A wireless surround sound setup for your TV is no longer out of reach. Several manufacturers have begun building platforms for wireless sound that allow you to add more speakers as you go. This makes it easier to expand to surround in your house and can help do away with cable clutter. For this review we are testing a setup from Sony where a soundbar acts as the “brain” of the system that other speakers, in different price classes, can be connected to as rear speakers.
The products we are reviewing here are Sony’s soundbar model called HT-NT5 (that comes with a wireless subwoofer) and two different pairs of rear speakers called SRS-ZR7 and SRS-ZR5, respectively.
Price and retailers:
Soundbar: 58 x 108 x 12.7 cm Subwoofer: 38.2 x 19 x 38.6 cm
Soundbar: 3.2 kg Subwoofer: 8.1 kg
Soundbar: 3x HDMI, 1x Ethernet, 1x USB
Soundbar: Wall bracket, user manual, front grille, remote control
In 2014, Sony launched an app called SongPal that you could use to control Sony multi-room speakers. Back in 2014 it was meant only for multi-room music playback.
This year, Sony has expanded the functionality enabling 2016 speakers to connect to the SongPal app and thus allowing you to build wireless surround at home. The 2016 generation platform will allow you to create a 5.1 surround setup with a soundbar as the wireless based that connects to two wireless rear speakers. Furthermore, you can connect one of the new rear speakers to the TV via HDMI and stream sound to the other wirelessly for a 2.0 stereo setup.
The previous Sony speakers from 2014 and 2015 can still be used for multi-room music listening but they cannot be upgraded to function as rear speakers for a TV surround setup as they cannot connect to the soundbars.
The 2016 speakers were launched this summer so we picked several of the products for a review to examine how they interact and complement each other. We have the Sony HT-NT5 soundbar as well as the most expensive SRS-ZR7 rear speakers and the more affordable, and smaller, sibling SRS-ZR5.
Sony HT-NT5 - retail price $800 / £600
Sony SRS ZR7 - retail price $300 / £260
Sony SRS-ZR5 - retail price $200 / £170
Sony HT-NT5 + 2x ZR7 - total cost $1,400 / £1,120
Sony HT-NT5 + 2x ZR5 - total cost $1,200 / £1,120
However, these are not the only audio products that Sony has launched this year compatible with SongPal and wireless surround sound. HT-CT790 is another more affordable soundbar. This is also a “soundbase” that is even cheaper.
If you already own a pair of passive speakers or just want more impressive sound Sony has launched a surround sound receiver called STR-DN1070. It comes with integrated SongPal support for wireless surround sound setups, meaning that you can pair two ZR7 as rear speakers while having passive front and center speakers. This way you have more flexibility in building the setup and can use higher-quality front speakers and subwoofer.
NT5 soundbar - first impressions
When you glance upon Sony’s products for the first time you quickly realize that they do not follow the same design strategy. The soundbar is very sleek with sharp edges; a very modern design. It has a speaker grille for protecting the some of the drivers and with this metal grille fitted the design becomes somewhat similar to the wireless speakers. The speaker grille has curved edges, which is similar to the smaller speakers.
The soundbar grille is held in place with magnets so there are no visible holes that act as visual distractions when the grille is removed. However, even with the grille fitted there are still two small drivers that remain unprotected so watch out for children and clumsy fingers.
In my opinion the soundbar looks rather attractive without the speaker grille fitted. It shares some design traits with Sony’s high-end TVs like X94C/X93C from 2015. Design elements such as sharp edges are still used on the 2016 TVs so this soundbar will pair nicely with both 2015 and 2016 TVs in my opinion.
The soundbar is made of plastic even though it may look like brushed steel from the photos. The design makes it a good fit for other manufacturers’ TVs, too, including Samsung and LG TVs.
Another thing worth mentioning is that the height of the soundbar ensures that it does not cover the TV picture. Many soundbars today are very tall and will, if you place then on TV furniture, cover the bottom of the picture.
