Home theater surround sound innovation stagnated for several years, with little in the way of new technology pushing the ball forward, but that changed in a major way when Dolby Atmos came onto the scene. With Atmos, audio is mixed and processed in an entirely new manner, with the ability of placing sounds anywhere in the room including directly over listener’s heads. It also makes for one of the easiest “Wow!” demos to give, where every listener can immediately appreciate the difference.
The Sony HT-ST5000 soundbar with grille removed.
However, let’s be honest: the number of customers who can–or will–put up to 11.1 speakers in a room is pretty small, and where Atmos is likely to really grab a real mass-market foothold is in the high-performance soundbar category.
When I first heard about Atmos technology going into a soundbar, I was skeptical. The performance of upfiring speakers can be lackluster, and soundbars have a difficult time creating a truly encompassing effect. But after hearing about a demo of a prototype bar at Sony’s booth this past CES, I was intrigued enough to stand in line to give it a listen. Sure, the room was likely built to dimensions and with materials that stacked the demo in the bar’s favor, but Sony played material I was very familiar with, and the bar delivered most of the Atmos thrills that my dedicated 7.2.4 system produced. Suffice to say, I couldn’t wait to get the finalized version into my home for some serious evaluating.
The bar arrives in a pretty hefty box, and lugging it into my listening room was enough to let me know it is a serious bit of kit. While it’s true you can’t judge gear solely on weight, it can often be a determiner of build quality, and by weight alone this is one of the most impressive bars I’ve ever reviewed. To accommodate the upfiring speakers, the bar is fairly deep, it will likely extend well beyond a flat panel TV if wall mounting.
One area where many bars skimp is the included subwoofer, and since most soundbars can’t reproduce any meaningful low-frequency information on their own, the sub is even more vital for a successful combo. Rest assured, at more than 31 pounds and with 200 watts on board, this duo includes a serious subwoofer that delivers cinematic levels of bass and was able to deliver some tactile thump, even in my large living room. The sub connects wirelessly to the bar and I never had to fiddle with it beyond plugging it in.
For optimal audio performance, all sources wire to the soundbar, connecting to its three HDMI 2.0a/HDCP 2.2 inputs as well as an output that supports ARC. There is also a Toslink digital input and a mini-jack analog audio input. Importantly, the connections are smartly arrayed so you can route wiring without holding the bar off the wall. The HT-ST5000 can jump on your network using either a wired RJ45 LAN connection or 2.4/5GHz Wi-Fi.
Setup is intuitive and straightforward via an attractive onscreen GUI. The bar is also Control4 certified, and it dutifully announced itself via Control4’s SDDP (Simple Device Discovery Protocol) to my system. While the included remote is serviceable, it follows Sony’s maddening trend of omitting any backlighting. A bit surprising is that the bar doesn’t offer any capability of learning a third-party IR signal, say the volume commands from the TV or cable remote.
Sony’s included remote is serviceable, but the bar doesn’t offer any capability of learning a third-party IR signal
At this price point, I would have loved if Sony included some kind of room EQ (like DCAC found on its receivers) or other microphone-based room optimization. But other than adjusting the sound levels of the bar, sub, and height channels, there is nothing that can be done to “tweak” the audio. Fortunately, it sounded damn good in all three of the rooms I auditioned it in, so maybe Sony did all the tweaking at the factory!
Before I get into performance, I want to mention a couple of other standout features onboard the HT-ST5000. First, it can transmit or receive Bluetooth signals, meaning you can send audio to it from a smartphone or have the bar send audio to Bluetooth headphones. It can’t do both simultaneously, but for the client that has trouble hearing, this is a great solution. Lest you think the bar is just about movies, it also plays a huge variety of music file formats including Hi-Resolution Audio up to 192kHz/24-bit resolution. Music can stream across the home’s network or via an attached USB drive (up to 4TB). It also supports Chromecast and Spotify Connect, meaning you should be able to enjoy your favorite streaming station. Finally, it can be part of a house-wide audio distribution system, either using other Chromecast speakers or speakers from Sony’s wireless lineup.
Once I had the bar installed, I connected my Kaleidescape system and fed it a steady battery of movies with Atmos audio that I knew were heavy with height-channel immersion. From the oil rig breaking up in Deepwater Horizon, to the opening “Where are you?” swirl of voices in Mad Max: Fury Road, the bar delivered all of the sonic excitement in a truly hemispherical array. Dialog was also clearly understandable, with a handy three-level “Voice Up” mode for tweaking if shows are difficult to understand.
There were many times when I would be in the middle of a scene and swear there were speakers up overhead, as a plane would fly over, or footsteps would stomp around, or water would crash down. The opening scene from Unbroken really showed off the bar’s ability to create a wide surround image, with planes ripping past me along the sidewalls and streaking behind the listening position.
While other manufacturers have delivered soundbars capable of adding wireless rear channels, the Sony bar doesn’t support this option. However, with the psychoacoustic effect of the upfiring speakers and the width of the side channel image, there were moments when the audio truly seemed to come from behind me.
Beyond Atmos-encoded titles (ie: the 99 percent of content people will listen to) the bar showed off its upmixing prowess as well. A perfect example was in the 2010 Clash of the Titans remake, where Medusa could be heard slithering around and laughing directly overhead.
I spent enough time listening to music to confidently declare the HTST5000 will satisfy the music listening demands of any soundbar purchaser. Music was detailed with terrific clarity, depth, and dynamics.
Bottom line: I loved this bar. It sounded truly amazing for movies and music and surpassed my highest expectations. Will it replace my reference 7.2.4 rig? Never. But would I love to have the HT-ST5000 in my bedroom or any other room of the house? Absolutely!
Dolby Atmos audio that will have you swear there are speakers over your head; terrific sound quality for both movies and music; room-energizing bass
Currently no DTS support; no ability to add rear speakers; no room correction
► 7.1.2-channels from 12-speakers; 600-watt amp (50 watts per speaker); wireless sub with 7 1/8-inch active driver with 200-watt amp, and 7 7/8 by 11 7/8-inch passive radiator
► Bluetooth A2DP, AAC, LDAC; Spotify Connect, GoogleCast
► Wi-Fi 2.4GHz/5GHz 801.11 a/b/g/n
► Inputs: 3 HDMI 2.0a/HDCP 2.2 (1 supporting ARC), 3.5mm analog audio, Toslink digital, Gigabit Ethernet RJ45, USB Type-A; Outputs: HDMI 2.0a/HDCP2.2