When it comes to home audio immersion, up to now there were two different markets to look at. Either you would go for a separates system that would include different speakers, an AV receiver or amplifiers along with cables that would accompany your source devices or you would choose a soundbar that may not offer the same quality or dynamic sound but has other advantages like ease of use, less space required and easy setup with a much lower budget. In our Sony HT-A9 review today we will test a system that tried to be a little bit of both.
You see, the Sony HT-A9 is neither a soundbar nor a separates surround system and what we have here is an ingenious design as Sony tried to create what we would describe as a hybrid system that tries to combine the accuracy of a 360 degrees sound field by having separate speakers but with the ease of use and streamlined design of a soundbar. To be honest there is no point of comparison as this is the first time someone made something like this so it will be very interesting to see how such a system performs.
But let’s go over the numbers real quick. The Sony HT-A9 is rated as a 4.0.4 channels surround system that comes with four physical speakers and a small control box where everything connects at. The system supports both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X along with all the legacy sound formats that came before, comes with plenty of features including Chromecast, Airplay 2, Spotify Connect, WiFi and Bluetooth streaming, voice control and can even expand by adding a subwoofer and your Bravia TV as a center channel. But more on these shortly.
On paper the HT-A9 looks extremely promising and to be honest very impressive. It combines the strengths of both worlds and we were really curious if Sony managed to create something that no one else had done up to this moment. So without further delay let’s start our analysis.
Design, Inputs and Features
When looking at the design of the HT-A9, it surely looks like a separates system at first glance as there are four physical speakers present and a central control box. Keep in mind that the system doesn’t have a center channel or a subwoofer but we will talk about these omissions in a bit.
First of all let’s talk about the central control box which acts as the brain of the system. The main box has a small Apple TV-like look with rounded corners and comes in black color even though the four speakers are white colored. The box is plain with only a display at the front, air vents at the sides and all the connection ports located at the back.
The main unit measures just 6 x 2.1 x 6″ (150 x 52 x 150 mm) making it easy to place almost anywhere with little trouble either it be under your TV or inside some cabinet although the latter we wouldn’t suggest in order for the box to communicate better with the speakers. We liked that the box includes a fully functional front display that shows various commands and control settings. The display’s brightness can also be adjusted or turned off completely if it bothers you and you are not using it much.
The speakers themselves are very well thought and designed. With a size of 6.38 x 12.38 x 5.88″ (160 x 313 x 147 mm) and weighting just 6 lb (2.7 kg) each of these cylindrical designs look exceptionally stylish and modern. At the front a metal grille is covering the front firing drivers while another one is placed at the top protecting the up-firing Atmos driver.
We love that the speakers connect to the main box through a wireless connection thus saving us on a few wires. But keep in mind that these are not completely wireless speakers as each one still has its own power cable to connect to a wall outlet. Underneath the unit, except from the power connector, there is a power button and a link button that you have to press in case the speakers have not connected properly.
The included remote is a rather simple one and certainly does not follow the same stylish design of the speaker themselves. It is a plastic one and its design borrows from previous Sony remotes we had tested in some of their earlier soundbars so in terms of looks it doesn’t impress really.
Buttons wise it has plenty to go around but everything feels nicely spaced and grouped. Unfortunately there is no backlight available and this certainly will add some frustration when trying to press the correct button in the dark.
Looking at the HT-A9 as a whole it surely leaves positive feelings. The main box is very compact and will go unnoticed, the four main speakers are stylish with a good size and nice design and the remote is ok although we would like to see something better. If you add the fact that all of them connect through a wireless connection, meaning less cables to mess around, then what we have here is a lovely system that is good looking, compact enough and very practical.
Now this is where things start to get interesting. With a system that features no center speaker and no subwoofer the available speakers meant that they have to make all the extra heavy lifting these omissions would otherwise. So let’s see what Sony included under the hood of each one of these.
We already mentioned that what we have here is a 4.0.4 channels setup and as such each speaker includes two channels. One front firing and one up-firing. For the forward firing channel Sony is using a 2 way speaker system with an X-Balanced speaker unit that includes a 70 mm × 82 mm cone type woofer along with a 19 mm (3/4 in) soft dome tweeter placed exactly above it.
For the up-firing channel Sony is using a full range acoustic suspension type speaker system that uses a 46 mm × 54 mm (1 13/16 in × 2 1/4 in) cone type woofer.
