SurroundBar Instant Home Theater

Review

posted 1/6/2009 by Dan Keener
other articles by Dan Keener
Over the years there have been several Audio/Video products that I have looked at with a certain sort of disdain. These are usually products that appear to be taking a shortcut from the traditional method of delivering A/V and make the consumer wonder why they should invest in that type of technology. Included on this list were the all-in-on bar audio products that have become the rage as the must-have for flat panel TV enthusiasts. Early models were big, gaudy and simply could not deliver a quality soundfield for an affordable price. However, Polk Audio has created a family of products known as the SurroundBar that is attacking and dispelling these negative connotations. The latest product to the family line is being introduced at CES 2009 this week and is called the SurroundBar SDA Instant Home Theater, which breaks through most of the stereotypes of what you should expect from an all-in-one speaker solution. And the best part, it includes a wireless subwoofer, an innovative newcomer to these types of units…

The Specs
Model Polk Audio SurroundBar SDA Instant Home Theater
MSRP $499
Total System Watts 130w Continuous; 260w Peak
SurroundBar Watts 35w x 2
Sub Watts 60w
Frequency Range Sub Low end at 40 Hz
Control On Chassis Command Center
Audio Inputs RCA Analog
Audio Outputs n/a
Weight (lbs) 17.8 lbs system: 8.7 lbs SurroundBar, 9.1 lbs Sub
Tweeters Bar 2 – 13mm Dynamic Balance® Polyimide tweeters 
Drivers Bar 4 - 2-1/2" DB composite fiber stereo bass midrange drivers – shielded
Drivers Sub 6-1/2” DB composite cone with butyl rubber surround
Dimensions Bar 4" H x 31-3/4” W x 4-5/8" D 
Dimensions Sub 10" H x 10-1/4” W x 10-1/4” D 
Warranty 1-year Amp and Electronics; 3-year on speakers, crossover and enclosure

Out of the Box
As I expected, the Polk Audio Surround Bar SDA Instant Home Theater (SB IHT) was very securely packaged in the box. One of Polk’s trademarks is making sure that its products are completely protected from factory to the consumer’s door, and this did not disappoint. The SurroundBar and sub were snuggly tucked away within a mass of foam and plastic bags that make Fort Knox look penetrable. Wrapped under the layers were the SurroundBar speaker and the Wireless Sub. Also included in the box were two sets of power cords, analog audio cables, mounting cradles, documentation and a Wall Mount Template.


Aesthetics
The Polk Audio SB IHT is coated in the classic Satin Black finish that has graced many of Polk’s speakers over the years. This keeps the look of the unit elegant, yet definitely performance oriented and a match to the majority of flat-panel televisions on the market. The grill on the SurroundBar is a black cloth, with only the silver Polk Audio logo plate breaking up the surface. The back panel features integrated keyhole slot wall mounts/rubber feet, a vent for the electronics and a small area where the hookups take place. It is a very non-complex area that lends itself to the “idiot proof” hookup that this unit offers.

The wireless sub is approximately a 12” cube, with the Polk Logo stamped on the top, three identical sides and a back panel that holds the power and audio hookups as well as the adjustment knob and the wireless channel selector switch. This is a very non-descript sub, which is a good thing when you want to hear and feel, but not notice it.


Command Center
The command center is very simple on the SB IHT and is located on top of the SurroundBar dead center. It consists of a row of buttons and the Power Indicator light. The buttons control the unit and also allow for a remote to be programmed to control functionality. The buttons include Power, Up and Down Volume controls, Mute and Remote. The “Remote” button is what is used to allow the SB IHT to learn the controls needed from another remote to work the SB IHT.

Setup
The setup on the SurroundBar SDA Instant Home Theater couldn’t be any easier, which is why it has “Instant Home Theater” in the name. You literally pull it out of the box, plug in the power cords, match the channel settings (selector switches) on the SurroundBar and wireless sub and connect it to an analog audio out device. You can also hang it on the wall (built in keyhole slots) or use the included cradles and have it set on your stand in front of the TV (which is how I tested it in my setup). It also sports rubber feet for use without the cradles, so there are several ways to position the SurroundBar for the best audio experience.

