LG SP9YA soundbar review: This 5.1.2 speaker gets its surround effects from the sides

LG’s 5.1.2-channel soundbar uses side-firing drivers rather than separate speakers for surround effects. Does that work?

lg sp9ya main
Ben Patterson/IDG

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At a Glance
  • LG SP9YA soundbar

Can a soundbar get a 5.1.2-channel billing without separate surround speakers? That’s the question LG’s SP9YA poses, which comes labeled as a 5.1.2 soundbar despite lacking a pair of wireless surround modules; instead, the soundbar delivers its surround cues with side-firing drivers in the main speaker itself. The SP9YA isn’t the first soundbar to attempt this trick; the Creative SXFI Carrier tries something similar, and with similarly mixed results. (LG does offer an optional rear speaker kit for 7.1.2 audio.)

But while the SP9YA’s status as a true 5.1.2 soundbar is debatable, its robust, full-bodied sound and lively Dolby Atmos and DTS:X height effects are in little doubt, even if its surround cues aren’t as distinct as they could be. The SP9YA also packs an array of impressive features, including AI-powered room correction, eARC, built-in AirPlay 2 and Chromecast, as well as support for Alexa speaker groups and Spotify Connect.

This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best soundbars. Click that link to read reviews of competing products, along with a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping.

Specifications

LG bills the SP9YA as a 5.1.2-channel soundbar, so it’s a little confusing when you open the box to find only the main soundbar unit and the wireless subwoofer, but no wireless surround speakers. As I mentioned earlier, LG counts the SP9YA’s pair of side-firing drivers as surround channels, making it a 5.1.2 soundbar rather than a 3.1.2 configuration. As we’ll see (and hear) later, these drivers on the side of the soundbar can’t quite compete with separate surround speakers. Fortunately, you can upgrade the SP9YA using LG’s $180 SPK8-S Wireless Rear Speaker Kit for a full-on 7.1.2 setup, but LG didn’t supply us with the kit for this review.

In any event, the SP9YA features a total of 11 drivers, including 10 in the main soundbar unit. The left, right, and center channels each get their own oval-shaped woofers (40x100mm) and tweeters (also 40x100mm), which are flanked by circular 2.5-inch side woofers that supply audio for the two surround channels. On top of the soundbar housing are two up-firing 2.5-inch drivers that deliver height cues for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X soundtracks. Finally, the wireless subwoofer has a 7-inch driver.

lg sp9ya side firing driver Ben Patterson/IDG

The LG SP9YA delivers its surround effects via side-firing drivers rather than physical surround speakers.

The upfiring drivers supply Dolby Atmos and DTS:X height cues by bouncing sound off your ceiling, an easier and more affordable alternative to height speakers that are actually installed in your ceiling. But while upfiring drivers are a common feature of Dolby Atmos and DTS:X-supporting soundbars, they require a certain type of ceiling to function properly—namely, a flat, sound-reflecting ceiling that’s between 7 and 14.5 feet in height. If you have ceiling beams or a vaulted ceiling, upfiring drivers for Atmos or DTS:X won’t cut it; in those cases, you might be better off with a soundbar that employs virtualization for height cues.

 

Measuring 48 x 2.2 x 5.7 inches (WxHxD), the 13.9-pound SP9YA is quite wide, stretching the entire length of the media cabinet that holds my 55-inch LG C9 OLED TV. That said, the soundbar also has a fairly low profile, allowing it to sit below my low-slung set while barely grazing the bottom edge of the screen.

Meanwhile, the 8.7 x 15.4 x 12.3-inch, 13.9-pound subwoofer is mid-sized as far as wireless subs go, which is to say that it’s not something you could (or would want to) tuck discretely next to your sofa. Instead, it’s better off somewhere behind your TV, preferably not too close to a wall.

Besides placing the SP9YA in front of a TV, you could also mount it on a wall under your TV, and fortunately, LG provides both a mounting template and wall brackets for that very purpose.

Speaking of what’s included, LG supplies an optical cable but—as with previous soundbars—no HDMI cable. Of course, you can snag a decent HDMI cable for less than $10, but still, that’s a little stingy, LG.

