Sony SS-CS5 Speaker Review

of 05

A High-End Minispeaker for $200 and Change?

Brent Butterworth

Sony's SS-CS5 makes me think of my early days as an audio journalist, when $300/pair was the least you could expect to spend for a halfway-decent speaker. Now you can do way better for way less, with speakers like Pioneer's now-legendary SP-BS22-LR $129/pair minispeaker proving it's possible to do good sound for cheap.

Sony's entrants into this category are more expensive but still quite reasonably priced; I loved the company's SS-CS3 tower when I reviewed it for Home Theater Review. Just on a whim, I asked Sony to send me the $219/pair SS-CS5 minispeaker, too.

The premise behind these new speakers is that their 3/4-inch supertweeters make them good for high-resolution audio. From a purely technical standpoint, that's probably true, because typical high-res audio files at 24-bit/96-kilohertz have frequency response out to about 48 kHz, just shy of the tweeters' rated 50 kHz.

Whether or not high-res audio will ever achieve any importance is still an extremely open question, but if you're into it, it does make some sense to seek out tweeters with extended response.

Enough tech talk, let's find out how this thing sounds.

of 05

Sony SS-CS5: Features and Specs

Sony SS-CS3 top 2
Brent Butterworth

• 0.75-inch (19mm) fabric-dome supertweeter
• 1-inch (25mm) fabric-dome tweeter
• 5.25-inch (130mm) foamed mica woofer
• Five-way speaker cable binding posts
• Dimensions: 13.1 x 7 x  8.6 in / 178 x 335 x 220 mm
• Weight: 9.4 lb / 4.5 kg

What's unusual about this speaker is the supertweeter, of course, but also the foamed mica woofer cone. I can't remember encountering this material in a woofer cone before (except in the SS-CS3), but it's admirably light and stiff -- as a woofer cone should be.

Even though the grilles are attached with old-school grommets instead of magnets, the speakers look quite nice with the grilles off, so that's the way I used them.

Setup was a piece of cake. I stuck the speakers to the tops of my kitty-litter-filled Target metal speaker stands, and put the speakers in the same places I usually put my Revel F206 reference speakers. They sounded quite good right there. I tried moving them back closer to the wall behind them to see if they'd benefit from a bit of bass boost, but I liked the sound better with the speakers in their original positions.

I used my Krell S-300i integrated amp to power the SS-CS5. Overkill, I know, but I like to stay with the same test setup as much as possible. Sources were a Sony PHA-2 USB headphone amp/DAC and Pro-Ject and Music Hall turntables connected through an NAD PP-3 phono preamp.

of 05

Sony SS-CS5: Performance

Brent Butterworth

In my listening tests, the SS-CS5 revealed its strengths and weaknesses quickly. Its real strength is voice reproduction. Its weakness -- SPOILER ALERT!!! -- is that the 5.25-inch woofer doesn't put out much bass.

A great example: "Kaua’I O Mano," from Rev. Dennis Kamakahi's Pua'ena CD. Kamakahi had one of the richest baritone voices I've ever heard (check it out here), but many speakers make him sound bloated. Not the SS-CS5. I heard no bloating at all in his voice or in the detuned lower strings of his slack key guitar. I also heard a nice amount of treble detail with not even a hint of edginess. The little woofer didn't quite convey the power of the detuned lower strings (which in slack key are generally lowered to D and G from E and A, for a lowest note of 73 Hz), but the SS-CS5 sounded considerably fuller than the $1,100/pair B&W CM1 S2, which I was reviewing for Home Theater Review (coming soon).

To make sure that richness and smoothness I heard wasn't a fluke, I put on “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” from Muddy Waters' Folk Singer, downloaded in 24/96 PCM from HDTracks. For decades, this recording has been acclaimed in large part for the uncolored tonality and detail of Waters’ voice. The SS-CS5 nailed it again, delivering Waters with no bloat, no edginess, no sibilance and no apparent midrange emphasis. The sound was full enough to give me everything I wanted to hear from this recording.

OK, what about non-vocal recordings? One of the best I have is Chesky Records' The Coryells, recorded with acoustic guitars in a very ambient church on Manhattan's West Side. The overall sound was nice, and again the SS-CS5 delivered a fuller sound than the B&W CM1 S2, but here's where I found out what you're missing by spending only ~$200/pair for your speakers. The CM1 S2 had so much more treble detail, and created a huge, spacious soundstage that the SS-CS5 couldn't even approach. Also, the SS-CS5's treble sounded comparatively unrefined; I could tell it has some peaks and dips in the response above about 4 kHz.

I gotta figure that a ~$200/pair speaker is gonna get used for pop and rock, so I needed to see if the SS-CS5 had the needed kick to handle that task. The answer: not really. When I played "Highway Star" from Deep Purple's Made in Japan -- which is considerably less taxing on a woofer than the kick-ass, highly compressed rock recordings of today -- there really wasn't enough bottom end to get my foot tapping (or better, my head bobbing). I also didn't get much sense of the nice natural ambience of the tune. Made in Japan is something of a "purist" recording with no overdubs and little post-processing, but the SS-CS5 didn't really give me that magic. (BTW, YouTube has a fantastic one-hour documentary on the making of Made in Japan that's a must for metal fans. Stop what you're doing and watch it now.)

How's it compare to the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR? I didn't have the Pioneers on hand for a comparison, but I do have listening notes and measurements. Basically, the SS-CS5 has a fuller sound, and maybe a slightly smoother midrange, but its treble is softer so I expect it won't match the soundstaging and apparent detail of the SP-BS22-LR.

If you want a fuller sound with more bass, get a subwoofer or spend the extra for the SS-CS3 tower. If you want a more detailed, audiophile-pleasing sound, get a more audiophile-oriented minispeaker like the Music Hall Marimba.

of 05

Sony SS-CS5: Measurements

Sony SS-CS5 frequency response
Brent Butterworth

The chart you see above shows the frequency response of the SS-CS5 on axis (blue trace) and the average of responses at 0°, ±10°, ±20°and ±30° horizontally (green trace). Generally speaking, the flatter and more horizontal these lines look, the better the speaker will sound.

The SS-CS5's response looks pretty smooth, especially for a $219/pair speaker. On-axis, it's +/-3.4 dB from 70 Hz to 20 kHz, which is an extremely good result for a speaker at this price. There's a slight boost around 1.1 kHz, which may make voices stand out a bit better. Plus there's a slight downward tilt in the tonal balance, which means the speaker is unlikely to sound bright or trebly or thin. Averaged on/off-axis response is very close to the on-axis response, which is good.

Impedance averages 8 ohms and dips to a low of 4.7 ohms/-28° phase, so no problem there. Anechoic sensitivity measures 86.7 dB at 1 watt/1 meter, so figure somewhere around 90 dB in-room. This speaker should work nicely with just about any amp with 10 watts or more per channel.

I measured the SS-CS5 with a Clio 10 FW analyzer and MIC-01 microphone, at a distance of 1 meter atop a 2-meter stand; the measurement below 200 Hz was taken using ground plane technique at 1 meter.

of 05

Sony SS-CS5: Final Take

Sony SS-CS5 top view
Brent Butterworth

The SS-CS5 is one of the smoothest-sounding speakers I've heard under $400. It can compete with many of the decent $400/pair minispeakers I've heard, although most of those have a 6.5-inch woofer and an extra 10 or 20 Hz of bass. If you want a ~$200/pair minispeaker for light pop, jazz, folk or classical, I can't think of a better choice.