The unique rectangular shape of these X-Balanced speaker units maximizes the diaphragm area for richer bass. It also reduces driver excursion while maintaining sound pressure, resulting in less distortion and greater vocal clarity.
The front firing woofer is rated at 30 watts RMS while the tweeter is rated at 20 watts power. The up-firing woofer is rated once again at 30 watts RMS. All of them are rated at 6 ohms load with a maximum of 1% total harmonic distortion reaching a total of 320 watts of RMS output power. The speakers have a frequency range of 200Hz up to 10Khz.
Below the front firing woofer we also find an air port that Sony included in order to boost the low end frequencies since there is no subwoofer included in the main box. What is interesting is the inclusion of two microphones in each speaker with one being placed above the tweeter and the other below the air port. These microphones are used by the system during the initial setup in order to calibrate each channel accordingly.
As you understand with 8 microphones available in different positions of the room, calibration is much more precise than using a single microphone that so many other audio devices use. And this is one of the secret elements that make the HT-A9 so special and capable of offering the kind of audio that you would not expect from such an audio system.
Let’s see now what options in terms of connection the HT-A9 gives you. Looking at the back of the main connection box we find one HDMI input and one HDMI output, an Ethernet port for wired connection to a local network, an s-center output and a USB-A used for firmware updates. That’s pretty much everything.
With both an input and an output the HT-A9 supports video pass-through although the single input available does not allow the system to be used as a hub. What is interesting is that Sony claims the HDMI ports support both 8K and 4K@120Hz with VRR signals, indicating that the unit comes with HDMI 2.1 ports although this is not mentioned anywhere clearly.
The HDMI ports also support 4K/60p/YUV4:4:4, HDR, Dolby Vision and HLG pass-through. The output also comes with eARC meaning you have much more flexibility in terms of how you will connect the system to match your specific needs. Lastly we also get Bravia Sync along with HDMI-CEC.
And in case you were wondering the S-center output can be used in combination with Bravia TVs and use the audio system of the TV itself as the center channel. In essence this feature is similar to what Samsung has done with their Q-Symphony feature used in many of their soundbars like the Samsung HW-Q800A but these two work a bit different as the one we have here makes the TV sorely the source of the center channel.
As for wireless options the HT-A9 obviously comes with both WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities. We will talk shortly about what you are able to do with these but in terms of specs the WiFi uses 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac and supports both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz while for Bluetooth we get v5.0.
Sony made sure to add plenty of features in the HT-A9 but before we start analyzing each one let’s see first what kind of audio formats the unit supports and looking at the specs sheet it seems that they left nothing out. The unit can playback Dolby Atmos and DTS:X formats along with all the previous legacy formats that include Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital plus, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Dual mono, DTS, DTS HD High Resolution Audio, DTS HD Master Audio, DTS ES, DTS 96/24 and LPCM.
But all the magic of the HT-A9 comes from what Sony calls 360 Spatial Sound Mapping technology. With this tech the HT-A9 can take a 3D audio track and by creating phantom channels it can reproduce a 7.1.4 channels environment just from the four available physical speakers.
But even if you don’t use an advanced audio track like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X and you want to listen to a 2.0 channels track for example the system has a feature called Immersive AE which can be activated by the press of a button on the remote and can up-mix the 2 channels audio into a full immersive experience.
The HT-A9 also comes with a few specific sound modes in order to tailor the audio output depending the type of content you watch. There is Cinema, Music, Standard Surround and Auto Sound. If you are the kind of person that wants to choose one setting and forget about it then the Auto Sound is your best bet as the system will change its output after detecting the appropriate signal.
The unit also comes with a couple of special modes that we usually see in soundbars. As such there is a Voice mode that boosts the center channel for more distinct dialogue and Night mode which is ideal for late night viewing.
The system does not have a graphic EQ and is limited to the sound modes mentioned above. You can also adjust the main volume, the volume of bass and the volume of the rear channels but there is no individual volume control for each speaker.
The HT-A9 also comes with DSEE Extreme technology. Using Edge-AI (Artificial Intelligence), DSEE Extreme upscales compressed digital music files in real time. Dynamically recognizing instrumentation, musical genres, and individual elements of each song, such as vocals or interludes, it restores the high-range sound lost in compression for a richer, more complete listening experience.
Such a system could not be without some short of streaming capabilities and the HT-A9 really have a lot going for it. First of all let’s talk about its Bluetooth capabilities. With it you can stream any kind of audio from your mobile device to the unit itself. You can also transmit audio from the HT-A9 to a compatible Bluetooth speaker or headphones.
