Sony HT-ZF9 Soundbar Review
What is the Sony HT-ZF9?The Sony HT-ZF9 is the latest flagship soundbar from the Japanese manufacturer. It supports both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, but takes a very different approach to delivering these object-based immersive audio formats. This compact 3.1-channel soundbar abandons the usual side and upward-firing drivers, and uses clever DSP audio processing to create the illusion of greater immersion instead.
Sony claims that the ZF9 can deliver a virtual 7.1.2 surround sound experience, thanks to its proprietary Vertical Surround Engine. The ZF9 costs £649 as at the time of writing (October 2018), which is cheaper than the competition, and other features include 4K HDR and Hi-Res Audio support, along with built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Chromecast. That's all well and good, but does Sony's digital signal processing actually work?
DesignThe Sony HT-ZF9 has a minimalist design and a discreet appearance. It's only available in black, with a two-tone effect thanks to a combination of matte and brushed metal finishes. There's a removable magnetic mesh grille, behind which you’ll find the three speakers: front left, front right and centre. There’s an ugly lip along the bottom of soundbar, although it's only visible when you remove the grille, so I'd leave it on.
The HT-ZF9 has a display between the left and centre drivers, which is clearly visible even with the grille attached. The soundbar itself is fairly compact at just 1000mm wide, but that makes it a good match for most panel sizes, and at only 64mm high it shouldn’t block the screen or IR receiver. The Sony is nicely engineered and very well made, weighing in at 3.1kg.
The HT-ZF9 is paired with a wireless active subwoofer that is ported and uses a forward-firing, 16cm paper driver. The soundbar and sub should pair automatically, although if necessary this can also be performed manually. The combined system has a claimed power output of 400W.
The ZF9 is well-made and discreet, but better-looking with the front grille on
Connections & ControlThe Sony HT-ZF9 has a recessed area at the rear, where you'll find all the connections. These are on two layers, with the top one sporting an unnecessary angle, which actually made attaching the HDMI cables quite tricky.
There are two HDMI inputs and an HDMI output that supports ARC (Audio Return Channel), and they all support 4K/60p, Wide Colour Gamut, High Dynamic Range (HDR10, Hybrid Log-Gamma and Dolby Vision), and HDCP 2.2.
There’s also an optical digital audio input, a 3.5mm analogue audio input, USB Type A and a LAN port for a wired Ethernet connection. For a wireless connection, you have a choice of Wi-Fi (11a/b/g/n – 2.4GHz/5GHz) or Bluetooth 4.2 with support for Sony’s LDAC enhancement.
There are a few simple, touch sensitive controls on the soundbar itself, at the top and towards the centre. These controls include power, input, Bluetooth, music service and volume, but the chances are you'll never use them because the HT-ZF9 comes with a comprehensive remote.
It's certainly a lot more complicated than your average soundbar controller, reflecting the fact that the ZF9 has quite a few features. This full-sized remote fits comfortably in the hand and is reasonably intuitive in terms of its layout, although the sheer number of options can get confusing.
However, after a bit of practice, you should find the layout fairly logical, with a central navigation dial, volume controls, direct access to the various inputs, and a selection of different sound modes. You can choose the home page, turn the Vertical Surround Engine on, play back music, adjust the sub level, and even trim the level of the rear speakers, if you’ve added the optional wireless surround kit.
The third and final method of control is Sony’s Music Centre app, which allows you to use your smart device to control the HT-ZF9. This app has a well-designed user interface, is intuitively laid out, and gives you access to most of the menu functions via an easy-to-follow fashion.
The connections are good, but the angled design makes inserting HDMI cables tricky
Sony HT-ZF9 FeaturesThe Sony HT-ZF9 has a set of features befitting a flagship soundbar, and support for the two main immersive audio formats (Dolby Atmos and DTS:X) is definitely the headliner. To support both is actually rather unusual at this price point, and even more expensive soundbars often only include decoding for one or the other.
As well as Atmos and DTS:X there's also support for most other formats, including Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS, DTS-ES, DTS 96/24, DTS-HD High Res, and DTS-HD Master Audio. The Sony even supports LPCM in 2ch, 5.1ch and 7.1ch varieties.
The HT-ZF9’s other major feature is Sony's proprietary Vertical Surround Engine, which uses sophisticated digital processing and psychoacoustics to deliver a virtual immersive audio experience from a 3.1-channel system. The soundbar can also upscale non-object-based audio, allowing you to take advantage of all its virtual channels, as well as offer a number of sound modes, including Cinema, Game Studio, Music, News, and Sports.
Sony is keen to emphasise the immersive nature of the HT-ZF9’s virtual engine, but the best processing in the world can't put sounds physically behind you. So the manufacturer does offer an optional wireless rear speaker kit – the SA-Z9R – which isn't cheap at £299. However, it does allow you to upgrade the HT-ZF9 into a genuine 5.1-channel system.
