The Sony SRS-RA5000 is one of the best-sounding wireless speakers that I've ever tested. That in addition to being one of the strangest and most expensive. Despite its near $700 price tag, it can't replicate the true stereo sound of a much cheaper pair of loudspeakers. But neither does it try to. Instead, it's intended to sound like a live music venue, using Sony's immersive (proprietary) "360 Reality Audio."
It's a gimmick. But a good one.
Sony calls its 360 Reality Audio an "object-based spatial audio technology." In essence it allows sound engineers to mix tracks that are optimized for 360-degrees of audio as opposed to stereo or mono. This is intended to create a sort of bubble of sound around the speaker and inside that bubble, where the vocals, instrumentals and bass all sound like they're coming from different directions. It's kind of like Dolby Atmos, but instead of surround sound it more like you're listening to live music that envelops. It's vibrant and fun.
Songs that have been mixed 360 Reality Audio are immersive in a different way than those mixed for stereo. I spent most of my time listening to tracks by Clean Bandit, Aerosmith and Liam Gallagher (because they were some of the only 360 Reality Audio tracks that I wanted to listen to, but more on that in a second), and the sound is truly enveloping, like you're in the audience of a live show with speakers blasting music on the stage and behind you. It's loud and energetic, however, like at an actual concert (remember those?), the details of the vocals and highs can get from time to time.
This is in large part thanks to the Sony SRS-RA5000 just being a powerhouse of a speaker, of course, and, for $700, you'd hope that it would be. It packs a total of seven drivers — including three 8-inch upward-firing drivers, three 8-inch outward-firing drivers, and a 2.9-inch downward-firing subwoofer with a rear bass port — and it's able to evenly spray sound in all directions. In fact, now that the HomePod is effectively dead, the SRS-RA5000 is one of the few true 360-degree powered speakers that can be placed in the center of the room and play truly room-filling sound.
But then, of course, there's the catch: how many 360 Reality Audio tracks really are there, how many more will there be, and how will you listen to them? The unfortunate truth is that the catalog of tracks isn't actually that robust; Sony claims that "more than 1,000 tracks from various artists and categories are currently available in the 360 Reality Audio format, and many more are on the way," but I found the selection a little lacking
I tested the Sony SRS-RA5000 with my Tidal HiFi subscription (you'll need a HiFi subscription if you want to find these types of tracks), and all the 360 Reality Audio tracks are labeled clearly with a "360" icon next to them. To find them in bulk, you can search for "360 Reality Audio" and I found there was a good selection from Liam Gallagher to Dua Lipa, Elvis Presley to David Bowie, but not everything. I was jonesing to hear the new London Grammar album, which isn't available in 360. Something that would not have bothered me if I wasn't looking at this $700 speaker designed for that purpose on the table.
The Sony SRS-RA5000 sounds excellent even if you're not listening to 360 Reality Audio tracks. There's built-in mics that allow you to calibrate the speaker for the room it's in (like Sonos's TruePlay) and you can also adjust its EQ settings via Sony's Music Center app. But while the Sony SRS-RA5000 is a very different sounding speaker than other premium wireless speakers, it doesn't really sound better. Personally I find my Sonos Five to be pretty comparable in sound and it's $200 cheaper. Not to mention that, with its front-firing design, the Five doesn't demand to be a centerpiece the way the 360 SRS-RA5000 does.
The real killer is that there are cheaper ways to experience 360 Reality Audio than dropping almost $700 on the Sony SRS-RA5000. Sony recently released a smaller and cheaper speaker, the SRS-RA3000 ($298), and the almost two-year old Echo Studio, Amazon's high-end smart speaker, both support this immersive audio format. Also, most headphones can also support 360 Reality Audio, although you'll need to subscribe to one of the lossless streaming tiers to experience it.
If money is no object though, the Sony SRS-RA5000 is a great showpiece for what is ultimately a clever and enjoyable though limited and slightly gimmicky audio format. Otherwise, the SRS-RA5000 is a pretty damn expensive to commit to, and there are much more affordable ways to get your 360 fix.