The Sony SRS-X3 is a particularly satisfying size: a small, compact, and for all of that, beautiful object. I should admit a definite bias for compact items, for things that are only as big as they need be: my favorite car was my Scion xB (original design), my favorite pet was and is my two pugs, and I myself come in a compact package. Once, in the late 1990s, I rolled into a Philadelphia hostel late at night, and there were no beds left–only, said the French attendant, a couch, “wheech eez not so beeg.” Desperate for sleep, I just stared at him, and he said, “But zen again, you err not so beeg eezer.”
I slept fine: being small has its advantages. Being small and cute like the Sony SRS-X3? Even better. For the last many months during testing, I have nestled this little brick under my arm like a tiny companion I don’t want to part with. It has the exact proportions of a stick of butter. Literally. If you were to virtualize a stick of butter, select it, and click and drag its corners a couple inches, you’d have this handsome unit.
It has the density of butter, too, though I prefer to describe its heft as gravitas: It is heavy for its size, but, you know, so is Pavarotti, and no one complains about that because, like the Sony SRS-X3, he sounds really good. In fact, the contrast between the speaker’s size and its power is charming and disarming; it belts out like Mary Lou Retton at the 1984 Olympics, vaulting itself into the air with astounding velocity.
I first tested its power in my parents’ gated community in Palm Springs. It was my brother’s birthday, and the Sony was for all intents and purposes my date to the party. Actually, it was the party. It turned a traditional day-at-the-pool-with-the-kids (which is what passes for your birthday celebration when you are a suburban dad) into an afternoon at DJ JD’s Poolside Lounge and Dance club. First up was Bob Marley, which sounded crystal clear and matched the sun and water but which my nieces were inexplicably lukewarm about, so I turned it down and quickly cobbled together a playlist to make my brother feel like an 80s high schooler again: the Clash, Adam Ant, Madness, Blondie, Duran Duran.
I wasn’t sure how well my musical gift would be heard. Cars were driving by, nieces were squealing, and I was set up across the pool area from my brother and his wife, a good 40 yards separating them from the sound. But when I turned it all the way up, it traveled so well I had to turn it down again. (Let’s reign in that vault just a little, Mary Lou…) Wherever we were in the pool area (at least a 50×50 yard space), we could hear, enjoy, and dance, filled with the memories of our youth. We played monkey in the middle for hours as my nieces heard “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “A Message to You Rudy” for the first time. When I caught them dancing unconsciously, I felt I’d finally brought a date home who could become part of the family.
I was amazed how well the Sony SRS-X3 conquered the ambient noise in Palm Springs. When I returned home to East Los Angeles and continued testing, however, Mary Lou Retton had aged considerably. The air here is relatively humid compared to Palm Springs (though both are technically desert climates) and the ambient noises more intrusive; as it turns out, however, only one of these environmental factors made America’s sweetheart significantly less powerful: ambient noise, which is considerable in all but the most museum-like Los Angeles neighborhoods and in mine in particular includes regular setting off of fireworks and firearms. The relationship between humidity and sound, however, is one of those unintuitive laws that made me quit physics after three days in high school and nearly made me fail Physics for Poets in college. Humidity actually increases the speed of sound. Whatever.
Indoors, in my small, 850-square-foot house, I could hear the music very well no matter where the speaker was relative to me. When we were in the same room, the volume went high enough to either induce a pleasurable overwhelm or the desire to turn it down. Outside, though, I was never able to replicate the sound power and velocity I got in Palm Springs. I have a very small back yard taken up mostly by a Jacuzzi and a lounge chair; the whole space is less than half the size of the Palm Springs pool area, yet I could not get the Sony to sound as large as it had in that desert. I was particularly disappointed to realize that I couldn’t hear the music when the Jacuzzi jets were on–a “first world” problem, indeed, but one that might be relevant to your purpose in purchasing a portable unit.
Even so, overall the contrast between size and sound power seems somewhat magical, worthy of Mary Lou Retton and Pavarotti metaphors. The relationship between size and sound quality, however, is quite a bit more literal, calling forth mathematical equations like, How many musicians can you fit in a giant stick of butter and still achieve maximum clarity? The number is quite low.
I listened to everything from Tierney Sutton to In the Heights and Les Miserables, from Dar Williams and the Indigo Girls to Kendrick Lamar, from Nina Simone to Desaparecidos, from Bill Frisell to Tig Notaro, from Calvin Harris to Jimi Hendrix and the Who–jazz vocals, punk, comedy, R&B, disco, folk, and rap. Essentially, the more pared down the song, the better the Sony delivered it. The greater the number of musical elements that came together in a song, the more it felt like there was a leveling out, like all the space the Sony had to give was portioned out equally, and thus every element got squeezed and went flat.
