Everyone dreams of Dolby Atmos, but nobody wants a lot of speakers in his room. The solution is an Atmos soundbar, but that costs quite a bit. And then you have the new batch of Sony devices that promise 3D sound for a lower price. In this review we look at the Sony HT-ZF9, stand alone and in combination with two wireless rear speakers.
Review Sony HT-ZF9
The HT-ZF9 we are viewing here is one of the newest Sony sound bars , with a price of 800 euros. The soundbar was presented together with the HT-XF9000 at the CES exhibition in January, and now reaches approximately the shops. The two Sony’s are unusual devices. There are certainly Dolby Atmos compatible soundbars with many drivers, such as Sony’s own HT-ST5000 or the Yamaha YSP-5600 but the ZF9 and XF9000 promise a surround experience with sound effects in the height from a modest number of speakers. The Sony HT-ZF9 only contains three and comes with a separate wireless subwoofer. Dolby Atmos or DTS:X via a 3.1 soundbar? That seems very tough. In this review, we investigate whether the Sony is successful. If necessary, you can expand the soundbars with two separately sold rear-speakers, an option that we also examine in this test.
Slim but long
When unpacking the Sony HT-ZF9 you immediately get to see the three drivers of the soundbar. After having tested many devices with an entire array of speakers, this Sony suddenly seems sober. The three equal drivers are mounted to the far left and right, with the third neatly in the middle. If you do not like the ‘technical’ look with visible speakers, place the supplied grille over the front. The white display is behind the grille, but remains subtly visible.
It may not be as expensive as the first generation of Atmos sound bars – which cost 1,000 to 1,700 euros – the Sony HT-ZF9 remains a pricey device. It is therefore good that Sony provided a more premium finish. The soundbar looks quite luxurious, with a casing at the top partly of dark glass and partly of plastic with a kind of eggshell leather motif. It remains a long bar, like most sound bars. However, the rounded corners and limited height of 6.4 cm make the HT-ZF9 look slender. We found him great with our LG OLED55B6V in the living room.
In contrast to most Atmos soundbars, the Sony HT-ZF9 does not have any overhead speakers that provide space. And that has one advantage: you can slide this Sony soundbar under your TV, because it does not necessarily have to be free.
Reasonably well equipped
In this price category, we expect some HDMI inputs and extra possibilities. Sony does not disappoint us. The Sony HT-ZF9 has two HDMI inputs (4K and HDR) and an HDMI ARC connection for the TV, hidden in a niche at the rear. Slightly lower you will find a USB input for media files, an analog jack input and an optical input for older TVs or a console. It is quite convenient that all entrances are bundled in a niche, the only minus is that the side with HDMI inputs is slanted with respect to the back. This means you have to insert the HDMI cable to the TV diagonally, which is difficult if you have a premium cable with thick plug.
The Sony HT-ZF9 can be connected to the network so that you can stream music . You have the choice: work with network cable or via WiFi. Both are equally easy, thanks to the practical interface that the Sony soundbar shows on your TV. When setting up the soundbar you can choose between a simple setup procedure that you simply have to follow. If you are more at home in AV material, you can also arrange all the options yourself.
The interface that the HT-ZF9 conjures up on the TV screen (if you connect the soundbar via HDMI, of course) is a further evolution from Sony’s old interface. The result is tight and sober – and just very intuitive. Fortunately, because when we set up the soundbar, it turns out that it does not automatically find the subwoofer and (later) the wireless rear speakers. Then through the manual procedure, which means that you press a button on the back.
The Sony HT-ZF9 is not only about a surround experience with movies and TV series. Thanks to the presence of Bluetooth and Chromecast you can also easily stream music to the soundbar. Chromecast we find the better option, because you then send audio in a higher quality (lossless). In theory, you can even listen to hi-resstreams in this way, although it is unclear whether they are actually processed as they should be. On the included standard remote of Sony is also a button ‘Music Service’. If you press on it, you will get a message that this function will be available after a software update. Other buttons on the remote control are fortunately more useful. Such as the Vertical S button that turns on the Vertical Sound Engine and the separate buttons for each sound mode. However, these are only functional if you watch a video source, for example when streaming you can not switch to a pure stereo mode. However, you can switch off the Vertical Sound Engine, which is recommended for many tracks.
