Overview - Warm, rich sound, decent Dolby Atmos effects, and a sleek design make the Sony HT-Z9F soundbar with wireless subwoofer a good choice for home theater enthusiasts seeking high-quality multi-channel audio without the clutter of multiple speakers and yards of cable. With the addition of the optional wireless rears, this set-up is a surprisingly solid alternative to traditional 5.1 systems with some Atmos oomph thrown in.
Dolby Atmos can be a fantastic addition to any home theater set-up, but not everyone has the budget, space, or willingness to upgrade an existing system or transform an entire room to produce Atmos effects. If you like a sleek look or have a confined area, then the new wave of Atmos-enabled soundbars might be the alternative you're looking for. Fewer components and less cables streamline the system's appearance, but power, tone, and directional effects are only slightly compromised, especially with the addition of small wireless rear speakers that can be tucked away into your room's decor without sacrificing aural impact.
Sony's new HT-Z9F 3.1ch Dolby Atmos®/ DTS:X™ Soundbar with Wi-Fi/Bluetooth® Technology checks off all those boxes and features a pleasing design and solid performance to boot. Though not considered a leader in high-def audio, Sony aims to change all that with this impressive system, an inexpensive companion to the company's flagship ST5000 soundbar. That soundbar advertises 7.1.2-channel output, but with the addition of Sony's Z9R wireless rear speakers, the HT-Z9F (which runs about $500 less) provides a 5.1.2 audio experience that I found potent enough for several thunderous 4K UHD Dolby Atmos discs. Ease of use, good connectivity, the ability to support both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, full 4K pass-through that includes HDR and Dolby Vision, and the convenience of Bluetooth technology all combine to make this soundbar a very attractive alternative to a multi-channel, receiver-based system.
The HT-Z9F comes packaged in an odd-shaped, custom-designed carton that houses both the soundbar and wireless subwoofer. The soundbar measures 39-3/8" x 2-5/8" x 4" and weighs about 6.75 pounds, making it a good fit for almost any size TV, and the low height profile ensures that the bar will not block any portion of the screen. Power output is 400 watts. The subwoofer takes up a bit more room, measuring 7-1/2" x 15-1/8" x 15-1/4" and weighing 17 pounds 14 ounces. Both units are black with shiny accents, and the soundbar features an optional magnetic grill that can be placed over the face of the soundbar. The grill covers the three speakers and lends the unit a cleaner, sleeker look. It also dulls the on-board LED display, which can be dimmed or extinguished depending on your preference. (I'm a stickler for a no-light look, so the ability to turn off the display except when activated is a huge plus for me.) The box also includes a small remote that unfortunately does not include any backlighting, a full instruction book (which I found far more convenient than looking up the manual online), a startup guide to get you set up quickly, a high-speed HDMI cable to connect the soundbar to your TV, a demonstration disc that shows off the system's Dolby Atmos capabilities, and a wall-mounting template and hardware.
On the back of the unit, there are two HDMI inputs, one HDMI out (ARC capable) port, an optical input, an analog input, a USB input, and a LAN port for an optional Ethernet connection. One more HDMI input would be ideal to enable hooking up a satellite/cable receiver, Blu-ray player, and streaming device to the soundbar, but the HDMI ARC port works fine with my DirecTV receiver, so I ended up connecting the satellite box directly to the TV and running my Oppo UDP-203 Blu-ray player and Apple TV unit through the Sony Z9F. Both the soundbar and wireless subwoofer must be connected to power outlets.
The rear speakers come in a standard box and measure 4" x 6-1/8" x 4", and can fit easily on a windowsill, table, or bookshelf. They are wireless, but must be connected to a power outlet (which could make placement problematic depending on the configuration of your room), and top out at 50 watts per channel. The cords are a bit thick and unsightly, but if they can be hidden somehow, the speakers are barely noticeable.
