Sony HT-ZF9

Score

Pros

  • Compelling virtual Dolby Atmos performance
  • Excellent upmixing of 5.1 and stereo content
  • Surprisingly musical

Cons

  • Can be confusing to use
  • A tad ugly sans grille

Key Features

  • Review Price: £650
  • Vertical Sound Engine
  • Vertical S upmixer
  • Dolby Speaker Virtualiser
  • High Res Audio compatible
  • Two 4K HDMI inputs

What is the Sony HT-ZF9?

We’ve grown used to seeing Dolby Atmos-enabled soundbars with integrated upfiring height speakers, but the Sony HT-ZF9 is different. It’s a 3.1 design that relies on DSP audio processing to expand a soundfield into what Sony claims is effectively 5.1.2. But can a soundbar with front-facing drivers and a wireless subwoofer really deliver on the promise of immersive Dolby Atmos? The answer, surprisingly, is ‘kinda yeah’, but this isn’t a straightforward proposition.

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Sony HT-ZF9 – Design and features

The Sony HT-ZF9 bar is part gloss, part matte and features a removable magnetic grille. To be honest, it looks less than stylish when undressed. The driver trio is a bit ugly, and there’s a lip that looks surly when the grille is removed. One metre wide, the bar is suitable for larger screen sizes.

Connections include two HDMI inputs, plus an HDMI out (with ARC). There’s also a USB port, analogue stereo 3.5mm minijack input, and an optical digital audio input, for those that can’t use ARC. Incidentally, don’t bank on using heavy duty HDMI connectors, as space is limited.

In addition to Wi-Fi, there’s Bluetooth connectivity, compatible with Sony’s own LDAC headroom extension. You can also partner Bluetooth headphones for private listening. Chromecast is built-in and, naturally enough, the system is compatible with Google Assistant.

The partnering subwoofer is similarly compact, and has a forward-facing 16cm paper driver. It’s a sibling to the sub Sony used on the HT-ST5000 last year.

There’s no convoluted auto-calibration routine required, but you can manually set listening distance (for both the bar and the subwoofer) and level. In addition to input selection, there’s integrated Spotify and Chromecast built-in.

The Sony HT-ZF9 can also be upgraded, with a pair of wireless rear speakers, the optional SA-Z9R. Hooking these up creates a physical 5.1 system, bolstered by the ZF9’s audio sound processing. However, we didn’t have any, so ran the system au naturel.

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Sony HT-ZF9 – Sound quality

Operationally, this soundbar is more confusing than an Ikea flatpack plan.

The first thing to realise is that the prominent Vertical S button on the remote does not toggle the Vertical Sound Engine. Instead, Vertical S is a seperate upmixer for two channel and conventional 5.1 sound mixes.

When the soundbar receives a Dolby Atmos or DTS:X bitstream, the Vertical Sound Engine is switched on automatically. However, you can also operate the soundbar using a Dolby Speaker Virtualiser (in the audio menu), which switches off the Vertical Sound Engine.

For good measure, the soundbar also throws in a number of sonic presets (Cinema, Music, Game Studio, News, Sports and Standard), although these don’t work when using Chromecast or Bluetooth. There’s DRC (Dynamic Range Compression), but this should always be left Off.

The Vertical Sound Engine does a miraculous job expanding the shape of the soundstage. Movies play with width and height, although you won’t experience the classic Dolby Atmos overhead staging.

The Sony HT-ZF9 handles complex action well. In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Blu-ray),  when the Trinity face off against Doomsday, the scale of the soundmix is immense. When Wonder Woman’s theme kicks in, the ZF9 raises goosebumps.

That said, I actually think Atmos movies on the Sony HT-ZF9 sound more immersive using the Dolby Speaker Virtualiser. This simulates an immersive audio experience, and genuinely creates the sensation of wraparound sound with the ZF9’s front-facing drivers.

However, the Dolby Speaker Virtualiser sounds horrible with music.

Given that there’s often not much in it, and the Vertical Sound Engine with Vertical S upmixing is consistently impressive, I can’t imagine that too many users will want to constantly root around in the audio menu, depending on their content selection.

While the ZF9 is perfectly acceptable as a standard living room sound system, there is definitely a sweet spot for listening. Raising the bar, so that it’s level with your ear-line brings improved performance. There’s a little more snap and accuracy to its sonic imagery. In reality, perfect positioning isn’t always going to be possible, but there are clear rewards for those that make the effort to rise to the occasion.

The subwoofer itself goes nice and deep. It can sink to 31.5Hz, and chuffs mightily at 50Hz. However, it sounds at its most melodious around 100Hz. The soundbar kicks in at 200Hz. When it comes to placement, don’t move the two too far apart.

The soundbar is High Res Audio certified, as evidenced by the logo on the front panel. Tracks can be played from USB or across a network. Compatibility covers DSD and 192kHz 24-bit FLAC, but if you have low-res audio sources, the Sony offers DSEE HX upscaling.

Why buy the Sony HT-ZF9?

Sonic science produces a listening experience that belies the HT-ZF9’s simple ’bar and sub form-factor. Integration is excellent, and there’s no disconnect between the subwoofer and soundbar. Despite all the processing jiggery pokery, dialogue is precise and unmuddied.

Sure, there are more conventional, larger Atmos soundbars available, but nothing performs quite like this.

Verdict

The Sony HT-ZF9 confounds expectations, delivering an expansive soundfield from an easy-to-accommodate design. It can be confusing to use, but rewards with a compelling Atmos-lite performance. The Vertical S upmixer does an entertaining job with 5.1 and stereo sources too.

Score