It was the covid maelstrom of 2021. While most of the world was still locking down, Sony Electronics was busting out with a history-making entertainment bid: the HT-A9 Home Theater System.
It was nearly a year ago that Home Theater Forum requested a review unit of the product. We duly got in line. Sure enough, it finally arrived a couple of weeks ago.
The HT-A9 made a splash, and with good cause. It consists of four powered speakers which you can put anywhere in your living room. The tech making that possible is Sony’s 360 Spatial Sound Mapping, which we will discuss later.
The Sony HT-A9 is a completely immersive audio solution for under $2,000. It could be a blessing for those who want to experience movie thrills without the clutter.
The Evolution of the Home Theater
To put the HT-A9 in context, consider the following history. In the old days, nearly everyone with a sound system used speakers in bulky box frames (and a ton of wires) to get the best quality sound. Over time the prevailing system shrunk to smaller-sized Home Theater in a Box (HTIB) systems and finally to the commonplace soundbar.
But history never stands still.
While soundbars are expected to stay with us for quite some time, things are changing once again. Advancements in wireless technology, and a generalized downsizing of components, is bringing in an era of “powered” or “active” bookshelf loudspeakers, which sit at your TV’s sides. They’re able to package the essentials into smaller enclosures, deliver high-quality audio, and oftentimes communicate with each other wirelessly for more cohesive sound output.
This brings us to the HT-A9. It’s a modern take on the HTIB. It combines the multi-speaker approach of the past with the wireless, compact convenience of the present. But will it redefine our home audio experience?
Let’s take a look at the details.
Sony HT-A9 Home Theater System — Unboxing and Setup
Before examining the key features of the Sony HT-A9, including the all-important 360 Spatial Sound tech, we should reveal the contents of the packing box.
Setup and Calibration: Positioning and Powering the Speakers
The Sony HT-A9 comes with four 12.3-inch high circular footprint white speaker units. The 6.3-inch width and 5.8-inch depth of each mean that they can find easy placement around a TV and on shelves at the rear of a room. They can also be wall-mounted with dedicated but optional hardware. There is a flattened back to each unit to make wall placement more discreet.
Each of the four speakers is surrounded by a white metal gauze, which is attractive enough, if somewhat utilitarian, and solidly built. At the base of each unit is a cable-managed power inlet.
The units need to be powered individually, so check how many power outlets you have within easy reach. Although a five-foot length might seem generous, it can quickly get used up.
As the speakers require connection to a power outlet, there are no pesky wires needed to lead to one of the best receivers or other components.
The off-white or “pearl grey” towers sport a forward-facing 0.75-inch soft dome tweeter and a 2.75-inch mid-range “X-balanced” driver. An upward-facing X-balanced driver in each unit pushes immersive effects toward the ceiling. So, there are 12 speakers in the entire system. The set is not available in black if that’s your preferred choice.
Interfacing with the TV: The Phantom Center Image
The speakers also give you a handy reference for placement with FL (front left), FR (front right), RL (rear left), and RR (rear right) markers on the undersides. Total amplifier power output is claimed to be over 500 watts, with even 42 watts allocated per driver.
While the left and right speakers should produce a phantom center image if you have a compatible Sony Bravia TV, an included 3.5 mm jack lead can connect to the hub and your TV. This will, in turn, render a discrete center channel.
The Control Hub: Your Central Connection Point
Also in the box is a 6 x 6-inch black hub or system controller, a neat black palm-sized remote control, an HDMI cable (2.1 protocol with 8K transmission supported), a TV center speaker mode cable, and power cords. The tidy square controller or hub, which resembles an Apple TV box, will ideally sit just beneath the TV for line-of-sight remote control.
Round the back of the hub is a USB service port for updates only, the S-Center Out for Bravia TV center speaker output, LAN Ethernet, HDMI Out, HDMI In, and a 12-volt trigger.
