What do we mean by “high quality”? Unless we’re talking about skyscrapers or basketball players, whether something is good or bad isn’t usually isn’t related to height.
French philosopher Michel de Certeau believed it was because the geographically higher we get, the more we rise above the humdrum to a godlike perspective – so we associate height with goodness.
But when testing the Dolby Atmos-enabled SJ9, LG’s latest soundbar and subwoofer combo, we’re looking for high quality in both senses – it needs to sound good and, because of its two upfiring speakers, it also needs to deliver a good sense of height too.
We try out its above-your-head audio with the Dolby Atmos soundtrack to Star Trek. The SJ9 certainly gives spaceships, lightning storms and firing lasers an added vertical dimension, and compared to the Philips Skyquake – a similarly-priced Dolby Atmos soundbar – the SJ9 has a slightly richer quality.
We swap in Dolby’s own Atmos test disc and select a rainforest soundscape, finding that the patter of the storm is an edge more textured. It’s not as sophisticated as having speakers in your ceiling, and it misses the scale and clarity of the £1500/$2250 Sony HT-ST5000, but it’s a valiant performance nonetheless.
Of course, you might want to play non-Dolby Atmos audio from this soundbar, so we try it out with Girl In Amber from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds over Bluetooth.
There’s enough detail in the midrange for a decent rendition of Cave’s naturally strained tones, but it doesn’t reach the same levels of transparency as the Dali Kubik One. The melancholy piano isn’t quite as sensitive or clear, and his sharp intakes of breath aren’t as heartfelt.
You get a smooth, safe sound from the SJ9, but that’s something of a double-edged sword. While the treble, midrange and bass are kept firmly in line, there’s a degree of attack and dynamism that’s missing from its character.
The high-speed, aggressive drums that start off Flogging Molly’s Drunken Lullabies and the snarl in Dave King’s lyrics are a tad lax.
To its credit, it times decently, and the integration between the soundbar and its subwoofer is quite tight, but what should have you banging your head in time to the boisterous celtic punk beats just leaves you tapping your foot.
There’s a similar quality in the bass, which doesn’t give you the necessary punchy impact in Deadpool’s numerous fight scenes. When the titular hero is thrown into a steel beam you should instinctively wince with the thud of metal against muscle, but the SJ9 plays it loose.
It needs a bit more refinement too, as when Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead fly off to meet Deadpool, the rumble of the jet engines sounds like one block of low-frequency sound rather than multiple layers of earthy growls and slightly higher roars.
Top of the features list is Dolby Atmos, of course. That sound format is available only through the SJ9’s HDMI input; unfortunately there’s only one of them, setting it behind the Philips Skyquake (with two) and the Sony HT-ST5000 (three).
If you have multiple HDMI sources, you could use the HDMI ARC output to run sound from your TV to the SJ9. However, the ARC channel doesn’t support Dolby Atmos, which needs to be run directly through the soundbar.
Anyone wanting Dolby Atmos sound through their games console and Blu-ray player, for example, will need to fiddle with cables whenever they switch from one to another.
For Atmos-less audio, the SJ9 has an optical and a 3.5mm (which the SJ9 calls its ‘Portable’) connection too.
LG has kept up with the latest audio streaming tech, with both Spotify Connect and Chromecast (for Tidal, TuneIn, and Google Play Music) built into the SJ9. You can also use the MusicFlow app for iOS and Android to play audio from a music server, or stream through the soundbar’s Bluetooth 4.0.
Choosing an input and setting up the soundbar is relatively easy, and although you might need a bit of room under your television (at 120cm, the SJ9 is close to the width of a 65in TV) it’s about average size for a Dolby Atmos bar.
LG has also decided not to add any adjustable parameters for Atmos to the SJ9, as opposed to products like the Sony HT-ST5000, which adjusts the upward dispersion according to the size of room, or the Yamaha YSP-5600 that comes with a microphone for calibration. This certainly makes it less expensive, and faster to get up and running, but does place a limit on its effectiveness.
The remote supplied is small and simply laid out. There’s a mixing desk button for adjusting bass, treble, and subwoofer volume and a ‘Sound Effect’ button that toggles through the SJ9’s ‘Music’, ‘Movie’, ‘Bass Blast’ presets.
However, we prefer the neutral balance of ‘Standard’ mode, so keep it on that. There’s also a ‘Night mode’ that decreases the dynamic range so you don’t disturb people when watching TV late at night.
We’ve seen nicer remotes for Atmos soundbars (the Philips Skyquake is still at the top) in terms of number of buttons and ease of use, but it gets the job done.
In fact, “getting the job done” is an apt summary of the SJ9. The sound is decent, features are good and Dolby Atmos functionality is enjoyable, if not the most precise.
But there are still improvements needed to set it ahead of the other Dolby Atmos soundbars on the market. Ultimately the SJ9 doesn’t stand out from the crowd.