Between TV launches we like to review soundbars and other TV sound solutions and one of the two products from Sony that we requested a review sample of in 2021 was HT-A9, in addition to HT-A7000. We had hoped to test both of them side-by-side but covid-19 ruined the plans. HT-A9 is not a soundbar but rather what Sony likes to call a 7.1.4-channel home theater system. It has 4 separate speakers that connect wirelessly and it designed to work with Dolby Atmos.
HT-A9 was tested with Sony's SA-SW5 subwoofer, which is an optional purchase.
HT-A9 is new take on TV sound from Sony. In the box we found four separate speakers and a connection box for the TV. While it at first glance may resemble a more classic surround system, each speaker is equipped with up-firing units to imitate ceiling channels. In addition, the four speakers connect wirelessly to the connection box which on the other hand must be wired (HDMI) to the TV. Since the speakers are active they require a power cable, too.
I was a little a surprised to finally see the speakers. I had expected four units around the same size as Sonos One, just slimmer, but while the footprint is similar to Sonos One, each speaker is significantly taller.
The cabinet is grey plastic with something of a mélange look and metal grills on the front and the top of the units. The choice of grey plastic will appeal to some buyers and deter others but the finish is good. Similarly, a black soundbar can look quite dominating in a living room and after a while Sony's design grew on me but they nevertheless require planning to fit in a typical living space as opposed to a soundbar. There are screw holes hidden under a cover for wall mounting; either directly on a screw or by using the wing hole for a wall bracket. Each speaker also has a power cable, a sync button and a power button.
Each speaker is equipped with its own amplifier and is designed as a two-channel speaker with a bass reflex port while the up-firing speaker is a full-tone unit. Four speakers including the up-firing units do not quite meet the specification for full Dolby Atmos sound and in terms of placement the speakers are intended to be used as right and left front as well as right and left rear plus four ceiling channels. By bouncing sound off of walls, the speakers can reach 10 channels of which two are the virtual side channels. Sony is specifying the system as having 12 channels but to reach that number you have to add a subwoofer while the dedicated center channel can only be achieved with a recent Sony TV that support the center channel function with external Sony sound systems. Without a recent Sony TV, the speaker will create a virtual center channel with the help of the two front speakers. The system is capable of auto-calibrating sound to compensate for any asymmetries in the placement of the units so it is not required that you create a perfectly arranged square of speakers to get the spatial sound experience. Sony refers to these systems as '360 Sound Mapping' and 'phantom speakers'.
Also read: First listen: Sony's ecosystem of 360 Spatial Sound products
In our review we used HT-A9 together with the SA-SW5 subwoofer which we also used during our review of Sony HT-A7000 last year. It is the more powerful of two Sony subwoofers that can be connected to the latest soundbars and HT-A9. Another option is the SA-SW3 which is approximately 30% less powerful but still quite sturdy in form and look, much like its bigger brother, so it is not easy to hide. For the review, we use a Sony A95K QD-OLED TV for center channel sound.
Taking a closer look at the connection box reveals a small display that is used to show information about the source. It has an HDMI eARC connection, a USB port for updates, an Ethernet port, and a jack port for center channel connection to a Sony TV. In addition, it is equipped with one HDMI input for connecting external devices such as a streaming or Blu-ray player, a game console or similar. Unfortunately, the box is not silent so if you are planning to not hide it inside a rack or furniture you will hear some fan noise. It is not loud, more of a hiss, but it is definitely audible in quiet scenes of movies or games.
The box has good support for input signals and surround sound formats including both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X as well as 4K 120Hz passthrough in its HDMI 2.1 switch.
Set-up is straightforward but requires a short trip into the box's menu via the TV to pair all units. From the same menu you can initiate room calibration and adjust sound parameters manually. Unlike the Sony HT-A7000, the box does not support voice commands via Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, but you have other features such as Chromecast built-in and Apple AirPlay 2 as well as Bluetooth. If you connect the box to the internet you gain access to additional settings via Sony's smartphone app, in case you want to avoid using the remote control that comes with the system. The remote control is identical to the one that comes with other recent Sony soundbars and is not very good. It is too light with spongy buttons but luckily the system has HDMI ARC / CEC support so most of the time you do not need it.
Besides manually moving the speakers it is possible to adjust the sound profile. There are predefined profiles tuned for music and movies as well as Sony's "Immersive Audio" that can expand the sound stage for sources that are not in an object-based format. The remote control also lets you directly adjust bass and rear speaker volume, and if you own a recent Sony TV you can adjust all of the essential features directly from the TV's settings menu. This is useful if you like to adjust settings often but most users will probably set and forget during set-up.
