Sony HT-ST5000 Dolby Atmos 7.1.2 Soundbar Review

Welcome to the wonderful world of lifestyle-oriented home theater. It’s a realm where TVs and soundbars deliver compelling AV experiences in the comfort and family-friendly confines of the living room. It’s also a world where gear is easy to install, easy to use, and easy to live with. Here, you will find the Sony HT-ST5000 Dolby Atmos soundbar ($1499), an all-in-one audio system that delivers 7.1.2 3D immersive audio with fidelity beyond what you might expect from such a compact system.

Sony’s flagship soundbar is one of a new breed that defies the notion you need a room full of speakers to have 3D audio immersion. I first heard the HT-ST5000 at a demonstration at CES 2017, where I designated it a “Best of CES” badge without hesitation. At that show, it managed to overcome the noise of the crowd and fill a large demo room with rich and enveloping sound.

Because I’m a huge fan of immersive audio, I leapt at the chance to get my hands on the HT-ST5000 for review. I spent the past week listening to the soundbar play a variety of movies, music, and video games. Read on to find out how it performed.

Features

The marquee feature of Sony’s HT-ST5000 soundbar is its ability to reproduce Dolby Atmos. This is a 7.1.2 system that creates the illusion of sound coming from all around and above you using a single slender chassis and a wireless sub.

HT-ST500 up-firing drivers
This soundbar features up-firing drivers for Dolby Atmos 7.1.2. Photo by Mark Henninger 

This soundbar combines three 2.6″ coaxial 2-way drivers that reproduce the left, center, and right channels with four 2.6″ full-range, forward-facing drivers. It uses DSP—Sony calls it “S-Force Pro Front Surround with wavefront technology,” the company’s name for beamforming—to create a virtual surround soundfield. For Dolby Atmos and upmixed content, the HT-ST5000 also has dual 2.6″ up-firing, full-range drivers. That’s nine drivers total!

Sony concentric driver for HT-ST5000 soundbar
One of the three 2-way concentric drivers used in the HT-ST5000. Photo by Mark Henninger

Sony offers the choice of exposing the soundbar’s drivers or covering them up with a magnetic perforated-metal grill. I happen to like the look of the soundbar without the grill; it’s very high-tech

Despite its 3D immersive-audio capabilities, this is a low-profile soundbar that measures 46.45″ wide, 3.15″ high, and 5.71″ deep. It looks and feels well made, and it’s quite substantial at 18.1 pounds. Dual keyholes on the rear let you wall-mount it, but you’ll want to make sure those mounts can hold the weight.

The 31-pound wireless subwoofer is large (for a soundbar system) and sports a 7″ front-firing driver paired with a down-firing passive radiator. The sub looks and feels like a serious piece of gear thanks to an attractive design—as far as black boxes go—with a rounded-edge cloth grill and a black-aluminum top plate.

Three HDMI inputs and one output all support 18 Gbps bandwidth and feature HDCP 2.2 for 4K HDR content. It also has optical-digital, USB, Ethernet, and 3.5 mm stereo analog inputs.

As for wireless connections, there’s Wi-Fi and Bluetooth with AptX support. The HT-ST5000 has Spotify built in and offers Chromecast compatibility. The Spotify integration lets users pick up where they left off when listening on another device by simply pressing the Music Service button on the soundbar or remote. Meanwhile, Chromecast support lets this Sony work directly with many apps. The Wi-Fi connection also supports Miracast, which lets you share what’s on the screen of your Android mobile device or PC.

The HDMI output supports ARC (Audio Return Channel) with various forms of HDMI control including Bravia Sync and CEC.

You can adjust settings, including channel levels, in the soundbar’s menu system. You can even dial in distances for the sub, soundbar, and ceiling. This degree of fine-tuning is great for tailoring the soundbar to the room in which you install it.

For those times when content with genuine Atmos sound is not available, Sony provides six Sound Field modes. They are 3D Surround (upmix to 3D immersive audio), Movie (upmix to surround sound with some added height effect), Music (2.1 stereo sound), Game Studio (enhanced surround sound for gaming), Sports (enhanced commentary plus stadium-like ambience), and Standard (ideal for TV watching where dialog clarity is the priority). Also, the ClearAudio+ function will select a Sound Field mode for you, if you let it.

Music lovers will be glad to learn that this Sony supports a ton of music formats and hi-res audio. These include AIFF, ALAC, Dolby Digital, DSD, FLAC, HEACC, LPCM (.wav), MP3, MPEG-2 Audio, and WMA.

When it comes to AV sound, the HT-ST5000 supports 24-bit/96 kHz PCM, Dolby Atmos, Dolby Digital, Dolby Dual Mono, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital+, and multi-channel LPCM through HDMI (up to 7.1 channels). It does not offer DTS decoding.

