LG SJ9 soundbar
LG’s rangetopping soundbar adds upfiring drivers for Atmos, though in Australia it does so without the option of adding rears for true surround.
Dolby Atmos upfiring speakers add immersion to its movie performance, but with musical limitations.
Dolby Atmos is the latest thing in movie soundtracks, and similarly the latest ‘must-have’ in any AV audio system. The Atmos signature bonus is its ability to add height to surround sound, but in fact Atmos is designed to scale the soundtrack information up or down to whatever your system can handle, even down to mono, even in headphones.
So the question arises, what do you really need to enjoy Dolby Atmos?
LG’s answer is this soundbar — this and others, in fact, given that the company’s highest level of OLED televisions currently come with their own Dolby Atmos soundbar built in. But here is the standalone solution, the SJ9, which stands at the top of LG’s soundbar range by some distance.
It comes with a wireless subwoofer, and is labelled as delivering 5.1.2-channel sound — that’s five normal surround channels (three front, two “rear”), one subwoofer, and the last ‘.2’ indicating two Atmos height channels, here handled by up firing midrange drivers on the top of the soundbar. All seven channels of surround+Atmos are handled in the soundbar with a driver apiece, each allocated 43W of power (quoted at 1kHz with 10% THD), while the wireless subwoofer has its own amplification rated at 200W (again 10% THD). The subwoofer is nicely compact with a 30cm square footprint and just a little more in height.
There are plenty of surround formats handled by the bar’s electronics. Besides Dolby Atmos, the SJ9 will decode Dolby True HD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Digital, DTS Digital Surround, and is also able to handle high-res audio up to 24-bit/192kHz. It has the usual inputs for audio connection from your TV — optical digital and a minijack analogue input. But through neither of those can you guarantee the TV will pass through those surround formats from connected sources — certainly not the analogue connection, of course, but many TVs also mess with soundtracks piped through their optical outputs.
So use the SJ9’s one HDMI input for your Blu-ray player if you’re a disc-loving person, or if more of the streaming ilk, perhaps for whatever box you use to receive Netflix and other streaming services.
What if you use a smart TV for Netflix? Well the HDMI cable between the soundbar and television includes Audio Return Channel (ARC) abilities, so the soundbar can receive soundtracks cleanly down that, provided your TV proves compatible with ARC. Some TVs have only one or two ARC-enabled inputs, some don’t play nice at all, particularly between brands. Clearly using an LG TV with the LG soundbar will be an advantage, but we also had a TCL TV in for review at the time, and that talked nice via ARC too.
Other reasons for sticking with LG at both ends are things like LG Sound Sync, the ability to share a remote control, and also ease of use with LG’s Music Flow app, which can be used with this soundbar.
We do love that Music Flow app (right). A few years back when we tested all the wireless multiroom systems then available, from Sonos through HEOS, Bluesound and the rest, LG’s Music Flow proved a surprise performer of quality — it could use a proprietary mesh system, so worked more reliably than just the usual home Wi-Fi connection; it was high-res audio capable, and the app looked really pretty and worked very well. And the standalone speakers sounded good too. So it was disappointing, though we did understand the reasoning, when LG Australia backed away from distributing Music Flow speakers here. As one of many multiroom systems up against a strong incumbent, the market wasn’t worth chasing.
That now becomes a little issue here, because this soundbar is designed to work to its maximum effect with those Music Flow speakers. Like a number of high-end rivals, the SJ9 bar and sub can pair up with two of those Music Flow speakers, using them as true rears for real surround and a far more immersive performance. But not in Australia, where those speakers aren’t sold. So here it’s Atmos and ‘surround’ coming from the front only.
The Music Flow app is still a handy thing, however, especially if you’re using the SJ9 for playing music. The Music Cast app has continued to evolve and is now even prettier. It offers key music services in a neat row of Tune In internet radio, Spotify Connect, Deezer Premium+. It creates a graphic of the album art on your device as if they were vinyl albums strewn across a table, lovely! And it finds DLNA shares on your network and is still high-res audio capable, and of course multiroom capable (though without the rest of the ecosystem, only to other LG soundbars in other rooms).
There’s also Bluetooth (SBC codec only), and Chromecast built in, rapidly becoming a key streaming technology as well as addressable via Google Home. Pandora may be gone from Australia now (shame!) but there’s still a host of other Chromecast-capable apps which can stream straight from their native app to the SJ9.