The wireless connection between box and speakers was not always trouble-free during our review. I experimented with the placement of the box to see how stable the connection is and if you try to hide it behind the TV, for example, you will most likely experience connection issues to the rear speakers, despite them being only 4 meters aways. We tested the system with Sony's A95K QD-OLED TV which has a heatsink on the back so other TVs may let the wireless signals to the box pass more freely. During set-up the user can select to prioritize stability over audio quality but even with the box placed relatively freely the rear speakers cut out from time to time so I ended up placing the box in the center of my TV rack which solved the issue. However, this is not an optimal solution taking the fan noise into account so it is worth keeping in mind if you are considering buying HT-A9 and want to hide the box.
If you want to add a center channel to the set-up it requires a compatible Sony TV from the 2021 line-up or later such as A80J, A90J, X95J or other high-end models. As mentioned, we tested with the A95K QD-OLED model from the 2022 line-up.
During the review I compared HT-A9 to a Sonos Arc) with rear speakers and subwoofer. I had an Apple TV 4K and a PlayStation 5 connected to the TV, and the soundbar was connected via HDMI eARC to a Sony AF9 and a Sony A95K.
Listening test: Music
The last soundbar I had in for review was Sony's own HT-A7000 with rear speakers and the same SA-SW5 subwoofer that was used for this review with HT-A9. I also tested HT-A1 without a subwoofer and with/without a center channel (Sony TV). I want to emphasize this right away; I recommend that you add the subwoofer.
I have only tested HT-A9 with Sony's largest subwoofer but without a subwoofer the sound is not complete and in this price class it would be a shame to leave it out. HT-A9 fares better without a subwoofer than HT-A7000 which did not perform well without a sub. HT-A9 is better balanced but it is clear that it does not on its own reach the lowest frequencies required for music. The smaller subwoofer may be adequate, though. During the test preferred to tune down bass to a little over medium volume to strike the right balance. The smaller sub would also be easier to place in a typical living space so try to listen to it if you get the chance.
Like HT-A7000, HT-A9 has very clear treble which is a contrast to the Sonos Arc that I had placed in the same room. At times too clear as it can make vocals sound too direct in both movies – documentaries with a narrative speaker, for example – and music if the artist has a high-pitched voice. We miss manual adjustments to tone down this effect.
A recurring point of criticism in soundbar reviews is the soundbar's inability to deliver a wide stereo perspective and soundstage, especially when playing music, as the front channels are installed in a unit that is typically no wider than a TV. HT-A9 does not suffer from the same limitation and it was immediately clear to me that stereo separation in HT-A9 is much better than in any other TV soundbar system I have tested. For the same reason I immediately put on music rather than a movie since the difference to Sonos Arc is striking. Even measured up against relatively potent systems such as Beosound Eclipse, Beosound Stage or Sennheiser Ambeo, I found it much more enjoyable listening to music on HT-A9. The system lacks power to get the party going since its maximum volume is limited but compared to Sonos Arc there is more punch and overhead capacity in HT-A9. Measured up against the heavyweight Ambeo from Sennheiser, HT-A9 lacks a little power and balance but it produces a better stereo perspective. There is no clear winner here, but HT-A9 needs a subwoofer to compete.
If you prefer an even wider soundstage for music with traditional audio formats you can activate 'Immersive Audio' upconversion which, like A7000, activates the top channels. When listening to music in Dolby Atmos format from, for example, Apple Music all channels are active but here you lack a center channel that must be virtualized between the two front speakers, which is the opposite situation of that in a soundbar. Very few soundbars cater to music lovers but HT-A9 may satisfy some users who have owned or have considered investing in a dedicated surround system with an amplifier and shelf speakers for music. You can still buy a potent 5.1 system in separate parts for less but considering that HT-A9 is more comparable to a soundbar system with Dolby Atmos support and more, I would say that its music capabilities are definitely at the high end of the scale.
For A/B comparisons with Sonos Arc I used AirPlay 2 to play the same music track on both systems at the same time as AirPlay lets me fade seamlessly in and out between the two units. Like HT-A7000, I unfortunately experienced sporadic "plops" with the AirPlay 2 function which is a shame since the AirPlay 2's capabilities in terms of multiroom are enticing. When sound came from the Apple TV box or another HDMI source there were no issues so Sony needs to identify the AirPlay issue and fix it.
If you want "immersive music", meaning music in an object-based audio format, you can get
'360 Reality Audio' which is Sony's own format from Amazon Music HD, Deezer, nugs.net and Tidal. At this time, Dolby Atmos is not supported in Apple Music over AirPlay 2 (but is supported with Apple TV's Apple Music app over HDMI).
Listening test: Movies
Dolby Atmos is becoming a bigger theme these years as more and more streaming services jump on the bandwagon in addition to Blu-ray discs. You can now find movies or TV shows in Dolby Atmos on Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Video and HBO Max, to name the biggest players. I prefer to test partly with a handful of movies that I know well which are Blade Runner 2047, Venom, Mission Impossible 6, Fantastic Beasts and Mad Max: Fury Road, but with the increasing number of TV shows released you should be able to find lots of good Dolby Atmos titles out there. Enthusiasts will still prefer Blu-ray discs due to lossless Dolby Atmos in TrueHD but for most people Atmos in Dolby Digital Plus from streaming services suffice.