Most Sony audio devices can be controlled via the Music Center app (formerly Songpal), and so is the HT-ZF9. The app is fairly easy to use and allows you to both adjust settings and select sources. However, if you tap a streaming service, you will be redirected to an explanation about Chromecast. Deezer, Spotify, Qobuz, Tidal … all have Chromecast directly built into their own apps. Via Music Center (or another uPnP-compatible app) you can play your own music files over the network. That goes smoothly, although Music Center often fails to detect all DLNA servers – while BubbleUPnP could.
Playing music is the HT-ZF9. Both electronic music such as the recent live album from The Do and more classic rock from Ry Cooders ‘The Prodigal Son’ sounds convincing, albeit a bit dull (perhaps because the sub is hidden behind us at a seat and a bit of voice frequency from the subwoofer came). A downside if you use the extra rear-speakers is that you can not seem to turn them off. If you choose Vertical Surround-out, the soundbar applies DTS Neural:X and S-Force Pro Front Surround to upgrade stereo to a form of surround. We would like to have had a real 2.1 option.
For our test we connect an Xbox One S directly to the HT-ZF9, with bitstream output and Dolby Atmos encryption enabled. In this way we are certain that our Atmos content reaches the soundbar well. It is not advisable to connect an Atmos source device to an HDMI port on your TV and then hope that the audio signal will pass through a soundbar via HDMI-ARC unchanged. That will almost never be the case, except in a television with eARC support. But they are still very rare.
Atmos devices are always tested first with the official Dolby Atmos test disc, with well-known demos like ‘Horizon’ and ‘Leaf’. Rainstorm is also a good one, not only because you can clearly hear the spatial added value of Atmos but also the impact on the sound of objects. The raindrops can sound very metallic and unnatural with a poorly tuned surround system. The demo also switches between 5.1 and 5.1.4, so you can hear the differences between normal surround and high-altitude channels. With the HT-ZF9 there is still a hint of artificiality to be detected, especially if we switch off the Vertical Surround function. But with the function enabled the thunder is very realistic for a soundbar, it really depends in the distance. Double is that the subwoofer does not go very deep and still shows higher tones. So you should actually place him in the front of the same plane as your television, not in the back of the room. If you do, the sound is not always correct – but sometimes it becomes just more spacious. You have to experiment with it.
At the opening attack of Poe Dameron on the gigantic Dreadnought in ‘The Last Jedi’ (on Ultra HD Blu-ray, with 7.1.4 soundtrack) the HT-ZF9 makes a big impression. If the X-Wing of Poe flies fast along the battle pairs of the spaceship, then that is also surprisingly well conveyed by the soundbar with the extra speakers. The final in which the Dreadnought explodes, also became very cinematic. A nice result. If you take into account the fact that the rearspeakers like in most living rooms by us unsuspecting are positioned and that there is no calibration system to compensate for placement, then the result is even very handsome. The pricey Samsung HW-K950 and Yamaha YSP-5600 we found something better in the area of spatiality and positioning of sound effects, but the HT-ZF9 with SA-Z9R package (300 euro) does it in our opinion better than the more expensive Sony ST-5000.
To be honest: without the optional rear-speakers, the surround experience offered by the HT-ZF9 is much less convincing. We received the SA-Z9R package with these two speakers only after one and a half tests. Up until that point we thought the Sony soundbar was ‘ok’ rather than great, but with additional speakers we had to adjust our evaluation positively – especially after we took the time to adjust the volume of the rear speakers properly.
We did not expect it to be honest, but the HT-ZF9 produces quite a credible surround experience with 3.1 speakers. But to put things into perspective: we now compare with classical sound bars, not with ‘true’ Atmos sound bars that cost 500 euros or more or a discrete speaker set-up. It would have been quite impressive if Sony had provided a price tag of 600-650 euros. With 800 euros, the HT-ZF9 still performs well but is more capable of competing, only slightly more expensive competitors on the horizon. Fortunately, we notice that the real retail price tends to the point that we deem desirable.
And if you add the SA-Z9R package, the story will change. The total recommended price comes to 1,100 euros – but you do enjoy something very clever that transcends a discrete 5.1 setup.