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Thursday
May082014

Review: Sony SRS-X9 ultra premium personal speaker


Despite creating a beautiful, feature-rich and well thought-out wireless speaker, Sony’s SRS-X9 fails to deliver consistently high quality sound over its wireless and wired inputs.

By Simon Cohen

N.B.: Modified on May 9, 10:06 AM EST to include new information about the SRS-X9's sound quality when connected to physical sources of lossless audio.

The wireless audio phenomenon in consumer tech is huge and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. It’s into this already crowded category that Sony is throwing three new contenders for your wireless speaker dollars. The biggest and baddest of the three is the SRS-X9, a sophisticated-looking all-in-one affair that straddles the line between bookshelf speaker and home theatre sound-bar.

Competition

The SRS-X9, which retails for $699 CDN, is priced at the high end of the wireless speaker market, placing it in competition with the Sonos Play:5 ($499) or possibly the Sonos Playbar ($749) as well as offerings from Pioneer, Bose, Bowers & Wilkins, Polk Audio and Marantz.

Set-up and Connectivity

As you would expect from such a device, it offers a wealth of connectivity including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, line-in (via mini-jack), Ethernet and USB. It’s also DLNA and AirPlay compatible.

Sony has gone to great lengths to make connecting and configuring the SRS X9 easy. They’ve created a free app called SongPal that’s available for iOS and Android. SongPal acts as a kind of all-in-one control panel for the speaker, giving you set-up options such as device selection (in case you have more than one speaker), custom and pre-set EQ settings, plus the ability to add apps as “sources” for playback.

If you use an iDevice like an iPhone or iPod Touch, SongPal can automatically configure the SRS-X9 with your home WiFi connection details and password, which has proven to be a major headache on other wireless speakers like Pioneer’s XW-SMA series.

In some ways, it might have been simpler if Sony had restricted SongPal to just a configuration app, but for some people – especially those who aren’t using AirPlay – having all of the apps you want to stream from in one place can be handy.

Speaking of handy, if you want to pair the SRS-X0 via Bluetooth, you’ll love that it has built-in NFC. Pairing with a compatible NFC smartphone or tablet is as simple as tapping the NFC icons together.

Design


The SRS-X9 has a sleek, monolithic design that is “all speaker.” The top panel is a glass surface that contains a pair of top-firing “super-tweeters” as well as the unit’s touch sensitive controls. Always visible are the power, volume and link status areas, however swiping your hand over the centre of the panel reveals a series of additional touch controls including Network, Bluetooth pairing, USB A and B and Audio (Line) In.

Although it’s a total dust and fingerprint magnet, there’s no doubt that the glass surface gives the SRS-X9 a decidedly upscale feel.

Tucked in the back, along with the hidden physical connectivity ports, is a swivel-style Wi-Fi antenna that retracts into the body of the speaker when not in use. Design-wise, it’s a nice touch and shows that Sony is serious about keeping the look of the SRS-X9 as clean and minimal as possible. Likewise, the use of an internal power supply means you don’t have to deal with finding a home for a massive brick – just one simple power cord.

However, for those who are willing to trade those clean lines for a barrier-free sound experience, Sony’s use of a magnetically sealed metal speaker grille is an inspired touch. Because the fit and finish of the grill is so tight to the speaker cabinet, Sony even includes twin magnetic anchor bars that you can use to pull the top corners of the grille away from their mounting points without using your fingernails or some other equally inadequate tool that might damage the finish of both the grille and the cabinet.

Once exposed, the series of circular and rounded-square drivers change the look of the SRS-X9 from Mercedes S-series into Chevy Camaro. The central driver is especially menacing-looking with its series of radial grooves that evoke a certain turbine quality.

Accessories

The SRS-X9 comes with its own remote control, something that has become almost standard with these wireless Hi-Fi units. Unlike most of the others, which typically use the credit-card size remotes with the blister-buttons, Sony’s remote looks and feels like a remote should: a solid bar of minimal yet well laid-out buttons that shares remote control DNA with Sony’s AV line of products. The remote gives you access to all of the speaker’s functions including Bluetooth pairing, source selection and even track-skip forward and back.

Sound Quality

The bottom line for any speaker is of course, the sound. What I discovered through putting the SRS-X9 through its paces is that it is capable of delivering full, rich, room-filling sound, but not under all conditions or with all source material.

The SRS-X9’s stellar set of inputs doesn’t exist just for the sake of convenience. Each input has a significant effect on audio quality. While I would prefer that each source be capable of delivering equal performance, this simply isn’t the case, so let me explain:

Lossless audio on an external USB storage device

If you want to experience the SRS-X9’s full range of sound, you will need to pair high quality source material, say lossless AAC or FLAC files, with the X9’s built-in digital music playback software. There are two ways to do this. You can store these files on any USB storage device and then connect the device to the SRS-X9 using the speaker’s USB A port. In this scenario, the SongPal app lets you navigate the contents of your drive and play any track directly. There’s no way to create playslists on the fly, but the software does recognize playlist files such as .m3u.

The other way is to connect a PC or Mac via the USB B port (using a USB printer cable) and then control the playback of lossless files stored on your computer via a compatible piece of software such as Foobar2000.

