Polk CHT 500 SurroundBar

Review

posted 7/5/2012 by Sean Cahill
other articles by Sean Cahill
Platforms: AV
In the past ten years, console developers have understood that there has been a greater desire to see the total package when it comes to gaming, primarily the inclusion of high definition graphics and superior sound quality.  When the current generation of consoles came onto the scene in the mid-2000s, it seemed as though it was the first true hurrah for true high definition graphics as well as rich surround sound.  Audio systems were already an integral part of a home theater then, though to give credit where it is due, Sony’s Playstation 2  had a digital output upon its release in 2000.  Polk Audio, however, was one of the first companies to understand that many consumers either didn’t have the money or space to put a full 5.1 or 7.1 surround system into their primary entertainment room, considering that a quality surround system can start around $1,500 and go up in an exponential manner.  Along with their understanding came the creation of the SurroundBar back in 2005, promising the effect of surround sound quality in one tight package.  Since that product, Polk has continued to be a leader in offering high quality sound in smaller packages, and the CHT 500 SurroundBar takes soundbars to the next level.
 
THE SPECS
MSRP $999.95
Impedance 8 Ohms
Frequency Response 80 Hz – 33 kHz
(100 Hz – 29 kHz)
Efficiency 87 dB
Dimensions 4 ¼”H x 49” W x 1 ½” D
SDA Module 1 7/8”H x 17” W x 8” D
Bar Weight 10 lbs
SDA Weight 7 lbs
Shipping Weight 25 lbs
Mounting Options Keyhole slots, wall bracket, threaded inserts for aftermarket brackets.
Included adjustable rubber feet for shelf/table mounting.
Accessories Wall mount bracket, rubber feet rack mounts, CL2 (in-wall rated) 15’ speaker cable
Connects module and bar.
Warranty 5 years
 

Out of the box
(Please note that the DSW Pro 550wi subwoofer that is in these pictures does not come with the CHT SurroundBar 500)
 Out of the box, it comes as no surprise that the packaging is professionally done to protect the bar from any sort of damage.  Wrapped in a protective envelope, the bar also sits up on cardboard dividers, as well as given protection on all sides of the primary unit.  Underneath the bar, one can find the manual, mounting brackets, and the SDA Crossover Module.  On either side of the box will be the remaining components to the system, such as the rubber feet, proprietary 15-foot cable, and other manuals and documentation.  The box weighs roughly 25 pounds, so hauling this around is not a problem, whether it is delivered to the front doorstep or purchased in a retail center.  The SDA Crossover Module takes up a lot more space than I had expected it to and weighs seven pounds itself.  Both the SDA and the SurroundBar are built to last, there is no doubt about that.


 
Aesthetics
Like most Polk Audio products, the SurroundBar and SDA are both a sleek black in color.  The bar has a protective metal front that seems to be a staple of the new line of SurroundBars, giving it a very solid look that can blend in with most any setup, considering that almost every HDTV nowadays is done in glass black.  The difference between the CHT 500 and its predecessors is that there is no control panel of any type on the bar itself.  The reason for this, of course, is that this device has to be used with a receiver, giving it a distinct advantage over most any soundbar on the market.  It is not powered internally and, thus, the design was improved upon.  All that is found on the back of the bar is one proprietary connector, which is used for the 15-foot cable to run to the SDA Crossover Module.  Because of this, the bar itself is just over an inch thick, cutting out about 66% of the depth from previous models, such as the SB 6000.
 
The SDA Crossover Module is simplistic in design.  Sitting just below two inches in height, the SDA can be hidden just about anywhere, or, it can become a fixture on any home theater stand with the receiver that is powering the device.  On the back of the SDA is multiple ports for speaker wire, which are labeled properly for center, left front, right front, rear left, rear right, surround left, and surround right.  Previous soundbars are usually designed to do a simulated sound and are self-contained when it comes to power, only needing a digital optical cable run from either the television or the console/set-top box that the owner wishes to hook up.  The new design for the CHT 500 means that a consumer will have full control of all aspects of sound quality via an audio receiver.  How high end a consumer wishes to go with a receiver, however, is entirely up to the person.





 
Set-up
 
As I’ve mentioned a few times already, this is not the standard soundbar hookup that typically ends up just having a couple of cables plugged in and it’s ready to go.  Because of the SDA and the need for a receiver for power, individual speaker wire must be run from the receiver to the SDA.  Dan Keener and myself set this up in about 20 minutes without mounting it, using the rubber feet to sit the soundbar in front of my television.  Considering that my entertainment stand is completely full, some changes needed to be made to the layout.  My receiver and the speaker wires sit on the bottom while the lines wrap around the back to the SDA, which, for the time being, is sitting on top of the subwoofer itself.  The sub does not seem to bother the SDA, considering that I have it in the downward firing position.  (The DSW Pro 550w is adjustable to either be front-firing or downward firing, not to mention being wireless ready.)  After hooking up the SDA to my receiver, the 15 foot cable hooks up from the SDA to the receiver.  After that, it’s time to decide the option of what type of sound I want.  On the back of the SDA, there is a switch that has three options:  LCR, 5ch, or 7ch.  Obviously, these are the three primary sounds:  Left/Center/Right for front-sound only, five channel surround, and seven channel surround.  With my receiver only supporting five speakers, the easy choice here was to go with the five channel selection.  The subwoofer can go anywhere in the setup that a user desires, especially with the wireless option.  However, in my setup, my receiver did not have the option to send the signal wirelessly, so it is hardline into the configuration.  With subwoofers, I tend to prefer them behind or next to the primary seating location in a room.
 