If you have placed your TV on a wall and are considering placing the soundbar underneath, you will be happy to learn that a wall bracket is included in the package so there is no need for buying a wall bracket.
On the front of the soundbar you will find a small display. You can see which HDMI port you are using or if you are using Bluetooth or another protocol.
On the right side there is a small NFC chip for pairing the soundbar with an Android smartphone. It is a very simple and easy way to pair your phone with other products via Bluetooth. Just a simple tap on the NFC logo and you are ready to play your phone’s music wirelessly on your soundbar.
Near the NFC logo you will also find a USB port for playing music via USB sticks. It is easy to access and when not in use there is a small plastic cover that you can put on.
Behind you will find 3 HDMI ports and one HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) as well as an S/PDIF optical audio port and 3.5 mm minijack for wired audio connection to the TV. There is also RJ45 Ethernet port. The soundbar has Wi-Fi built-in, if you prefer that.
Because of the slim design the soundbar is not capable of producing low Hz audio frequencies, which is why the soundbar comes with a subwoofer included. The subwoofer is just a rectangular box, designed with sharp. It does not complement the soundbar very well and looks like most other subwoofers, though the driver is somewhat rectangular and not round, as it usually is.
On the front the driver is covered with an ordinary speaker cloth. There is also an LED diode and a glossy plastic port for moving air. Most owners will probably try to hide the subwoofer, at least to some extent, but be aware that the glossy plastic reflects light. The MDF wood is of low quality but for 600 dollars you cannot expect the world.
ZR5 & ZR7 wireless - first impressions
Have you seen a Sony smartphone lately? If you have, you will recognize the similarities in design as the two new wireless speakers, ZR7 and ZR5, share many traits. The edges are boldly emphasized in a slightly different color tone than the rest of the speaker. If you buy a black speaker it will have dark grey edges, and the white speaker will have silver edges.
ZR7 is wider and more horizontal than an ordinary speaker and is several inches wider than the Sonos Play:3 and Samsung WAM M7 speakers that are both taller and not as wide. Sony’s ZR7 looks more like a docking station or speaker for bringing to the beach. Based on the look, one might worry about the sound quality, too, as the drivers will be smaller and therefore possibly of inferior quality.
However, when it comes to quality of materials, Sony pulls ahead of the competitions as the speaker is made from a type of metal thus giving it a finish of higher quality than that of Sonos and Samsung. Both of these are made from plastic and especially Samsung’s WAM speakers are made from cheap glossy plastic.
Sony ZR7 has a metal front grille on front and back. On the front it has two treble drivers and two mid-range drivers behind the grill. On the back there is a custom bass driver, which is not round but rectangular. That way Sony can compensate for the ZR7’s special design by moving the bass driver to the back instead of the front where it would normally be located in a speaker of this kind.
Moving on to Sony’s ZR5 this speaker has a more traditional design and it looks like most other satellite speakers. ZR5 is the cheaper option of the two but still features the quality metal cabinet.
On the back of both speakers we find various connection ports, including 3.5 mm mini-jack, USB A port, RJ45, and HDMI ARC. And a power plug of course, since these are active speakers. Additionally, there are three buttons: “WPS” to connect to your Wi-Fi, “Set up” for initial set up and “Stereo pair” to set up a pair of speakers in semi wireless 2.0 stereo. You still need a power cord. By pairing two ZR7 or ZR5, respectively, you can create a stereo setup for your TV where only one speaker is connected to the TV via HDMI – the other is wireless.
For this review the wireless surround sound possibilities and SongPal functionality are the most interesting but I will also cover the usage and sound quality of “stereo pair” feature.
Furthermore, ZR7 has a USB B port that most people will recognize a PC-type printer port. However, it can also be used for when you want to connect your PC to a network player, receiver or speaker.
As said, this is a review of several products in one. I will test NT5 alone, ZR7 alone, ZR5 alone as well as NT5 combined with pairs of ZR7 and ZR5, respectively. Lastly, I will also briefly address how you can use pairs of ZR7 and ZR5 for TV stereo sound.
