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.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
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