The HT-ZF9 has some impressive Hi-Fi credentials, and is certified for Hi-Res Audio and supports various audio formats such as DSD (2ch and 5.1ch), WAV, FLAC, ALAC, AIUFF, AAC, WMA, and MP3. Sony also includes its Digital Sound Enhancement Engine, which is designed to improve the sound of lower resolution music files.
The soundbar’s acoustic credentials are further enhanced by the inclusion of Sony’s Music Center app, which not only allows you to set up and control the HT-ZF9, but also allows you to group it with compatible speakers and stream music around the house. There’s also integrated Spotify, Chromecast built-in, and the HT-ZF9 even works with Google Assistant, allowing for voice control.
The solid set of features is headlined by virtual surround that supports Atmos and DTS:X
Setup, Operation & TestingThe Sony HT-ZF9 is unusual amongst soundbars in having an onscreen menu system, and while, at first, it might seem confusing, it's actually fairly easy to follow. All you need to do is work your way through the settings menu and everything should be fairly intuitive. In fact, most of the options you'll probably leave in their default settings, so all you really need to do is set up the Wi-Fi.
The main Setup menu has sub-menus for Speaker Settings, Audio Settings, HDMI Settings, Bluetooth Settings, System Settings, Network Settings, Reset, and Software Update. The Audio Settings allow you to select DSEE HX, Audio DRC, Sound Effect, and Advanced Auto Volume; HDMI Settings allow you to setup Control for HDMI, TV Audio Input Mode, and the HDMI Signal Format; the Bluetooth Settings including controls for turning on AAC and LDAC support; the System Settings cover all the basic setup features like OSD Language and IR-Repeater; and Network Settings allow you to set up the Wi-Fi connection.
There’s no automated calibration feature, which is a shame, but there is a manual setup available. Once you've positioned the soundbar in front of the TV and placed the subwoofer off to the side, all you need to do is go into the Speaker Settings sub-menu and set the distance and levels for the soundbar and the subwoofer. There are test tones available which makes a nice change, and these allow you to set the levels using an SPL meter, thus ensuring the sound field is balanced (there are plenty of free SPL apps available).
For testing, I connected various devices directly via HDMI, including an LG UP970 UHD Blu-ray player, a PS4 Pro, an Apple TV 4K and a YouView set top box. I also tested the Audio Return Channel capabilities of the soundbar by connecting everything to an LG 65C8 OLED TV and sending the audio back via ARC. Since the C8 supports Dolby Atmos on its Netflix and Amazon apps using Dolby Digital Plus for delivery, I was able to send Atmos back to the HT-ZF9 via ARC.
I also connected the Sony to my wireless network using the Music Centre app, and I paired the soundbar to both an iPhone X and a Samsung S9+ via Bluetooth, allowing me to test its capabilities with streamed music. Operating the HT-ZF9 can be as daunting as setting it up but, after a few minutes, you'll quickly realise that it's fairly intuitive, even if there are often multiple ways of accessing the same thing.
The home page provides three options: Watch, Listen, and Setup. As their names suggest, Watch gives you access to any connected video sources like ARC, HDMI 1 and HDMI 1, and Listen provides access to the connected audio sources like Bluetooth, USB, Analogue, and Spotify. You can also access all the inputs using the provided remote or Sony’s Music Centre app.
Setup is surprisingly complicated for a soundbar, but comprehensive in its approach
The Sony HT-ZF9 success depends entirely on the effectiveness of the new Vertical Surround Engine. Its big selling point is being able to create an immersive experience from a 3.1-channel system, so if that doesn't work, the soundbar will be a bust because there are better and cheaper alternatives.
Thankfully, Sony's virtual surround processing does work to a degree, creating a greater sense of immersion and three-dimensional depth to the soundstage. This kind of virtual approach will never fully replace a soundbar that uses actual drivers to create the sound field, but it can be ideal for those with limited space or less-than-ideal rooms.
Sony provides plenty of sonic presets, all of which are designed to work with different types of content. Unsurprisingly, Cinema creates a bigger soundstage for movies, and Game Studio is obviously designed to enhance your gaming experience. The Sports setting emphasises crowd noises, and News concentrates on dialogue. There’s also Standard if you want to listen to audio without any processing, and Auto Sound for those who would rather let the HT-ZF9 choose the most appropriate preset for any particular incoming signal.
The psychoacoustic processing doesn't just apply to Dolby Atmos and DTS:X soundtracks, so if you fancy upmixing normal soundtracks, just press the ‘Vertical S’ button on the remote control. This engages the Vertical Surround Engine (VSE), which then processes non-object-based soundtracks to make them more immersive by applying all the virtual channels. This feature actually worked quite well with TV dramas and movies, giving the audio more height, depth and width.