But you are not only limited to local streaming as there is Chromecast, Airplay 2 and Spotify Connect support giving you immense capabilities with online music. Voice control is also available with Google Assistant built-in while Amazon Alexa is supported but you will need an external Alexa device for it to work.
Lately we see more and more soundbars incorporating a more modular design meaning that they grand you the ability to add more speakers if you feel like the core unit is not sufficient enough. As such in most cases you can add a subwoofer and surround speakers in order to improve the bass and surround sound. Something similar you can do with the HT-A9.
First of all you have the option to connect a subwoofer and for that there are two choices with the Sony SA-SW3 or Sony SA-SW5 subwoofers being the ones available. Just a small advice here. We have heard both of these subwoofers in a different testing and we can tell you that the SA-SW5 is the one to go for as the SW3 didn’t satisfy us at all. The SW5 on the other hand provides the best low end extension, good power and deep bass.
But except from the subwoofer there is an additional option if you are a user of one of the latest Bravia TVs. The HT-A9 supports the Acoustic Center Sync feature which turns the TV itself as a center speaker. If your Bravia TV supports this then the audio from the TV will be dedicated to the center channel instead of the system creating a phantom one.
Now to be honest here we did try this feature with a Sony A90J and we cannot say we were very much satisfied with the result. The sound emitting from the TV felt a bit different from the rest of the setup and in all honesty going back and forth between using the TV’s audio and letting the HT-A9 use a phantom channel for dialogue we preferred the later. But as this may be a personal preference we would suggest you try both ways and see which one sounds better to you.
Lastly the system comes with app support and the one that you can use is the Sony Music Center app which can act as a remote and grands you the ability to control many of the system’s settings and functions. It’s a nice app and we didn’t had any major trouble with it so you should give it a try.
Setting up the HT-A9 is not all that different from setting up a soundbar. One thing that intrigued us with this system is how Sony promoted the ability to place your speakers at different positions that we wouldn’t call ideal in a good performing home theater system. So to put that to the test we also tried something similar by placing the four speakers at different distances and slightly different heights.
Then we connected our source UHD player to the HT-A9 main box and through the HDMI output to our test TV. After we connected everything to their power sockets and turned the thing on. One thing to mention here is that we didn’t use the Acoustic Center Sync feature that uses the TV as a center channel as we wanted to see how the system will do with its vanilla setup, just the four available speakers. This means no subwoofer either.
Keep in mind that the system has a lot of flexibility when it comes to connecting it. You can also connect your source to the TV and pass the audio through the eARC port. Or even pass the audio from the TV to the HT-A9 through Bluetooth although going the wireless way do pose a few limitations.
When you initially turn on the system it will do a connection check to see if all speakers have connected properly to the main box and then you proceed to the Sound Field Optimization calibration system. The system is as simple as it gets and it will play a few sounds from all speakers and by analyzing the data it gets from all the available microphones it calibrates your system according to the position of your speakers.
The key element here is that the system uses 8 microphones with each pair being in a different position meaning that the data it gets during the calibration process are pretty accurate. And this is what makes this auto calibration system slightly better than what most soundbars are using nowadays.
After this process is done you have a couple of more steps in order to connect the system to the local network and you are done. For out test we decided to use a couple of specific settings. So Auto Sound mode was used in order to let the system decide the appropriate sound setting depending the source. Keep in mind that when Atmos content is being played the Immersive AE feature is turned on and locked so you have no input on that.
Our testing started with a film that could take advantage of the Atmos capabilities of the system so we popped our 4K UHD disc of Independence Day: Resurgence into our Panasonic UHD player and skipped forward to the last act of the film which is exactly what we needed for this review.
All we can say is wow. Usually when you don’t go the separates way and you instead to choose a soundbar these are never good at everything. Either they offer good front stage but average or completely absent surround. They could offer satisfying extension to the sides but disappointing overhead activity and it goes on and on.
The Sony HT-A9, from the first scene, throws you right into the middle of the action. It was one of the few times that the phantom speakers a system created sounded so realistic and so vivid. There are only a couple of soundbars we can think of that came close to this kind of immersion but these belonged to the higher end of the performance ladder and even for those we cannot say we were impressed as much as the HT-A9.
