The LG SL9YG combines impressive Atmos sound, svelte looks and a compelling mix of voice control and multiroom features.
Dolby Atmos soundbars have been around for a few years now, but each new iteration somehow manages to pack even more tech into a even less expensive package. However, it took until 2019 before I was finally able to recommend an Atmos soundbar -- one that offered both affordability and performance: the Vizio SB36512. Given the existence of the Vizio, does it still make sense to spend any more than $500 on a soundbar?
For higher-end buyers, yes, it does. High-end Atmos soundbars still have plenty to offer, and based on the performance of models like the LG SL9 reviewed here and the Samsung HW-Q70R you do get a real sonic upgrade over the Vizio by paying extra. And both bars manage to do it without rear speakers, which the Vizio includes.
The LG is pretty much the Swiss army knife of the two higher-end products -- it offers Atmos capability as well as Google Assistant onboard. It features audio tuning by hi-fi juggernaut Meridian as well as a chic modern look. While the Samsung offers better sound and a cheaper price, the LG is easier to use and more flexible thanks to Assistant. The Samsung may get my vote as the better of the two options, but if you want to spend more than the Vizio, both of the Korean brands offer a compelling reason to do so.
The prices are constantly shifting on the LG SL9YG but it usually sells between $600 and $800. If you can get the LG for $100 less than the Samsung, it'd be worth it.
While the LG SK10Y I reviewed earlier looked like a Cadillac , complete with its own chrome grille, this year's soundbar looks a little more austere. It's more like a silvery slab of concrete -- an elongated version of the Master and Dynamic MA770 , perhaps.
As you'd expect from an Atmos speaker the SL9YG is filled with drivers: two at the top, two firing out to the front and two to the sides. These are protected in covered with a grey metal grill and includes a perfectly legible LED display (not a given in soundbars) in the middle. At 48-inch wide bar and 2.2 inches high the bar should fit under most TVs without blocking the IR port. The LG comes with a mount in the box for fixing the soundbar flat on the wall.
One of my only complaints about the design is that the top-mounted buttons are hard to see -- even when they're illuminated -- if there's any kind of overhead light. This is especially difficult if you don't live in a cave. I ended up using those buttons a lot since they provide the only way to disable the microphone.
The 4.1.2 soundbar includes a wireless subwoofer that is 15.4 inches high, 12.3 inches deep and 8.7 inches wide. It features a front-firing driver and a rear-mounted port. LG sells optional rear speakers (which I didn't test) for $200. Meanwhile, the remote is a cute candy bar size that comes with a dedicated Google Assistant button.
Features tend to rise and fall in popularity, but voice control in speakers is here to stay. It's kind of difficult to find a soundbar or speaker these days that doesn't include either Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant. The LG is particularly suited for people who like smart-ifying their house (though potentially bad news for the privacy conscious). The LG includes both Google Assistant onboard as well as compatibility with Chromecast for zooming content around your home.
Whether you're streaming from Netflix or a copy of Avengers Endgame on Blu-ray the LG is able to decode both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X as well as offering passthrough for 4K and HDR from the likes of Dolby Vision.
Connectivity includes Wi-Fi, Ethernet, Bluetooth (which is also able to stream from an LG TV) , USB, Optical, and an HDMI 2.0 input and an HDMI ARC output.
I was disappointed by last year's LG SK10Y, the first collaboration with Meridian, which sounded woolly in comparison to its rivals. The SL9 is much better, and it has a reasonably articulate subwoofer, too -- it's indeed quite musical.
I compared the LG to two prominent Atmos rivals -- the Vizio SB36512 and the Samsung HW-Q70 -- and found that the LG slotted somewhere in between the two in terms of performance, with the Samsung sounding best overall despite a lower price than the LG.
I started my tests with the soundbars' ability to reproduce dialogue, one area where the LG performed better than the Samsung. On an MSNBC simulcast on Tune-In, the Samsung's subwoofer made Governor Jay Inslee's voice sound chesty and nasal while he sounded much more natural on the LG.
Moving to music, the song Free by Iggy Pop may not be in Atmos, but in the hands of the SL9YG it sounded pretty atmospheric. I cued the track up on Roon and the whale-sound like intro jumped at me from the right side of the room. Trumpets whirled around my head.
On the cheaper Vizio SB36512 the song was similarly enveloping, but this was surely helped by the system's rear speakers (which the LG lacks). Even so I liked the sound of the LG better as it was more dynamic and full. The Samsung was the best of the lot, however, with better focus on Iggy Pop's vocals.
Moving to another baritone singer, Nick Cave, and with the song Red Right Hand, the LG sounded a bit muddled. The Samsung was more focused with a greater sense of where the singer was in relation to the other instruments. The Samsung's bass was a little more exaggerated than the LG made it, though. If you like to rock out, the Samsung is able to go louder than the LG on tracks like this.
Lastly I watched a series of movies in Atmos and found that the Samsung again offered the most enjoyable experience overall, followed by the LG. Using chapter 9 of Black Hawk Down, where the eponymous helicopter comes, uh, down, the LG exhibited a better sense of space over the Vizio, even while lacking rear speakers. The LG offered the palpable sound of the chopper flying overhead, while the Vizio seemed a little too enclosed. The much larger LG subwoofer also showed better slam with the RPG explosion and during the crash itself.
The Samsung's audio performance demonstrated its dominance: I experienced an almost vertiginous lurch as the out-of-control helicopter hurls violently toward the camera. The speaker used all of the available space of the CNET testing room -- width and height, too, with the best sense of helicopters flying overhead. Only the dialogue sounded a little recessed compared to the LG.
The Editors' Choice-winning Vizio SB36512 is no slouch, but the LG at twice the price does sound better in almost every respect. It's just a matter of how much you want to pay. A thousand bucks is simply too much for this product, even with its upmarket looks, but if you can get the SL9 for around $700 or less -- and if it's cheaper than the better-sounding Samsung -- then the LG offers an excellent mix of performance and Google Assistant convenience.