Setup is a breeze, thanks to a clear startup guide and on-screen prompts. Just connect your devices using the supplied high-speed HDMI cable and a couple of other high-speed HDMI cables, plug the subwoofer and rears into their respective power outlets along with the soundbar, and you're up and running. The system will automatically detect the wireless subwoofer and rears (a manual option is also available if for some reason it doesn't), and a prompt will ask whether the rears are more or less than six feet away from the listeners. That's it. Network setup is also a snap. The system instantly detected my home network and connected to it seamlessly after I entered the password. Bluetooth connectivity is easy as well. It took only a moment to pair my phone to the soundbar and begin listening to iTunes, Sirius XM, and Pandora. All the services popped up with artist and song info on my TV screen, along with pause and skip controls.
Advanced settings allow you to pinpoint the component-to-listener distance for all the various speakers, change the balance levels, listen to test tones, and tinker with other audio, connection, and network settings, all through an on-screen display. The only thing I couldn't find was any way to adjust treble and bass settings, which isn't a huge deal unless you plan to do a lot of Bluetooth music streaming or take advantage of the system's Spotify and Chromecast music partnerships.
Once the system is set up, the on-screen homepage has sub-headings for "Watch," "Listen," and "Setup," so you can easily navigate to whatever function you choose. Navigation is also a breeze on the comprehensive remote, which features a power control that will also turn on your TV, input switches for various devices, Bluetooth access, and various sound mode settings (including Cinema, Music, Game, News, Sports, Standard, Night, and Auto Sound, which automatically detects the type of program you are listening to and adjusts the soundbar's output accordingly). It also allows you to access Sony's unique Vertical Sound option (more on that below), heighten voice volume, adjust the brightness of the LED display, adjust audio sync issues, adjust the volume of the subwoofer and rear speakers (as well as the main unit, of course), access the Home screen, and display the type of audio the various components are outputting. The buttons are rather small and difficult to navigate in the dark, but there's a lot you can do with this remote in an efficient manner. As of yet, there is no dedicated phone app for this soundbar.
Before I got too excited about this Atmos-capable soundbar, I forced myself to keep my expectations in check. The decision to purchase a soundbar is, in essence, a compromise, so it's important to recognize and accept the format’s limitations. One component can’t be expected to do the job of seven or eight; the trick is giving consumers as much bang - and nuance - as possible, so the latest high-res discs sound great. In an effort to instantly soothe any anxiety about this product, Sony supplies an impressive demo disc that allows us to see - and more importantly hear - what we can expect from this soundbar. The two-and-a-half-minute presentation pumps out a variety of soundscapes from city traffic and a helicopter circling overhead to a thunderstorm with driving rain, a rock band performing to a live audience, a fireworks display, and a tranquil country scene complete with chirping birds and rustling trees. Not surprisingly, this demo disc shows off the bar and its sub and rears extremely well. Directionality was crisp and distinct, fidelity and dynamic range were excellent, the music sounded robust, power was substantive, and though Atmos effects weren't jaw-dropping, the feel of overhead audio was definitely evident. Without a doubt, I liked what I heard.
Now, could real content match what Sony created in its labs? I’m happy to report the answer is yes. TV programs/movies and 4K UHD discs provided an equally pleasurable aural experience. There were no hiccups using HDMI ARC for DirecTV, although some sync issues were initially frustrating. The sync adjustment tool on the HT-Z9F wasn't precise enough to address the problems I was experiencing (I needed negative, rather than positive, increments, and the Z9F did not offer those), but thankfully my TV's audio adjustment settings were able to perfectly synchronize the sound. Dolby Digital audio played back seamlessly, and surround effects kicked in appropriately during films equipped with multi-channel tracks.
The Vertical Surround setting is the Z9F's flagship feature and it transforms this soundbar into something special. Without it activated, the audio pumps out of the three front channels in a straight horizontal line toward the listener, but once turned on, the sound field noticeably expands vertically, simulating a true surround experience even without the rear speakers engaged (although I highly recommend forking over the extra $$$ for the rears - they just make the environment that much richer and more enveloping). The Z9F doesn’t have upward firing speakers, but the Vertical Surround option beautifully disguises that fact and doesn’t make us miss them. The subwoofer is palpable, but not overpowering, even when pushed to a more amplified setting, and the various sound modes color the audio slightly in a pleasing manner. It's easy enough to switch between them via remote, but I found keeping the bar set to Auto Sound did the trick, as this mode senses which setting best suits the content you are watching. The voice adjustment tool also works quite well, really boosting the impact of dialogue, especially in effects-heavy material.
