Let me just start this review by saying that I’ve seen a lot in the home theatre space over the years. I grew up in a time where Tubus Gigantis (the CRT/TV) ruled the earth. That big horrible wooden box was least the size of the modern big screen TV, yet the viewing area was 14 inches if you were lucky. Sound was also tinny as hell, and that was on a premium set!.
I also still remember when I got my first home theatre system. It was a sweet 5 stack DVD player system with surround sound. The wires ran across the room and were a veritable tripping hazard, but to get that sense of sound going from left to right/right to left behind me it was worth the health and safety risks.
Then and Now
Now we live in a time where 4K TVs are taking over, and the humble soundbar is a more than acceptable companion. Soundbars have come a long way over the years; the virtual surround sound effect and the common subwoofer create admirable and affordable sound for your living room, with the added benefits of taking up a small footprint.
The Sony HT-X8500, in some respects goes, against the grain for the modern soundbar. It is (only) a 2.1 channel soundbar, and does not come with a separate subwoofer. Does that affect it? Not at all, thanks to built in subwoofers and a glorious piece of audio wizardry known as Dolby Atmos.
Sleek and subtle
Before we move on to the audio experience allow me to briefly discuss the design. At first glance the HT-X8500 is fairly unassuming, just a singular black slab with two holes at either end which are where the subwoofers are. It’s a slim, fairly low-profile design that will compliment any modern TV. Sony hasn’t tried to overplay their hand, on the design front and I like it. Rather than creating something that stands out, Sony have come up with a design that leaves the TV to do the talking, and the soundbar to (not so) quietly go about its business. In a dark room, aside from a couple of lights on top of it, you wouldn’t even notice it in the room and that’s a good thing.
The X8500 features one HDMI ARC slot which 4K HDR support, so you can plug your Xbox One, PS4 or other media device into the soundbar then connect the soundbar to your TV to get the benefits of the soundbar’s audio processing. You also get bluetooth connectivity so you can connect your phone or tablet and play your tunes through there.
The biggest downside to the soundbar is absence of on onscreen menu. The only way of knowing what the soundbar is doing is through some LED lights on top that indicate what sound profile you currently have activated. But that’s about it. The lights will also turn off after a period of time, so I found myself sometimes wondering if the current sound profile had been applied, and often had to resort to the manual to figure out how to change settings.
But what it lacks in operational intuition it more than makes up for in in sound quality. This bad boy with only 2.1 channels and no upfiring speakers did not inspire me with confidence. The built-in Dolby Atmos capability seemed to me to be nothing more than a marketing ploy. After all, how can you create a true 360 degree sound experience without having speakers that fire up at the ceiling to bounce the sound around? The answer is the vertical sound engine, but beyond that I have no bloody idea how that engine manages to do things it can do.
The soundbar supports both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, which are the current gold standards in sound profile in-home. Watching 4K Bluray movies or Netflix with Dolby Atmos support is nothing short of breathtaking. Sony claims the X8500 simulates 7.1.2 surround sound and, while I wouldn’t quite say it simulates the sound stage to that level, it is pretty damn close. Watching a movie like Aquaman or Bumblebee, you genuinely get a verticality to the sound and sense of immersion all around you that just should not be possible from a 2.1 channel soundbar. The sense that the sound is coming from all around you is pretty spectacular. The sound is rich and accompanied by powerful bass that roars to life when the action gets going.
The one caveat I would put on this is that you get the best benefit when you are sitting within 2 metres of the soundbar, outside of that you’ll still get height and a sense of the sound coming at you from the sides but overhead sound simulation diminishes the further away from the soundbar you get.
Not just a one-trick Sony
If you are watching a content source that doesn’t support Dolby Atmos, don’t be put off; the X8500 has some more tricks up its sleeve. One press of the Vertical S button on the remote will have the soundbar simulate that Atmos effect on non Atmos sources, even with something like TV shows on Freeview, or watching sport on Sky.
Sport is absolutely one of my favourite virtual vertical surround features. Never before have I felt so close to that in stadium experience from home. Hearing the crowd in a 360 degree soundstage makes it feel like you are right there in the action. In fact, the Vertical S function is so good on non-Atmos sources that there is not a lot of noticeable difference between Atmos and non-Atmos sources. If anything I’d say the only discernible difference is that when someone is speaking on a non-Atmos source they sound just a wee bit distant.
There is one last piece of the puzzle left to mention. Dolby Atmos soundbars are not cheap, typically you’re looking at a minimum of $900-$1,000+ in New Zealand. But in saying that, there is one last trick that Sony has for the HT-X8500; it retails for just $699, and I’ve seen a few specials lately where you could grab one for $599!
With an amazing ability to generate height and depth from 2.1 channels and simulate an atmospheric 360 degree sound experience from Atmos and Non-atmos sources, the Sony HT-X8500 is remarkable piece of engineering that offers the best value for money proposition I’ve seen in a soundbar. Make no mistake, if you are looking for a soundbar that delivers rich, immersive sound (and won’t break your bank), this is the soundbar you’ve been looking for.