’s 3D sound format. There are any number of good wireless speakers on the market, and if that’s all you’re after, you can get more for your money—and a lot better software—from brands like Sonos. So the real question is whether Sony’s 360RA format is worthy of major investment. At the moment my answer would be no, for a number of reasons.
First, while some of my 360RA sonic experiences were impressive, even bordering on revelatory, many others were just so-so or worse. Apart from speaker orientation, a lot of your experience depends on how well the engineer mixed (or re-mixed) the music. As 3D sound is a nascent musical format, you’ll find the quality of how well the sonic elements come together can vary greatly from song to song (and that’s not just a Sony problem).
This issue is exacerbated by a simple lack of ammunition. By my count, there are at best a few hundred songs available in 360RA on Tidal, and I assume other streamers are similarly appointed. There are more 3D options if you add in Dolby Atmos Music, but the RA5000 can only play them in “HiFi” without any height element.
Once again, this isn’t just a Sony thing, but an indication of 3D Music in general right now. It’s in its early stages, and like 5.1 and Quadrophonic music before it, there’s no telling if or when it will take off in earnest.
The speaker sits on three fashionable stands that surround a power port on the undercarriage.
Perhaps most disappointing, while the speaker does have an Immersive Audio Enhancement feature for non-3D tracks, it’s subpar at best for high-resolution stereo mixes, and an echoey mess of reverb, bass, and sunken vocals for most Bluetooth tracks.
Sony’s RA5000 is an ambitious addition to the 3D music lexicon, offering impressive punch, a conversation-starting design, and support for high-resolution audio. But work-in-progress software, inconsistent performance, and a short supply of SonyRA tracks to explore make its $700 price point too tough to swallow.
Those willing to invest in a very fancy and very distinctive speaker could do worse than the RA5000. If you’ve already fallen in love with it on looks and hi-fi skills alone, its 360RA streaming could be the 3D olive in the martini. Just be aware that, as far as 3D music goes, you’ll have to be patient. After all, that’s what early adoption is all about.
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Source: USA Today