It used to be the case that if you wanted Dolby Atmos, the 3D surround sound technology, in your home you had to invest in a seriously beefy home cinema package. Ceiling mounted speakers were the best you could get, but a set of upwards-firing separate speakers were also an option.
Since then, Atmos has found its way into more and more convenient packages, meaning you no longer have to dedicate your whole living room to your setup if you want to invest in object-based audio.
The $899.99 (around £665 / AU$1150) Sony HT-Z9F (called the HT-ZF9 in the UK) is proof of how convenient Atmos has now become. It’s a 3.1 channel soundbar, a first for Atmos, and it takes up little more room than a regular soundbar.
We were keen to hear for ourselves whether Atmos could ever work without upward firing speakers, and we came away from our demo seriously impressed.
Design and performance
Atmos-enabled soundbars are nothing new, but the Z9F achieves its vertical surround a little differently from the others.
Whereas other soundbars feature upward-firing speakers that bounce audio off the ceiling to create the illusion that it’s coming from above, the Z9F is a little different. It’s a 3.1 channel speaker, which means that it has no upward-firing speakers at all, and as a result it creates the illusion of height using digital signal processing alone.
The overall effect isn’t quite as impressive as what upward-firing speakers are capable of, but it has the advantage of not being reliant on your ceiling to create its vertical sound.
While upward firing speakers can find themselves flummoxed by ceilings that are either very high or oddly shaped, Sony assured us that the Z9F would face no such issues.
We were given a demonstration of the recently released 4K-remaster of Blade Runner, and the verticality was impressive, if not quite as good as what a more fully-featured Atmos setup is capable of. A scene with a flying police car saw the vehicle rumble believably as it flew overhead.
The sound of each scene was spacious and open, which allowed smaller details to be heard within the mix.
But even if you don’t have Atmos or DTS:X content to hand, the soundbar will also be able to ‘up-mix’ regular surround sound content to a 7.1.2 mix.
Again, the effect wasn’t nearly as good as it would've been with native Atmos content, but the up-mixing processing did a reasonable job at improving the sound, making the track we listened to feel more open in the process.
There will always be those that claim that Atmos simply isn’t worth it without upward firing speakers. Then again, there are also those that will say the same thing, but about needing your speakers to be directly mounted in the ceiling.
But to our ears, the 3.1 channel Sony HT-Z9F provided a very respectable Dolby Atmos experience, despite it lacking the specs on paper.
If you’re a little tighter on space, or if you’ve got the kind of ceiling that makes a standard upward-firing speaker configuration impossible, then the Z9F could potentially offer everything you need.
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