In either scenario, the result is the same: excellent sound with a superb balance between highs and lows. I auditioned several tracks using this method including Lorde’s Team, which is a great test because of Lorde’s unique vocals and the bass-heavy rhythm. The X9 managed to create a soundstage that was both deep and relatively wide while giving the vocals and drums/bass room to shine independently. While I would still prefer even more low-end, the X9 will probably satisfy all but the most demanding audiophiles when used in this way.

The only drawback to the X9’s sound performance—and this is likely my personal bias—is that it seems to sacrifice some warmth for precision. There’s no doubt that the SRS-X9 can deliver crystal clear sound, but it’s this focus on clarity that leans the sound toward the “bright” side of things.

Streaming over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

As good as the SRS-X9’s sound is when the speaker is connected to a digital audio source, the quality starts to deteriorate as you move into the wireless arena.

When connected via WiFi (AirPlay or other), the same audio tracks are no longer quite as crisp and detailed. Despite the X9’s ability to handle lossless files, something happens when that same data is provided from a wireless source. It’s not a dramatic difference, but it’s noticeable. The soundstage loses some depth. The separation between highs and lows is somewhat reduced and the mids get just a little muddier. It won’t be a deal-breaker for most listeners, especially since the average consumer doesn’t even keep their music as lossless files – the lossy MP3 format still being among the most popular.

Streaming via Bluetooth yields almost the same results, but to my ear at least, takes a further hit to sound quality. I’d say that all of the issues with WiFi streaming are affected by about another 10-15% when using Bluetooth, meaning we’re now a significant distance from the SRS-X9’s maximum capabilities.

Connected via Line-in

Much to my surprise, the worst sound quality was delivered via a physical connection. As a test of the line-in, I played the same lossless tracks from my iPhone via a short mini-jack patch cord, without any EQ adjustment on the device itself and let the SRS-X9 do its best.

The result was poorly resolved details, a significant diminishment of the low and mid range with only the high-end remaining true to the source material.

In a way, this makes sense. The iPhone is the device decoding the audio file and sending analog out via its headphone port. That adds extra steps between source and speaker and naturally that will decrease quality. But I’ve used the same connection with other stand-alone speakers before and achieved better results.

Conclusion

It’s been challenging trying to come up with a recommendation on the SRS-X9. On the one hand, when paired with lossless audio via a USB connection, the speaker really lives up to its billing as an “Ultra Premium” speaker. But you’re not buying just an ultra premium speaker. For $700, you’re buying an ultra premium wireless speaker, and it should sound just as good when playing music wirelessly as it does when it’s physically connected.

While WIFI audio quality is good, it’s not stellar, and doesn’t seem to let the SRS-X9 live up to its potential. Bluetooth is acceptable if you’re using the speaker for very casual listening or as a background for a party.

Because of these irregularities, you need to think hard about what you want from your music system. If you’re content to ignore the SRS-X9’s wireless function, and will be happy running lossless audio from a connected source, you will be treated to some great sound indeed.

If, however, you are looking for a wireless solution for your home or office, I strongly suggest you audition other products before committing to the SRS-X9. I suspect you will find that there are products on the market that are able to maximize their audio potential – even with lossless files – as well over wireless connections as they can over physical ones.

Reader Comments (2)

I am looking to upgrade my very old Cambridge Soundworks Model 88CD radio. The sound from my Model 88CD radio is really superb, still better than most all-in-one stereos I hear today, however, the CD unit is skipping and Cambridge Soundworks won't fix them anymore. Also, I want a true upgrade in style and sound quality and the Sony SRS-X9 seems to be the best looking radio with the best sound quality out there. Please, I need your advice...

I am looking to purchase 3 of these units! That's right; one for my bedroom, one for the kitchen, and one for the living room. The SRS-X9 in my bedroom will be connected to my Sony T.V. with a cable connected to the audio-out on the T.V. running to the audio-in on the SRS-X9. I have a Sony Blu Ray too and I want to watch movies and listen to music with the Blu Ray player as my source. Is this possible with the SRS-X9? Also, how is the sound quality using the audio-in of the SRS-X9?

Secondly, with the SRS-X9's can I just push the NFC buttons on the all the units while I am playing a CD through the bedroom unit and will the bedroom unit communicate with the rest?

Also, I have 160 GB of music on my external hard drive burned with Apple Lossless from CD's. Will the Sony support Apple Lossless too?

You mentioned competitors in your article. Are there competitors that you would recommend over the Sony SRS-X9? (I've listened to the Sonos offerings and I thought the sound quality of the Play 3's and Play 5's was mediocre at best.)

Also, in terms of transmitting wireless music, which wireless method has the best sound quality, Airplay or Bluetooth? I have also been reading about SKAA and I was wondering if the Sony would support SKAA. Apparently there are ways to wirelessly connect music without the loss of sound quality and digital information. I just don't know them and it is the most confusing part of this puzzle for me.

The Sony SRS-X9 may be the best thing out there but I am the average Joe and I find that the learning curve to maximize the potential of wireless speakers is daunting. We are done with the age of plug-in-play, that's for sure. Your help would greatly be appreciated.

Thanks,
David

June 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

Hi.
Did you connect it with a bluetooth device which has aptx? I tried this with Sony's own player Nwz A15 and the result was really very good! Beautiful crisp sound, detailed midrange... etc. Now I am considering to buy it, if you are saying that the bluetooth connection was the worst one, because my primary use will be USB port! Nice, thank you!

December 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTibor

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