When a song had a lot going on, the Sony became a mosh pit of smashed vocals, drums, bass, horns, backing vocals, synthesizer. Take Bleachers’ “I Wanna Get Better,” a fun song that amps you up, the kind of song you depend on to get a fist bumping or a head banging or at least a lip-synching face cringing with emotion. But this anthem sounded tinny and blurry, and you can’t express rage against yourself and then channel that rage into determination to make tomorrow better when even your speaker seems to be holding back.
The same goes for songs that are a little less noisy, a little more pop-y, and a little more harmonic, like Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk.” In all such songs, the Sony couldn’t harness the energy of the mosh pit, so it squashed it. The Sony reacted to such powerful, energetic songs like the U.S. government (and Ayn Rand) reacted to communism: afraid of its revolutionary power and unable to harness it, the government (and our beloved “novelist”) flattened the movement into a caricature: communism eliminates competition, making everyone equal, making no one special, killing the human spirit.
Alas, other more layered songs had to compete for the Sony’s meager space resources, which it doled out equally; thus, no one won, even when soaring vocals were clearly meant to stand out above the din, as in the finale to Les Miserables. All elements got their equal share and settled for second best.
If your playlists are dominated by songs with a lot of bass and/or feedback and distortion–and you have a good ear for quality–you will be moderately satisfied with this speaker. Served some James Brown, I did “Get Up Offa That Thing,” but other heavy bass and guitar songs left me standing then sitting like I was in Catholic mass: standing for the opening synthesizer of “Baba O’Riley,” sitting when Roger, John, Pete, and Keith all crashed in at once, and standing again for Pete’s solo (“Don’t cry/Don’t raise your eye/It’s only teenage wasteland!”); ditto on Desaparecidos’ “MerKKKopa,” another angry anthem worthy of a speaker that doesn’t hold it back. I was a little surprised how affecting Bill Frisell’s “Surfer Girl” was, expressed by the Sony.
The “Guitar in the Space Age” sounded as mournful (in the high registers) and as buttery (in the low registers) as it was meant to, and the wistful tone drew pink and orange visions of the sun setting over the Pacific–perfect! (Except for a brief moment, at high volume, when a low note or two hit the speaker walls like a hapless insect in a bug zapper. But such are the travails of summer.)
The crispest, fullest sound was achieved on folk/singer-songwriter music and pretty much any pared down composition, especially those that settled mostly in the higher registers. My favorite folksters seemed very present, which is just what you want from this intimate form. Dar Williams’ “Southern California Wants to be Western New York,” for instance, nearly made me pack my bags for the Genesee Valley and some composting.
Even the relatively noisier folk of the Indigo Girls’ “The Rise of the Black Messiah” pounded right into my heart, though the call was clearer when Amy Ray’s soulful tenor soared solo into the void (“Yeah he’s gonna rise/Yeah he’s gonna rise”) than when the electric guitars returned to echo her anger (“…And all them lynchers are gonna be damned/When outta that hole walks a brand new man”).
Other pared-down compositions also fared well. The jazz vocals of Tierney Sutton and Nina Simone were delivered with distinctness and detail. All the texture of Nina Simone’s voice in the beginning notes of “Feeling Good” sounded just as good on this unit as on any set of speakers you can buy for the money–and perhaps many that are more expensive.
I want to reiterate that size matters. And what matters about size is that it is right for the job. The Sony is right for the job, but understand what the job is: the most sound in the least amount of space. After our weekend in the dessert, my brother went right out and bought a Sony SRS-X3 for his family. I had intended to bring mine along for the family vacation in Hawaii, but decided against it because I was planning to stay in a hostel (no security for items of worth).
In the days leading up to departure, my brother and his wife carefully negotiated what they could bring for their three-week trip without incurring overweight or extra bag fees. When I joined them in Kauai, there was the Sony on the kitchen table. It had made the cut, a trusted companion, worth sacrificing for. When the rain which is the price of the North Shore’s majestic beauty, ruined outdoor plans, we stayed in, turned to the Sony, queued up Iz (Israel Kamakawiwo’ole), and still felt very far away from life on the mainland.
For more on the Sony SRS-X3 and all of the other Sony products, check out their site here.