Welcome to audio hell. This is the place where otherwise fine audio systems are tormented by tweaking and tuning in a high-tech version of Dante’s Inferno until they wind up relegated to the Purgatorio of the medieval Italian poet’s imagination. Admittedly, there is no fire or brimstone and no ghastly pain and suffering–other than that of a homeowner who has spent nearly ten years trying unsuccessfully to make his damned TV, movies, and–occasionally–music sound good in this room. While the average visitor sees what seems like a bright, inviting room in a pleasant home, to me it has been sonic hell. I’ll explain why in The Hookup section of this review.
But first let’s discuss the hardware that turned hell to heaven: Sony’s new HT-Z9F soundbar and subwoofer (sold together for $900) and optional SA-Z9R wireless surround speakers ($300). Several lower-end soundbars have been tried in an effort to ease my aural anguish, which has been characterized primarily by inaudible dialogue and unconvincing imaging. Conventional speaker systems might sound better, but they’re not practical in this acoustic hellhole of a room. Attempting to reproduce good sound in it made me feel like Mr. Magoo trying to hit a Clayton Kershaw fastball. After setting up the HT-Z9F and its satellites, however, I felt like Mike Trout hitting one out of the park.
The HT-Z9F is more of a grand slam than a simple solo home run, and not merely because it tamed my room’s terrible acoustics. This appears to be a well-built system in which everything feels solid. It’s pretty obvious that Sony asked its industrial engineers to pay attention to aesthetics, too. The soundbar and satellites feature two-tone cabinets with highly polished black plastic speaker plates about 1-3/8 inches thick affixed to low-gloss black plastic cabinets.
All three components feature perforated, charcoal gray metal grilles, non-removable on the satellites but magnetic on the soundbar. Removing the soundbar’s grille reveals a base plate that looks like brushed aluminum but appears to be composite. The wireless, forward-facing subwoofer is more unassuming than the other components. Its MDF cabinet is covered in a low-sheen black laminate on all but the front and back. The front features a highly polished black sound port mounted just beneath a fixed, black cloth grille that hides its driver.
Sony says the soundbar and sub deliver 400 watts of power; the satellites 50 watts each. All of that is packaged into components compact enough to fit just about any TV viewing room. The 39.5-inch soundbar is slender, about 2.5 inches high and 4 inches deep (sans grille) but weighs a robust 6.8 pounds. The business end of the soundbar contains a trio of 46mm (1.8-inch) drivers.
The top of the soundbar has six touch buttons: Power, Input, Bluetooth, Music Service, and Volume up/down. The wireless, forward-facing subwoofer is 7.5 by 15 by 15.25 inches and weighs around 17.9 pounds. Its grille hides a 160mm (6.3-inch) woofer. Each of the satellites measures 4 by 6.15 by 4 inches, weighs 2.2 pounds and contains a 2-inch driver. In addition to the obligatory AC power cords, the rears of the subwoofer and satellites each contain two buttons: one for power and one to manually link the component to the soundbar in the rare case it doesn’t connect automatically. Tiny pinprick lights on the front of the sub and rear of the satellites indicate their status; red when the soundbar is off, solid green when it is powered-up and linked, and flashing green if a speaker needs to be linked manually.
The system’s IR remote measures 6.25 by 1.75 by .75 inches, or about as tall as a contemporary smartphone but half as wide and twice as thick. Its buttons have a firm feel and provide direct control of virtually all of the HT-Z9F’s vast array of functions and features. Those add up to a list so long it would tire Santa, but here are the highlights: Built-in music streaming through Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and Google Chromecast; connectivity to Bluetooth headphones and the ability to stream music wirelessly to other rooms with some Sony speakers. Sonically speaking, the HT-Z9F also supports Hi-Res Audio, Dolby Atmos, Dolby True HD, DTS:X, and DTS-HD Master Audio, and can upscale standard music to near hi-res using Sony’s proprietary digital processor, DSEE HX. On the video front, the HT-Z9F’s 4K HDR 18Gbps pass-through and HDCP 2.2 capabilities means it supports HDR10 and Dolby Vision.
Sony describes the HT-Z9F as a 3.1-channel Dolby Atmos/DTS:X soundbar that features 7.1.2-channel surround sound. You don’t have to be a mathematician to question how those numbers add up. How can a soundbar with just three speakers (sans the optional satellites) and a sub deliver surround sound? And how can it deliver the vertical and overhead sound associated Dolby Atmos and DTS:X when it lacks upward firing or overhead speakers? The answer is: virtually. The HT-Z9F uses digital signal processing (DSP) to emulate speakers that don’t exist. In theory, buyers don’t have to spring for the SA-Z9R satellites to get surround sound, and they can enjoy the vertical dimension of object-based audio formats such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X speakers without having to buy a soundbar with upward firing speakers, such as Sony’s $1,500 HT-ST5000. You’ll find out how good this emulation sounds in the Performance section, but first:
Claiming I “set up” Sony’s slender soundbar is a bit like claiming I ran at Indianapolis Motor Speedway because someone once drove me around the track in a pace car. The fact is that everything about the HT-Z9F hookup is impossibly easy, thanks to Sony’s attention to detail. If you’ve ever gnashed your teeth over foldout quick-start guides filled with obtuse directions and unidentifiable images, you will want to create a Library of Congress Hall of Fame and nominate Sony’s tech writers as its first inductees.
