Sony HT-Z9F Soundbar

Atmos Un­wired

Sound & Vision - - QUICK TAKE - BY AL GRIF­FIN

Sound­bars de­signed to de­liver Dolby Atmos sound in an all-in-one pack­age of­fer a con­ve­nient al­ter­na­tive to com­pli­cated— and pricey— set­ups that re­quire in-ceil­ing speak­ers or “el­e­va­tion” mod­ules. We’ve checked out a few such spec­i­mens in Sound & Vi­sion, in­clud­ing Sony’s HT-ST5000 ($1,500). Now, the com­pany’s new HT-Z9F ($900), aims to de­liver the same ob­ject­based Atmos— and DTS:X— ex­pe­ri­ence from a more com­pact and notably less costly soundbar.

There are key fam­ily dif­fer­ences be­tween the HT-Z9F and the HT-ST5000. The main one is that the HT-Z9F lacks up­ward-fir­ing driv­ers to bounce sound off the ceil­ing. In­stead, the 3.1-chan­nel bar uses Dolby Atmos vir­tual pro­cess­ing and the com­pany’s own Ver­ti­cal Sur­round En­gine to sim­u­late over­head speak­ers.

The other main dif­fer­ence be­tween the two bars is that, while the HT-ST5000 uses ad­di­tional driv­ers to help con­vey vir­tual left-right sur­round in­for­ma­tion, the HT-Z9F re­lies on the com­pany’s op­tional SA-Z9R wire­less speak­ers ($300/pair) for sur­round sound. Sony sup­plied a pair of SA-Z9RS, a speaker the size of a Pop-tarts box with a 2-inch full-range driver pow­ered by a 50-watt amp.

The HT-Z9F’S looks are fairly stan­dard is­sue, and the same goes for the wire­less sub­woofer that ac­com­pa­nies it. A set of ca­pac­i­tive con­trol but­tons are lo­cated on the top. Sony also gives you full-fea­tured re­mote con­trol with but­tons to di­rectly ac­cess in­puts and pro­cess­ing modes (in­clud­ing a big white one to se­lect the all-im­por­tant Ver­ti­cal Sur­round pro­cess­ing), and to tweak the level of the wire­less sub­woofer and the sur­rounds dur­ing play­back.

Setup of the sys­tem was dis­arm­ingly sim­ple. I con­nected an Ul­tra HD Blu-ray player to one of the bar’s two HDMI in­puts and a TV to an HDMI out­put with Au­dio Re­turn Chan­nel (ARC). Af­ter us­ing the on­screen menu to link up to my home’s Wi-fi, I could then use its Chrome­cast built-in feature to stream mu­sic via com­pat­i­ble apps. Con­fig­ur­ing the SA-Z9R wire­less sur­rounds was a sim­ple mat­ter of plug­ging them in, press­ing a power but­ton, and the speak­ers au­to­mat­i­cally linked up with the bar.

Along with be­ing com­pat­i­ble with both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, the HT-Z9F also sup­ports the HDR10, Dolby Vi­sion, and Hy­brid-log Gamma HDR for­mats. Discs with Dolby Vi­sion and Atmos are read­ily avail­able, so I grabbed two from my col­lec­tion: Game of Thrones: The Com­plete First Sea­son, and The Ma­trix.

Watch­ing episode two of Game of Thrones, in a scene where Daen­erys Tar­garyen and Jo­rah Mor­mont dis­cuss Dothraki cus­toms (while munch­ing horse jerky), the HT-Z9F had a wide, pre­sen­ta­tion that nicely con­veyed the sound of horse­men travers­ing the grass­land. Di­a­logue was crisp and nat­u­ral, and the horse hooves had a full, pow­er­ful en­ve­lope.

In another scene, the Lan­nis­ter sib­lings share an un­easy break­fast in a large stone hall. The soundbar did an ex­cel­lent job ren­der­ing the en­vi­ron­ment, with Tyrion’s boom­ing voice seem­ing to res­onate from well above the screen, though not nec­es­sar­ily from above my head. I con­tin­ued to be im­pressed when I next watched The Ma­trix. When Mor­pheus and Neo con­duct a mar­tial arts match, the thwack of limbs had a deep im­pact, and the sound seemed to spread equally wide in the ver­ti­cal and hor­i­zon­tal di­men­sions. That said, turn­ing off the wire­less sur­rounds less­ened any en­velop­ing ef­fect.

Mu­sic on the sys­tem was a mixed bag. Lis­ten­ing to a Tidal stream of “Who Am I,” by Bri­tish trio London Gram­mar, the vo­cals were clear though a bit tre­bly, and the bass line had de­cent depth and im­pact. Turn­ing on Ver­ti­cal Sur­round also added spa­cious­ness to the al­ready dense mix. Another track I played,

Ray La­mon­tagne’s “Barfly” fared less well. While vo­cals were mostly smooth, cym­bals and snare drum sounded pa­pery and lacked de­tail. There was also a lean­ness to the slid­ing bass gui­tar, with notes end­ing their de­scent with a pinched thud.

The fi­nal word on Sony’s HT-Z9F? It de­liv­ers im­pres­sive sur­round for a com­pact soundbar when paired with Sony’s SA-Z9R wire­less speak­ers. Atmos and non-atmos sound­tracks alike were ren­dered in a high and wide man­ner, but for $900, I ex­pected bet­ter per­for­mance with mu­sic.

THE VER­DICT

Sony’s soundbar of­fers an easy way to get Atmos, but you’ll need the op­tional wire­less sur­round speak­ers for best per­for­mance.

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