Throughout the review, I will compare ZR7 and ZR5 with last generation Sonos Play:3 that is cheaper than ZR7 but more expensive than ZR5. I have previously reviewed Samsung’s WAM multi-room speaker so I will refer to it at times. Sony’s NT5 soundbar will be compared with Samsung’s HW-J6500 that was sold at a similar price point in 2015.
I use a QNAP Network server with Blu-ray rips as well as Netflix on Apple TV4. For music playback I will primarily use Spotify Premium, but also some alternatives. The TV is a Sony HX855 from 2012, but it makes no difference if you pair all the speakers to a Sony or Samsung, LG, whatever as the connection runs through an ordinary HDMI cable.
Setup - wireless surround
To connect Sony NT5 to your TV you simply need a HDMI cable and then follow a few simple steps shown on the TV; select your Wi-Fi network and type the password. It should not cause any trouble for anybody.
However, once initial setup was done the soundbar’s on-screen showed a pop up to tell me that an important software update was pending. This update is crucial as it enables the wireless surround sound functionality.
Unfortunately, the update process required too much hassle. You are guided through similar setup menus on-screen and at first it seemed like a simple 3-stop procedure. However, the update did not work over either Wi-Fi or LAN so I had to download the update file from Sony’s website, transfer it to a USB memory stick, and install it from there. Of course I have done this many times in the past but that was in the early 00’es. This should not happen in 2016. At all. Not good enough Sony.
When the software update had finished, I was guided through how to use two ZR7 for wireless surround sound. You now have to press the “set up” buttons on each of the two speakers. After that, you are ready to go. No hassle here. Sony NT5 and the two wireless speakers are now paired in a 5.1 surround sound system.
I experienced no issues with lag, drop outs or sync issues between video and sound. If that should happen you have some adjustment controls in the system settings menu. If you own an Android TV device like Nvidia Shield or a recent TV from Sony or Philips, you will also recognize the menus and user interface language.
Setup - wireless stereo
With two ZR5 or ZR7, respectively, you can set up a 2.0 stereo system for your TV. This is where the HDMI port comes in handy, as it allows you to connect one of the wireless speakers to the TV and create a wireless link between the two speakers through Sony’s SongPal app or by using the “stereo setup” buttons on the speakers. While this may not sound like a major upgrade, such a 2.0 stereo setup gives you significantly better sound than what 99 percent of TV speakers deliver.
The setup was quick and easy and I did not need a manual. If you use the SongPal app there is also a nice little step-by-step guide if you need it: Plug in HDMI, activate left speaker, activate right speaker. After 10-20 seconds you should be ready to go. The app is simple to use but the interface very boring, consisting of mostly dull grey colors.
If you instead just use the “stereo setup” pair buttons on the back of the speaker you will not get any visual signs, only audio messages to let you know that the speakers are trying to synchronize.
I experienced no lag, drop outs or synchronization issues. I tried to set up the stereo system several times throughout the review (for ZR7 and ZR5) and the process went smooth every time. In 2014, when Sony introduced the SongPal app and multi-room for music I was a bit disappointed that the company did not include TV compatibility. Looking back, that decision was properly sound as some of Sony’s competitors launched wireless surround systems in 2014 that were riddled with bugs, had slow apps and picture/sound synchronization issues.
Sony may be late to the (wireless) party but they got it right.
Sony’s SongPal app
If you want to listen to music and setup up (and control) multi-room you need to install the SongPal app on your smartphone. The app works spotlessly on both Android and iOS, but the user interface is a boring mix of grey color tones. The functionality on the other hand is great and it employs the same user-friendly, big icons as the Spotify app. These icons can be modified to show your preferred apps and functions.
Whether you have music stored on your NAS, on your smartphone or just stream music via one of the popular streaming services Sony’s speakers can play along. The SongPal platform supports Apple Airplay, Google Cast, Spotify Connect, Deezer, Pandora, TuneIn Radio, Rhapsody and Google Play Music. A few services appear to be missing: Tidal, Apple Music and Spotify’s apps are not mentioned by Sony, but all three works without issues.
