LG SL9YG soundbar review: Atmos delivers a punch
“LG’s SL9YG is a powerful two-piece system that brings home the Atmos bacon.”
- Clear, powerful bass
- Impressive immersion for a single bar
- Google Assistant built in
- Sexy brushed-metal look
- Multiple audio codecs and audio file support
- Mediocre music streaming
- No center channel or satellites included
- Streaming setup can be a headache
In the years since Atmos went from revolutionary theater technology to one of the most popular buzzwords in home theater, we’ve seen all manner of colorful iterations in soundbar form. From massive bars that beam sound around the room to 11-channel mega-systems complete with wireless surrounds, there’s no shortage of variety when it comes to this growing segment.
Still, LG’s SL9YG manages to bring something truly different to the table. The 4.1.2-channel system (you read that right, this bar forgoes a center channel) is mammoth in size. It’s also loaded with features — including Google Assistant — and even swaps speaker positions when mounted on its front thanks to a gyroscope. At $1,000, the SL9 is no small investment, but LG’s latest Atmos system works hard to make up for its cost with immersive, room-rattling sound.
A big ol’ box
We don’t use the word “mammoth” lightly, and the SL9’s voluminous black box makes for a bold entrance to your TV room. Pulling away the top layer of foam reveals a sexy rectangle of sound, layered in faux brushed metal and stretching more than 48-inches long and 5.7 inches deep. At just over 2-inches high, though, the SL9 fits easily beneath most TVs — just make sure your TV stand is long enough. The word “Meridian” spread across the box and bar hints conspicuously at LG’s partnership with the U.K. audio brand for digital signal processing (DSP) and hardware upgrades.
Riding along in the box’s lower compartment is a tall drink of wireless subwoofer with a matching brushed-metal top panel, a front-firing woofer, and a bass port at the back. It may not look like much, but this unassuming cabinet harbors a full wagon train of horsepower (foreshadowing).
A sexy rectangle of sound, layered in faux brushed metal.
Accessories include a midsize remote and batteries (with an attention-calling “F” key on top), as well as mounting instructions, a small startup manual, and an optical cable. You’ll want to connect this system with a high-speed HDMI cable, so it’s somewhat vexing that this $1,000 bar doesn’t include one. (What does that add to the bottom line, like $2?)
Setting up the SL9 was easy as pie — except when it came to Google Assistant.
First things first, you’ll want to connect the HDMI ARC output at the bar’s underbelly to your TV’s HDMI ARC port — this is the only way to get Dolby Atmos and DTS:X from a supported TV and also allows for volume and power control with your TV remote. (You may also need to turn on HDMI CEC and set sound to External in the settings.) If your TV doesn’t have HDMI ARC, you’ll need to connect via the included Optical cable.
For Google Assistant, you’ll need to download the Google Home App, and then follow the instructions to connect a new device. The app found the SL9 instantly, but our network had trouble connecting, and the app froze in an attempted update. After powering the system down and back on, the bar finally connected to the network with a pleasant chime — but the glorious simplicity of Sonos setup this isn’t. Also odd — you can’t stream Bluetooth without connecting to Wi-Fi, so those having network trouble are left with no alternative.
Features and design
As mentioned, the SL9 is loaded, including 500 watts of total power, with 220 watts in the sub alone and the other 280 watts spread between the stereo front channels, dual height channels on top, and side-mounted rear-surround drivers designed to bounce sound off your walls for better immersion. An extra HDMI port with 4K/HDR pass-through (though Dolby Vision and HDR10+ are not supported) allows for connecting a Blu-ray player or game console directly. As we’re starting to see more often, there’s no analog input of any kind. In its stead is a USB port at the back for directly sourcing hi-res audio files.
There’s also multiroom audio support alongside Google Assistant control via Google Home (once you get it up and running, of course). Assistant allows you to not only control playback from streaming services like Spotify, Google Play Music, and Pandora (no Apple Music here), but also to perform broader queries, from accessing your calendar to checking the weather. You can simply yell out “Hey Google” with music streaming or use the button on the microphone-equipped remote.
Touch controls for the basics rest on the soundbar’s top panel, outlined by cool LEDs set just below the panel’s surface. A display at the front of the bar lets you know which source you’re using, spelling out HDMI ARC/Optical for TV audio, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, USB, and HDMI input.
Direct connection of a Blu-ray player is a great way to go for high-end sound sources, as the SL9 is loaded with the full run of top-end audio codecs, including (of course) Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, as well as Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio and their lower-tier counterparts. High-resolution file support includes FLAC, OGG, and WAV files at 24-bit/96kHz.
The remote allows for deeper functionality, including keys for play/pause and song skip for streaming audio, Night Mode, EQ, and “Function,” aka source switching, which is what that big “F” key stands for, though in most instances, the bar auto switches to whichever source you’re using.
The Movie mode is much louder than the other modes. We’re not sure why, but it did work pretty well for ramping up the action.
EQ allows you to control bass and treble, of course, but also to tune the different channel levels — once you make out the odd abbreviations LG uses, that is. “OVC” stands for “overhead channels,” aka the height channels; “S” is for the side mounted drivers that bounce rear surround channel info off your walls; and “WF” (for “woofer”) controls subwoofer level. We wish there was a discrete key to more easily adjust subwoofer level, but at least it’s available.