The Startup Guide contains just five brilliantly illustrated steps, two of which describe installing batteries in the remote and turning on your TV. The accompanying 88-page owner’s manual is clear, concise, and comprehensive enough to make the average automobile owner’s manual look like it was designed and illustrated by illiterates. And, yes, you read that right: Unlike many AV companies, Sony actually provides a printed owner’s manual so customers don’t have to visit cyberspace for detailed instructions and information about their new device. There also is a fantastic on-screen tutorial that takes the user’s hand and walks him/her through every step of the setup process. This interactive guide is also necessary to perform certain functions, such as using Chromecast for the first time (subsequent connections are automatic) or connecting the HT-Z9F to your home network (using the soundbar’s wired LAN port or its built-in wireless 802.11a/b/g/n).
Yet the HT-Z9F is designed so well it should be easy for anyone who has ever connected a new TV to get it up and running without ever referring to either the printed or on-screen instructions. Let that sink in for a moment because the HT-Z9F’s ease of installation cannot be overstated. The average soundbar buyer is not like you or me. They don’t crave the latest technology or enjoy tinkering with AV gear. They buy a soundbar to get better audio from their televisions with minimal effort. They don’t want to figure out how to connect a bunch of components or find a place to put them; they just want better sound.
That’s exactly what Sony’s HT-Z9F and dedicated SA-Z9R wireless satellites deliver. It took me under five minutes to get everything up and running. I connected an HDMI cable from the HDMI ARC input on my TV to the HT-Z9F’s sole HDMI output. Then I plugged the soundbar, sub and satellites into AC outlets and put two AA batteries in the remote (thank goodness for the Startup Guide). After using the big green button on the remote to power up the soundbar, I walked over to each of the wireless components and pressed their power buttons. In under a minute, the indicator lights told me the four pieces had linked wirelessly. I turned on the TV and was immediately listening to Dolby Digital 5.1 sound from my DIRECTV receiver. The only easier way to get surround sound in your home is to toss a few bucks at your geek nephew and tell him to take care of it while you’re on vacation.
That nephew would be jazzed by the HT-Z9F’s connectivity and compatibility, by the way. He’d find two 4K, Dolby Vision-compatible HDMI 2.0a/HDCP 2.2 inputs and one ARC-capable HDMI output, along with the LAN port and optical digital (Toslink) input noted above. Also included are a USB input that can be used to play music from a thumb drive or portable HD and–for anyone with a massive collection of cassette tapes–an analog stereo 3.5 mm input jack that can be used to listen to your old Walkman. All the inputs and outputs reside in a recess at the center rear of the soundbar, where cables can be connected easily and won’t interfere with placement of the unit.
Placement options also are enhanced by an IR repeater built into the rear of the HT-Z9F. This enables you to place the soundbar right in front of your TV without worrying that it’s going to block the televisions IR receiver. I chose to mount it right on my inexpensive TV stand using the screws and mounting hooks Sony provides with the HT-Z9F. In yet another example of attention to detail, Sony even includes a paper template that makes it simple to locate the screws for proper–and easy–mounting.
Finally, the front of the HT-Z9F has a 1-inch by 4-inch display that can be seen whether the grille is mounted or not. It is a useful little feature that works like one of those corporate message boards, capable of displaying either scrolling or static information such as main, sub and satellite volume levels, input source, Bluetooth connectivity, and more. The display is so useful, in fact, that I only need to access the comprehensive onscreen menu for advanced setup procedures such as adjusting the decibel levels of the satellites to compensate for my screwy viewing room.
That room is acoustic hell because of its shape and the locations of the TV and viewing area. Picture a fairly large, V-shaped living area with the TV and soundbar sitting catty-corner in the V’s inside corner. About 9 feet away, parallel to and centered on the TV, is a sofa. About 9 feet behind the sofa, the walls form another V. In addition to making it impossible to mount surround speakers symmetrically, having rear walls at a 45-degree angle to the sofa means soundwaves bounce around like billiard balls after a powerful break. Strategically placed acoustic tiles might address that, but this is our main living area and my spouse prefers paintings and photographs to acoustic tiles.