Speaker Placement Flexibility
Again, you can be liberal with where you place the speakers. If you are restricted for space, you can place them high, low, or asymmetrically in your listening area. Sony’s 360 Spatial Sound Mapping algorithms promise to take care of imperfect locations to produce the orb or “bubble” of sound.
Setting up the HT-A9 is as simple as Sony claims. Rather than try to launch the system in my home cinema room, I mounted the RL and RR speakers on shelves behind the sweet spot in my living area. The FL and FR took the place of my JBL 4305P monitors for front sound stage duties. The front two speakers were at ear level and the surrounds were about a foot above that plain.
After firing up the hub with HDMI connected to your TV, Sony uses a simple and well-designed on-screen setup procedure to guide you through. This includes an auto-calibration process, which sends weird and wonderful tones into each speaker tower. You can also dig in with several useful advanced settings in the menu.
Notes on TV Choice
This is perhaps an important point for those of you without an HDMI ARC input on your television. Due to my moving situation, I had to use an older Samsung display without ARC or eARC.
In the Sony documentation, it reads like HDMI ARC is a minimum requirement to get the whole shebang running. This is evidently not the case. You still of course have a full view of the on-screen menu, and the ability to run the sound field optimization and setup.
There is an HDMI input on the system controller. I connected a Panasonic 4K Blu-ray player to ensure I could exercise some Dolby Atmos and DTS:X acrobatics.
Tech Specs: Unraveling the Magic of Sony’s 360 Spatial Sound
Sony’s 360 Spatial Sound Mapping employs two key techs, “sound field optimization” and “monopole synthesis”.
The first uses twin microphones in each speaker during calibration to calculate its precise location relative to the other speakers. Sound field optimization, as Sony dubs the calibration system, also measures the distance from each speaker to the ceiling.
The second tech embodies the magic that can produce phantom images in between the speakers to hopefully make them disappear.
You can purchase an optional 300-watt black-colored subwoofer, the SA-SW5, to add to the system. Sony did not provide this to us. Unfortunately, I was also unable to hook up one of my own powered subs due to a house move in progress.
Additional Features: Streaming, Voice Activation, and Audio Codecs
There are plenty of streaming platforms to access from the HT-A9. As well as a Bluetooth connection, you can use Wi-Fi streaming or a LAN connection with Ethernet. Sony supports cloud-based streaming from Spotify Connect, Chromecast built-in, and Apple AirPlay 2.
If you prefer voice activation of your devices, there is also Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa compatibility.
Audio codecs are amply catered for. You get Dolby Atmos piggybacking off Dolby TrueHD or Dolby Digital Plus. DTS:X comes down the pipe via LPCM. The HT-A9 can also manage DTS hi-res audio sources.
Remember that you get the bonus of Sony’s 360 Reality Audio thrown in with the HT-A9. This was a 2019 tech that the company has not been shy about touting. It promises to make you feel like you are in the recording studio. But you will need an account with Deezer, Tidal, or Amazon Music HD.
An Edge-AI tech, DSEE Extreme, will upscale compressed digital music in real-time, according to Sony. It promises to identify instruments, genres, vocals, and even interludes to restore sound lost in the compression process and bring them bouncing back to life.
Remote Control and User Experience
The remote control is intuitive but not backlit. It is a hand-sized plastic affair and is always responsive. Among the many buttons, you can select audio presets, such as “cinema” and “music.” There are also volume, bass, and treble controls.
You can always dip in and change settings from the Home menu. If you decide you want to move the speakers again, for example, you can quickly rerun the sound field optimization to get the best performance.
Sony HT-A9 Performance
So, how does the HT-A9 perform? It depends on the platform.
Getting the HT-A9 onto the Google Home app was a breeze. I immediately tried out some Spotify tunes to see how the package fared on two-channel sources. After scouting around for some Rush greats, I landed on one of my favorites, “Xanadu” from Farewell to Kings (1977).
While the frenetic rhythm guitar was spacious, there was a lack of body and a shrillness to the output. With that said, both the front speakers managed some articulation and clarity.
