Sony’s HT-ZF9 soundbar wants to squeeze Dolby Atmos/ DTS:X out of a 3.1-channel design. Steve May applauds its processing prowess. Read our SONY HT-ZF9 Review.
But that’s exactly what Sony offers here. The HT-ZF9 adopts a conventional bar and wireless sub approach, but uses DSP magic to create an immersive audio experience.
THE VERY IDEA seems preposterous.
A 3.1-channel Dolby Atmos soundbar system that lacks upfiring speakers? Ridiculous.
It can be upgraded with a pair of SA-Z9R wireless rears to create a discrete flatbed 5.1 system.
Placement is unfussy, as it doesn’t use reflected sound to craft its soundstage. Most users will simply sit the HT-ZF9 in front of their TV, although it can be wall-mounted.
As expected at the price, the connections roster includes two HDMI inputs (offering HDCP 2.2 support), plus an HDMI (ARC) output. There’s also an analogue stereo 3.5mm input, USB port, and optical digital audio input.
Bluetooth streaming is boosted by LDAC for compatible Sony devices, and you can also partner Bluetooth headphones for private listening. Chromecast with Google Assistant is built-in, as is Wi-Fi.
Setup is simple (there’s no auto calibration required, although you should manually set the listening distance and level) but operationally the HT-ZF9 is more contorted than a season of Westworld.
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The ‘bar uses a proprietary Vertical Sound Engine to create an immersive listening experience with Atmos and DTS:X content. The supplied remote control sports a big Vertical S button, but this doesn’t actively engage the Vertical Sound Engine. Vertical S is a separate upmixer for two-channel and conventional 5.1 soundtracks.
You don’t actually need to manually engage the Vertical Sound Engine for Atmos (or DTS:X) mixes. It’s triggered automatically. Unless, of course, you’ve switched it off in order to use the Dolby Speaker Virtualiser (available in the audio menu), which is an alternate DSP confection devised by Dolby for soundbars that does much the same 3D audio thing. Confused? You will be.
The good news is that the Vertical Sound Engine actually does a remarkable job engorging the soundstage. Atmos movies play with exaggerated height and width – it’s a big sound for such a small enclosure. The compact subwoofer, with its forward-facing 6.25in bass driver, has quite a kick too.
When Napoleon Solo stages his escape from East Berlin in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Blu-ray), this virtualized approach to Dolby Atmos works brilliantly well. The soundbar’s sonic embrace creeps high and to the side. The jazzy score hangs like a drape, Solo’s zipwire escape cutting through beneath. However, during my movie sessions I never once had a sense of overhead audio, seen by many as the ultimate embodiment of Dolby Atmos sonics.
Between you and me, Dolby’s own Atmos virtualisation processing often sounds better. It’s able to create the illusion of a soundstage that doesn’t just go high and wide, but emphasises spatial depth. The downside is the listening position; it’s sweet spot- dependent, unlike Sony’s more inclusive Vertical Sound Engine. For most users, the Sony approach will be the best option.
With a non-immersive 5.1 soundtrack, that Vertical S mode widens the soundstage, and is fun with stereo music too. The system is compatible with hi-res audio sources, including DSD and 192kHz/24-bit FLAC.
For lower-resolution streams Sony provides its proprietary DSEE HX upscaling.
If you’re expecting AVR-style Atmos thrills you’ll probably be disappointed by the HT-ZF9, but it offers far more than the form factor suggests. Movie audio is painted large and sounds exciting, and even two-channel sources benefit from Sony’s clever processing. Well-featured and innovative.
3.1-channel soundbar with Atmos decoding
Position: Below the Atmos- enabled HT-ST5000
PEERS: Samsung HW-N650; LG SK9Y
If space is tight, this 3.1 Dolby Atmos solution sounds mightier than you might imagine. It's DSP wizardry done right.
Best SONY HT-ZF9 prices ?
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DRIVE UNITS: 3 x forward-facing drivers AMPLIFICATION (CLAIMED): 400W (total output power incl. subwoofer)
CONNECTIONS: 2 x HDMI inputs; HDMI output; optical digital audio input; 3 x USB ports; 3.5mm audio input DOLBY TRUEHD/DTS-HD MA: Yes/Yes SEPARATE SUB: Yes. 6.25in driver REMOTE CONTROL: Yes DIMENSIONS: 1,000(w) x 64(h) x 99(d)mm WEIGHT: 3.1kg
FEATURES: Dolby Atmos/DTS:X decoding; Vertical Sound Engine; wall-mountable; wireless subwoofer; Chromecast Built-in; Bluetooth (with LDAC); hi-res audio support; DSEE HX upscaling