Some control functions work through HDMI anyway — for example our TCL TV remote could mute the LG soundbar. And when listening to Dolby Atmos soundtracks direct from Blu-ray, LG’s own soundbar remote would also turn up the TCL TV’s sound, but this meant we’d frequently get a double dose of echoey thin sound from the TV slightly in advance of the soundbar. Every time we touched the LG volume, we had to turn down the TCL sound again. With no way we could find to defeat this HDMI-CEC cross-breeding, it got a bit tedious, but presumably wouldn’t happen within an all-LG system. Another issue came from the unit’s ability to detect a signal on its inputs and switch to them. Frequently, when watching a Blu-ray player plugged into the LG’s HDMI input, it would apparently detect ARC audio and switch to that, turning off the Blu-ray input and blanking the screen.
We started by listening to music, to get a handle on the SJ9’s fundamental tonal qualities. It wasn’t the most propitious start: Jack White’s thrilling duet Love
Interruption emerged with boxy thin vocals, boxy strummed guitar and, from the couch listening position at least, very little stereo spread, with all the elements close to centre.
We experimented with the soundbar’s available ‘Sound Effects’. We hoped ‘Standard’ would provide a flat setting, but this seemed to significantly reduce the scale of sound and to box it thinly in the centre, with the subwoofer mumbling bass off to one side. The ‘Music’ setting was marginally worse for music, introducing additional peakiness in the upper mids. ‘ASC’ seemed to create a dip in the upper bass. The most pleasurable listen, we’re surprised to say, was ‘Bass Blast’, but this had its limits at medium volume, above which it became fairly unpleasant and still musically unsatisfying. On the ‘Live in London’ take of Leonard Cohen’s Tower of
Song, half his vocal tone was pulled over to the subwoofer, the other half emerged boxily from the soundbar. It was as if there were two separate Leonards in the room.
And profoundly distracting, with every new song the wireless subwoofer didn’t start on time, but chimed in a quarter-second late, completely destroying the opening impact of any number of songs. That alone was a deal killer for music listening. As for bass handling, Neil Young’s Walk
With Me has content down in the 30s of hertz, but this was entirely absent through the LG subwoofer, which just made a ‘thrup’ noise with each bottom D bass note, just the attack on the string without the tone that followed.
MP3, WMA, FLAC, AAC, OGG and WAV are listed as supported file-types; AIFF files wouldn’t play, and not all WAVs either, (we note in the manual the unhelpful note that “Some wav files are not supported”).
For movies, there’s a richsounding ‘Movie’ sound option, or you can try ‘ASC’, which “analyzes the property of input sound and provides the sound optimized for the content in real time”. When you feed it an Atmos soundtrack, these options all disappear, as does the option for the neighbour-friendly Night Mode. Batman v Superman was first up, and the additional scale of the sound delivered by Atmos and the LG’s upfiring speakers was clear — it is a big sound, a wide sound, and the bass is significant if not very tight or controlled. With Dolby Atmos test clips there was quite the immersive effect with high-ranging forest noises, even the faintest of feelings that the Atmos ‘sycamore seed’ test clip was being panned behind the listener. But there’s no real surround from this front-only system given the non-availability of Music Flow speakers here, and the obvious comparison must be made with Samsung’s K950 system, which (at the higher price of $1999) has real rear speakers with additional ceiling-pointed Atmos-enabled drivers, thereby creating a true surround space in the home (full review S+I Feb-Mar 2017 issue).
Of course, how many users want real surround speakers in the home? Not many, judging from the decline of lounge room surround in the last decade. So if you have an LG TV, and you want a big movie sound from a simple bar+sub solution, this will deliver.
Despite an excellent app and high-res abilities, we couldn’t recommend the SJ9’s performance for those hoping to use their soundbar for music playback as well as movies, while the lack of Music Flow speaker availability in Australia largely stymies the multiroom abilities here, while also removing the ability to use its ‘Home Cinema mode’ with additional rear speakers. But we like the SJ9’s physical design, and its Atmos-enabled drivers allow it to produce rich-sounding soundtrack performance with higher than usual frontal immersion.
LG SJ9 $1699 Connections: 1 x HDMI in, 1 x HDMI out (ARC), optical digital in, analogue minijack in, Bluetooth (SBC only). Ethernet, 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi Dimensions (whd): 1220 x 60 x 150mm (soundbar); 296 x 332 x 296mm (sub) Weight: 5.7kg (bar); 7.6kg (sub) Contact: LG Australia Telephone: 1300 54 2273 Web: www.lg.com/au
LG SJ9 soundbar+subwoofer
LG’s MusicFlow app is now even more attractive, and remains high-res-audio capable.