Inputs and outputs

The SP9YA’s various ports sit in a right rear cavity, and you get just four of them: an HDMI input, an HDMI output that supports HDMI-ARC/eARC, an optical (Toslink) input, and a USB-A port that can access audio files.

The soundbar’s two HDMI connectors give you a couple of options in terms of connecting to a TV. First, you could plug a video source directly into the SP9YA’s HDMI input and then send both video and audio from the soundbar’s HDMI output (4K HDR passthrough is supported, including Dolby Vision) to one of your TV’s HDMI inputs. Since there’s only one HDMI input, however, you’d be restricted to connecting only a single video source to the SP9YA. Frankly, given the SP9YA’s lofty price tag, we would have liked to see at least one additional HDMI input.

lg sp9ya inputs and outputs Ben Patterson/IDG

The LG SP9YA comes with an HDMI input, an HDMI output that also supports HDMI-ARC and eARC, an optical input, and a USB port that can access a variety of audio file formats, including FLAC files.

The other option is to connect your video sources to your TV’s HDMI inputs, and then send audio down to the soundbar’s HDMI-ARC port. Doing so means you’ll be able to connect as many video sources as your TV’s HDMI inputs will allow, and you’ll also be able to hear audio from your TV’s built-in streaming apps through the soundbar. Even better, the SP9YA supports eARC, an “enhanced” version of ARC that allows for lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, which typically grace Blu-ray discs. (You can read more about ARC and eARC here.)

Besides the HDMI connectors, there’s also the optical input for connecting an older, HDMI-less TV. There are no RCA inputs for TVs that don’t even have optical outputs, but let’s face it; if you’re coughing up $1,000 for a soundbar, you’re probably not going to hook it up to a tube TV from the 90s (or even earlier) anyway.

Finally, the USB-A port can play WAV, MP3, OGG, AAC, and FLAC files, including up to 24-bit FLACs with 192kHz sampling rates. I connected a USB flash drive with a 24-bit/96kHz FLAC file and managed to play it without any issues. (I’ll discuss how it sounded in a bit.)

Setup

Once you’ve either placed the soundbar in front of your TV or installed it under your TV, you plug it into a power socket using a roughly 5-foot captive cord, which terminates in (thankfully) a standard two-prong plug rather than a wall wart. The wireless subwoofer comes pre-paired with the soundbar, and it should connect automatically once plugged in. If it doesn’t, you can manually pair the soundbar and the sub, but the automatic pairing process worked seamlessly for me.

While LG soundbars with built-in Google Assistant use the Google Home app to connect to your Wi-Fi network, the SP9YA (which lacks built-in Google Assistant—more on that in a bit) makes the connection with the new LG Sound Bar app, and the process was flawless. After firing it up on my iPhone and granting it permission to use Bluetooth, the app quickly found the SP9YA and prompted me to choose my network SSID and enter my password. Less than a minute later, the connection was made, and the soundbar prompt showed up as an option among my other AirPlay 2 and Chromecast devices.

Besides the Wi-Fi setup, the SP9YA offers a room calibration feature, which detects the acoustics of your room by bouncing sounds off your walls and furniture. Unlike the Sonos Arc, which employs the microphone of an iPhone to perform its measurements, the SP9YA uses its own built-in microphone to take its calibration readings. The whole process takes only a few minutes, and you can compare the results with the sound of the uncalibrated soundbar. While LG’s AI Room Calibration process isn’t as precise as more advanced calibration systems such as Audyssey (which takes readings from eight microphone positions), it’s a welcome feature given the SP9YA’s price point.

Controls, remote, and app

The SP9YA has seven capacitive touch buttons that sit on top of the main soundbar unit: power, input select—which, thankfully, is no longer labeled “F” (for “Function”) as it was in previous models—volume up and down, play/pause, Bluetooth pair, and Wi-Fi.

lg sp9ya remote Ben Patterson/IDG

The LG SP9YA’s remote has a sleek, ergonomic design, but it’s a shame the volume buttons are so high up on the wand.

