Dolby Atmos is the ultimate in surround sound right now – but unless you’ve got some serious space for all the speakers, you’re only able to experience it at your local multiplex.
That won’t be true for much longer, as Sony has managed to squeeze the Atmos effects into a single soundbar.
The Z9F might only have three small speakers aimed straight at your face, but some clever virtualisation is supposed to add the impression of extra height to your movie nights.
We listened in to one at CES in Las Vegas, to see if virtual Atmos is all its cracked up to be, or if Sony is just living in some kind of virtual insanity.
After giving us a non-Atmos reference point with a barely-disguised Bose SoundTouch 300, Sony plonked down directly in front of the Z9F and slapped on a scene from the 4K remaster of Blade Runner.
The effect was impressive, with the wider soundstage giving the rain more presence. When a looter jumped on Deckard’s car, there was an undeniable sense of the noise coming from above, rather than directly in front. When a police cruiser flew towards the screen, you could almost picture the object-based audio following the on-screen action.
Generally speaking, the Z9F sounded detailed and clean, with plenty of bass from the bundled wireless subwoofer. Unfortunately we didn’t get to hear the system with the optional set of rear speakers installed, though. While the extra height from virtual Atmos was impressive, you still don’t get any real sense of sound coming from behind you.
Of course, Atmos content isn’t exactly plentiful right now, so you’ll have to fake it until you make it. Pressing the "Vertical S." button on the remote up-mixes whatever you’re listening to to a virtual 7.1.2 mix, adding height to TV and games.
We heard the Z9F do its thing with an Ed Sheeran track, and it undeniably created a wider soundstage, with more defined instruments. However, we thought dear old Ed’s vocals were narrower with the virtual setting switched on. Stereo music will probably sound best with the mode turned off.
As you’d expect from an Atmos-friendly soundbar, the Z9F is fully prepped for 2018. It’s happy to pass 4K, HDR and Dolby Vision signals from your 4K Blu-ray player to your TV, and with two HDMI inputs underneath, you could also hook up a games console.
An IR repeater means it won’t block your remote control, although if you’ve got a modern Sony telly you won’t have to worry: the bar itself is designed to fit perfectly around Sony’s angular TV stands.
There’s a USB port for playing audio files directly from a memory stick, including high-resolution support, and it comes with Bluetooth for direct streaming from a smartphone. Spotify Connect and Chromecast support complete the set.
Google Assistant support is potentially more exciting, letting you control playback with your voice instead of the remote control. The soundbar isn’t listening out for you, though, so you’ll need a compatible smart speaker to bark orders at.
SONY Z9F INITIAL VERDICT
Soundbars are all about compromise: you buy one because you don’t have room for a full surround sound setup, and you expect a narrower audio experience as a result. With one of these plugged into your telly box, it won’t feel like you’re really compromising at all.
Sony’s virtual version of Atmos might not be quite as convincing as the real thing, but it certainly expands the experience in films and music, creating a more immersive soundstage without needing a shedload of extra speakers. Delivering that through three small soundbar drivers is quite impressive, and the built-in smart features are all wecome additions to any home cinema setup.
We’d want to try one out with our own test footage, and compare and contrast with an actual Atmos setup before delivering a final verdict, but hopefully that won’t be too long: the Z9F is going on sale in the next few months.