The SongPal app can be used to adjust audio volume, create speaker groups and adjust other sound settings. If you want to use Spotify you just have to open the Spotify app; the SongPal app does not need to be active. Apps are not integrated like they are in Sonos. Some people prefer the Sonos way where all apps integrate in one unified user interface, while others prefer to use the native for Spotify, Deezer and so on.
One thing worth mentioning is that if you want to adjust the volume on all multi-room speakers you can do so in the native app as the speakers are grouped in Google Cast or Spotify Connect, but if you want to adjust audio volume on only one speaker you need to do it from the SongPal app.
NT5 soundbar sound
After testing, I can say that NT5 is a good 2.1 soundbar for everyday use and movies. ‘Transformer’, a good movie for testing the full movie sound spectrum, was reproduced well and sound was balanced. Dialog is crystal clear and the subwoofer is adequately tight and quick. A more expensive 2.1 solution will obviously offer better bas control and reproduce even deeper audio frequencies, and may be able to better reproduce details and resolution. On the other hand, treble is very “up front” which some listeners prefer - or even demand - but it is not as balanced as a Hi-Fi enthusiast would like.
‘Transformers’ was chosen as test material because of its audio qualities and massive use of explosions, mechanical and sci-fi sound effects. It also features a range of instrumental music cuts and songs that can serve the purpose of testing the soundbar’s quality as an all-round speaker. My testing reveals that Sony has made it a priority to make dialog clear but also that NT5 cuts off some the more high-frequency sounds. This is a shame since details will get lost but it can be a good thing in that sense that it removes distortion at high volume.
Loss of detail can be hard to explain when talking about sound. However, you can compare it to a TV-term like HDR (High Dynamic Range) where the dynamic range is expanded at each end, revealing more details, too. A quality speaker is able to reproduce something similar with sound, including a sound so high-pitched or annoying that you will want to cover your ears. Sony’s speaker is not able to reproduce such sounds nor does it try to do so. Other speakers in the same price range will often try but with unwanted distortion as a result. Or on other words, NT5 knows its limits.
As with TVs, speakers try to reproduce reality, which is why it is crucial that a soundbar sounds as realistic and non-distorting as possible. At FlatpanelsHD we know that film makers are very selective about lights, colors, scene settings and so on, which is why we want a TV to reproduce the exact colors and shadows as George Lukas or Steven Spielberg intended to be shown. It is the exact same thing with audio. For movies Sony’s soundbar is rather spot on, taking the price into consideration. It emphasizes the dialog a bit too much and the bass is not powerful enough, but all in all it is a good compromise.
NT5’s weak spot is certainly the subwoofer. With the remote control you can adjust the subwoofer effect, but no matter what you do it will never go deep enough. It simply lacks the power so you do not get that rumble in the stomach that a heftier subwoofer is capable of. The great thing about subwoofer volume buttons is that you can adjust the volume during the day. You generally do not want a powerful subwoofer when watching the news or an ordinary sit-com Wednesday night.
Some subwoofers in similar-priced sound systems are better but with Sony’s version you still get acceptable value for money, and you will certainly experience a major improvement compared to your TV’s speakers.
When it comes to music, NT5 is not very good. Unfortunately, very few soundbars are. Sonos’ Playbar sounds OK but it also costs twice as much when you add the Sonos subwoofer. For music playback the NT5’s bass unit is not fast enough to reproduce heavy metal and cannot go deep enough to properly reproduce jazz or techno. This is not really a surprise as few soundbars in this price class can and Sony NT5 is of course first and foremost a solution for enjoying movies.
If you want a soundbar that is great for music, too, I suggest that you buy Sonos instead. Of course a Sonos setup will carry a significantly higher price tag if you want a 5.1 system. Or simple opt for a traditional 5.1 system if you can accept wires; you can get a very decent set for 1200 dollars.