Usually when we review soundbars we talk about the different aspects of its performance. The front, the surround, the overhead layer. With the HT-A9 we wouldn’t make it justice to make this separation as its whole performance felt like one. Many times we have talked about the immersion bubble and how the goal is to throw the viewer right into the middle of it. Well, the HT-A9 is the epitome of this analogy.
Fighter jets would fly all around, projectiles would pass next to our ears and in reality you could close your eyes and certainly feel like there are more than just four speakers in the room. It was that good. Dialogue was also very distinct and clear and even though there was no real center speaker the phantom one created at the front from the unit was sufficient enough to keep dialogue separated from the rest of the action.
When you have such a system that performs so good with surround sound you start to look at what it cannot do very well. And with the HT-A9 it was not very hard to understand what was limiting it. The bass was simply not good enough making us wish we had tested the unit with one of the supported subs. The low end was a bit uninspiring and flat and when it came to action scenes, these would loose much of their power due to this limitation. Even upping the bass volume on the control didn’t do much to improve this and this was really our only gripe with this system.
To confirm this we tried something different that would naturally focus more on the low end and less on its surround activity. As such we switched to our Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom UHD disc and skipped forward to the volcano eruption. The limiting low end power of the system was very obvious here too. And the fact that everything else was so good added more salt to injury as the HT-A9 could create a really impressive atmosphere.
Volcanic rocks falling all over the place would make you turn your head upwards looking if a rock would come through the ceiling, dinosaurs passing by the camera will make you turn your head to see if they will really burst through your walls and when the gyrosphere fell into the water it will make you look if there is a leak in your house. On the other hand the volcanic eruption felt so weak and the dinosaur roars so flat making the bass fall far behind the rest of the performance.
All in all, if we had to describe the sound output of the Sony HT-A9 with one word this would be, amazing. Just make yourself a favor and combine it with the SW5 subwoofer. Only then the system will really fly and you with it.
Next we will talk a bit about music. The Sony HT-A9 supports High Resolution Audio wireless so we were curious to see how the system can do with music and if it can create an impression close to what we experienced with movies.
One thing that is very common with soundbars that use virtual technology trying to recreate more immersive soundstages is that the output sound feels a bit artificial. This happens because these systems try to up-mix the sound in order to output from all their speakers which is something that may sound impressive but it is not very accurate.
The HT-A9, in our opinion, is one of the very few systems that managed to scale the music into all three dimensions and did that without making the end result feel like over-processed or artificial. It was not entirely perfect but it was damn close making the music burst into life in our test room. You can still get the original performance by disabling the Immersive AE but we liked what the system did even if accuracy was not as its best.
The system may not be able to output the most detailed sound like some good quality floorstanding speakers but their quality was above average with tight mid-range and playful highs. If the music is not very demanding on the bass then the HT-A9 can handle everything nicely, but with a few heavy low end performances once again the system showed its limitations.
Overall with music the HT-A9 behaved similarly good. Maybe it didn’t feel as impressive as with movies as it lacked the clarity and attention to detail that would place it in the HiFi spectrum but it surely will play any kind of music you throw at it and create a very enjoying experience.
When we started our review we had no idea what to expect from such a system. Being neither a soundbar nor a separates one we didn’t know if it would behave more like one or the other. Taking into account everything we saw we can say for sure that the HT-A9 is on a league of its own as it brings many advantages both worlds have into a single system which we are sure many will appreciate.
On the positive side the system is designed in such a way that is very easy to setup and handle and everything felt like setting up a soundbar. Its design is very modern and build quality was above average. It comes with plenty of extras for both online and local streaming to keep everyone satisfied but its biggest plus was its sound. The HT-A9 is really impressive when it comes to surround audio and the 360 Spatial Sound Mapping technology is more than impressive creating phantom speakers around you upping the immersion tenfold.
As for its downsides the most obvious we could say is that it lacks deep bass. We get Sony’s thinking into making the subwoofer optional but with so good sound output the system screams for a subwoofer to be added and frankly we believe Sony should add one in the box itself. It’s a pity to have so good surround immersion only to be disappointed by the lack of satisfying bass. Other than this there is not much to say other than some nitpicking. There is no graphic EQ for detailed calibration while we could use a better remote with some much desired backlight.
In the end we believe this design is the beginning of something new. It would surprise us if other brands don’t follow the same path and release similar systems as what Sony managed to create is a system that combines the strengths of both soundbars and separates systems all in one box. And considering its performance, ease of use and cost the Sony HT-A9 deserves our highest recommendation.