While a soundbar may be the best place to start when you want to move from the unsatisfactory built-in speakers in your TV to a more dedicated solution, not all setups allow it.
And then there's the whole surround issue, because while manufacturers have gracefully created an Atmos effect that envelops the listener by having drivers firing upwards rather than directly towards the receiver, that's not the same as dedicated units placed around where you're sitting.
As a solution to that problem, Sony has created the A9, or HT-A9, a sound system that can be bought without a soundbar, and without a subwoofer too, and consists simply of four wireless speakers that are placed loosely around you and your TV, thus creating true depth and surround.
The four units use Sony's own 360 Spatial Sound Mapping technology, which is a combination of different technologies; Sound Field Optimisation and Monopole Synthesis. It's all soft, vague HI-FI-speak to establish that by equipping each unit with two microphones, they can instantly get an idea of where they are, what the room looks like, where each other and where the TV is. In doing so, they create a surround network around your position, ensuring a certain kind of symmetry in the sound.
It works decidedly brilliantly, and the soundscape that was "woven" for me during the test period was something close to magical, especially after running into the exact opposite horror several times with other test sets where symmetry or balance was much more difficult to achieve.
Sony themselves say that these four units together can create the "feel" of 12 "Phantom Speakers", the idea being that the four drivers in each unit, a 19 millimetre tweeter, a full-range X-driver and a Sonos Arc-inspired driver firing upwards, together give the sense that there are multiple sound sources around the viewer. This versatility also means that the A9s really don't care how you position them. They use 360 Spatial Sound Mapping and their drivers to create a custom set-up wherever they are, and that goes for both height and distance from each other.
That's very good, because each A9 unit is quite tall, as in 30 centimetres, so they do make an appearance in the home, and the slightly matte "Light Pearl" colour they come in doesn't exactly go with modern décor. On the other hand, setup is totally painless, as you have a small HDMI box that connects to the TV's eARC port as a soundbar would, and then you're basically set.
You'll also pay a tidy sum for this, the A9 set should set you back around £1800, enough to buy a Sonos Beam, a Sub Mini and two Ones at that, and still have around £350 spare. Is the A9 really that much better than a slightly cheaper setup with a subwoofer and soundbar? Yes, in some ways the surround effect is far, far more accurate, and the "bubble" that arises around you as it all plays is magical to say the least.
It should be said in conclusion that there is a slight issue with dialogue, as there is no centre channel as such that anchors the dialogue in front of the television. Voluminous dialogue can therefore get a little lost, losing some of its gravitas, but this is only in flashes, for example when Immortan Joe gives his opening speech in Mad Max: Fury Road, there's more music and real sound bursting through than his baritone voice.
But all that aside, the A9 is a great set of speakers that really do provide a different experience to traditional alternatives, and if you'd somehow like to avoid the usual subwoofer/soundbar combo, this is the way to go.