How Sony's New Surround Sound System Transcends the Soundbar

No, the soundbar isn't dead. But it's not necessary either.

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Sony recently announced two new Dolby Atmos home theater systems. The Sony HT-A7000 ($1,300) is traditional: a high-end soundbar that connects directly to your TV with the option for rear-channel speakers and subwoofers to make a full surround system. Then there's the Sony HT-A9 ($1,800), which is a completely different animal. In fact, there's nothing else like it.

The Sony HT-A9 is a system of four wireless speakers and a control box that plugs directly into your TV. The wireless speakers — each of which has a tweeter-and-woofer combo, rear bass port and an up-firing speaker to create virtual height channels — are designed to be placed around the room and work as dedicated front-right, front-left, rear-right and rear-left channels for your TV. There's no soundbar or dedicated center-channel speaker, which is what makes the Sony Ht-A9 so different.

"We measure the distance between the speakers and calibrate using spatial sound mapping technology."

Sony's new system was designed to appeal to people who are "serious" about their home theater, but who might balk at the complicated setup process normally associated with AVR surround systems. The Sony HT- A9 wasn't designed to "kill the soundbar," but instead to try and move beyond it.

The Sony HT- A9's setup is a breeze. After placing the speakers around the room, you plug the control box into your TV and — after a few remote button pushes — the speakers auto-calibrate themselves using a Sonos-like process of playing tones and chirps. It's not only simple, but it also frees you from having to place various elements in precise positions because the system will just even itself out in calibration.

"We can accurately measure the distance between the speakers, as well as the room boundary and the ceiling, and then we can calibrate it using the spatial sound mapping technology to optimize it," said Greg Carlsson, one of Sony's audio engineer who helped bright the HT-A9 to life. "So it's not only levels and delays, but it's knowing the precise locations of the speakers so that we can create virtual speakers." In this way, you don't have to rearrange your room around the Sony HT- A9 speakers, it will work within the setup you already have — and still sound great.

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Each A9 speaker is roughly the size of a Sonos One and has three drivers: a soft dome tweeter, woofer and an up-firing driver.

You may be thinking that without a true center channel speaker, the midrange might suffer on the Sony HT-A9 and dialogue might be tough to hear — but Carlsson says that's not the case. "The 360 spatial sound mapping [technology] actually creates a virtual center channel so you don't actually lose it and the sweet spot actually does get a bit bigger."

The Sony HT-A9 is a surround sound system that can work with any TV — the control box has two HDMI 2.1 with eARC connections, so it'll work with 4K and 8K televisions as well as the latest-gen gaming consoles — but it does have a special trick when paired with Sony's latest Bravia TVs. It's called "Acoustic Center Sync" and it uses the TVs built-in speakers as a center channel speakers, which is what Carlsson says is the perfect location for it.

"TVs are getting bigger and bigger and it becomes more and more difficult to get the center image where it should be, which is really on the TV," explained Carlsson. "So that's the reason to do the Acoustic Center Sync and let the TV be the center. Even with a soundbar you've got to decide whether to put it above or below the screen and the center image is never going to be right on the center of the screen."

The Sony HT-A9 has pretty much all the features of a traditional Dolby Atmos surround sound system. In addition to Atmos, it supports DTS:X and Sony's 360 Reality Audio, as well as streaming technologies like Chromecast, AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect and Bluetooth. The control box allows you to add an extra subwoofer, too, for those who might want to add a little more bass.

There's no doubt that at $1,800, even without the additional subwoofer (which will run you $400 or $700 depending on the size you want), the Sony HT-A9 is still a pretty expensive proposition. But for buyers who want bleeding edge sound technologies and advanced audio codecs without the complication of setting up a traditional surround sound system, it definitely fills that gap.

"We're just trying to close that gap between full-on AVR [systems] and the convenience of a soundbar," said Carlsson. "One HDMI to the TV and you're ready to go."


Sony HT-A9
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