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Sony HT-A9 hands-on review: An innovative, immersive home theatre speaker system

Sony’s new 360 Spatial Sound Mapping tech helps the Sony HT-A9 deliver enveloping surround sound from just four speakers

In late September, I joined Sony in the Terrace Suite of The Soho Hotel for a demonstration of its latest surround-sound home theatre system, the Sony HT-A9.

The HT-A9 is the first product to use Sony’s new “360 Spatial Sound Mapping” technology and, prior to the event, I was a little sceptical as to whether four compact speakers could deliver on Sony’s promise of its “widest ever surround sound”.

Did half an hour of experiencing what the HT-A9 has to offer convince me of its surround-sound prowess? Read on for my initial impressions and everything you need to know about Sony’s new home theatre speaker setup.

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Sony HT-A9 hands-on review: Price and design

The Sony HT-A9 will set you back £1,599 and is available to preorder from Sony now. The system comprises four physical speakers delivering 4.0.4 channel audio, meaning there’s no centre speaker or subwoofer included, though you can buy the latter separately. All four speakers require mains power to operate and connect wirelessly to a compact control box hooked up to your TV via HDMI.

The speakers are roughly 30cm tall and mostly cylindrical save for flat backs that allow them to be wall-mounted. In fact, due to reasons that will become apparent later on, there’s a lot of flexibility in terms of how you can position them.

You’ll want to vaguely set them up as front left, front right, rear left and rear right satellites, but precise placement isn’t necessary as they don’t need to be at the same height or the same distance apart to work their surround-sound magic.

Each of the four units houses one upwards-firing driver, one forward-firing driver and one Hi-Res Audio certified tweeter. The upwards- and forward-firing drivers both use Sony’s “X-Balanced” non-circular diaphragm design to increase sound pressure and deliver powerful bass with minimal distortion. The satellites also have a sloped baffle – the mounting surface for the tweeter and X-balanced speakers – which Sony says reduces distortion at the edges of the cabinets.


Sony HT-A9 hands-on review: Connectivity and audio formats

The control box houses an HDMI 2.1 output and an HDMI 2.1 input that supports passthrough for Dolby Vision, 4K and 8K HDR and 4K resolution at 120Hz. There’s also an Ethernet port and a 3.5mm “Acoustic Centre Sync” input, which allows you to connect a compatible Sony Bravia XR TV to the system and play centre channel audio through the TV’s speakers.

Both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X surround-sound formats are supported, and the HT-A9 is capable of upscaling regular stereo audio to something akin to a surround-sound experience using Sony’s Immersive Audio Enhancement technology.

Additionally, there’s support for Bluetooth 5.0 (SBC, AAC and Sony’s LDAC codec are all available), along with support for Spotify Connect, Apple AirPlay 2 and Chromecast audio. Hi-Res Audio formats including FLAC and DSD are also supported, as is Sony’s 360 Reality Audio, while the company’s Digital Sound Enhancement Engine (DSEE) Extreme helps draw out more detail from low-resolution audio recordings.

There’s no built-in smart assistant but the system does support voice commands via Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa when paired with a compatible smart product.

Sony HT-A9 hands-on review: What is 360 Spatial Sound Mapping and how does it work?

Sony’s 360 Spatial Sound Mapping seeks to transform the HT-A9’s 4.0.4 channel audio into something resembling a 7.1.4 surround-sound system by using a combination of two technologies: Sound Field Optimisation and Monopole Synthesis.

Sound Field Optimisation is a calibration process that takes place when the HT-A9 speakers are first set up. The speakers play a series of beeps, which their built-in microphones use to measure the dimensions of the listening space, including the height of the ceiling and distance between each of the four satellites.

The relative positioning of each speaker is then taken into account as the next stage of the mapping process, which Sony terms “Monopole Synthesis”, takes place. The soundwaves each speaker generates are synthesised and undergo digital signal processing to create new directional wavefronts from up to 12 positions around the room. Sony refers to those positions as “phantom” speakers, and they all combine to create the feeling you’re enveloped in a dome of sound.

Sony HT-A9 hands-on review: How does it sound?

The question is, how well does that tech translate to real-world listening? Based on my limited time with the HT-A9, very well indeed.

My first taste of it came via the Dolby Atmos “Rainforest” demo, which was delivered with a grand sense of scale. As a thunderstorm rumbled in the forest, I was able to clearly pick out the “phantom” subwoofer at my feet, communicating a rich low-end response.

When birds scattered from the trees I was able to place them flying from the front left speaker to the rear right speaker but the sound didn’t feel like it was jumping from one speaker to the next. Instead, the transition around the space felt smooth and unbroken, making it perfectly believable.

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Next up was a scene from the Atmos mix of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The film’s protagonist Rey is inside a fallen Star Destroyer scrounging parts and I was very impressed by how the HT-A9 conjured up a feeling of being inside a large but eerily quiet space.

After Rey salvages what she needs she leaves the vessel, hops on a sled and slides down a massive sand dune. The HT-A9 tracked her motion wonderfully, with my ability to hear the traction of the sled on sand diminishing subtly as she moved further and further away.

Subtlety went out of the window as the onscreen action was cranked up significantly in the next demo clip: an all-guns-blazing bombing run from World War II drama Unbroken. The explosive nature of the scene really served to highlight the HT-A9’s ability to deliver deep, powerful bass – an impressive feat without a physical subwoofer in tow.

Bombs exploding below, Flak cannons firing into the sky and fighter planes circling all combined to create a truly intense soundscape that had my heart pounding in my chest. As with the birds in the aforementioned rainforest scene, the HT-A9 did a sterling job of communicating motion as the Japanese fighter planes zipped past on either side, arcing back around to unleash a withering volley of devastating gunfire.

More impressive still was the way in which the audio was balanced. Scenes such as this can easily become muddled and overwhelming if not handled correctly. But I was able to pinpoint each distinct aspect of the action.

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Sony HT-A9 hands-on review: Early verdict

You only get one chance to make a first impression, and the HT-A9 certainly made a very good one.

Despite my initial scepticism, the quartet of speakers was able to create convincing surround sound with truly impressive width and height effects. The creation of phantom speakers is an odd concept to get one’s head around but, sitting on that sofa in Soho, I felt as if I was enveloped in a bubble of high-quality sound.

The Sony HT-A9 isn’t cheap, nor is it a practical choice for those with small living rooms. But based on my brief time with it, the engrossing audio experience it offers will go down extremely well with those seeking a cinematic experience at home, particularly if they already own a compatible Sony TV.

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