It's hard to describe exactly what the just-announced HT-AX7 is. It likely goes under the de facto 'soundbar' tab within Sony's internal filing system, yet take a look at the novel unit and a bar isn't the first thing that comes to mind at all. As a matter of fact, Sony intends its latest toy to be something of a Swiss army knife, a portable theatre system that can upgrade anything you're listening to courtesy of its immersive audio presentation.
Featuring a main central unit and two detachable satellite speakers, the HT-AX7 is billed as a Portable Theatre System that offers 360 Spatial Sound Mapping technology wherever you wish to experience it. This isn't portability to rival the best portable speakers, but it's enough to offer true versatility and manoeuvrability within your home and across various devices.
We recently took a trip to the centre of London to visit the team at Sony and see what the HT-AX7 could do first-hand.
Background, price and design
As mentioned above, the new HT-AX7 isn't really a soundbar at all. At least, to look at it and feel it, it's more of a semi-lightweight, almost portable unit that could fill a number of functions around the house – anything from being your go-to lounge speaker (or speakers) to an audio boost for your iPhone or tablet. Being a soundbar is just one of the many things the AX7 can do, but it doesn't even do that as you'd expect.
In broad terms, your classic soundbar is, generally speaking, a long, slender, single bar-shaped speaker unit that sits under your TV to give you better sound than your TV's in-built drivers can provide. As you'll tell from looking at the AX7, though, it has a squatter, narrower design with two circular, coaster-sized modules that can be attached and reattached courtesy of their magnetic docks.
What this means is the possibility of what is essentially spatial audio thanks to Sony's 360 Spatial Sound Mapping technology. Place those coasters behind you (one over each shoulder) and the main unit in front of you so that you're in the middle of a sort of sonic triangle, and you should experience an immersive soundscape in any space you desire around the home.
How does it do this? Let's be clear here, this isn't Dolby Atmos, rather the AX7 takes standard Bluetooth stereo audio and upscales it for a more immersive audio experience. Even with standard audio clips from sources like YouTube, the regular two-channel sound can be split out via an upscaler, meaning you're getting a spaced-out, separated audio experience without the need for an immersive audio format.
We'll get on to the promise of immersive sound presentation in a moment, but let's consider what the HT-AX7 is offering. Apart from that 360 Spatial Sound Mapping experience and potentially room-filling sound, the HT-AX7 packs up to 30 hours of battery life and wireless connectivity via Bluetooth (but not wi-fi). Better still, Sony says that if you plug a dead AX7 into the wall, in 10 minutes you'll have two hours of playtime to enjoy a movie or a couple of albums worth before it dies again. That's an impressive claim.
Nothing's heavy or lumpen here, either. The HT-AX7 isn't exactly sleek, but its attractive, unobtrusive and versatile design will certainly appeal to many. As mentioned above, those detachable rear speakers can be conveniently placed wherever you like, although you're probably best placing them somewhere below head height where they can't be easily knocked or damaged.
There isn't a remote control, sadly, but you do get a dedicated Home Entertainment Connect app for setup, troubleshooting and control of things such as volume and sound field from your smartphone.
Ok, so how does all of the spatial mapping and 360-degree sound actually work in the real world (or, to be more specific, the balcony of a five-star hotel next to King's Cross Station?).
The AX7 theatre system is actually more attuned to working with your portable device, and while you can use it with your TV, our demos are more focused on showing off the AX7's compatibility with things like tablets and smartphones. Plugging the device into your TV as a replacement for your old soundbar is, as we're starting to realise by this point, pretty low down on the list of potential uses, here.
We're treated to two main demos at the Sony event, one audiovisual and one purely dedicated to sound. Sound comes first, and because I'm perennially the odd one out at any event or social situation, I'm treated to my own personal concert featuring an iPad playing a Coldplay and Ed Sheeran gig. The main unit is in front of me on the table, while the two mini flying saucers flank me on the balcony sofa, putting me in the middle of a dedicated triangle of sound.
We'll have to wait until we've got the HT-AX7 in for comprehensive, comparative testing before we deliver our final verdict, but first impressions are good. Certain instruments such as the drums come through strongly on the main console while others flank me through the satellites. The crowd noise is really impressively implemented, with Coldplay themselves presented more to the front while shouts and whoops from the audience feel as if they're coming from over my shoulder. It's almost like I'm there.
The second demo is a sort of three-in-one with an iPad and YouTube, with a trio of clips to showcase how the new portable theatre system deals with a variety of different genres. First is a clip from Gravity in which the received ground control audio presents itself differently to Sandra Bullock and George Clooney's on-screen speech, while the Aston Martin shooting scene from No Time To Die really does have some lovely separation between the action close to the screen and some ominous church bells clanging from behind.
Sport works well, too. Sound adapts nicely to the position of the ball during a Zverev-Djokovic tennis match, and you again get a solid sense of where the crowd is when people gasp, applaud and exhale as points reach their climax.
Quality is also solid. We're not playing through the best sources (YouTube audio is not the greatest), but there's an impressive weight and solidity to the sound presentation, especially outdoors. If the AX7 can make these pretty average sources sound well-positioned and all-encompassing, that's a really positive sign.
It was certainly a fun demo day courtesy of Sony, and that's in large part thanks to how potentially versatile the HT-AX7 could end up being, depending on your needs, obviously.
Versatility can be a bit of a double-edged sword though, as many jacks of all trades can become, as the proverb tells us, masters of none. Still, I can definitely see the appeal of an attractive, versatile and well-made Sony product that can provide an impressive, spatial audio-esque experience across a wide variety of platforms and when plugged into various audio sources, especially when those sources don't initially provide "separated" sound.
We'll definitely need more time to see just how deep that bag of tricks is and the heights the AX7 can reach, but for now, first impressions are positive.
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