The HT-ZF9 automatically switches on VSE when it detects a Dolby Atmos or DTS:X soundtrack, allowing it to encode the object-based source. The use of digital signal processing in order to create a virtual 7.1.2 experience from a 3.1-channel system might sound like lunacy, but it actually does work to a degree. There was no doubt that when watching the opening race in Ready Player One, the soundstage felt expanded and the effects moved further out to the left and right, while there was also a greater sense of height to the audio.
I was able to send Dolby Atmos soundtracks from the built-in Netflix and Amazon apps on my C8 to the Sony via HDMI ARC. This approach uses Dolby Digital Plus, but the results are impressive. Amazon’s new Jack Ryan series sounded superb, and the opening Israeli bombing of a Lebanese town delivered its sonic payload, with the fighters flying through the room and the sub adding sonic depth to the explosions.
Moving on to DTS:X soundtracks, the results were just as impressive; and watching Atomic Blonde the HT-ZF9 did a great job of making everything sound bigger than you would expect from a soundbar of this size. The 80s songs really filled the room, there was a nice sense of space to the cavernous East German locations, and the well-integrated bass gave the punches, kicks, gunshots and explosions plenty of impact.
As good as the Sony sounded, I should stress that there’s only so much that psychoacoustic processing can do to create the illusion that sounds are emanating from locations where you know there aren’t any actual speakers. The virtual processing worked very well with most soundtracks, but as soon as I switched to a very directional mix the effect was less convincing.
A film like Gravity just doesn’t sound the same as it would on a genuine 5.1.4 system: the sounds that are supposed to move around the room instead just moved around in front of the screen. When I put on some actual test tones, the illusion simply fell apart, and the tones for the overhead or surround channels emanated from the front of the room, rather than above and behind.
Soundbars that use sideways and upwards-firing drivers to bounce sounds off ceilings and walls to generate side, rear and overhead channels, will sound more convincing and immersive. However the effectiveness of this approach often depends on your room and ceiling, and it might be that the HT-ZF9 is a better choice due to environmental restrictions.
Sony knows a thing or two about music and this soundbar was very adept, thanks in no small part to the quality of its front three speakers. What really stood out was the clarity of the audio, with plenty of detail and a well-defined midrange. The higher frequencies were also nicely reproduced, and the bass was tight and solid. The only negative factor was the width of the soundbar, which limited the amount of stereo separation, and thus the imaging.
However, overall, music sounded great. I listened to an eclectic choice of songs, and the HT-ZF9 rendered each track with precision. So whether it was the art rock of Suede's new album The Blue Hour, the high pitched vocals of Kate Bush, or the gravelly tones of Nick Cave, this soundbar delivered them all with a pleasing accuracy and confidence. If you want to use your soundbar for listening to music, including Hi-Res Audio, then the HT-ZF9 is sure to please.
The Vertical Surround Engine works, but lacks the immersion you get with real speakers
- Dolby Atmos & DTS:X
- Virtual surround processing
- Very good with music
- Solid build quality and discreet
- Not much genuine immersion
- User interface confusing
Sony HT-ZF9 Soundbar Review
Sony HT-ZF9 VerdictThe Sony HT-ZF9 is a great little soundbar, and the use of digital signal processing to create a virtual immersive experience can often be quite successful. The Sony's support of both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X is unusual at this price point, and this compact but well-put-together soundbar boasts plenty of other useful features like built-in Chromecast and support for Google Assistant.
The HT-ZF9 sounds excellent with both movies and music, and its support for Hi-Res Audio adds to the soundbar’s acoustic credentials. While it's true that this soundbar can’t compete with competitors that deliver immersive audio using actual drivers, the HT-ZF9's compact size and unusual approach to object-based audio means it's better for smaller rooms or those where reflected sounds won't work.
What are my alternatives?When it comes to alternatives for the Sony HT-ZF9, there are a number that are cheaper, but none that deliver Dolby Atmos and DTS:X support at the same price. In fact, for Dolby Atmos support you would be looking at the LG SK10Y for £899, and for Atmos and DTS:X decoding you'd need the Samsung HW-N850 at £999.
If you're not bothered about immersive audio, then the Bose SoundTouch 300 is around £549 and can deliver a big and open soundstage while retaining plenty of detail and clarity. There’s a decent set of features as well, including SoundTouch multiroom and Alexa voice control. However, there's no separate subwoofer, so the bass performance is rather lacking.
Alternately, you could look at the Sonos Beam, which is another great soundbar. This compact performer can be picked up for £399, and sounds much bigger than it looks. It can make your living room smarter thanks to an open approach to app choices and voice-assistant integration. So, like the Bose, it’s definitely worth considering if immersive audio isn’t important to you.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £649.00
Ease of use7
Value for Money8
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