Seeing a renaissance of sorts in consumer audio, Sony has redoubled its efforts in the market recently. Part of the company’s new push is its latest line of portable speakers, the SRS-X series. The middle child of the new lineup, the SRS-X7, offers a host of ways to wirelessly connect, a smart and stylish design, and enough sonic horsepower to give its slim frame some serious muscle. In truth, the speaker is miles beyond what we’ve seen from Sony in previous portable offerings
However, during our evaluation, we soon discovered the X7’s full sonic potential can only be unleashed when plugged into a wall – a strange hang-up for a portable. And though the speaker boasts some respectable talents, including portability, AirPlay, and DLNA, it’s at its best when simply rocking Bluetooth at home. Follow us below to determine if this well-stocked brick of boom wields enough talents to make up for its shortcomings.
Out of the box
Unboxing the X7 was similar to the vanilla experience unpacking most Sony gear, albeit with a touch of Apple’s flair thrown in. Opening the lid revealed a neat packet of welcome propaganda. As we pulled away the top layer, the Apple vibe dissolved a bit, falling into run-of-the-mill packaging, with the X7 wrapped in white foam alongside a power supply and cable, and some basic setup instructions.
We were taken aback by how heavy the little speaker was.
As we removed the X7, we were taken aback by how heavy the little speaker was, feeling all of its 4.3 lbs as we set it on the table. Pulling back its white shroud revealed a sleek brick of black and silver, with brushed metal accents on the sides, and a glistening plate of glass along the top panel. Touch capacitive buttons for basic controls littered the right side, while the back panel revealed Network and WPS controls, ports for power, LAN, and an Aux input, as well as a USB port for charging devices, and a pop-up antenna.
Features and design
There’s something decidedly Sony about the X7’s design- and the rest of the speakers in the SRS-X line – that we can’t quite put our finger on. The speakers are stylish, with a touch of elegance, yet decidedly no-nonsense. Sony calls the design “neutral.” Not exactly inspiring, but we still found the X7 pretty attractive, and it does work in almost any setting.
The buttons adorning the sparkling top panel are as square as a pack of nuns at a Metallica show, and their correspondent LEDs bear conservative pinpoints centered neatly at the top of each key. The power key at the top right is the only one of the group that isn’t touch capacitive, pushing in slightly on a spring when powering the X7 on. Next to the power button are twin volume keys, a paring key for Bluetooth, and a Network key. At the left is an NFC symbol to mark the spot for touch-pairing compatible Bluetooth devices.
There’s also an Update key along the top, which glows red when a firmware update is needed, which happened twice in our short evaluation. Updating is accomplished by holding the key down for a few seconds, and takes several minutes. Two more LEDs sit next to the update key, including a Charge LED which glows red when the unit is charging, and a Link indicator which blinks green while searching for connection, changes from green to red if no connection is made, and is snuffed out completely if the Network switch at the back of the speaker is turned off.
The X7 offers multiple ways to play, including the hardwired Aux input, DLNA for streaming music from computers and NAS storage devices, AirPlay for Apple gear, and Bluetooth version 3.0 with support for the aptX codec, which is meant to provide “CD-quality” audio over Bluetooth.
The unit’s rechargeable battery is most efficient with Bluetooth, though with about six hours of runtime, that comes up short against competing models in the X7’s price range. To make matters worse, that number is cut in half when connected via Wi-Fi. That said, if you are using Wi-Fi, there’s probably an available outlet nearby, and unless you’re sourcing music from your PC or Mac, there isn’t much reason to connect over Wi-Fi anyway, as there was little audible improvement over Bluetooth in our testing. A massive bump in bass offers further reason to plug the speaker in, but we’ll cover that in the performance section.
… a sleek brick of black and silver, with brushed metal accents on the sides, and a glistening plate of glass along the top.
The X7’s cabinet is approximately 12-inches wide, five-inches high, and 2.4-inches deep. Beneath that lean exterior rest two full-range drivers around 2-inches in diameter flanking a 2.4-inch “subwoofer.” The woofer’s bass output is further bolstered by a twin pair of elliptical passive radiators beneath it. Each of the drivers is pushed by 8 watts of amplification, while 16 watts are allotted to the woofer. The speaker also utilizes Sony’s ClearAudio and DSEE HX digital signal processing.
The X7 is compatible with Sony’s new SongPal app, which allows for multi-band EQ, controlling music sources from a DLNA connected PC or server, streaming from built-in apps like Pandora, Sony’s Music Unlimited service, Spotify, and TuneIn radio, and a few other tricks. More apps can also be added from the menu, but often it’s easier to just use the app natively. Plus, Sony requires you link with the X7 through its website to use Pandora and other apps, which is annoying.
Sonos has set a standard that larger companies are still trying to reach. The company’s intuitive multi-room speakers get up and running with the touch of a button, and are packed with features and apps. For all its talents, the X7 doesn’t come close to the ease of a Sonos system when it comes to setup, and of course, it also won’t link with other speakers for latency-free audio throughout the home.
