Sound+Image mag review
The claims for Sony’s HT-X9000F soundbar+subwoofer combination are significant – “Vertical Surround”, and Dolby Atmos and DTS:X compatibility for these object-based height-enhanced soundtracks that can send sound elements wherever the processor thinks is most effective with the speakers available. Yet it’s so small! The bar has only two drivers in it! Can it be another miracle soundbar?
Mechanics first. As the model number indicates, Sony’s little soundbar is clearly designed with the TV range in mind – the bar is just a little shorter than the width of the 55-inch X90F’s splayed legs, with its sides angled back to nestle within its thighs, as it were.
The socketry lies within a single cut-out section to the rear: it has 4K HDMI, though only one input and one ARC-equipped output, then there’s an optical digital audio input, an analogue minijack audio input, and a USB slot all fitted in the small space, and there is also Bluetooth streaming.
Further, the bar’s HDMI cables and the power cable are designed to exit at points perfectly situated to pass through the TV stand’s legs and, if desired, take advantage of the cable management channels that are usefully included there. We’d also like to give Sony a special star for adding a large white outline around the HDMI sockets, so making it clear which way round the HDMI plugs go in. (The general rule for inserting HDMI cables is that it’s always the other way to whichever way you try.)
So the bar is a medium 93cm wide, but very low, less than 6cm high (so it sits well below the bottom of the Sony screen) and pretty shallow too, around 85mm to the 84cm-wide back. The top is matte and mildly reflective, with five touch buttons and five lights to show status, though these face upward, so they may not be visible from a couch-sitting position.
You’re unlikely to need the touch buttons much, as the X9000F comes with a comprehensive half-size remote, and if you have the Sony TV you can use Bravia Sync to unite them under a single TV remote control, for volume at least. From the front the bar looks stylish and complements the TV, with a silver base and a solid logo-free grille. It was hard to pick the driver count through the grille, but we confirmed it to be just a pair of 40mm × 100mm oval cones positioned left and right on the bar. The power ratings state “power output (rated)” to be 2 × 60W at 4 ohms, 1kHz, 1% THD, but also “power output (reference) Front L/Front R speaker blocks” of 100W per channel at 4 ohms, 1kHz. Make of this what you will.
The subwoofer makes little attempt to match the bar stylistically, its speaker grille having bigger holes and a darker tone, its port shiny plastic and its body MDF with a vinyl wrap, simply painted black at the rear rather than trimmed. But it will be notably easy to situate, with a vertical design and front-firing 160mm driver and port, so it might even be situated inside or under cabinetry.
The smaller components mean a smaller box to drag home, and an easier unpack; we just positioned the bar between the legs of the visiting Sony TV, placed the sub to the left, plugged everything in, paired the bar and subwoofer, and after a bit of input selection we soon had the sound flowing. We were surprised, though, that the Sony TV didn’t instantly co-opt this tailor-made product – the TV remote raised the TV’s own speaker level. The solution was to be found under the TV’s ‘Sync Menu’ where we selected the soundbar and asked to control it. Under these conditions the ARC via HDMI worked well enough.
Press ‘Home’ on the soundbar’s remote and the bar presents a video interface you can view through the TV, and thereby access useful settings. These include an option to turn on 4K HDMI compatibility (select the ‘Enhanced’ format), as well as various audio options. You can also turn on the useful IR repeater, which you’re unlikely to need for your Sony TV but maybe for others, while for us this proved useful to operate small sources behind the TV (Apple TV etc), their IR receivers peering through the legs.
One of the settings is Audio DRC, with the instruction “Set the sound effect when playing”. Since we guess DRC stands for Dynamic Range Compression, we turned that from ‘auto’ to ‘off’.
We paired our iPad Pro to the soundbar’s Bluetooth, and were rather excited (it doesn’t take much) to see the bit-rate of our Bluetooth connection shown on the TV screen as we streamed, somewhere down in the 200s of kbps, and showing it includes the AAC codec as well as SBC. We also tried the analogue input and even music from the USB slot, navigating folders through the TV interface, though we’d guess few people will play files this way. (Playback from a full hard-drive of files via USB sent a white flash down the HDMI and temporarily disabled the bar’s video output. So don’t try that.)
Music first. Neil Young’s Walk With Me has some bass content down in the 30s of hertz, and we check for the strength of the very bottom D. Here there was not even the D above that, the bass only audible from the F.
With Walk On The Wild Side Mr Reed’s vocal gained a slightly boxy acoustic, the sax was slightly thin and reedy, and again the bass was clean but lacking in depth. Even with a few dB of boost to the subwoofer, the upper midrange dominated.
Leonard Cohen’s vocal (from the ‘Live in London’ set) separated into two pieces – midrange voice from the bar, a slow mumbling from the position of the subwoofer, to which the sequencer bass line was also pulled. The audience reaction was all from the bar, given no sense of ambience. In the same way radio voices were clear but wrongly toned, thin where they should be plummy, though with some fill from below.
So we did not find this a musical combination, suffering the same separation of frequencies as we experienced with the JBL, though with less of the JBL’s prodigiously distracting deep bass output.
However, when we stopped playing music and left it on movie and TV duties for a fortnight, there was far less to criticise. Voices were not so notably thin as from the JBL 2.1 bar (part of the same Sound+Image group test), and the subwoofer managed to avoid delivering untoward and distracting bass. Rather together they did an acceptable job of extending the TV audio into something far bigger, more dramatic, able to fill a room. Dramas and movies were underscored by real if slightly soft depth, while the lean midrange kept dialogue clear. Tarantino’s The H8ful Eight is a talkfest, but we missed not a word through the Sony, while there was enough power to deliver dynamic impact for the regular punctuations of bullets and blood.
What of the claims for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X compatibility? These seem rather optimistic with just two front-facing drivers and a subwoofer. Yet here the Sony did impress. We gave it the Atmos from the UHD Blu-ray of Mad Max: Fury Road and quite the presentation it made – loud, full, sub-supported, and yes, an impression of the sound coming from above the bar, even when we went right up to it. Atmos demo material confirmed this ability to deliver a sense of a sound from the screen location – not quite the big bubble shown in Sony’s image above, but still impressive from a thing so small. It also showed that, like the Sonos Beam (in the same group test), it benefits from high-quality soundtracks properly delivered.
With its diminutive size, minimal drivers and single HDMI input, it appears the Sony offers less than the JBL in this group, even though it’s AU$100 more (though in the States they’re actually the same price). It makes some of the same mistakes, and we weren’t fond of it for music. But with TV and movies it proved at worst inoffensive and at best enjoyable, while there are clear complementarities to using it with a Sony TV, and the X90F range in particular.