The other easy part to setting up the SB IHT is teaching it the volume controls from another remote. You press the Remote button, aim a remote at it and press the control you want it to learn for one second and the SB IHT will learn the function. Do this with the two volume controls, power and mute, and you literally have it programmed in 20 seconds or less. While I thought this was a novel approach, it wouldn’t hurt in my opinion to have included a mini-remote for those that do not feel like messing around with the programming. With any electronic device, there is no guarantee that every consumer will have a functioning remote handy or will want to exclusively use their TV remote to control the SurroundBar (which requires turning off the TVs internal speakers for best effect.)

As for the Sub, one thing that everyone will be interested in is how far the range is and how well the 2.4 GHz frequency holds up. I took these two questions as a challenge and threw everything I could at the sub. Starting with the functional range, I moved it all over the 21’ x 18’ Great Room of my house trying to find a dead zone. To my delight, the sub picked up the signal everywhere I plugged it in. I even moved it to the Dining Room in the front, approximately 45 feet from the SurroundBar and it still picked up the signal. Next up came trying to disrupt the signal. I broke out a 2.4 GHz baby monitor, an old Linksys Wireless b/g router and for good measure, a long-retired 2.4 GHz wireless phone. The tests I created were both for proximity and direct line of conflict. In other words, I used all the devices in the room within a 10-foot radius of the SurroundBar IHT bar and sub, as well as placing these devices (while on and functioning) in between the bar and the sub. In all three instances, I was unable to disrupt the connection between the receiver and transmitter, regardless how far apart they were in the room.

In my opinion, the Polk SB IHT lived up to its Instant Home Theater billing, as I actually had the unit powered up, plugged in to my TVs variable output and functioning in under 5 minutes. This is a huge selling point to me as anyone with even the most benign audio knowledge can get great sounding surround in a matter a minutes.


Audio testing
The SurroundBar units aren’t exactly designed to listen to Metallica (although I did it anyway) so much as they are designed for audio mixed to video. Whether that is watching a movie, TV or playing video games, my experiences found that the SB IHT did an outstanding job of creating an excellent surround atmosphere.

My first tests came while I watched Tropic Thunder on Blu-Ray again using the SB IHT as the exclusive sound system. While the movie isn’t the most spectacular for special effects and audio, it offers enough scenes (and big explosions) that will tax a large component based home theater, let alone one using a bar speaker. Needless to say, the SurroundBar IHT did a fabulous job of creating a soundfield that made me feel like I was right there in the scene as the Director blew up form stepping on the land mine. In fact, the whole sequence with Ben Stiller and the Director’s “head” sounded fantastic. It was a nice contrast in different audio effects for the SB IHT as it went from the large echoing canyon, to the drug runners moving through the jungle, to noises being made with the finger-licking good close up of the insides falling out of the head. I also realized that the sub blended in perfectly with the SurroundBar during those explosion scenes. It did not stand out as overwhelming, nor did I ever notice that the bass and boom wasn’t up to the standards I expected.


I switched over to Palladia (HD Music channel) for a bit to catch The Who concert that also featured the Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam. Not only did the SB IHT do a great job of presenting the audio in bigger sound that the TV, it created a sense that I was sitting in the third row of this music hall watching Roger Daltrey belt out songs he cant hit the high notes on anymore. I was very impressed with how it made the concert music feel like it wrapped around me while I was watching the event. After watching the concert, I pulled up some HD CSI from my Netflix account on the Xbox 360 and watched an episode. Again, the SB IHT performed exactly the way I would expect the audio to sound and created a good viewing experience.

