Review: Sony HT-Z9F Soundbar Brings 3D Surround To The Midrange
As one of the manufacturers of some of the world’s finest television sets, and the owner of the vast Columbia Music library, it only stands to reason that Sony should be designing some of the finest soundbars on the market today.
It has proven that in the recent past with Dolby Atmos-supporting models like last year’s impressive HT-ST5000, which created a big, immersive sound stage for $1,500. This year, the company introduced a somewhat more mainstream alternative in the 3.1-channel Sony HT-Z9F soundbar ($798.97 retail) with both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X object-based audio support and the ability to add on a pair of wireless Bluetooth surround speakers (the $299.99/pr, SA-Z9R).
The HT-Z9F is a scaled down verion of the Sony HT-ST5000. The main soundbar has just three 2.5-inch drivers to handle the front right, center and left channel duties, while built-in pyscho-acoustic processing expands the sound stage to magically create the effect of side and even (to a degree) height channels overhead.
The latest mid-range soundbar also backs many of the higher-end streaming and Hi-Res Audio features found in last year’s HT5000, like built-in Chromecast support and Spotify Connect. It even supports Google Assistant voice operations, allowing users to issue verbal commands through a linked smart speaker.
The Sony HT-Z9F is positioned for anyone with a 42- to- 55-inch flat-screen television that doesn’t quite cut it on sound, and that includes most television. This unit features a compact design, so it won’t over power the room decore, and because it uses pyscho-acoustic sound enhancement it will fit almost any room regardless of ceiling height, furnishings and construction materials. It also eschews many of the connecting wires that custom electronics installers charge handsomely to conceal.
The Sony HT-X9F’s minimalist design helps the system nicely blend into the room and complement the supporting television without standing out. The sound bar portion’s thin (2.5 tall x 39 long x 3.5 inches deep) appearance matches up especially well with Sony’s 49- and 55-inch X900F series 4K Ultra HDTVs. Although the full wide sound is suitable for larger models as well. The sound bar weighs just six pounds, which makes it safe and stable for wall-mounted applications as well as table tops.
With some television table-stand designs adding a subwoofer can sometimes block the receiving eye needed to accept IR light signals to execute commands from remote controls. Sony has addressed this by offering IR repeaters to relay the coded signals to the television set.
Both the subwoofer and optional add-on SA-Z9R wireless surround speakers are similarly diminutive in appearance but large on sound. Both portions are matte black to blend in with the surroundings and can be placed in suitable locations for optimal sound effects without being unnecessarily obvious.
The subwoofer measures 7 x 15 x 15 inches and has a surprising 17 pounds of heft. This enables the delivery of rich, stable deep tones sufficient to vibrate the floors when reproducing explosions and roaring jet engines from Dolby Atmos and uncompressed Dolby True HD and DTS-HD Masteraudio soundtracks. The subwoofer’s size enables it to be placed out of sight next to a sofa or under a table.
Because the subwoofer and surrounds link wirelessly via Bluetooth to the sound bar portion, long spaghetti trails of speaker wire aren’t an issue, although each component (four in total with the two surround speakers) requires its own power cord. Nicely, Sony has designed the package for maximum easy of setup and use. Each component wirlessly links to the sound bar, virtually automatically after each component is powered on.
Where some sound bars in the market can sometimes provide rather Spartan input and output jack options, Sony provides a useful bundle of two HDMI 2.0a/HDCP 2.2 inputs and one HDMI output on the back of the sound bar. In addition to this is a stereo analog input, a digital optical (Toslink) input, an Ethernet port and a USB input to access digital music files from thumb drives and hard drive storage devices. In addition, the sound bar will connect wirelessly via Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi to access a wide range of streaming services through the on-board Chromecast compatibility that allows sharing apps through a mobile device. As a nice bonus, Sony told HD Guru that the HT-Z9F will be getting a update to support the forthcoming e-ARC technology, which will bring much wider bandwidth and fewer compatibility issues between the display and source devices. E-ARC, which will be a big enhancement in the forthcoming HDMI 2.1 specification, might also one day facilitate the streaming of higher-resolution surround sound formats like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, if services opt to carry them.
From a control standpoint, the heart of the HT-Z9F is the included IR remote control which provides buttons for all of the different source inputs, six sound modes, including Cinema, Music, Game, News, Sports and Standard. The remote control itself has a traditional Sony style retangular candy bar design that is light and comfortable to hold, when pressing command buttons in one hand.
A centrally located “Vertical S” button enable activating or defeating Sony’s vertical surround effect, which helps to enhance the psycho-accoustic surround sound effects from virtually any soundtrack. The remote control also offers three sets of volume control buttons to raise or lower sound levels from the surround speakers, the main sound bar speakers and the subwoofer.
The Sony HT-Z9F is equipped to connect to an in-home Wi-Fi network or to a Bluetooth Android mobile device to stream apps via Chromecast. The sound bar also ships with Spotify Connect support to listen to the popular Spotify streaming music service, although this will require a paid subsubscription and an app on a supporting mobile phone or tablet.