Also read: Guide to Dolby Atmos at home
Movie scenes with deep bass reveal that HT-A9 as a standalone system lacks the deep punch required for true movie immersion. I don't mean in the sense that the couch should shake endlessly but just more depth to add to the immersion when the chase is on in The Upside Down in the latest season of Stranger Things, the deepest tones of the music track when Officer K flies towards the orphanage in Blade Runner 2049 or the deep rumble from the furious V8 engines in Mad Max. Adding the subwoofer to the system resolves its inadequacies to let you fully enjoy the movie. HT-A9 manages to fill the room with sound and the sharp treble makes voices easy to hear – but still sometimes a little too clear which I something I experienced especially in documentaries or similar scenes where a narrative speaker is in focus. In intense action scenes from the movies mentioned earlier the clarity instead contributes to highlighting the bullet that flies over your head or to making voices audible – something the center channel is normally responsible for.
The lack of a center channel is perhaps most pronounced in movies since most music is optimized for front speakers without a dedicated center channel. As mentioned, dialog is clear but I sometimes felt that the positioning of the virtual center channel was off – not aligned to the center of the TV. On the other hand I found that most of the time HT-A9 managed to successfully emulate the center channel. The only option to add a center channel to the system is owning a recent Sony TV that supports the center channel function. With A95K connected and the HT-A9 system set to use it as the center channel, the TV will take over some of the work. A95K has better speakers than the average TV on the market – most TVs in fact – but it still cannot match the more potent front left and front right speakers in HT-A9 so I felt that the difference in audio quality was distracting. Granted, in some sequences the extra center channel helps dialog but as long as there is not a hardware match between the speakers and the center channel I would personally prefer not to add the TV to the system and just use HT-A9 with the limitations it has. A better solution would be for Sony to introduce an optional center speaker that could connect wirelessly to the system in the same was as a subwoofer.
With the subwoofer in place, the TV center channel deactivated, and good movies lined up, I found myself more and more excited about the versatility in HT-A9 and the level of performance achievable with this kind of system. If I had to put my finger on something it would be that the top channels lack something and should be more pronounced, and that the side firing units do not match Sony's HT-A7000 soundbar and not Sonos Arc either when tested side-by-side. On the other hand the sound experience in general including the level of detail in the sound can match or exceed the other TV sound systems that we have reviewed over the years, so even though you are not getting the most precise Atmos reproduction you are getting a convincing surround sound experience and a product that unlike soundbars doubles as a music system.
Lastly, we have to ask who the target customer for HT-A9 is? HT-A9 plus subwoofer is a $2500+ / £2500+ / €2700 investment. The alternative is a Dolby Atmos compatible receiver and passive speakers – not high-end units but still possible. The receiver will be more capable but also bigger and the passive speakers will most likely be connected with wires (rather than, say, WiSA). While soundbars are designed specifically for TVs, HT-A9 is more comparable to a traditional HiFi system in form and it most likely appeals more to home cinema enthusiasts.
Direct alternatives are probably Sonos Amp and Bluesound Powernode. The former can with 2x Sonos Amp or 1x Sonos Amp plus a standalone Sonos speaker and a subwoofer create a 4.1 setup with your choice of passive speakers and subwoofer but then you have wires between the Sonos Amp and speakers, and there is no Atmos support. The same goes for Bluesound Powernode that also lets you create a 4.1 system but without Atmos support and the front speakers will be wired. Both system can compete with HT-A9 in terms of price, depending on which passive speakers you buy, but which system is better comes does to personal preference and perhaps your passion for passive speakers.
Sony HT-A9 is a unique product on the market and it is surprising that other companies have not made something similar. Sonos would be the first brand that comes to mind.
HT-A9 is not the best Dolby Atmos system in its price class but what it lacks in clarity for immersive sound formats it makes up for in music performance and its wide stereo perspective. Sony's approach to creating 'phantom speakers' works well especially for the center channel that lacks in physical form. The bass is too weak, though, so we recommend one of Sony's two wireless subwoofers to complete the system.
In terms of price, the complete set including a subwoofer ends up being as expensive as some of the most high-end soundbars but in return you get a good all-round TV sound system that doubles as a music system. It is also easy to set up with a wireless connection between the units.
Sony HT-A9 gets our Highly Recommended Award.
Price and retailers:
Good stereo perspective Music performance Wireless speakers Dolby Atmos support via eARC, DTS:X Subwoofer can be connected wirelessly
Limited Atmos effect Lacks bass (without subwoofer) No center channel Only 1 HDMI input