Sony HT-ZF9 Review: One of the most powerful soundbars from Sony

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We continue our acquaintance with Sony soundbars. Last time we tested the basic model Sony HT-G700, which, although the youngest in the line, can do a lot: emulate the sound of a ten-channel 7.2.1-system thanks to the Vertical Surround Engine technology, “modify” normal stereo sound to surround sound, adjust the sound to the reproduced content, transmit 4K HDR video signal, and so on.

The hero of today’s test, Sony HT-ZF9, can do all the same, plus a lot of interesting things: it has a network connection and “advanced” control software, it supports Spotify Connect and Chromecast, when connected to a sound source via Bluetooth it uses a proprietary LDAC codec , can play audio files from a USB drive – you can’t list everything at once. At the same time, the dimensions remain small, and the installation and configuration process is quick and easy.

The Sony HT-ZF9 package, of course, includes the devices themselves – a soundbar with a removable mesh frame plus a wireless subwoofer.

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Also included are documentation, a remote control with batteries and a set of elements for wall mounting the soundbar. We were in possession of a sample intended for testing, which did not include an HDMI cable. Store-bought devices have it.

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Design and construction

Most soundbar designers adhere to a design concept that can be called “audible but not visible.” These devices should not be noticeable and bright, on the contrary – they should easily and imperceptibly fit into any interior, providing a sound of higher quality than the TV speakers. And Sony HT-ZF9 is no exception in this respect, it is designed strictly and stylishly.

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The front surface of the soundbar is covered with a removable metal mesh. With it, the view is more laconic, plus the speakers are protected.

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Again, the display looks very interesting through the perforated mesh. It is monochrome, the brightness can be adjusted within a very wide range. The selected input, volume level, activated presets – in general, all the necessary information can be displayed.

The view without the mesh is, of course, much more spectacular: open speakers, the texture of milled metal on the panel – all this gives a “premium” look.

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The speakers are small, with a diameter of only 46 mm. The appearance of the membrane is also somewhat reminiscent of a metal surface and goes very well with other design elements. In the lower right corner is the Hi-Res logo, which reminds us of the device’s support for “advanced” formats.

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The metal grill is attached to the front panel with magnets – therefore, it is easy to remove it, and it will not be difficult to install it back.

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The top surface of the soundbar is made of a matte black finish, the speaker section is made of glossy plastic, which is prone to fingerprints – you have to be careful with it.

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At the same time, the touch keys are located on the matte part, which is great. The control panel is compact and allows you to perform basic operations: turn on the device, select an input and activate Bluetooth, change the volume.

On the bottom surface there are small rubber feet for installation on horizontal surfaces, cooling grilles and a sticker with information about the device.

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On the rear panel, we see a non-removable power cable, wall mounts, cooling grilles and a panel for connection hidden in a recess, which we will consider separately.

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The panel shows two HDMI inputs and an output that supports ARC / eARC, analog and optical inputs, a USB-A connector for connecting drives with music files, and a network RJ-45.

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The subwoofer is more or less compact, its dimensions are 190 × 382 × 386 mm. The connection to the main device is wireless, the speaker and bass reflex openings are brought out to the front panel, which allows the speaker to be placed almost close to the walls and interior items.

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The case is made of MDF, the outer part is painted in matte black, and a small manufacturer’s logo is applied to the top panel.

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The speaker hole, located at the top of the front panel, is covered with a metal mesh. Below is a glossy bass reflex bell. Above it is a connection LED, which is visible only in working condition. On the back panel we see a sticker with information, a couple of buttons, plus ventilation grilles.

There are two buttons on the back panel: power supply and activation of wireless connection. The latter will most likely never be useful to the user – the connection to the soundbar is automatic.

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Connection and configuration

The Sony HT-ZF9 soundbar, as mentioned above, can be placed simply on a horizontal surface – an equipment rack, shelf, chest of drawers, and so on. This, of course, is the simplest option, which will take a couple of minutes – you just have to turn on the power. But most of the users prefer to hang the device on the wall under the TV. Here it is a little more complicated, but also no problem: there is a template for marking for holes in the wall, the fasteners are reliable and convenient …

The subwoofer connects to the main device automatically, it happens quickly and without interruptions – during the testing there were no problems. If suddenly something went wrong, it is possible to forcibly start synchronization using a button on the back wall. Due to the fact that the holes of the speaker and bass reflex are located on the front panel, the subwoofer can be placed close to the walls or interior elements – so there should not be any special difficulties in finding a place. All that remains is to “reach” the outlet using a non-removable power cable.