ZR7 - wireless rear and music
Moving on to one of the two wireless speakers, the ZR7 can double as multi-room speaker. This means that you can use it for your 5.1 TV surround setup and for listening to music.
When playing music you will find that at low volume the bass will slowly disappear whereas the vocal is clear (at any volume). At moderate or normal volume, the bass sounds much better and delivers a more balanced sound stage. As such, ZR7 pretty quickly makes it clear that is has been built in the same spirit as the NT5 soundbar. Synergy is of course a good thing in a 5.1 setup but it also means that your sound stage will lack the high notes and low bass.
Listening to the Disturbed’s “Down with the sickness” makes it abundantly clear that you are listening to a small speaker in the sub-$500 segment. The bass guitar and drums can sometimes sound as if the two were mixed into one. A better – and more expensive – speaker system would have better resolution and separation.
Sonos Play:5 is much better at reproducing low frequencies but cost more or less double. Play:3 on the other hand is not on par with ZR7 in terms of separation and timing. If you like piano music or high-pitched vocals Sony’s NT5 is better than its competitors. This is clear especially when playing Jeff Buckley’s fragile ”Halleluja”. Most speakers in this size and price segment will sound flat but Sony ZR7 has a crisp sound and never distorts, even at high volume.
Sony brags about support “Hi-Res audio“, too, and I can report that it works as intended. However, playing Eric Clapton’s ”Tears In Heaven” revealed no difference in sound as the speaker honestly cannot handle the extra information. You can technically play your FLAC files and Hi-Res music but do not expect any improvement. You need a far bigger, better and more expensive speaker system and to hear these kinds of subtle differences.
Using two ZR7s for a surround system together with NT5, the two ZR7s were quickly reprogrammed to rear left and rear right speakers for the wireless setup that Sony calls a “5.1 setup”. Technically it is only a 4.1 setup as the NT5 only has a front right and left channels. Hi-Fi enthusiasts would probably even argue that the NT5 can only produce mono sound because the units are placed within one meter and for proper stereo the left and right channels should have a few meters of space between them (for proper separation). But these are the conditions when making – and using – a soundbar.
Like before, I used some key scenes from Transformers as well as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings for testing. Peter Jackson and George Lukas flaunt their love for surround effects, explosions and audio creativity. The surround sound left/right effects could be better separated but because the two ZR7s are wireless you can place them several meters from each other, meaning that you can actually get better separation than in the front with NT5 alone.
All in all, sound is pleasant and dialog is very crisp and clear; definitely no unintended mumbling here. The subwoofer is this system’s Achilles heel. If Sony equipped the soundbar with a better subwoofer, which would be a relatively small expense, the overall movie sound experience would get much better, and it would be a better all-in-one solution. However, no sound system that can be had for less than $1500 will deliver this level of crispy clear and focused sound along with proper bass control. There has to be a compromise. Sony chose to focus on mid and high tones.
Comparing Sony’s solution to a system consisting of Sonos Playbar, subwoofer and two Play:3 the latter will give you the same degree of quality mid-range plus the subwoofer that we are longing for, but is will also cost significantly more; around 500 dollars more to be exact.
Samsung’s WAM system will cost the same as Sony’s and while it subwoofer may be better, vocals are less clear and true to reality.
Sony’s ZR speakers have an HDMI port that allows you to create a 2.0 stereo setup for TV. This way you will drastically improve TV sound but there is of course no subwoofer in this setup and the price of two ZR7s is almost the same as NT5 alone so unless you really want to avoid the subwoofer, NT5 is the better solution.
The advantage of using two ZR7s is of course that you get added placement flexibility that looks better in a modern living room.
ZR5 - good rear speaker
The smaller model, ZR5, reveals the same qualities and flaws as ZR7 during testing. The small cabinet, of course, a limitation. Still, Ben Harper’s vocal, hi-hat and guitar are clear with great separation in ”Burn One Down”. For a speaker of this size and price it does remarkably well. Music does not sound trapped inside the small speaker and that may prove to be one of these speaker’s biggest qualities; it sounds like a much bigger speaker.