Likewise, in Vaughan Williams’s “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” (Neville Mariner/Argo), the strings sounded strained as the central motif gathers apace. Despite this misgiving, there is a healthy dose of low-frequency weighting even without a subwoofer taking on the job.
Movie Playback Quality
But movies take on a different quality. Danny Elfman’s spectacular opening credit music for Spider-Man 2 (2004, 4K Blu-ray) in Dolby Atmos is huge and rousing. It comes to the listening position from all quarters.
When Toby Maguire dodges hurdles on his bike leaving the pizza delivery store, the cars and trucks in the frantic NYC traffic steer off to the left, right, and above the sweet spot. A speeding bus hurtles from right to left and overwhelms my 43-inch TV screen.
Even without a subwoofer, the bass response is confident and well-seated in all the movie sources tested. The ever-reliable scene from Jurassic Park (1993, 4K Blu-ray, DTS:X) is an obvious go-to. Following the initial footsteps and sense of doom, the T-Rex chomps through the cable fence. The tearing steel ricochets around the room and the dinosaur’s roar penetrate the outer walls of the house.
But dialing back to something more atmospheric is the scene in War of the Worlds (2005, 4K Blu-ray, Dolby Atmos) where Tom Cruise wanders into the backyard to observe the gathering storm. The high black clouds are swirling gently but ominously above.
On the ground, white sheets billow from laundry lines right in front of my face, then round behind me. You can feel each ripple of the fabric sheets as they dance in the wind and move to the middle of the stage.
The HT-A9 can deliver an incredibly immersive experience. In Deepwater Horizon (2016, 4K Blu-ray, Dolby Atmos), the helicopter landing at the rig propels swirling drafts of air all around the listener. All the while, dialogue does a great job of staying centered as workmen battle to hear each other.
By the time the platform starts to disintegrate, there is the pinpoint placement of debris as it falls from gantries. Fireballs roar through narrow corridors engulfing the scene.
Key Takeaways on the Sony HT-A9 Home Theater System
The Sony HT-A9 is not cheap. It originally retailed for $1,999. Now you should be able to find it for $1,799 or less. But that represents a big investment over and above a high-quality sound bar. It will, however, generate a much-improved immersive audio experience than most sound bars.
On the other hand, a pair of good Hi-Fi grade active speakers for $2k will likely produce excellent results with music. They will also play nice with movies and offer a more refined bass response on all sources. So, it really comes down to how you prioritize your funds.
The HT-A9, though, is a product in its own category. No manufacturer so far has quite stepped into these waters. The not-a-sound-bar/not-an-active-stereo-pair holds a unique market position for now.
Where Sony shines here is in the agile performance of the HT-A9. Whether or not you care for the rather bland appearance of the four white towers, the set really is a box of magic tricks. Soundbars struggle in most cases to get a response from all those overhead effects. But the Sony scales the heights with aplomb.
The 360 Spatial Audio Mapping works. Compensating for less-than-ideal speaker placements is a tech that manufacturers have scratched their heads over for years. This kind of wizardry used to be the exclusive preserve of high-end lords like Trinnov.
But you should never underestimate Sony, whatever you might think of the gargantuan corporation. They have a robust legacy in movie tech. They bought Columbia Pictures, invented SDDS digital audio, made the first 4K cinema projectors, and still produce some of the finest TVs in the world. The HT-A9 feels like an extension of that prowess.
Should you buy one? If you have a spare $1,800 lying around, definitely put them on your audition prospects list. The HT-A9 will prove a good companion for your TV, even if the “pearl gray” only option is not to your liking.
You might take a hit on overall music quality in the living room as well, but conversely, trade up for something quite special when it comes to movies. There’s a big wow factor at play here and plenty with which to impress your friends. Try them.
Sony HT-A9 Home Theater System Rating
We give Sony a very respectable 4.5/5 on this product.
Interested? Grab an HT-A9 system here today!
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