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20th of July 2018

Gadgets



You may not see Sony's new soundbar at first, but you'll sure as hell hear it

Research Center: Sony HT-Z9F 3.1 soundbar

The word “processing” isn’t exactly sexy. But in the electronics world, especially when you’re trying to accomplish a lot with very little, good processing can make all the difference. Sony uses its lauded processing skills to do some magical things with its products, from ultra-thin TVs with speakers built directly into the screen, to tiny music players loaded with digital upscaling for high-end wireless performance. The company’s new Dolby Atmos soundbar, the HT-Z9F, is another fine showcase for Sony’s considerable talents in this arena.

The Z9F may not look like much of a powerhouse, but it’s loaded with just about every feature you could ask for in a 3.1 soundbar, including some impressive digital sound processing. Like other virtual surround soundbars, this is not a substitute for a fully discrete Dolby Atmos system. But, if you can swallow its $800-900 price tag, the Z9F will reward you with intuitive design and good performance, all in a sleek (and dare we say sexy?) little package.

Out of the box

The Z9F arrives in the familiar L-shaped package common for most new soundbars with wireless subwoofer accompaniment. Opening the box and removing the jigsaw foam surrounding the system reveals an all-black bar with a triple-dot of silver drivers on the front face. The unit is lighter than you’d expect for a soundbar touting Dolby Atmos (virtual though it may be) but its rectangular subwoofer companion packs plenty of girth. A quick glance at the Z9F’s loaded rear input panel lets you know this system is well appointed and ready to party.

Sony doesn’t skimp on the accessories here, loading a refreshing collection that includes everything from a full paperback owner’s manual to a custom-made Dolby Atmos demo disk (don’t get too excited, it’s only good for about 30 seconds of action). Also inside is a magnetically affixed grill, a button-laden remote and batteries, a startup guide, and an HDMI cable.

Our system also came with a pair of adorable little surround satellites which connect wirelessly and require a power source. They’ll cost you another $300 to bundle in.

Features and design

As mentioned, we like the look of the Z9F, with or without the perforated screen on the front – use as you prefer, depending on how rambunctious your living room might be. Touch controls on the top of the bar for power, source, and volume keep the minimalist black aesthetic clean, while a slim silver line protruding from the front adds a bit of style. The bar sits three inches tall, four inches deep, and 40 inches across, easily fitting most TV stands.

Sony HT-Z9F 3.1 soundbar Compared To

The subwoofer, a nondescript black hunk with a glossy bass port up front, is a larger affair, standing just over 15 inches high and deep, and just under 8 inches wide.

The Z9F features all the inputs you’d expect from a bar of its stature, including ARC HDMI, dual HDMI inputs, optical digital audio, and 3.5mm analog audio inputs, and an Ethernet port to hardwire into your network. There’s also an IR repeater at the back in case your TV’s sensor gets blocked by the bar.

Sony HT-Z9F soundbar review Dan Baker/Digital Trends

The Z9F also supports Wi-Fi and loads in Chromecast support for wireless streaming over your network in addition to Bluetooth. Sony’s proprietary DSEE HX up-scaler makes Spotify streams sound pretty good over Bluetooth, but we still noted a marked improvement with Wi-Fi streaming. You can also stream to a pair of Bluetooth headphones if you’re trying not to wake the family (we told you this thing was loaded), while select Sony TVs can also connect via Bluetooth. As we’ll get to below, however, to get the most out of the system and its on-screen menu, you’ll want to wire in via HDMI.

When it comes to surround processing, the Z9F is stocked with pretty much everything under the sun.

The Z9F uses digital signal processing (DSP) to create a fuller soundstage than its 3.1 channels can do alone. This includes Sony’s “Vertical Surround” system which is toggled on and off via a prominent button on the remote. The setting does enhance select content, but as we’ll get to in the performance section, you’ll want to keep the remote handy when playing two-channel audio and music.

The remote also allows for easy access to other DSP functions like Sony’s dialog enhancer via the Voice key (the Up 1 setting is best for most content), along with a wide array of listening modes like Cinema, Music, and Sports. For what it’s worth, Sony recommends using the assigned settings, but the Auto Sound setting also seemed to do a decent job of adjusting to each source. The remote also hosts handy volume keys for sound bar volume, subwoofer level, and the surround sound satellites should you choose to add them.

When it comes to surround processing, the Z9F is stocked with pretty much everything under the sun, including Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio, and even some you may not have heard of like DTS 96/24 for high resolution audio. For video, the bar offers 4K HDR passthrough with HDCP 2.2 support.

Sony is coy about its driver specs, but we do know the Z9F offers just the three visible drivers up front, alongside one forward facing driver in the subwoofer, with a total power plant of 400 watts.

Setup and interface

Connecting the Z9F to your TV is a relatively simple affair if you’ve got HDMI ARC, which is the easiest way to use the bar and also gets you the best sound performance. If your TV has ARC and CEC turned on you can control the Z9F’s volume and power with your TV remote. If you don’t have ARC, you can connect via the Optical cable, but you won’t get the on-screen menu.

The on-screen menu quickly walks you through setup, including connecting to your Wi-Fi network, and it’s designed to auto-connect to Sony’s wireless speakers when plugged in. It’s easy enough to add the surround satellites later if you want, but you’ll likely need to do it manually, meaning you’ll have to push the “Link” button on both satellite speakers — and this is crucial — as well as the sub, even though it’s already connected. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in a loop in which the sub and speakers connect and disconnect alternately.