And, of course, you need to connect a sound source. It is clearly worth considering HDMI as the main option – this is both convenient and provides the most opportunities: from broadcasting high-definition formats to controlling other devices via HDMI CEC. One of the connectors supports an enhanced version of Audio Return Channel – eARC, which is also found on most TVs. It’s worth starting with him.

If the transmitting device does not support ARC, it makes sense to use one of the two “ordinary” inputs. For example, they should be preferred when working with a PC video card. The soundbar is defined as a sound device and becomes available in the corresponding menu. Sony HT-ZF9 supports video pass-through transmission up to 4K of all the most “advanced” formats, including Dolby Vision, HDR10 and Hybrid Log Gamma – therefore, in parallel with it, you can connect any players, game consoles and other devices.

If HDMI for some reason is not suitable, there are many other options. You can use the optical S / PDIF input, or you can use an analog mini-jack (3.5 mm). And there is also a function of playing music files from drives connected to the USB port on the rear panel. Plus, of course, network streaming – we’ll talk about it in detail below.

In the meantime, let’s discuss the connection via Bluetooth. Not the most current version 4.2 is used, but energy efficiency in this case is not a determining factor, so there is no point in paying special attention to this. But in addition to basic SBC and AAC, the proprietary LDAC codec is supported, which has slightly more features. But aptX is not, which is not very surprising: in the presence of its own “advanced” codec, the manufacturer has no motivation to obtain Qualcomm certification. The complete list of codecs and modes supported by them, as always in our tests, was obtained using the Bluetooth Tweaker utility.

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A Bluetooth connection is a good way to quickly play some background music or podcast, but with the Sony HT-ZF9, it’s easier to use network streaming. However, pairing via Bluetooth with some gadget still makes sense – it will help establish a network connection. This can also be done through the on-screen menu, which we will look at below, but the method considered here is the simplest and fastest.

The soundbar is controlled by the Sony | Music Center, available for iOS and Android – you should start setting up your device by installing it, otherwise many of the most convenient functions will be unavailable. We install, agree with the terms of use, give the necessary permissions – everything is as usual.

Management and operation

Above, we have already looked at the touchscreen control panel located on the top of the device. It allows you to carry out basic actions, but nothing more – you still cannot do without a remote control and an application. The remote control is compact, but quite convenient. The volume key is made in the form of a separate round “swing”, which is easy to find by touch. Focusing on it, it is easy to find the volume control keys for the rear speakers and the subwoofer, located on the sides.

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The remote control is comfortable in the hand, the keys are pressed softly and with a well-felt click – it is quite comfortable to use. In the center there is a “joystick” for operating the on-screen menu, which is available when the soundbar is connected to the TV. Power is supplied using two AAA cells. The cover for their installation and replacement can be easily removed, but at the same time it is held in its place quite reliably.

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We will not go into detail about the on-screen menu – the number of settings in it is quite large: you can change the surround sound characteristics, select the codec used for Bluetooth connection, adjust the network parameters, and so on.

The device also supports interaction with Google Assistant, but it does not have its own microphone – you will have to organize control through the gadget on which the Sony | Music Center.

As we saw above, the Sony HT-ZF9 is a versatile device with an extensive list of functions and is suitable not only for soundtracks for movies, but also for listening to music or podcasts, for example. In some cases, the TV may not be turned on at all. Multiroom is also supported: you can combine soundbars into groups and combine them with other acoustics, and then start playing one track simultaneously in several zones or, for example, “transfer” playback from room to room after you.

But all the same, the main function of the system is to sound films and television programs. And the sound, which we will talk about in more detail, is adapted specifically for it. Physically, the device is equipped with three speakers, plus one more in the subwoofer. However, with the help of the Vertical Surround Engine technology, the sound is “completed” to the 7.1.2 format. Accordingly, the latest Dolby Atmos and DTS: X formats are supported. Once again, we note that none of these devices will ever be able to replace full-fledged acoustics, this is quite obvious.

However, modern algorithms for “upgrading” sound are much more perfect than their predecessors, with whom we got acquainted 10 years ago, or even 15 years ago. Therefore, they give quite interesting results. You should not expect breathtaking “flights” of sound around you, but you can feel the volume, you can often accurately determine the position of the sound source – listening becomes definitely more interesting than when playing in “normal” mode.