I watched portions of several different 4K UHD discs - Hacksaw Ridge, The Fate of the Furious, Alien Covenant, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and The Greatest Showman - and all performed beautifully. Both HDR and Dolby Vision pass through the Z9F without any issues, and the Dolby Atmos tracks assert themselves well. (While you can always check the LED display on the soundbar to make sure the proper audio is being decoded, pressing the Display button on the remote will also project that information on the upper right corner of the TV screen as well, where it is much easier to see. Volume and rear speaker/subwoofer adjustments show up on the screen's lower left corner.) Of course, Atmos effects aren't nearly as pronounced as they are with dedicated upward-firing speakers, but the impression of Atmos is definitely there. My room has a very high ceiling (12 feet), so I can only surmise that in a standard nine-foot ceiling environment, the Atmos feel would be more palpable. Still, the lack of speakers on the top of the unit does inhibit its Atmos capabilities, so if the best possible Atmos sound is your top priority, the Z9F might disappoint you.
And yet, coupled with the rear speakers, the sound is terrifically immersive, and I didn't feel cheated by not having a dedicated speaker for each channel. The combat scenes in Hacksaw Ridge were packed with aural excitement, as bullets whizzed by in all directions, and the subwoofer pumped out thunderous bass whenever a shell exploded. The Fate of the Furious was equally potent, with its revving engines, screeching tires, traffic sounds, and shattering glass. (This was the only DTS:X title I tested, and the Z9F handled it without a hitch.) The magical sonic accents of Fantastic Beasts were crisp and distinct, while the landing sequence in Alien Covenant appropriately shook the room. Were the overhead effects dazzling? No. But I don't believe soundbars of any kind can deliver that type of wow effect. That's why the rear speakers are such a critical addition to the system, as they tie together all the elements to create a more cohesive listening experience.
Atmos effects in The Greatest Showman are minimal, but the music came through with visceral power. Vocals were rich and full, and the fidelity of the instrumentals was impressive. In fact, all the music scores of all the films I sampled sounded great. The soundbar deftly balanced nuances with heft, fashioning a wide and enveloping soundscape. And the ability to boost dialogue levels when necessary allows the listener to bring vocals forward and keep conversations prominent even during stretches of audio cacophony. I was even impressed with music playback via Bluetooth, Pandora, and Sirius XM. I have a Sonos system in my house, but the Z9F is powerful enough to pipe high-quality sound throughout our main floor without the need for multiple speakers. Don't know how often I'll use it as a music speaker, but it's nice to know I have that option. The bar is even portable enough to set up outdoors for a yard party if you don't have smaller Bluetooth speakers.
-Powerful, full-bodied, multi-channel sound with Dolby Atmos accents and strong bass
-Vertical Sound option that facilitates broader spectrum audio that envelopes the listener
-Optional wireless rear speakers that enable the system to provide a 5.1.2 audio experience
-On-screen display, multiple sound options, dialogue booster, onboard links to Spotify and Chromecast
-Atmos effects aren’t as pronounced as one might like
-No treble or bass adjustments for music
-Only 2 HDMI inputs
-No phone app
No one wants to spend upwards of $800 for a soundbar that doesn’t live up to its price tag, but Sony’s new HT-Z9F with subwoofer pumps out high-quality, high-resolution audio with Dolby Atmos accents, providing a multi-channel experience in a compact format. The addition of optional rear speakers (which run $300 more) really elevates the impact of this system, allowing those with limited space or who desire a less cluttered look the ability to enjoy full 5.1 surround sound. While Atmos effects didn’t wow me (I’m not sure if any soundbar can truly deliver in that regard), I got enough of an Atmos feel through the Vertical Surround option to satisfy me. The Z9F’s overall sound quality is top-notch, but the rear speakers are an essential component of this system’s success. Recommended.