Atmos with only 4 speakers delivered by the Sony HT-A9 wireless home theater system
Soundbar: Easier to set up and use than an AVR-based system with wired speakers? Then what is better? Consumer electronics manufacturers have been asking this question for at least a few decades.
The HT-A9 experience
Ten or fifteen years ago, “home theater in a box” seemed like a possible solution. You didn’t have to pick an AVR or buy separate speakers and cables, but the benefits ended up pretty well. You still had to figure out where to put 5+ speakers and run long cables for the surround channels. And you still have a relatively crappy sound for your trouble. Recently, the mainstream audio industry has mainly focused on making sound bars better and more feature-packed. Now that wireless rear speakers and subwoofers are commonplace, everyone from Sonos to Samsung is offering soundbar-based audio systems that approximate a scaled-down home theater experience for those who can’t (or just don’t want to) set up a more traditional system with an AVR and wired speakers. But even good soundbars have their limits. For me, there is one major caveat that even the largest and most expensive soundbars can’t really address. In general, sound bars are just bad at playing music. And it’s not difficult to see why that is. The biggest problem is the lack of real stereo separation. Let’s say you are sitting about eight feet from your TV and you have a soundbar directly above or below the screen. This soundbar would need to be about 9 feet wide to provide a convincing soundstage and accurate reproduction in stereo. To compensate for their insufficient width, some soundbars use additional drivers and / or DSP tricks to expand the perceived soundstage. In fact, some do just fine, but they still don’t sound like a pair of properly placed speakers. And since most soundbars are only a few inches tall, the drivers used in them are usually tiny and limited in performance. If only there was one way to combine the musical satisfaction of a true 2-channel stereo system, the immersive experience of a multi-channel home theater, and the ease of setting up and installing a soundbar. That’s exactly what Sony is claiming with the new premium home theater system HT-A9 ($ 1,799.99). The HT-A9 system consists of a small control box located near your TV and 4 identical wireless speakers that you place in the room roughly where you want the main front and rear channels in traditional surround sound -Setup would place. With these four speakers alone you can, according to Sony, “feel the action above and from every corner of the living room, with innovative surround sound technologies that create an incredibly impressive home theater and sound experience for all music, film or game content”.
The A9 is as easy to set up as a soundbar. The small control box is connected to your television via HDMI eARC. There is another HDMI input for connecting a game console, Blu-ray player or media streamer. The 4 wireless speakers look identical, but each is labeled with the approximate location it should be placed in the room: front left, front right, back left, and back right. (Every speaker needs to be plugged into the mains, but there is no other tangle of cables.) And that leads to one of the killer features of the HT-A9 – flexibility in placement. If you’re like me, set up your speakers with a tape measure (or a Bosh GLM 20 laser measurement tool) to make sure everyone is perfectly equidistant from the primary listening position. But if you’re a typical soundbar buyer, just place a speaker where it’s most convenient or attractive, and never think about its location again. For the HT-A9, Sony has developed a proprietary technology for sound field optimization that makes “rearranging furniture or precisely positioning the speakers” superfluous. According to the company, speakers can be placed anywhere in the room, even at different heights and distances. Need to place the left speaker on the TV stand but the right speaker two meters higher on a bookcase? No problem. Each speaker has built-in dual microphones that can measure their relative height and position and then Sony’s sound field optimization makes the necessary adjustments to ensure good sound. This calibration is done automatically during the initial setup and can be repeated if you ever need to move the speakers around the room or to another room. According to some well-known reviewers who were allowed to test the HT-A9, Sony’s sound field optimization is surprisingly effective. It is one of two key technologies that enable the A9 system to deliver “new and revolutionary multi-dimensional sound experiences,” according to the company.
The HT-A9 speakers feature what Sony calls an omnidirectional block design. Each cylindrical speaker weighs 6 pounds and is approximately 12.5 inches high, 6.5 inches wide, and just under 6 inches deep. The speakers have a flat back and built-in keyholes for easy wall mounting should you choose to go that route. If you took a look inside their “light pearl gray” housing, you would find a built-in three-channel amplifier, one for each driver. (The total system output of the HT-A9 is 504 watts.) The front-facing speaker is a two-way design with a soft dome tweeter and a rectangular wide directivity woofer, which Sony calls the X-Balanced speaker unit. According to Sony, the unique rectangular shape of these drivers maximizes the cone area (given the relatively small area of the front baffle), resulting in richer bass and higher power output. It also reduces the deflection of the driver without reducing sound pressure levels, which, according to Sony, results in less distortion and greater vocal clarity. The upward-facing driver of each speaker is also an X-Balanced Speaker Unit. According to Sony, the beveled edges of the speaker’s semi-cylindrical body help reduce sound diffraction. For reasons that completely escaped me, Sony doesn’t include a subwoofer with the HT-A9 system, but there are two optional subs that can be added, both of which connect wirelessly to the A9’s control box. The SA-SW3 ($ 400) is a ported sub with a 200-watt amplifier and a measly 6.3-inch driver. You’re better off with the SA-SW5 ($ 700) with a 300-watt amplifier, 7-inch active driver, and passive radiator.
The HT-A9 loudspeakers
TV and HDMI functions
Gamers will be pleased to learn that the A9’s HDMI ports support the latest formats including 8K HDR video, 4K 120fps video, and Dolby Vision HDR passthrough. A firmware update in spring 2022 will enable optimized picture settings through Auto HDR Tone Mapping and Auto Genre Picture Mode for HT-A9 users who connect the system to a Playstation 5 and a compatible Sony Bravia television. But the benefits for Sony TV owners aren’t limited to the video realm. Like any good speaker pair, the HT-A9 should be able to create a convincing phantom center channel between the two front speakers. But for dialog intelligibility, image specificity and localization of screen actions, a dedicated center channel loudspeaker is hard to beat. This is where a feature called Acoustic Center Sync comes into play. When the A9 is used with a compatible Sony Bravia television, Acoustic Center Sync allows the system to send a center channel audio signal from the A9’s control box to the television using an included cable. You can then use the TV speakers as the physical center channel speakers for the A9 system. The A9 includes the TV’s speakers as part of its 360 Spatial Sound Mapping setup, which Sony says allows for more precise adjustments to the sound positions to match the action on the screen. One potential downer is that TV speakers – even those on a high-end Sony TV – just aren’t that good these days. And even if the TV speakers are able to play loudly without distorting (and that’s a big if), the timbre won’t match that of the A9’s speakers. I’ve seen Sony TVs that can act as the center speaker in the context of an AVR-based system, and while this is a cool feature in theory, it was very evident that the TV’s speakers didn’t merge with the rest of the speakers in the system . If you’re buying the HT-A9 and have a compatible Sony TV there is no reason not to try it out. Whether you are using Acoustic Center Sync or not, by pairing the A9 with a Bravia XR TV, you can control sound settings and volume with the TV remote control and check the status of the audio system while you watch your favorite content. Thanks to an integrated user interface, the settings of the HT-A9 automatically appear in the quick settings menu of the television.
Summary of the news:
- Atmos with just 4 speakers, supplied by the Sony HT-A9 wireless home theater system
- Check out all the news and articles on the latest security updates.
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