There’s also an “R” level adjustment in case you want to connect LG’s discrete surround speakers and dedicated amp to expand the SL9 to full surround (sold separately).
Finally, the Sound Effect key allows you to choose from several options, including modes for Music, Movies, Bass Boost, and Standard. There’s also an ASC mode (Adaptive Sound Control) designed to automatically adapt to the sound source in real time, but it didn’t really seem to do much, and we ended up using Movie for movies, and Standard for everything else.
One other strange quirk: The Movie mode is much louder than the other modes. We’re not sure why, but it did work pretty well for ramping up the action.
To mount or not to mount?
As referenced above, you can set the bar horizontally on your TV stand, or you can mount it on its underside, which switches the bar’s channel orientation. This is an odd design inclusion for an Atmos bar, as the height channels on the bar’s topside, designed to bounce sound off your ceiling for 360-degree immersion, suddenly become the front stereo channels and the front channels become the height channels.
“But aren’t they pointed at the ground now?” you ask. Indeed, they are, but LG claims this allows for a purposeful double bounce: First, the sound bounces off your floor, then off your ceiling, then finally lands in your ears. In addition, LG claims that processing and some handing off of the height channel information will “help make the best use of the speakers in this configuration.” We weren’t able to test this orientation in our home so we can’t speak to the extra processing, but suffice to say that we think the SL9 may still be best employed in its standard orientation for Atmos and DTS:X applications, especially for those with carpeted floors.
While we were a little put off at first by the SL9’s lack of a center channel, for the most part, this potent Dolby Atmos vessel warmed to our ears nicely. The bar responds devotedly to the sound source it’s fed: Send a basic sitcom or stereo-channel program and you’ll get decent detail and clarity, but nothing particularly special. Opt for a more refined surround sound source, however, and watch it take flight.
Our Dolby Atmos demo disc is always a fun test case, and we were not disappointed when we called up the first demo, Amaze. It’s named so for a reason, and we were immediately impressed with the clarity, immersion, and most of all, rich and potent bass.
A vivid jungle scene that eventually erupts into a hearty thunderstorm, Amaze is tuned to impress, but we were still surprised at just how much spherical motion the SL9 was able to perform from just its front position. It doesn’t reach the same level of immersion as bars with full surround satellites (and two more height channels), like Vizio’s 5.1.4 channel setup, but it’s a nice ride for a two-piece setup. The jungle bird that’s meant to fly around your head got close to completing its revolution, stopping just shy of the back of the room, while the raindrops from the thunderstorm clattered with enough specificity to push our eyes toward the ceiling.
Brash cymbals tend to break up oddly, as if the system is receiving a poor MP3 file.
We had similar experiences with the other demos, only nominally wishing for more rear surround immersion. The dialogue also loses a bit of clarity as things heat up in certain scenes — there’s only so much you can cover without a center channel — but mostly we were enthralled with the clarity, and even a little startled with the rattling mayhem caused by that beefy subwoofer.
In a more practical test, we also had a swell time with an old favorite, Sam Mendes’ Bond classic Skyfall. One of the toughest scenes in the film occurs when Bond catches up with his antagonist — played (disturbingly) by Javier Bardem — in the London underground. An explosion opens the tunnel and in falls an entire subway train in a crunch of shrieking metal, bellowing explosives, and clattering concrete debris, all rendered cleanly and without distortion. The helicopter at the climax was similarly noteworthy, the powerful rotors whipping through the room with vibrant realism, ending in a window-shaking explosion.
The SL9 is less impressive when turning to music, especially when it comes to brash cymbals, which tend to break up oddly, as if the system is receiving a poor MP3 file (even over Wi-Fi with Spotify Connect). Less organic music was better rendered, if not a bit boxy, and we enjoyed some old favorites like Radiohead’s Everything in its Right Place and even instrumental fare like Snarky Puppy’s Go. Still, like a lot of cinematic systems, music is clearly an afterthought here.
The SL9YG comes with a one-year warranty on parts and labor. You can find out more about LG’s warranty at the company’s website.
While not without its quirks, LG’s new SL9YG is an excellent way to lock down potent and immersive Dolby Atmos surround sound, without the added speakers usually associated with the experience.
Is there a better alternative?
That depends on how much space you’re willing to sacrifice. If you don’t mind spreading wires, setting up speaker stands (or drilling in holes for mounting) the obvious answer here is Vizio’s 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos bar, which offers impressive Atmos immersion with wired rear surround speakers (though no DTS:X support) at the same price.
Another alternative might be Sony’s Z9F, which doesn’t get the kind of immersion LG’s SL9 can create, but does utilize its DSP with impressive results in the height dimension for Atmos and DTS:X sources, and also performs better for music.
That said, you’ll have a hard time finding this much immersive and powerful sound in a two-piece system in the SL9’s class.
How long will it last?
With plenty of features, Google Assistant, and 4K/HDR pass-through, the SL9YG should be set up well for the future, though the lack of Dolby Vision and HDR10+ support will limit HDR applications in the near term.
Should you buy it?
For those who don’t mind some added clutter, Vizio’s 5.1.4 system delivers the best value when it comes to sheer surround sound punch for your money. However, those looking for a powerful two-piece system that brings home the Atmos bacon will definitely want to give LG’s SL9YG a good look.
Updated 6-18-2019: Added information from LG about processing to assist height channel response in the bar’s mounted orientation.
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