The full-featured infrared remote control has a directional-pad controller with four color-coded buttons. It also includes dedicated buttons for various sound modes, source selection, Bluetooth pairing, menu options, volume adjustment, and subwoofer-level adjustment as well as playback controls for streaming music. Conveniently, this soundbar includes IR pass-through; you can place it in front of a TV and not worry about blocking its remote sensor.

Sony HT-ST5000 soundbar remote
The HT-ST5000 comes with a full-featured remote. Photo by Mark Henninger


Setup

For this review, I paired the Sony HT-ST5000 with a 65″ Sony X930E 4K HDR TV ($2999). It’s a perfect combo of Sony’s latest premium living room-friendly AV offerings. The system was set up on an 18″ TV stand, with the soundbar resting in front of the TV. My seat was 9 feet away from the TV in an 11-foot-wide room with a 9-foot-high ceiling.

All Atmos systems that utilize up-firing speakers need a ceiling that reflects sound back to the listener—flat ceilings are ideal. If you have a vaulted ceiling, you won’t get the maximum benefit from any Atmos system that takes the reflected-sound approach. On the other hand, if you have a flat ceiling, it’s likely you’ll be able to make this soundbar work in your space. Because the HT-ST5000 does not rely on bouncing sound off the side walls for surround effects, it’ll work in a home or condo with an open floor plan.

Setting this Sony soundbar up was simple considering its many features and capabilities. I skipped the manual and found that the menus are self-explanatory—at least to anyone familiar with surround-sound systems. After opening the package, all you must do is find a good spot for the soundbar and subwoofer, connect the source devices, attach the display using the included 1.5-meter HDMI cable, plug the soundbar and sub into electrical outlets, and power the system up.

I used the Speaker Settings menu to adjust distance, channel levels, and ceiling height. Using a laser measure, I entered the exact distances from my seat to the sub and soundbar, as well as from the soundbar to the ceiling. I then used an SPL meter app on my phone to measure test tones and set channel levels

A separate AV Sync feature lets you delay the audio to compensate for display latency, which I found unnecessary with the X930E. The calibration options are akin to the basic setup options in many AVRs, but there is no EQ. Fortunately, the HT-ST5000 already offers a well-tuned frequency response and does not need EQ.

For this review, I used all three HDMI inputs: One for a PlayStation 4 Pro, one for an Oppo UDP-203 Ultra HD Blu-ray player, and one for a Roku Ultra. I also temporarily connected my PC to the soundbar via HDMI, so I could play Star Wars: Battlefront with Atmos sound.


The Oppo UDP-203 and Sony PlayStation 4 I used as sources with the HT-ST5000. Photo by Mark Henninger

I also connected an Emotiva Big Ego portable DAC—used for test tones—to the optical-digital input. Furthermore, I used Bluetooth to connect an Amazon Echo Dot to the soundbar. I did not use the analog connection in this review, aside from confirming it functions as expected. For those who are curious, I used Blue Jeans cable for all connections, aside from the one between the TV and the soundbar.

Performance and Listening

It’s a sure sign of progress that listening to a soundbar system offers many of the sonic pleasures typically associated with entry-level AVR-based systems. The HT-ST5000 creates an expansive soundstage that mimics what you’d hear from a surround system using discrete speakers. Plus, thanks to the robust wireless sub, it pumps out tight bass you can feel. Crucially, it can deliver audio at energetic output levels, even in larger rooms.

While 3D immersive sound is the HT-ST5000’s specialty, this Sony’s Music mode sounds great. There’s no trickery involved here; you get unadulterated stereo from the soundbar—only the front left and right channels plus the sub are active. It sounds crystal-clear and neutral, and it even offers modest stereo imaging. It may not replace a good pair of bookshelf speakers for critical listening, but it’s a lot better than the music mode on most soundbars I’ve heard and reflects the high quality of the 2-way concentric drivers

The other sound modes offer useful options as well. Game Studio provides great clarity and can be used with some music. But the 3D Surround and Movie settings are so good at upmixing 2-channel and multi-channel audio to 3D immersive sound, I mostly left the soundbar in one of those modes—typically, I used the 3D Surround setting.

Quick and dirty measurements revealed a frequency response from roughly 30 Hz to 24,000 Hz with a peak output of about 102 dB measured at 1 meter (pink noise, C-weighted). That’s a lot louder than most soundbars can do and translates to 94 dB at my seat. Whether you like it loud or need to fill a large room with sound, this is a soundbar that has the horsepower to pull it off.

