Sony’s HT-Z9F soundbar is not an overachiever, but a potential trendsetter

It’s sure to excite the audiophile and the movie lover in you

The HT-Z9F is here to revolutionise the way we perceive sound at home. 

Using complex psychoacoustic algorithms to mimic the soundstage of a 5.1 system with height channels, immersing yourself in a cinema-like experience is the main aim of the newest range of soundbars from Sony India. The Vertical S button on the remote of the Sony HT-Z9F transforms your living room into a soundscape that brings Dolby Atmos to life in all its glory. Even non-surround content can be upscaled using all the processing power and creating virtual channels. Cinema, Game, News, Sports and Music modes ensure that no matter what you're watching, the HT-Z9F makes it more interesting and involving. The Google Assistant and Alexa integration also ease music and content streaming, along with the ease of using multi-room systems.

Stuff India shared a few quick words with Sunil Nayyar (Managing Director, Sony India) and  Ashim Mathur (Sr. Director of Marketing, Dolby) and they broke down the tech and its works for us...

In conversation with the head honchos…

Stuff: Has Sony committed itself to virtual surround by means of its soundbars or do traditional 5.1, 7.1 or larger systems still make up the product catalogue?

Sunil Nayyar: We have a vast range of products that cater to the entire spectrum of consumer demand - from entry-level products like 2.1, 3.1 and 5.1 channel surround, and now the Dolby Atmos soundbars. This is the answer to the new and evolving ecosystem in the market. Most theatres are now equipped with Dolby Atmos, so people are now getting used to the sound. The content is also mixed for Dolby, and that’s what is changing the expectations of the consumers. We launched our most premium product, the ST-5000 in 2017, which was kind of expensive, but even at that time, the ecosystem hadn’t evolved as much as it has today. 

Stuff: Will we be seeing the Dolby Association spread to more audio categories?

SN: There’s the Dolby Vision collaboration as far as our televisions are concerned. Dolby and Sony have a great relationship since a long time now. The good part now is that India’s visual culture has evolved through 4K TVs and the market has seen a remarkable growth in the last 2-3 years. But the growth of premium, value-enriched soundbars hasn’t been the same. The idea with the Z9F was to make the 360 sound come alive in living rooms. We hope customers evolve and this experiment pays us. Thanks to the plethora of content available, most of it is now recorded in Dolby. 

Stuff: Is bundling soundbars something you practice with your TVs?

SN: Yes, nice combo offers are there to entice the end consumers. It makes sense to offer our 4K TVs with soundbars with some advantage to the customers. And not only direct buying advantage, we also have some good finance schemes that can enable customers to buy both at a reasonable value. Even at the store end, we give the consumers a demo-friendly experience. In fact, sound is the hardest to see, unless one experiences it, unlike the visual appeal of televisions. 

Stuff: Streaming content is typically encoded in the 5.1 format. How well does it translate and playback through a virtual surround system like this Sony soundbar?

Ashim Mathur: There’s a lot of content already available in Atmos, Netflix, for example. The Sony soundbar will upmix the 5.1 content using the heights and make sure that virtualises into Dolby Atmos, and still give you an immersive experience. 

Stuff: Does Dolby have any control over the bit rate of the audio on a particular streaming platform or is it fixed by the OTT operators?

AM: Our technology will work on multiple bit rates. What bit rate is used depends on the OTT platform or the content provider. We specify minimum bit rates. If the OTT provider wants to go higher, they’re welcome to, but there’s a minimum that we recommend. If it goes below the minimum level, quality starts to suffer. 

Stuff: Does the Atmos mix require any optimisation to playback through a 3.1 channel soundbar like the Sony or does it simply downconvert?

AM: The Atmos stream is scalable. Once it’s mixed in Atmos, it can render through any channel. The difference between a channel system and Atmos system is that a channel system is kind of preassigned what plays out of what choke. If you mix for Stereo, it can’t be played through a 5.1 because it’s hard coded. If it’s coded for Atmost, it will render the consumer end, depending on how many speakers you've got - 2.1, 5.1 or 7.1 - whatever the speaker configuration is. The sound quality optimises as per the configuration. 

As told to Megha Monga Anand