Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Review: Sony SRS-X5 vs. Denon Envaya - priced small like a Soundlink Mini, sound big like a Soundlink III?

Lately I concentrated rather on more portable speakers, with the hope of maybe finding some better alternative to the Soundlink Mini. Apart from the Pill XL that I have already reviewed here, I haven't tried any larger speakers, because for my own personal purposes they would be just too large to be carried around all the time. The Soundlink Mini is able to produce enough loudness for my needs, and the sound from the Soundlink Mini is full and bassheavy enough to make listening to music really enjoying, thus I didn't feel the need to try out something larger and heavier.

When I heard the Sony SRS-X5 in a store, priced lower than the Soundlink Mini, but sounding considerably more balanced and equally full-bodied, I became curious to hear it once in a more controlled enviroment. Meanwhile Denon had announced their new "Envaya" portable speaker, priced nearly equally. Statements like "enhanced DSP processing from MaxxAudio to deliver lower lows and higher highs, than any other speaker this size" made me even more curious and because the first reviews of the Denon Envaya were all positive, I finally decided to try both side by side. I emailed Denon and asked them to send me a review sample, but they didn't even answer!
So I bought it when it finally became available and included the Sony SRS-X5 as well, to have some direct comparison, for not to use my Soundlink Mini all the time as only reference, because many already rant me a Bose fanboy etc.

Both Sony SRS-X5 and Denon Envaya are comparable in size and weight, resembling a bit the Soundlink II, TDK A33 etc. thus both are quite a bit larger than the Soundlink Mini. At the same time both are priced below 199$ or 199€, the Sony being even a bit cheaper at least in Europe where you can get it for 179$, while the Bose Soundlink Mini can be currently had for 175€ at instead of the original 199€. If not for size, all 3 speakers would at least be comparable for value costing nearly the same.

The Denon Envaya has a more organic rounded look. The Sony looks simple and edgy like a boring brick. I like both designs to tell the truth and I went with the white color for both, because it should be more forgiving outdoors with some sun shining. The Sony is also available in red and black, while the Denon comes in either white or black, but they also include some colored inlays that you can exchange for your liking. Not sure how often one would like to change the color of the speaker, I would have preferred a cover or bag for transport, as both speakers have some picky surfaces, which might scratch easily during transport. Sony offers at least an additional transport cover for the X5, while I have not found anything suitable for the Envaya yet.

Because of the rounded edges the Denon Envaya should also be easily to pack away for transport. The Sony is not really bigger, but because of the design it just looks as if it would take away more space. The Denon has some fold-out stand, without whose help it won't stand at all. You press an area at the top of the back-side and it flips out pretty easily. Standing like that the Envaya is tilted slightly upwards, while the Sony will stand vertically without the need of any additional stand. Both should stay like that quite stable, but could fall over when on the move (if you intend to use them in a car or something).

The Sony has hands-free built in, which is missing on the Denon. Both need their proprietary chargers, and both have an USB-port for charging other devices. The Denon is rated for 10 hours playback, while the Sony should play for 7 hours. Of course playback time will vary depending on the volume level and if other devices are charged at the same time. I haven't tested the Sony that accurately, but I have used the Denon quite often at higher levels and noticed that near top volume the battery would hardly last 2.5 hours, which is pretty poor if you ask me. I repeated my test twice, and fully charged the Denon Envaya, but when playing at high volume both times the power LED started blinking after 2 hours and the speaker turned off automatically shortly after.

Both speakers are equipped with NFC, but only the Denon supports the advanced AptX codec for better Bluetooth quality. The Denon Envaya also accepts multipoint Bluetooth, which means you can stay connected from 3 streaming devices simultanously, without having to break the connection of the previous device, if you want to stream from another. As soon as you have paired all three devices with the Envaya, the next time you turn on the speaker you will be able to connect from all 3 again simultanously, although the speaker will automatically connect to only one of them. The other connections must be forced from your streaming device every time again.

On the Sony only the power button and the call-button are physical buttons, all other buttons are just touch-sensitive areas. They are not lit either and with the black glossy surface in dark surroundings it is hardly distinguishable where to touch to change volume, you have to illuminate the speaker first not to touch a wrong area, but maybe with some time and usage you can learn where to touch.
The Denon has dedicated buttons for all functions and at least the volume buttons are differently curved, so that you can actually feel which one to press for either increasing or decreasing volume.
While the Denon plays some chordal every time you turn it on or off, the Sony stays completely silent. It only beeps when you force Bluetooth pairing mode.