After it was all said and done, the final setup for the test is as follows:
TELEVISION:  Panasonic 55ST30 Plasma Television
RECEIVER:  Pioneer VSX-305 5.1 Audio Receiver
SPEAKERS:  Polk Audio CHT SurroundBar 500
SUBWOOFER:  Polk Audio DSW Pro 550Wi
GAMING TEST:  Xbox 360 – Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation, Mass Effect 3, FIFA 12
VIDEO TEST:  Netflix 360 Application, Time Warner Cable via Cisco 8742 HD-DVR
AUDIO TEST:  Pandora Internet Radio
 
Now that the setup is complete, it is time to put the CHT SurroundBar 500 to the test!
 
 
 
Gaming Test
Test #1:  Ace Combat 6 – Fires of Liberation
One of my favorite franchises in all of gaming, I felt that a solid flight simulator would give a great test to the surround capabilities of the CHT 500.  Going into Free Mission mode, I selected the most hectic stage that I could, the Liberation of Gracemeria.  In short, it is a six operation mission that has more than enough going on to give a true test of the sound in all three categories:  effects, voice, and surround.  Starting off with the effects, I had little trouble enjoying what the bar was capable of, hearing missile alerts and gunfire going off in front of me quite easily.  My own missiles made a nice fade out as it traveled away from my plane and to the target, making me feel like it had almost disappeared out of range upon firing it.  It bears to note that my setup is not truly ideal for the surround capability as I do not have a solid wall behind my couch but, rather, a high breakfast bar, so it does help somewhat for the bounce effect that the bar needs.  The sounds of planes flying past was subtle, yet enjoyable, but I feel as though it would be better had I had the proper layout in my house.  Still, for what I offered for the test, it was quite impressive.  The voiceovers were crystal clear throughout the entire mission, even with all hell breaking loose around me.  All in all, the CHT 500 passes the first test with flying colors.
 
Test #2:  Mass Effect 3
This would be the first time I had picked up ME3 since I threw a proverbial fit about the ending along with just about everyone else in the world.  Still, for the action/adventure portion of this test, there is no better choice in my opinion.  Starting with the effects, battles are far more enjoyable and realistic with such a great audio setup.  Bullets and explosions going off were far more prominent with this game than in Ace Combat.  The subwoofer got an excellent test run throughout my playtime, kicking out clean low frequency effect with little distortion.  I would have loved to see how it fared with the wireless, but alas, that will have to wait for another day and another receiver.  Once again, voice quality was crystal clear, not just with direct conversation, but getting the full surround feel as my Shepard ran through various areas, especially standing out when on the Citadel.  The surround feel was outstanding, in particular.  There is no real easy way to say that I’m impressed with a product that is as simple in design, yet can give out such a great quality in rich sound.  The best example I can give for this is when the Normandy would hit a mass relay, getting the full effect of the sound and being immersed in it from every angle.
 

 Test #3:  FIFA 12
I left this one for last as a bit of a cool down of sorts.  After testing out the sound in two action-style games, a sports game, I felt, was a great closer, given that the surround is almost a make-or-break situation, given that crowd noise is the true test.  The CHT 500 practically scoffed at this test, though, filling the room with fantastic sound quality to make me believe that I was truly inside of Old Trafford, playing against Manchester United as Tottenham Hotspur.  Commentary was a bit of a secondary thought, but is nothing to be upset about.  Martin Tyler always sounds good at commentating, even if his voice was coming out of a tin can, but, yet again the clarity of the voices throughout the game impressed me to no end.  Sound effects were a bit lacking in this test, though I think it was more of the game not having many, considering that the sound of a ball being kicked isn’t exactly something to be blown away by.  The crowd noise, however, was exceptional, and in a sports game, I feel the most important aspect is to feel as though you are there in the stadium.
 
Overall Gaming Experience
There really wasn’t a single aspect of this test that I felt let down on.  If I had to knit-pick at anything, it would be that the surround can certainly take a hit without the proper setup in a room.  This is going to be a weakness for just about any bar, of course, since it is attempting to throw the sound behind you and have it simulate the rear speakers in a home theater.  Besides that, there is no denying the ability of the CHT 500 and what it can do to enhance a gaming experience.