She’d also rather not have satellite speakers–even compact ones like Sony’s SA-Z9Rs–in her family room, but they’re inconspicuous enough that she seems OK with them now. The left surround sits on a small end table 90 degrees to my viewing position and 8 feet away. The right surround is on a desk, also 8 feet away but directly behind the right edge of the sofa. Its perch is just above the height of the sofa. Both satellites are pointed at the center of the sofa. The HT-Z9F’s onscreen menu includes a manual speaker setup mode that enables the user to set individual speaker distances and decibels. Using the built-in tone generator, I set the distances and tweaked the decibel levels until the surrounds sounded balanced.
Tweaking the satellites as described took about two or three minutes and produced really remarkable results with 5.1 material. Considering the placement of the surrounds, I expected the sound coming from each speaker to be conspicuously directional, resulting in a phony surround effect similar to the worst matrix Quadrophonic audio of the 1970s. But instead of making everything sound like a bad 8-track tape, the SA-Z9R satellites melded beautifully to deliver convincing surround sound that created a sense of place and enhanced the viewing experience. That was true regardless of whether the surround effect was subtle or dramatic.
The subtleties were obvious in virtually every episode of the FX series The Americans, viewed on Amazon’s Prime Video streaming service through a Roku Premiere. Nearly every episode has an abrupt transition in which the action switches from a quiet conversation between two characters in a home or car to a busy scene in a large office. Sony’s HT-Z9F did a great job of decoding the 5.1 soundtrack and making it convincing. In the first type of scene, the soundbar rendered dialogue clearly, even when it was spoken in hushed tones, while the surrounds helped to realistically recreate the ambience of the bedroom or basement in which the conversation was taking place.
Then, in the next scene, Sony’s sound system would plop me right into the cacophony of a large and bustling FBI office, making it feel as if would see dozens of agents at their desks if I turned around. The background noise died down whenever the protagonists began one-on-one conversations, which could be heard clearly despite the surrounds subtly reminding me the setting was still a busy office.
ore dramatic surround effects sounded equally impressive in a couple of movies I watched using Sony’s UPB-X800 4K UHD Blu-ray player. One of them was Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which contains some great scenes for sound effects. The one in which Kevin Hart’s character finds himself in a rhinoceros stampede is one of my favorites, and the HT-Z9F system did it justice. The thunder of hooves pounding the turf while a helicopter hovers overhead amped up the tension of the scene. The helicopter’s thumping blades appeared to be coming more from the front of the room than directly overhead, but the sound definitely served as a good example of the Dolby Atmos height effect.
The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray version of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 also sounded great on Sony’s HT-Z9F system. The scene in which the Guardians are attacked by a massive fleet of Sovereign drones really highlighted the soundbar’s tight integration with its subwoofer and satellites.
I was totally thrown into the Guardian craft’s cockpit as drones zipped all around me and laser blasts flashed past. The sound effects moved in sync with the action, front-to-back, side-to-side, and even up and down, while the dialogue remained crisp despite the din all around me. But as was the case with Jumanji, the sound field never quite extended fully overhead.
The best way to describe the vertical effect produced by Sony’s soundbar might be to compare it to sitting in one of the first few rows of an amphitheater such as the Hollywood Bowl or the Jones Beach Theater on Long Island, N.Y. Sound certainly seems to float on a vertical plane that extends above–sometimes high above–the television, and there’s some depth to that verticality. But in my listening experience, the sound always remained in front of me, never extending far enough to feel like it was directly overhead.
Of course, that wasn’t an issue while listening to music, because I’ve never felt a need to hear musicians or vocalists floating above my head. Nor did I bother to critically test the HT-Z9F with a bunch of music, because I don’t think people buy soundbars to listen to their vinyl or SACD audio collections. Instead, they use soundbars to provide background music while they’re puttering around the house and place a priority on effortless wireless connectivity and access to a wide array of streaming content. Those are two of the HT-Z9F’s greatest strengths.
But that’s not to say music doesn’t sound good on Sony’s soundbar. On the contrary, everything I played sounded fine, whether I was streaming from Pandora or Spotify via Bluetooth, casting from Google Play using Wi-Fi or listening to one of my favorite DVD-Audio discs on my old and trusty Sony BDP-S580 Blu-ray player. Actually, that’s not giving the HT-Z9F enough credit. I was blown away by the hi-res DVD-Audio of Queen’s The Game, and realized I was in for a treat as soon as I heard the first notes of the first cut, the synthesizer that opens “Play the Game.” For an album initially recorded in stereo, I was awed by how great it sounded in surround. The HT-Z9F rendered instruments with great clarity while providing strong, well-defined bass and doing justice to the high notes, including those produced by Freddie Mercury’s remarkable vocal range.