The built-in DSP allows you to select one of several sound field adjustment modes, each of which not only changes the built-in equalizer settings, but also adds a certain amount of reverb and compression. The AutoSound mode automatically adjusts all parameters to the content being played, and it often does it very well – no major errors were noted in its work during the testing. But still, the best results are obtained by manually selecting one of the modes: Cinema (Cinema), Music (Music), Game Studio (Game), News (News), Sports (Sports). For everyday listening, Standard is fine. How exactly the system sounds in each of the modes will be discussed in detail in the next chapter.

Sound and frequency response measurements

As we have already seen, the Sony HT-ZF9 has so many sound settings that it is very difficult to talk about a single “sound profile”. The only possibility of separately adjusting the volume of the subwoofer is worth something. You can either remove the low-frequency range altogether, or make a very tangible emphasis on it, which is clearly visible on the frequency response graphs in all 12 positions of the subwoofer volume control below. The measurements were carried out at the listening point at a distance of about 1.5 meters from the location of the system. The volume of the soundbar was set to an average value, the sound mode was Standard.

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В качестве базового мы выбрали график, полученный в средних положениях регуляторов громкости как сабвуфера, так и саундбара. Как можно заметить, СЧ-диапазон подается более-менее равномерно, для столь компактных динамиков это прямо-таки очень неплохой результат. Небольшой акцент на высоких частотах добавляет звуку чуть яркости — в целом, все воспринимается вполне гармонично.

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The system copes well with reproducing bass, but the subwoofer adds a kind of “hooting” sound to the low-frequency register sound, which can periodically make any explosions and shots in the cinema more effective, but when listening to music it will hardly be appropriate. As an illustration, we will give a graph of the cumulative attenuation of the spectrum (aka “waterfall”, or waterfall). It can be seen that frequencies in the region of 30 Hz fade out the longest – probably, it is to this frequency that the bass reflex of the subwoofer is tuned. Plus there is a peak around 60 Hz, which can be associated with the resonances of the case, as an option.

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Naturally, with an increase in the volume of the subwoofer, the severity of this effect will also increase, so you should not get too carried away. The “waterfall” obtained at the maximum volume value demonstrates this well to us.

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At the same time, the peculiarities of the bass sound of the Sony HT-ZF9 are due not only to the resonances of the bass reflex and the case. If you look at the graphs of the subwoofer and the main unit, a “dip” in the region of about 100-200 Hz becomes obvious. The subwoofer still sounds in this range, but not so effectively. The soundbar is trying too, but it really starts at around 250Hz. So it turns out that we have a solid “hump” from 40 to 100 Hz with a subsequent failure – hence the feeling of “hooting”.

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But jumping to conclusions about the suitability of the Sony HT-ZF9 for listening to music is not worth it. Firstly, somewhere in hip-hop this sounds even interesting in its own way, and in general accents on bass are in vogue today. And secondly, the sound can be changed by activating various profiles, which we will talk about. There are many of them, so let’s divide the results into two illustrations.

On the first, we see that the profile intended for listening to music emphasizes the middle, but at the same time makes it less uniform. This noticeably neutralizes the features that we talked about above, plus makes the sound brighter. Do not forget that the reverb and the compressor are switched on in parallel, which also make their considerable contribution to the perception. At the same time, the results of their work are not visible on the frequency response graph. The profile intended for cinema, for example, hardly changes the frequency response at all – it only slightly raises the bass, but brings the high frequencies forward. But due to the reverberation, it thoroughly adds volume.

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The rest of the profiles are about the same story. I was a little surprised by the “news” – we expected rises in the mid-frequency component for better speech perception, but instead he only slightly takes back the low-frequency register. In this case, we did not test the intelligent Auto Sound mode – its reaction to a sweep-tone can hardly be indicative and interesting.

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But the “voice mode” works quite predictably – it highlights the mid-frequency range, and after it slightly emphasizes the high frequencies. The night mode sharply removes low frequencies, plus adds compression. Due to the fact that the difference between the quietest and loudest sounds inside the audio track is reduced, its “readability” increases even at low volume levels.

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Conclusion

The Sony HT-ZF9 soundbar is one of the most “charged” devices in the lineup, ready to replace not only home acoustics, but also a network player, for example. And it sounds very good for its class. The price, of course, is also impressive – it is comparable to the cost of a good TV. True, sound has always cost more than a “picture”, oddly enough. A listener who has not been spoiled by multichannel acoustics, who has replaced the built-in TV speakers with a Sony HT-ZF9, will definitely appreciate the result and will continue to do so for a very long time. At the same time, the system takes up little space, it is connected and configured in 5 minutes – in general, it requires a minimum of effort from the user, which is good.

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