VIDEO TEST
 
Test #1:  Netflix
Considering that many people have attempted to ditch cable and satellite altogether, I felt that Netflix was the most appropriate choice to start out the video portion of the testing.  I selected a couple of movies and TV shows that I felt would show off the audio the best and give the CHT 500 a good test, starting out with Thor.  The Marvel action movie was a perfect choice, given the great balance of battle and special effects.  In the opening battle scene involving the frost giants and Thor’s group, there was a wide variety of sound happening all at once, most of it was quite enjoyable.  Surround effect did not suffer as much as I thought it would, given as to how much was going on with the movie.  One downside that I did figure out with the bar is that it can get a little distorted on low frequencies that aren’t coming out of the subwoofer, further proof that a subwoofer is a vital addition to this component.  Thor’s mixture of action and drama allowed for a great experience that made me believe I was in a small theater.  However, I wanted to see how the bar could do with video that wasn’t meant for surround sound, such as an old TV show or cartoon.  Firing up Futurama on Netflix and sticking with the non-HD seasons (basically anything before Cartoon Network signed the show), the sound quality does change when it is a show that is not optimized for 5.1.  That’s not to say that the quality was terrible, but there is a noticeable drop-off and little to no surround effect, for the obvious reason that it’s meant to be a LCR-style audio.  Even with this change, the CHT 500 still performed quite well.
 
Test #2:  Cable
Cable is a mixed bag when it comes to sound.  This is all dependent upon the same thing Netflix is, of course:  Whether or not the show/movie that is being watched is meant for 5.1 surround.  I picked a perfect time to test out this subwoofer, as there have been three major sporting events going on:  The Stanley Cup Finals, the NBA Finals, and UEFA Euro 2012.  The CHT 500 really impressed me with the transition to cable, especially with the aforementioned sporting events, especially with the Euro Cup.  The stadium-feel to the sound was quite impressive and had plenty of depth to the broadcast itself.  My receiver did get a bit overloaded upon scores being tallied, mainly because the crowd would erupt and I would have the volume level too high.  This isn’t the soundbar’s fault, however.  It just means that I need to upgrade receivers in the very near future.  I was a bit disappointed with the Stanley Cup, however, but I think a lot of it has to do with NBC’s poor broadcast.  I’ve always felt that NBC skimps on both its audio and HDTV signal, and anyone who watched either the Stanley Cup or Sunday Night Football last season should agree with me.  The NBA Finals have sounded beautiful on the CHT 500, getting plenty of support from the 550Wi to handle the big bass kicks that the arena’s sound system pumps out, which greatly impressed me.  Downsides are there, though, as the soundbar had some distortion on the low levels here as well, but it was minor at worst.
 

Overall Video Experience
For what this setup is worth, my video experience was quite impressive with the CHT 500.  The soundbar handled a wide range of effects, sounds, and music, and did so without much of a problem.  I would like to be able to turn up the level a little higher than what I had in most cases, but the low level distortion did hurt it a bit.  I’d like to believe that this is due to my receiver not being calibrated properly, but I spent a good amount of time tweaking some of the individual levels, which helped.  Perhaps with a new receiver, I can eliminate that distortion.  For now, though, with my current equipment, I’m very happy with the performance.
 
 
AUDIO TEST
Pandora Internet Radio
I went back and forth on whether I should run the test using Pandora or last.fm, but I felt that Pandora would be easier, considering that I already had channels set up.  Mixing it up between metal and jazz, I can say that there were no noticeable issues in sound distortion, I tested it with some of the harshest music I could.  On the metal side, bands like Metallica, Slipknot, and Tool were at the top of the list.  There’s something to be enjoyed with great quality sound once Master of Puppets comes on.  Gradually increasing the volume, I did not experience distortion until the sound was truly uncomfortable to listen to, and even then, the distortion was mainly focused on the bass kicks by the subwoofer.  Tweaking the amount of sound the subwoofer handled eliminated most of the distortion, though it did dull the sound a bit without the hard kicks that it provided.  Still, the sound was impressive.
 
Flipping it to the opposite end of the spectrum, I was treated to the likes of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and The Seatbelts (Cowboy Bebop fans will appreciate that last one) as the groups of choice.  I have found that jazz is a great source of complexity when it comes to audio tests, and the genre proved to be a great choice again.  The depth of the sound quality, especially when playing Tank!, was nothing short of stellar.  During a saxophone solo, it wasn’t just the range that impressed me, but how well the bar was actually filling the room, considering that this was being played in what felt like a 2.1 setup.  There was a bit of distortion with trombones when listening to Rhythm Man by the Count Basie Orchestra, though it may just me being picky with eight years of orchestra still in my mind.  I felt that Louis Armstrong’s trumpet playing blew me away the most, though.  The CHT 500 handled every high and low frequency that blasted out, putting to bed any worry that I had of the bar not being up to snuff with straight audio music.
 
 
Final Notes
I have to stress a couple of things with the CHT 500 so that a consumer can understand what exactly they are getting and what they need.
-          The CHT 500 is only the soundbar and SDA unit.  It cannot run on its own.
-          Try to have a receiver that is at least 75 watts RMS to all channels.
-          The DSW Pro 550Wi is the perfect complement to this soundbar, subwoofer wise.
-          Utilize digital optical at all costs.  The sound quality is night and day.
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