The soundbar’s two-microphone array is directly in front of the top buttons (although the two small mic holes are so small that they’re easy to miss), while a five-digit display that dims after a short period of inactivity is on the front panel.

LG has redesigned the remotes for its 2021 soundbar line, and the resulting wands are far sleeker than their boxy, cheap-looking predecessors. But while the remote that ships with the SP9YA is more ergonomic than previous LG soundbar remotes I’ve tried, the buttons are laid out in such a way that you must stretch your thumb out to reach the all-important volume and mute buttons. The four-way navigation pad is within easy reach, as are the sound mode, info, settings, and speaker level buttons, but it seems odd that the volume control sits so high up on the remote—and on the left-hand side at that.

The new LG Sound Bar app is a step up from the aging LG Wi-Fi Speaker app, and it lets you control all the functions of the soundbar, from changing inputs and adjusting the volume to cycling through the sound modes and trimming the speaker levels. It will also prompt you to perform the AI-powered room calibration process at setup (you can always re-run it whenever you wish), as well as tinker with the AV synchronization in case you run into any lip-sync issues.

Audio casting and smart home integration

While some LG soundbars come with Google Assistant built-in, the SP9YA isn’t one of them; instead, it merely “works with” Alexa and Google Assistant. That means, among other things, that you can control some of the soundbar’s functions with voice commands, such as “Alexa, turn LG soundbar volume down,” or “Hey Google, skip track,” but you can’t chat with Google Assistant or Alexa directly through the soundbar.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the SP9YA’s is blessed with an impressive array of casting and multi-room audio functions. Given that, I won’t complain too much about the lack of a built-in voice assistant.

Starting with Alexa, you can designate the SP9YA as a “preferred” speaker for one of your rooms or for the entire home, meaning that Alexa can automatically play tunes on the soundbar when you ask her to play music. You can also add the soundbar to an Alexa speaker group, such as “Living Room” or “Upstairs.”

Prefer Chromecast? The SP9YA has you covered with built-in Chromecast support, which means you can cast music to the soundbar from any Chromecast-enabled app or service, and you can also add the soundbar to a Chromecast speaker group. When you’re casting to the SP9YA via Chromecast, you can ask Google Assistant to raise or lower the volume, skip tracks, or play or pause the music.

Even better, the SP9YA also works with AirPlay 2, allowing you to cast audio to the soundbar from an iMac, iPhone, iPad, or another Apple device, and similar to Alexa and Chromecast, you can add the soundbar to AirPlay speaker groups. Finally, the SP9YA supports Spotify Connect casting, too.

Sound modes and performance

The SP9YA features eight sound modes, including Cinema (which upmixes all audio sources to 5.1.2, including 2.0 stereo audio), Music (which uses Meridian technology to optimize its audio performance), Bass Blast (with ups the bass while also upmixing all sources to 5.1.2), Clear Voice (for boosting dialogue), Standard (which delivers the audio without any upmixing and minimal tweaking), Sports, and Game. There’s also an eighth mode, AI Sound Pro, which uses artificial intelligence to customize the sound depending on what you’re listening to.

While there are (clearly) plenty of audio modes to choose from, you can’t pick a mode at all when it comes to Dolby Atmos or DTS:X content.

I started my listening tour with the UHD Blu-ray of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, focusing on the Battle of Hoth sequence as well as the Asteroid Chase chapter. First of all, I noticed that the SP9YA delivered some of the best Dolby Atmos height cues I’ve heard from a soundbar. Take the moment when Luke tosses a grenade into an Imperial Walker, then drops to the ground and watches the cascading explosions above. With the SP9YA, I could hear the series of muffled bursts with a precision that I rarely hear from soundbars with upfiring drivers. The same goes for the sound of the chunks of falling ice from the ceiling as Vader and his troopers enter the crumbling Rebel base.