One the other hand bass hardly exists but that is probably too much to ask for such a small speaker. The ultra-low notes are simply cut off and when there is both a bass guitar and deep drums it can be hard to tell the difference. You cannot tell if one is mixed to be slightly more dominant in the right or left speaker or are mixed together in the center. This speaker should not be your main speaker, especially not if you like rock or jazz, but can be a good companion for a room or the kitchen.
Just like ZR7, you can use two ZR5s as rear speakers in a surround sound setup – together with the Sony NT5 soundbar – which will cost you around $1200. Not much can be added compared to the previous section. The surround sound performance is average. ZR5 cannot deliver the same depth in the sound as its bigger brother (ZR7) but for a surround setup where the subwoofer can help alleviate that I think it is a decent system for the price ($1200). Again, a system that excels in crisp and crystal clear dialog and high notes.
For a TV surround solution, paired with Sony NT5, I view 2x ZR5 as a slightly better buy than 2x ZR7, mostly because of the lower price and the fact that it has many of the same qualities. And for wireless surround it is a more flexible solution because of the smaller cabinet size and the fact that you can place them on furniture or the wall. ZR5 also has HDMI, which means that you can use it for stereo sound. Even in a stereo setup it is a major improvement over your TV’s built-in speakers.
How do you best improve TV sound and build a wireless surround system? That question will become more relevant in the coming years as many companies start building wireless sound platforms for TVs. For this review, we examined Sony’s NT5 soundbar paired with two different pairs of rear speakers; ZR5 and ZR7.
The performance of Sony’s NT5 soundbar was somewhat predictable. Sony is known it balanced and true-to-source sound for movies and music. However, while dialog is crystal clear the subwoofer lacks punch and depth. It cannot make your sofa rumble. Sony is obviously aware of that so the subwoofer cut off the lowest notes. Also, it is a subwoofer for movies, not music, as it lacks better separation
Setting up the wireless surround system was mostly hassle-free. The menus guide you through the process but the first software update required me to download it and put it on a USB stick, which is the opposite of user-friendly. I did not experience drop outs, lag or picture/sound synchronization either. By the way, the solution works identically with other brands’ TVs.
The surround sound effect was not great but not bad either. It could have benefitted from better separation. The limitation is that you can “only” expand to 5.1 surround and you cannot upgrade the subwoofer. If Sony continues to develop the platform hopefully one day you can build a customized setup and have several speakers to select from. Of course, it only works with Sony speakers at the moment. Considering the price and the competition I would rate Sony’s wireless TV surround solution as average.
You already have some choice as you can pair the Sony HT-NT5 soundbar, the cheaper HT-CT790 or Sony’s soundbase, with either ZR5 or ZR7 for rear speakers. NT5 plus ZR5 and ZR7, respectively, will set you back $1200 or $1400. If you are willing to spend that I think you get good value. The soundbar alone is a major upgrade over the built-in speakers in most TVs.
Samsung is probably the closest competitor with its WAM wireless sound system that we reviewed last year. The biggest difference is that Samsung’s has better bass whereas Sony’s is better for music and reproduces sound more faithfully with better mid-tones. The third option would be Sonos, which is the best of the three, but also the most expensive. Lastly, if you can accept wired front speakers but want wireless rear speakers you could look at Sony’s surround receiver STR1070.
All in all, wireless TV surround is not yet completely wireless and leaves room for improvement on some parameters. Still, Sony waited one year compared to some of its competitors and got it mostly right. You certainly pay extra for the added convenience of wireless and that may be worth if but I still cannot help thinking that can accept some extra wires you can get considerably better sound, especially for music.
Price and retailers:
Nice design Crystal clear vocal User-friendly menus and app Picture/sound in sync from beginning
Weak subwoofer Surround effect could be better Subwoofer cannot be upgraded First software update is cumbersome