When it comes to home theater gear, sound quality is often at odds with practicality. While I love my big tower speakers and the Marantz receiver they’re connected to, they’ve become less sensible in a living room with toddlers running around. So I began my search for a soundbar that would stay out of our way, while still providing a decently immersive experience for movies and shows.
And there are plenty of soundbars that fit the bill, thanks to side- and up-firing drivers that create a wide, Dolby Atmos and DTS:X-capable soundstage—LG’s SK9Y and Samsung’s HW-N950 come to mind. Unfortunately, these “surround” bars work best when they have walls and ceilings to bounce those sound waves around, which means they won’t work as well in an open-concept living room, or one with an irregular ceiling.
Sony, on the other hand, has gone a different direction. Its HT-Z9F soundbar is technically only a 3.1 channel bar, with three forward-facing 2.5-inch drivers on the front and a 6.38-inch wireless subwoofer. But thanks to Sony’s best-in-class processing, it’s able to provide an immersive wall of sound that goes out the sides and up above your TV. As someone who generally dislikes “virtual surround” gimmicks and was skeptical of this soundbar—especially since half the YouTube videos featuring it seem to be sponsored spots—I can say the HT-Z9F exceeded my expectations.
The body of the HT-Z9F is hefty, mixing textured and glossy black finishes, with some touch controls along the top and a magnetic grille you can leave on or remove depending on your preferences. The remote is a bit old-school, but puts its many options front and center, with a small screen to show you the current input. The on-screen menu provides a lot of different options for customizing your experience, from adjusting the display’s brightness to tweaking eARC or standby settings. On the back you’ll find two HDMI inputs, one HDMI output, an ethernet jack, an ports for analog and optical audio in.
2.5 inches isn’t big for a driver, even in a soundbar, but the HT-Z9F manages to put out a rather rich sound, with clearly distinguishable highs, mids, and lows—though some of the lower midrange does come out of the subwoofer, which is typical for one this small. That means you’ll want to place the subwoofer near your TV, rather than elsewhere in the room, since it isn’t going to be as omnidirectional as larger subs dedicated to low frequencies—and you don’t want to hear low-pitched vocals coming from the wrong side of the room.
Sony’s sound modes are where the magic really starts happening. Again, I’m generally not a fan of the DSP “presets” manufacturer’s often include, but in the Z9F’s case, these modes are crucial, since they make up for the soundbar’s weaknesses in any given area. For example, Cinema mode makes voices a bit clearer and widens the soundstage for everything else, providing a much more immersive experience than typical 2- or 3- channel soundbars. Unfortunately, it makes music sound a bit hollow, so Music mode—while much less spacious—is a better choice when listening to tunes. The main downside here is that movie scores tended to be a tad lacking when in Cinema mode, but it’s a weakness I was willing to put up with for the added immersiveness elsewhere—this is, after all, a soundbar, not a true home theater system, so there are always going to be sacrifices.
There are also modes for Sports (which enhances crowd noise), News (which brings voices front and center), and Games (which boosts ambient sound effects to pull you into the action).
On top of that, the HT-Z9F also has three other “modes” that can be activated concurrently with the above presets: Night Mode (which lowers the dynamic range so you don’t wake your neighbors), Voice Mode (which claims to boost voices but just sounds like garbage), and Vertical Surround mode (which adds a feeling of height to certain sound effects). Vertical Surround will always be active when fed a Dolby Atmos signal, even if you’ve turned it off. When enabled for non-Atmos tracks, it will attempt to upmix the sound for more spacious audio.
For the vast majority of my TV watching, I left it in Cinema mode with Vertical Surround on. This provides a shockingly wide soundstage—I kept looking to the corners of the room, confused at how sound could be coming out of the coat rack despite being a foot or two away from the soundbar. Atmos was similarly impressive, with rain and helicopter sounds coming from the top of my TV more distinctly than non-Atmos soundtracks from the same movies. (The Vertical Surround engine was fine with non-Atmos tracks, but nothing too special—it really shines when you play a movie with actual Atmos audio.)
Now I don’t want to set unrealistic expectations: it’s not quite as good as the up-firing Atmos soundbars I’ve tried, and it’s certainly not going to make sounds come from behind you. Like most “surround” bars, most of its abilities are anchored to the front of your theater. But for a single bar with forward-facing drivers, it’s shocking what this thing can do compared to typical self-contained 3.1 solutions. (And if you want a more enveloping experience, you can always add Sony’s wireless satellite speakers to the Z9F for true 5.1 audio.) Plus, with built-in support for Chromecast, Alexa, Google Assistant, Spotify Connect, DLNA, and Bluetooth, it makes a nice addition to any whole-house audio system as well.
The HT-Z9F isn’t exactly cheap at $800, but it’s a pretty unique product, and if you want immersive audio without the clutter and complexity of a true surround setup, this bar will do a great job without being totally dependent on the shape of your room. Knowing that the only other choice for my irregular space was a typical 2.1 or 3.1 soundbar made me feel a little bit better about the price—plus the fact that I grabbed an open box unit from Best Buy for a solid discount. If up-firing soundbars aren’t an option and your spouse vetoed a true Atmos system out of the gate, the Sony Z9F is a compromise that won’t leave you feeling too compromised.