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Sony SRS-WS1 - Review 2020


Wearable wireless speakers aren’t new, but they’re niche enough that Sony’s $299.99 SRS-WS1 feels like something of a novelty. You wear it around your neck like the Bose SoundWear Companion, and the speaker can stream audio from wired sound sources that connect to its transmitter. The audio is surprisingly impressive, with real bass depth, but it seems better suited to games and movies than music. We’re also not totally sold on the wearable speaker idea, at least not in its current iteration.

Design

The 8.2-by-3.0-by-8.1-inch (HWD), 11.8-ounce SRS-WS1 is available in a light gray that Sony says is “designed to match your home.” If your home is a car interior or a spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it might match nicely, otherwise it will likely stand out a bit, which isn’t to say it’s ugly—it just doesn’t look like a typical living room accessory (or speaker, for that matter).

The SRS-WS1 resembles a very thin neck pillow, without any of the padding. Its interior panel that points toward your body is covered in a stylish cloth grille with a nice sheen to it. The grille covers diffusers that send the audio from recessed 1.18-inch drivers on either side in many directions, and the result is a fairly immersive sound field rather than a localized experience.

Sony SRS-WS1 inline

The right side of the speaker has Power and Vibration buttons on the interior panel over the cloth grille. The same area on the left side houses Volume Plus/Minus buttons and a micro USB port. The volume controls on the speaker are independent of your source device, so if you max out on the speaker and find the levels are still too low, make sure to turn things up at the source. There’s no way to control playback from the speaker, which can feel limiting at times, and isn’t an issue with the Bose model.

Aside form the speaker itself, you get a small charging dock that connects to pins at the center, lower portion of the neckband. There’s also a 3.0-by-0.7-by 1.8-inch audio transmitter, with micro USB, optical, and 3.5mm inputs. The whole package ships with an optical cable, a micro USB-to-3.5mm audio cable, a 3.5mm-to-3.5mm audio cable, and two micro USB-to-USB cables that connect to two wall adapters (one for the transmitter and one for the dock).

Sony estimates the SRS-WS1 gets roughly 7 hours on a full charge, but your results will vary with your volume levels.

Performance

The speaker pairs with the transmitter upon powering up, and will play music from any connected source immediately. Audio projects upward and feels room-filling to the listener. Depending on what you’re listening to, you’ll have some difficulty hearing much else in the room, and anyone in the room will hear whatever audio is being projected, though to them it will sound quieter and without bass depth.

Let’s start our discussion of audio performance with the Vibration button. It has three settings: off (or very low), medium, and heavy. The vibrations are focused on the back of your neck and collarbone area. I can’t decide whether I think it’s cool, odd, or both—something tells me it will come down to personal preference for everyone. That said, when set to low, the speaker sounds thin and brittle, so the vibrations do appear to have an impact on bass response. Internally, it seems a passive radiator is being pushed to greater or lesser levels depending on what mode you’re in.

Sony SRS-WS1

On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the vibrations can start to feel ridiculous, like you’re getting a slight neck massage. The speaker can handle deep bass, but sometimes sounds on the verge of distortion. There’s some obvious DSP (digital signal processing) in play to prevent this, but it also seems to flatten the dynamics and tamp down the maximum volume on tracks like this.

Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better sense of the SRS-WS1’s general sound signature. The drums get some added thump, both real and in the vibrational sense, and Callahan’s vocals have a rich baritone presence. The highs are bright and detailed, accentuating the strum of the acoustic guitar. If anything, the mids can sound a little scooped—while the highs have no problem projecting, and the lows get help from the vibrations, the mids can feel dialed back in the mix somewhat.

Audio for films and games sounds crisp through the SRS-WS1, and perhaps this is the most obvious use for the speaker. When there are explosions, punches, or car engines revving in The Dark Knight, the speaker delivers serious (perceived) rumble. Audio is crisp, and film scores get an excellent low-frequency richness. It’s a little like having a soundbar wrapped around your neck, and the vibrations make it feel interactive to a degree. Is it a gimmick? Yes, but it’s a cool one.

The overall experience isn’t without glitches, however. Occasionally, using an iPhone 8 (with a Lightning adapter) to connect to the transmitter, we experienced short bursts of audio dropout. Also, you can have multiple sound sources plugged into the transmitter at once, and if you have both optical and 3.5mm inputs connected, the transmitter seems to favor optical and will mute the 3.5mm audio stream when it detects an optical signal. This doesn’t pause music from the 3.5mm source, however. This means if you’re watching a movie with the optical input, if there’s still audio feeding the 3.5mm input when it’s over, it’ll come through the speaker, which can be jarring.

Conclusions

The one true advantage of a wearable speaker is getting a sense of deep bass without it actually projecting deep bass. It’s useful for not annoying roommates or neighbors in an apartment building. If you’re thinking of buying the SRS-WS1 just for music, however, I’d reconsider. It doesn’t sound bad at all, but the design seems more focused on bringing you the rumble of films and games. It can work for music, but it’s far more impressive for film audio. Of course, so are soundbars, and there are many priced similarly to the SRS-WS1 that deliver some serious thump, like the $280 Sony HT-S350 and the $400 Sonos Beam. Wearable speakers are intriguing, but far from essential.

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