Besides its handling of height cues in Empire, I also appreciated how the SP9YA (like some of the earlier LG soundbars I’ve heard) doesn’t emphasize high- and low-end sound at the expense of the mid-range; indeed, those who prefer a brighter signature from a soundbar (like what you’ll hear from the Sonos Arc) might not like the flatter sound of the SP9YA. And while the soundbar’s low-frequency effects sounded a little boomy at first (particularly the roar of the Millennium Falcon’s engine as it corkscrewed away from pursuing TIE Fighters), dialing the subwoofer level down tamed the bass.

Moving on to the UHD of Blade Runner (which, like Empire, has a Dolby Atmos soundtrack), I enjoyed the distinct plops of rain as Deckard jogged for shelter under the awning of the noodle bar, as well as the swooshing spinners above and below as Gaff delivered Deckard to police HQ. The UHD of Apollo 13 with its DTS:X sound impressed as well, with punchy bass, clear height effects as the Saturn V’s engines roared to life, and a precise pop as Lovell jettisons the escape tower.

But while the SP9YA performed nicely in terms of sound cues, its side-firing drivers delivered a more muted response when it came to surround effects. For example, the pre-launch gurgle of the fuel pumps in Apollo 13 didn’t feel like it was coming from behind my sofa, while the whine of the Rebel speeders on Hoth in Empire never quite seemed to swerve behind me. The side drivers did manage to broaden the overall soundstage and I did have a vague sense of surround atmospherics, but if you want precise surround cues from the SP9YA, you’ll need to crack open your wallet for the optional rear speaker package.

To try some non-Dolby Atmos and DTS:X content, I spun up the standard Blu-ray of Titanic, which has a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Queuing up the “Ode to Titanic” chapter, I sampled the various sound modes; Cinema mode sounded wide but blown-out and hollow (perhaps due to aggressive upmixing of the height channels), while also burying the dialog. To my ears, AI Sound Pro sounded much more natural and immersive, with Standard mode running a close second. With AI Sound Pro enabled, the pistons in the engine room sounded appropriately deep and kerplunky, while the hiss as the Titanic’s bow sliced through the water sounded crisp but not shrill, and it didn’t drown out Dawson’s “look look look!” as he pointed out the dolphins.

For music, I started by playing a 24-bit/96kHz FLAC of Chet Baker’s “Solar” via the USB port. Switching between the sound modes, I again settled on AI Sound Pro (Music mode sounded wider but too boomy, while Standard mode was a tad better but still shy of the AI mode), and I was impressed by the pop of the drums, the detail of the brushes on the cymbals, and the positioning of the piano keystrokes. Nicely done.

I also skipped around a few more tracks streamed via both Chromecast and AirPlay 2. I heard detailed, lively cymbal brushes from Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” as well as refreshingly clean keystrokes from Vlado Perlemuter’s performance of Ravel’s solo piano works (which often sound mushy on other soundbars). Finally, the bass was just right on Ciara’s “Level Up,” punchy but not overbearing, while Ciara’s steady vocals were breathy and organic rather than indifferent (as they sound on other systems).

Bottom line

So, is the LG SP9YA a true 5.1.2 soundbar? Technically yes, I suppose, although I doubt side-firing drivers will ever be a perfect substitute for physical surround speakers. While the SP9YA’s surround effects aren’t as distinct as I’d like, its overall sound is full, well rounded, and lively, all without being too boomy or shrill.

Personally, I’d still recommend a 5.1.2 soundbar with actual surround speakers, such as the Vizio Elevate (which, in addition to its wireless surrounds, features swiveling upfiring front drivers). But if you have a living room setup that’s not conducive to satellite speakers, or you’re willing to cough up $180 for LG’s optional wireless rear speaker kit, the SP9YA would be an ideal choice.

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At a Glance
  • While the SP9YA’s status as a true 5.1.2 soundbar is debatable, its robust, full-bodied sound and lively Dolby Atmos and DTS:X height effects are in little doubt.

    Pros

    • Clean, punchy, shrill-free sound
    • Chromecast, AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, and Alexa speaker group support
    • AI-powered room correction
    • Easy Wi-Fi setup

    Cons

    • Surround cues from side drivers aren't that distinct
    • Only two HDMI connectors
    • No HDMI cable in the box
 
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