Dolby Atmos clips clearly demonstrated the capabilities of this 7.1.2 system. Let’s get the primary limitation out of the way so we can get to the good stuff. Namely, this soundbar has two up-firing Atmos channels, not four. Consequently, it’s great at adding ambience and overhead effects like rain, but not as effective as systems with four overhead channels at rendering flyovers or the Dolby Atmos “helicopter” audio-only test.

Test clips may be revealing when it comes to performance testing, but in the end, the sound of actual content makes or breaks any 3D immersive-audio playback system. In this case, the height channels do a lot for the HT-ST5000’s soundfield. Whether it’s actual Atmos content or upsampled, the psychoacoustic effect is that of a broader, lusher, more enveloping soundstage than you get with non-Atmos soundbars.

I played Star Wars: Battlefront with Atmos sound from my PC and found the surround effect was good at providing directional cues. The beamforming driver array proved effective at creating an illusion of sounds coming from the sides and even a sense of some sounds being behind me. the rear-surround effect is not as pronounced as what physical speakers provide, but it’s certainly a cool trick that works well enough.

Deepwater Horizon is an intense test for any soundbar system. The second half of the movie—a riveting telling of the disastrous events on the eponymous, ill-fated oil-drilling rig—is full of explosions and the sounds of metal parts ricocheting everywhere. The subwoofer proved its mettle in this cauldron of fire, as did Sony’s Atmos implementation. With the lights out and the excellent X930E showing 4K HDR video, my living room was transformed into something akin to a genuine home theater. The Sony TV and soundbar combo offers the highest fidelity I’ve yet experienced from a complete, lifestyle-friendly AV system costing under $5000. For what it’s worth, HDR and 4K worked perfectly with the Sony HT-ST5000 in the signal chain

Similarly, John Wick: Chapter 2 provided a thrilling viewing experience when streamed on Vudu in UHD with Atmos. The movie itself is what I’d call “Death Ballet.” It’s a continuous hyper-choreographed killing spree starring Keanu Reeves, and it’s got an endless supply of sound effects—including fistfights, gunfights, and car chases—that gets your adrenaline pumping and makes you want to turn the volume up. Fortunately, the HT-ST5000 was up to the task of playing loud, and Sony’s designers clearly made sure that blockbuster movies sound impressive when played through this soundbar.

Playing Grand Theft Auto 5 Online on a PS4 Pro is practically a hobby. It provides hours of blissful entertainment. It also happens to be the most remarkable open world in video-game history, and the sound effects are part of the package. In one session, gamers can experience excellent music from many genres, the sound of gunfire, the sounds of car racing, and people on the sidewalk chatting, and it all blends into one cohesive soundfield with the HT-ST5000. As with other content, I preferred using the 3D Surround setting.

Metallic Spheres by The Orb and David Gilmour is an immaculately produced album featuring instantly recognizable guitar work from Pink Floyd’s guitarist. The music from The Orb has a chill vibe and features richly textured ambient soundscapes plus downtempo beats. I did not think it was possible for a soundbar to do these tracks justice, but the Sony served up an intriguing rendition—forward, precise, and surprisingly delicate—that kept me engaged with the familiar tracks.

W:/2016ALBUM/ by Deadmau5 has physically tangible bass pulses that punctuate the studio-perfect sounds of this popular electronic act. To its credit, in Music mode, the HT-ST5000’s tonality was practically identical to a far more expensive 2.2-channel reference system featuring B&W CM6 S2 speakers. However, Music mode is simply not as grand or gratifying to listen to as 3D Surround mode—which is unsurprising, since Atmos is whole point of this soundbar.

Duke’s Big 4 is an excellent recording that played the part of audiophile-friendly fare in this review. “The Hawk Talks” helped me judge how acoustical recordings react to the soundbar’s processing. In this case, I preferred the Music mode over the others as it was the purest-sounding—I could hear the DSP processing impact the tone and timbre in the other modes. The system did a decent job with the track, bringing out the feel of the bass and drums while keeping the piano-plus-guitar work at the forefront of the mix. If you are into jazz more than gaming or watching movies, you probably should look for a bookshelf-speaker system. But for part-time listening, the HT-ST5000 does a surprisingly excellent job with this challenging genre.

Conclusion

The Sony HT-ST5000 has an uncanny ability to dish out captivating 3D immersive audio from a soundbar with a compact form factor. Thanks to Sony’s decades of audio-engineering expertise, it’s an outstanding performer that surpasses many of its peers in terms of sheer fidelity.

Now, $1500 is not a trivial sum to spend on any sound system, and especially not a soundbar. But in this case, Sony has ensured that the investment pays off. If your domestic situation demands a system that the whole family can live with while delivering the thrills and chills of a competent 3D immersive-audio rig and serving as a hi-fi stereo system, the HT-ST5000 has your name written all over it.