Sony HT-Z9F soundbar review Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Menu options are intuitively broken down into Watch (for all your connected components), Listen (with icons for Bluetooth, Chromecast, or Spotify Connect), and Settings. You can also simply toggle to different sources via the designated buttons on the remote.

One odd omission: We couldn’t seem to find anywhere to control EQ — not even basic treble or bass control. We honestly never really needed it, but as audio nerds, it still feels weird not to have it, especially with a system so otherwise packed with features.

Performance

Before we discuss sound quality, a couple of quick points: While Sony’s bar doesn’t use the walls of your room to create its surround virtualization, it definitely works better in some rooms than others, and that goes for Sony’s Vertical Surround enhancement as well. And about that Vertical Surround feature: We didn’t notice much of a difference when the system was engaged for Dolby Atmos or DTS:X content in our primary testing room, and while it does enhance 5.1 and stereo content, it also tends to add some sharpness to the upper midrange, especially in the “S” sounds of dialogue. As such, we used the feature sparingly.

Sizzling jungle sounds tickled our ears, blooming from the front of the room like a bubble.

That’s OK, though, because the Z9F offers impressive virtual movement and spatial depth with or without Vertical Surround engaged, especially with our favorite Dolby Atmos content. Dolby’s Leaf demo scene was exposed with surprisingly deep dimension as sizzling jungle sounds seemed to tickle our ears with clear detail, blooming from the front of the room like a sonic bubble to pull us into the scene. The whistles of the jungle birds appeared to pop up above the screen, while the wind almost floated by our face as the camera dove into the trees.

The Dolby Amaze scene offered a similar experience, seeming to unfold at the front of the room in a deep globe, while the bar and subwoofer melded together for powerful bass and striking high frequencies that blasted the room with distortion-free sound. Unlike Yamaha’s beam-driver system in the YSP-5600, the Z9F doesn’t provide a full Atmos experience — rain drops don’t quite move overhead (there are no up-firing drivers here) and sounds rarely creep to the back of the room convincingly. Still, we repeatedly found ourselves, well … amazed at how much depth and movement Sony’s processing squeezed out of this slim little 3.1 system.

Sony HT-Z9F soundbar review Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Auditioning other content, from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. II to Skyfall, we were consistently impressed with the Z9F’s ability to balance powerful, distortion-free sound with clear and full dialogue, even when things get extremely raucous on-screen.

The satellite speakers definitely added another dimension to the party for us, but it’s one we think most users will be fine without — especially since they push the total cost well over the $1000 mark. That said, the speakers sound surprisingly clear and full considering their size, and if you want to fill in the surround gaps, they do a fine job of it. Moments like Deadpool’s daring freeway attack are rendered with a better sense of space and immersion with the speakers in place, offering little trickles of atmosphere at the rear like police sirens and dialogue reverb. The satellites are also easy to adjust on the fly via the remote. Still, we didn’t miss them as much as one might expect when disconnected, especially when auditioning Dolby Atmos content.

Those looking for cinematic fun first will get a nice bonus in the Z9F’s musical prowess.

While we were pleasantly surprised with the Z9F’s virtual surround sound muscle, one thing we didn’t expect — but should have, considering this is Sony — is how well the Z9F does with music, especially for its tiny size. Letting the system stream in the background, the bar and sub again proved how seamlessly they work together. While most sound bar/subwoofer combos aimed at cinematic content provide powerful bass topped with spritely treble, the Z9F finds that middle ground, offering smooth and creamy midrange frequencies matched by rich bass and a tight cut up top for an impressively well-balanced – and musical — sound signature.

We occasionally wished the sound was just a little cleaner in the upper bass and lower midrange here, and it’s no substitute for a good pair of bookshelf speakers, but there’s a thickness to the sound you just don’t expect from such a thin bar. Those looking for cinematic fun first will get a nice bonus in the Z9F’s musical prowess.

Warranty

Sony offers a limited one-year warranty for the HT-Z9F. You can learn more about warranty details here.

Our Take

Sony’s Z9F doesn’t come cheap, but it offers an impressive array of options and powerful virtual surround performance in an incredibly small and nimble profile.

Are there any better alternatives?

If you’re looking for solid virtual surround sound at this price point and size, we haven’t found one. That said, there are plenty of other options to consider. For about $1,400, Samsung’s HW-K950 has a much higher base price, but it offers true Dolby Atmos sound thanks to up-firing drivers, and also comes with surround satellites bundled into the package.

For something with fewer components, Yamaha’s aforementioned YSP-5600 is also a nice option, though its beam driver system is highly affected by the room in which its installed, and it’ll cost you even more than Samsung’s bar once you add a subwoofer. It’s also so large that it basically must be mounted.

If you’re willing and able to string some wires around the house, you can also get a discreet Dolby Atmos package from Focal in its Sib Evo speakers for not that much more cash, even after you add a Dolby Atmos-capable receiver.

How long will it last?

The system appears to be well-built and Sony is a reliable brand, while its feature set make it primed for the foreseeable future.

Should you buy it

If you’re looking for powerful virtual surround in the smallest profile possible, the answer is yes. Sony’s HT-Z9F may not be a substitute for a traditional Dolby Atmos system, but it offers better virtual surround than any bar its size we’ve encountered.

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