When connected to a home network, users will be able to access and listen to streamed music stored on a compatible DLNA device, using a compatble Android phone or tablet, PC or Network Attached Storage device.
We found all of these options worked well, although figuring out which music streaming apps and services are compatible will take a little digging into the apps installed on a supporting smart device.
We listend to the Sony HT-Z9F with the optional connected wireless rear-channel speakers to get the full effect. The system was placed in a well-furnished mid-sized room with an eight-foot flat, sheet-rocked ceiling and bare hardwood floors.
Sony’s product support team told us that in developing the HT-Z9F much of the focus was on enhancing the sound experience for movie viewing, particularly with respect to improving the surround effects from fewer speakers to create the sensation of overhead channels in rooms of varying ceiling heights, styles and materials.
On most levels we were impressed, although we still didn’t get the same degree of directional overhead effects that we hear with dedicated Dolby Atmos/DTS:X multi-channel surround sound home theater setups or in Dolby Atmos/DTS:X sound bars with actual up-firing speakers.
In this case the speakers fire straight forward from the three 2.5-inch (left, center, right channel) drivers in the sound bar, and the two (right and left) optional rear-channel speakers. Sony has developed technology to send the sound out in such a way that it widens the sound stage considerably, while adding the elusion that sounds are emerging from areas where no speakers are present, but only to a degree.
Just the same, the sound created is a significant enhancement over sound bars that aren’t designed to reproduce object-based audio from Atmos or DTS:X soundtracks, and is decidedly better than the sound systems built into virtually any commerically available television set.
Watching the Blu-ray/Atmos version of Mad Max: Fury Road, we did hear what appeared to be sounds coming from above ear level, though not directly overhead.
But the best test of the height channels comes from Dolby Atmos sample disc presenting the forest sounds including a bird flapping its wings overhead. In true Dolby Atmos 5.1.4 or 7.1.4 home theater system demos, this can sound real enough to get audiences to look up and watch for a winged creater circling the room. With the HT-Z9F the created overhead effect sounded like the bird was flying between the left rear channel and the right front. The effect diminished appreciably the rear surround speakers turned off.
Still, we found the overall presentation to be impressively wide and immersive. Listening to the rainfall sequence from the Dolby Atmos demo disc, we sensed the dynamics of a storm on horizon, and could almost feel the drops of cold rain.
Where the HT-Z9F really shines is in present clear, direct dialog that is easily understandable, even in content with simultaneous sound effects going on in the periphery. Sony further adds a three position center channel volume boost, just in case the dialog is too faint in some scenes, but we never found this to be the case.
The three speakers in the sound bar do a nice job separating the directionality of each area of the sound field, with left and right channel sound effects appearing to be coming from a good four to five feet to the left and right of center screen.
Also impressive is the power of the sound emitted by the compact wireless subwoofer. This was enough to make us feel the literal vibration beneath our feet during crescendos of big action events like the jungle gunfire sequences in the recent Blu-ray version of Tomb Raider.
For movies, we found Cinema mode provided the most immersive sound experience to simulate the experience of a professional theater. Appropriately music provided a subtle lift to richness and presence, of mid and high tones. The news mode provide greater clarity of voices while reducing distortion from booming baritones, particularly in less-professionally produced clips on YouTube. We found sports and gaming modes offered a subtle changes in tone and surround sound, but didn’t necessarily help or hinder the experience.
The most interesting effect comes from the “Vertical S” button, which triggers the HT-Z9F to up-mix the digital signal processing to 7.1 channel sound. Although we didn’t exactly hear a true 7.1 channel effect, the up-mixed sound did provide a subtle enhancement. If nothing else, it’s fun to play around with during boring portions of a movie.
The HT-Z9F is a competent performer with music as well theatrical fare. Naturally, Sony has designed the soundbar to accept and present many of the most popular Hi-Rez Audio formats, including its own high-bandwidth LDAC compression system for supporting Bluetooth delivered sources.
As with last year’s larger HT-ST5000 Dolby Atmos soundbar, the Z9F includes Sony’s DSEE HX processor and Dynamic range compression (DRC) control to get the most from streamed music.
Because the HT-Z9F was developed with a focus on dialog, it handles vocals in musical pieces very well, with clairity and presence. However, this can be overpowering in some pieces played at higher volumes, particularly with blaring horn arrangements. For example, noticed some ear fatigue listening to Blood, Sweat & Tears’ self-titled second album.
The Sony HT-Z9F won’t replace a good object-based audio home theater system with discrete multichannel speakers, including actualy up-firing or ceiling speakers, but it makes a very convincing contender against other soundbars, including models costing much more than $798.97 (plus $298.99 for the added surrounds). We found the overall sound quality to be very enjoyable for both music and cinematic experiences, and design lends the system placement versatity in most rooms. This is one of our higher mid-range recommendations in the soundbar category.
We therefore award the Sony HT-Z9F 4.5 out of 5 hearts.
The Sony HT-Z9F and SA-Z9R sound bar and surround speakers used for this review were a company loan.
By Greg Tarr
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