The Denon uses 2 large full-range drivers, the Sony has 2 smaller drivers and an additional woofer and both speakers are equipped with an additional passive radiator for bass enhancement, the Sony even two of them at the back. On both speakers they are mounted only to one side, which might result in some unwanted vibration due to some imbalance. Usually passive radiators have more mass compared to the main drivers, which is needed for proper tuning. If a driver moves you won't have as much vibration as if a passive radiator moves. Therefore opposing passive radiators are better to avoid any unwanted vibration.
I noticed with both speakers, that they might slip around at higher levels and stronger bass-notes. The Sony has soft rubber feet, which even seem a bit sticky. Despite vibrating heavily on higher levels, it usually won't rattle against the base, only if you have the power-cord attached, the cord might cause some rattling, which would sound like distortion. Also the Denon vibrates and standing on a table it might make nearby objects rattle too. Just be sure to place both speakers on a hard surface with no objects nearby touching them.

So how do they sound?
First you notice that both are capable of a nicely defined full-range sound with quite a deep bass even at lower levels unlike many similar models like the Loewe speaker2go or the TDK A33 etc, which tend to sound rather thin until they don't reach a particular loudness.
My first impression was, that the Sony sounded smoother than the Denon, the bass was deeper, but at the same time less boomy and treble was clearer. Overall the Sony was just more natural sounding and more pleasant to listen to. The Sony also has some "sound"-mode which seems to act like a stereo-enhancer, or pseudo-surround, as I would call it. It probably works with some typical phase-shifting and it sounds quite nice, without destroying the sound completely due to processing artefacts. The sound becomes broader and more open, because at the same time treble is raised quite a bit, which makes the Sony clearer. Bass seems to be left without any processing, it is just the stereo-enhancing effect and some treble boost.
When switching over to the Denon I found it to sound quite dull and rather directional, especially after having listened to the Sony with "sound" enabled. The bass was there, but it had this kind of Bose type of bass, which is quite a bit bloated, and without the corresponding treble definition the whole speaker sounds muffled. To double check I took my Soundlink Mini and started comparing it with the Denon Envaya and to my surprise I liked the sound of the Bose more. It sounded clearer, the mids where much more distinct, on the Denon I had rather the impression as if the singer had its hand in front. Also piano attacks were easily discernible on the Bose, while they were rather muted on the Denon. Overall bass amount was quite similar on both, but the Denon sounded more bloated to me, I had the impression as if the Soundlink Mini had better bass quality, despite being much smaller in size. The treble seemed to be slightly clearer and smoother on the Denon reaching higher, but it was equally directional as on the Bose. As soon as you moved to the side and left the sweet-spot the Denon started to sound dull and boomy. I did not find any sound attribute on the Denon which would make me like it more than the Soundlink Mini. The only advantage the Denon clearly had over the Soundlink Mini (and over the Sony SRS-X5 as well) was an overall higher loudness, without obvious dynamic compression or bass reduction. It still sounded very dynamic with hardly any bass loss even at its top level. The Denon Envaya might be not the loudest speaker in its category, from memory I am sure the Soundlink III is louder overall, but it does so due to applying lots of dynamic processing and bass reduction to achieve this higher level. The Denon still sounds very natural at its top level. There is some distortion on higher levels with the Denon. Heavy bass notes start to fart a little bit, which seems to come from the passive radiator.
The Sony SRS-X5 on the other hand does hardly distort, but at the same time it is not even able to reach the loudness of the Soundlink Mini when playing from battery let alone the loudness of the Denon Envaya. At low levels the Sony sounds rounded and nice, but raise the volume a bit too much and the sound starts falling apart. Bass is reduced nearly completely with only some hum remaining, and lots of dynamic compression is applied which even results in some volume fluctuation and a pumping sound. When connected to AC-power the loundess is higher, but still with the same bass-less sound and lots of compression. Even from AC-power the Sony was not able to reach the loudness of the Denon but at the same time the Sony sounded much less dynamic and tinny.
According to the specs the Sony should play with 20 Watts when running from AC-power and 8 Watts only when playing from battery, which would explain the loss of power at high levels and defeats a bit the purpose of a portable speaker if it is limited as much when used from battery.

If I had to choose between both, I would probably choose the Denon, if I wouldn't already own the Soundlink Mini. Funnily I still liked the Soundlink Mini more, as it was much smaller but in the end didn't really sound worse than the Denon, only falling short of not being able to reach the same high volume. The Denon was able to keep the sound level over its entire volume-range with only some slight distortion on bass heavy tracks, but it sounded good at low and at high levels. The Sony sounded best of all at low levels, but was nearly unusable at slightly raised volume. It would be acceptable maybe, if it managed to keep the same sound level when playing from battery as it does when attached to mains. I liked the Sony much more for casual listening at home, it was less directional, with a smoother sound and the additional "sound" mode could enhance the experience even more, depending on the kind of music, but every time I tried to increase volume too much, it ended in a rather frustrating outcome.

I prepared a comparison video where I tried to put the Sony and Denon directly against each other:

I also did two further videos where I separately compared the Sony and the Denon to the Soundlink Mini. So have a listen which you like most overall and if the higher volume of the Denon is really that grave!