That said, Bluetooth streaming and portability give the X7 an edge. And it wasn’t all that difficult to get the speaker going on Wi-Fi using the SongPal app. To do so, we simply paired via Bluetooth and the app found our network and asked us to share preferences. Once done, we could easily stream files via AirPlay from our iPhone 5, and even from our Plex Media Server. Those with Plex or other DLNA servers will find sourcing their files similarly easy.
However, playing via AirPlay on a Mac is more difficult, requiring an initial hardwired Ethernet connection to the X7, then tapping into it from a browser, and selecting multiple network settings. The manual walks you through it, but it’s a lot of work for what turns out to be an underwhelming payoff. Better to go with DLNA.
For all of its features, the X7 exhibited a few bothersome quirks. The speaker is extremely slow to connect to a network when powered on – somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-20 seconds. We also experienced some intermittent cut-out while streaming from our iPhone 5 over AirPlay over both our home network and our network at the office. And when AirPlay did become a problem, we couldn’t just switch to Bluetooth from our phone – doing so requires tapping the Bluetooth input button on top of the speaker.
More generally, the speaker was a little sluggish in operation, and not as intuitive as we’d hoped. As mentioned, we were prompted to update the speaker twice, which consisted of holding down the update key, and then waiting what felt like the longest 10-15 minutes ever. The second time we did so seemed to solve the dropping out of AirPlay, though, so that was a win overall.
We had zero issues streaming over Bluetooth, however, and since many portables offer Bluetooth as their only mode of transmission, Wi-Fi streaming is a nice bonus. The SongPal app isn’t quite on par with more feature-rich multi-room speaker apps like Sonos’, but it is pretty handy once you get the hang of it. It’s nice to be able to power the speaker off remotely, or easily call up source files from servers, and you can even select multiple Sony devices to control – if you have multiple Sony devices to control.
As we alluded to earlier, the X7’s audio performance consists of two completely different experiences – one with the speaker plugged into a power source, and one using battery power.
With hardwired juice, Sony’s little brick is a serious powerhouse in the bass. It absolutely pulses with force down low, turning songs like Lorde’s “Royals” into an engaging display of reverberating bravado. The speaker is so potent on heavier tunes (again, while plugged in) that it has a tendency to vibrate less stable surfaces, and even dance around. Holding the device in our hand during such moments buzzed our whole arm as the speaker played down to around 60 Hz with potency, and yet never exhibited any major cabinet hum or distortion.
With hardwired juice, this little brick is a serious powerhouse in the bass.
Unfortunately, unplugging the device all but cuts that low end force in half, which was fairly disappointing. That kind of loss in performance between power sources was once common for portable speakers, but it’s something we’ve not dealt with in a while, and even then rarely with this much drop in overall potency.
Luckily, the rest of the frequencies were far less affected when switching back and forth. We heard some presence lost in the vocals, but they still sounded clear and forward for most of our listening. And of course, there was less potency and depth in the foundation of certain instruments, particularly percussion and bass guitar.
As for the general sound of the higher frequencies: there was a lot to like. The sound is decidedly vanilla, but that’s not always a bad thing. We never heard anything offensive such as sharp sibilance in the treble, or cloudy warbles in the middle register. The acoustic guitar on Ray LaMontagne’s “I Still Care for You” blushed with clear warmth, and the flat cut of the strings offered some nice texture. The next song on the album, “Meg White” also had some pleasant depth to the sound, propelling the bass clarinet that haunts the lower register out in front with style, while cymbals and the lead vocal were fleshed out well above. Generally, the speaker does a nice job of balancing the frequency spectrum.
Reflecting the deeper details of the music was perhaps the weakest point for the X7. The complex composition of Depeche Mode’s “Sweetest Perfection” was a telltale sign of detail lost, as we noticed a lot of the more granular textures and effects of the synths getting dulled over. We noticed some dulling at the attack of instruments as well, making us wish for better separation. Fast transient instruments like horns and snare snaps were often less defined and engaging than we would have liked, losing some of their vibrant sparkle. Still, there was a smooth overall tone to most of the music we auditioned that was pleasant, if not a bit opaque at times.
While there’s a lot to like about Sony’s new SRS-X7, the speaker seems to have a bit of an identity crisis. Unable to decide whether it wants to be a portable or a homebound speaker, it balances between both worlds, without really excelling at either. The X7 provided plenty of pleasant sonic moments, showcasing a smooth and clear sound signature, and more power than its size would suggest – especially when plugged in. Plus, its wealth of features keeps it in the mix. Still, in a crowded field, the SRS-X7 is a little late to the party, and may need another evolution to compete with the best.
- Clear, balanced treble
- Potential for huge bass
- Feature packed/multiple ways to play
- Attractive design
- Portable and versatile
- Operation can be sluggish
- Glosses over inner detail
- Occasional AirPlay drop-out
- Loses potency when unplugged