Sony’s soundbar also provided an expansive soundstage and very good imaging. Interestingly enough, however, I noticed absolutely no sense of height whether the Vertical Surround Engine was turned on or off. If there was any difference at all between the two settings, it would be that turning it on may have muddied the imaging a bit. Some of the music I streamed using the Auto Sound setting also initially seemed a little muddy. But things always cleared up as soon as I hit the Music button.
Although Sony’s HT-Z9F and SA-Z9R satellites did a great job cutting through the terrible acoustics in my family room, the system isn’t quite perfect. One of my complaints is that its DSP typically took up to around 30 seconds to adjust the sound whenever I activated its Vertical, Voice, or Night enhancement or selected one of its seven preset listening modes (Auto Sound, Cinema, Music, Game, News, Sports and Standard). Not a big deal, really, except for times when I felt a need to switch modes to find the best one for the source material. Then those 30-second adjustment intervals add up. Also, I was surprised how often activating the Vertical Surround Engine seemed to do little more than muddy the sound.
I also wish the HT-Z9F came with a universal remote. The soundbar’s many audio modes, inputs and other functions are remarkably easy to access through the dedicated buttons on the very handy and intuitive remote. But it can’t be used to control other devices except for some Sony TVs. Since even a good universal remote such as one of the Logitech Harmony devices I use isn’t nearly as convenient for controlling the soundbar as Sony’s dedicated device, I found myself using two different remotes while evaluating the system.
Finally, although I never felt a need to adjust equalization, it’s should be noted that the system lacks any sort of tone control to tweak bass/treble/midrange.
Comparison and Competition
The big news in soundbars over the past year or so has been the introduction of those that can deliver object-based audio and provide the fully immersive imaging associated with Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. The most obvious alternative to the HT-Z9F is Sony’s own HT-ST5000, a $1,500 7.1.2 system that also includes a subwoofer and uses DSP to create immersive sound. Unlike the HT-Z9F, however, the HT-ST5000 lacks physical satellites and has a pair of upward-firing speakers integrated into its 46.5-inch soundbar. The soundbar incorporates six other speakers, three of which feature coaxial tweeters. Those speakers provide the front left, right, and center channels; the other four speakers help create the 5.1 surround effect through DSP. Sony’s other Atmos and DTS:X compatible soundbar is the $600 HT-X9000F 2.1ch system, which provides up to 7.1.2 DSP.
Samsung also recently introduced a new soundbar with Dolby Atmos and DTS:X decoding. A collaboration between Samsung and recently acquired harmon/kardon engineers, the HW-N950 is a $1,700 system with true 7.1.4 sound. The 48-inch soundbar alone contains 13 drivers, nine facing the listener, two side-facing and two upward-facing, and the system includes a pair of wireless satellites, each containing one upward- and one forward-firing. The subwoofer also is wireless.
LG also recently introduced soundbars with Dolby Atmos compatibility, and Vizio is about to do the same. But neither company’s models process DTS:X. LG’s SK9Y and SK10Y ($700 and $900 as I write this) both contain a pair of upward-firing and three forward-facing speakers, and a wireless subwoofer. LG’s soundbars use DSP to emulate rear speakers with 5.1 material unless you opt to add a pair of SPK8-S wireless satellites (currently $130/pair) for discreet surround. The biggest difference between LG’s soundbars is in their DSP circuitry and components.
Vizio has announced several new soundbars expected to be available any day now, but the company has officially offered little in the way of detailed specs or pricing. The new Dolby Atmos soundbars include the 46-inch, 5.1.4 model (SB46514-F6) and the 36-inch 5.1.2 (SB36512-F6) model, both of which feature upward-firing speakers. Both models also include a wireless subwoofer and satellite speakers that must be connected to the sub. The 5.1.4 system’s satellites presumably also contain upward-firing drivers.
Soundbars continue to climb in popularity because they’re simpler to set up and take up less room than conventional components while still delivering a level of cinematic experience that built-in television speakers generally can’t deliver. Since object-based audio formats such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X can make that cinematic experience even more immersive, soundbar makers have been working hard to incorporate the technology into their products, either by incorporating upward-firing speakers or by simulating them through sophisticated DSP.
Sony makes soundbars using both approaches. The advantages of the latter are evident in Sony’s HT-Z9F, which is smaller, lighter, and less expensive than soundbars containing upward-firing speakers such as Sony’s own HT-ST5000. In theory, the other inherent advantage of using signal-processing instead of actual speakers to simulate vertical audio effects is that it can be more effective in rooms with extremely high or vaulted ceilings.
Although sound never quite seemed like it was coming from directly overhead, the HT-Z9F and its dedicated SA-Z9R satellites definitely delivered a totally realistic, immersive and satisfying sonic experience in a previously untamed and unpleasant listening environment. In my situation, it would probably be greedy to expect more.
• Visit the Sony website for more product information.
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•Sony X900F Ultra HD LED Smart TV Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.