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Dolby Atmos soundbars have been around for a few years but remained a relatively niche product until now. Major companies such as Sonos and JBL, have only just announced their first Atmos models in 2020, while other brands simply offer Dolby "compatibility". The Sony HT-G700 is unusual in this respect -- it's able to decode Dolby Atmos from compatible devices but not able to physically recreate it. This is a strictly 3.1-channel soundbar, with no actual rears or height speakers and no ability to add them later. Instead it simulates both height and surround effects from the Atmos stream, and does a damn fine job.
Sony has been using this kind of electrickery for a while, most recently with 360 Reality Audio on the Amazon Echo Studio, and the HT-G700 demonstrates the company's deep know-how. This soundbar won't give you pinpoint accuracy like a true Atmos rig but it's great at generating a sense of space that fills your room. The problem for Sony, however, is the existence of capable Atmos speakers such as the Vizio SB36512-F6 which cost the same or even less while managing to include actual height and rear speakers.
If you don't want a living room-full of speakers, however, the G700 is easy to set up and sounds great. I only wish the feature count was a little more generous for the price.
The HT-G700 is a soundbar and wireless subwoofer combo which promises up to 7.1.2 channel surround sound according to Sony's marketing. In fact most of those channels are emulated and not true Atmos surround sound -- the bar has neither upfiring speakers nor rears. It only has 3.1 channels worth of actual speaker.
Nonetheless it manages to outdo competing $700-plus all-in-one models like the Sonos Arc and the Bose Soundbar 700 in one important respect: the addition of the wireless sub. Sony says the sub is larger than the the one on the model it replaces -- the X9000F. It's the size of a large briefcase and comes with a front-firing port to help placement against a wall.
The soundbar itself is a grey slab which is roughly 39 inches wide and 2 and five-eighth inches high. It offers top-mounted controls including input selection and volume. It also comes with a blue LED display at the front of the unit.
Inputs include an HDMI in, a separate HDMI ARC/eARC output, digital optical, Bluetooth and USB. Unlike the Sonos Arc the separate HDMI in gives you more flexibility in the devices you can use -- for example you won't need a new TV in order to hear Dolby Atmos streams from a 4K Blu-ray.
Audio processing is one of the main drawcards of this product. Along with both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X decoding the Sony offers a number of excellent presets including dedicated Cinema and Music modes using Sony's Vertical Surround Engine. It's simulated audio of course -- being a 3.1-channel system -- but it leverages technology similar to what the company has used in soundbars such as the HT-S5000 and the STR-DN1080 (a feature then called, I kid you not, Center Speaker Lift Up).
The remote control is a thin candybar and is the sole way to control most of the soundbar's features. It fit nicely in my hand and all the buttons were within easy reach.
When you design a speaker that's only two inches high it comes with some sonic shortcomings -- typically a throaty, boxy sound. Some companies like to compensate by making the sound brighter, almost to the point of distraction, but not Sony. I found the sound could be a little hemmed in, which actually suits most music playback, but hitting the Cinema preset unlocked the sonic fairground ride.
While the Sony HT-G700 can't do "proper" Atmos it was capable of a truly entertaining performance. Playing the Thanator Chase scene from Avatar in Cinema mode really opened up the sound and made it pull ahead of the cheaper JBL Bar 2.1 Deep Bass. The jungle came alive and the Sony punched the bass effects home -- from the thump of the elephant-like Hammerhead Titanothere to the hard hits of Jake's machine gun. The JBL was enjoyable but didn't make the leap from the screen in the same way.
With a movie like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse I heard convincingly enveloping effects. It brought to mind the more expensive HT-S5000 at times, with its ability to throw its voice into places that make you believe there are speakers there. When I played Mad Max Fury Road there was a spaciousness in the opening. There was width too and the ominous voices were shooting out of the eaves in my room.
I compared the Sony with the cheaper JBL 2.1 Bar for music. While the JBL sounded more open, it was also too bright. It was also hard to listen to in the first few bars of George Harrison's My Sweet Lord, but was better balanced once the bass guitar kicked in. The Sony was much more fun to listen to. Similarly, the Sony exhibited a certain boxiness with male vocals such as Hearts a Mess by Gotye but it still had my toe tapping in time. Female vocals weren't an issue.
I don't have access to CNET's audio lab due to the coronavirus lockdown, so I wasn't able to hear the Sony alongside the Vizio SB36512-F6, my favorite Atmos bar for the money. I feel that in a direct contest, the Sony may have a sonic edge even if it can't do actual Atmos. The Sony is more versatile, particularly in its ability to sound good with both music and movies. The Vizio has more features, but doesn't sound that great with music.
The main issues potential Sony buyers need to weigh are that the HT-G700 costs $100 more than the Vizio SB36512-F6 bar and it doesn't offer the same level of features, specifically "true" Dolby Atmos playback. If you can get over that, the Sony offers excellent sound without requiring a bunch of extra speakers, which is a big plus. Another bonus is the all-important second HDMI input, which the Sonos Arc lacks.