The only thing I noticed that can be construed as a negative is that there is a definite sweet spot dead center with the single-bar speaker systems when they are placed low to the seating area. Unless you have the SurroundBar mounted to the wall above the television and let the audio cascade down into the room, you will hear how the audio envelope is not as strong as you move around to the sides of the room. It isn’t a great concern to me, as most surround systems I have listened to experience this in some sort of fashion and it certainly doesn’t take away from the overall effectiveness of the SurroundBar IHT.

Game Audio Testing
I went for two games that I knew would push the SurroundBar IHT to its limits for game testing, and those were Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots on the PlayStation 3, and Rock Band 2 on the Xbox 360. There were other games I played, but these two seem to illustrate the value of having a surround system in place for the best gaming experience.

I thought the SurroundBar IHT shined the best during my game play with MGS 4. Like most FPS, the game has an awful lot going on-screen at any given time. From an audio perspective, there are voice commands and chatter, firefights and movement coming from all around you. I thought the SB IHT did an excellent job of creating a soundfield that placed me inside the battle itself. In one section, I was ambushed in a tight corner between several buildings. As the enemy AI was moving around to flank me, I heard one of them make his move and was able to dodge and then neutralize him. If I had been playing that scene with just my TV speakers or a lower grade all-in-one system, I doubt I would have picked up that the guy was behind me until he started shooting. The noise he made was subtle, but the way the SB IHT positioned it, I knew where he was coming from to my right. I played a couple other games on the 360 that have similar onscreen actions, and the results were the same. The SurroundBar IHT did an excellent job of replicating and pinpointing the in-game sounds to give me an advantage against both the AI and Xbox Live combatants.

Satisfied with how the SurroundBar did in the First Person Shooter and Action genres, I went for some Rock Band 2 playtime using the Xbox 360. I played through about a dozen songs utilizing both guitar and mic and I came away extremely impressed. Much like my experience watching The Who concert on Palladia, the vocals and instruments were presented to me like I was sitting in the first half-dozen rows center stage at a concert. The music wrapped around me and the individual instruments and vocals were clear and concise. I was very pleased at how well the game sounded, as I play more Rock Band nowadays than any other game.

Overall, I think the Polk Audio SurroundBar instant Home Theater is a great option for any gamer that is looking to add high-quality audio at a decent price. Having played 1,000s of hours of games over the last 37 years, I can’t emphasize how important good audio has become to getting the most out of those $60 games we are now buying. For gaming, the SB IHT takes up very little space, yet provides big sound and deep bass that will make the gaming experience better in any room in the house.


Miscellaneous Items of Note
• Includes a full size Template for easy wall mounting
• Wireless Sub range is up to 50 feet
• Solid Construction
• No digital inputs
• Does not include a remote

Pros Cons
Easy to Set Up No remote
Excellent Soundfield Noticeable Sweet Spot
Wireless Sub  
Affordable  



Testing Methodology
Items utilized in the testing of the Polk Audio SDA Instant Home Theater included, but not limited to:
Xbox 360 Elite, PlayStation 3, Samsung 56” DLP, 21’ x 18’ x 9’ great room

The Conclusion
The Polk Audio SDA Instant Home Theater delivered on its promise and provides one of the easiest home theater hookups I have ever put together. In addition, the quality of the components and the soundfield they create are exceptional, especially at $499 MSRP. Although the best listening is dead center of the SurroundBar, the overall sound from any position in the room will minimize the fight to get the best seat in the house. The wireless sub, while not the biggest, is fantastic add-on as it blends perfectly with the system by adding deep bass and helping make a harmonized soundfield. After spending some quality time with the Surround Bar SDA Instant Home Theater, I have had another A/V stereotype cast aside by the folks over at Polk….




A-
The Polk Audio SurroundBar Instant Home Theater is one of the best and cost effective ways to add surround audio to your home. Whether it is for gaming, movie or television watching, the unit delivers great audio with a large and impressive soundfield. The presence of the wireless sub is a huge bonus, especially in a package that will have an MSRP of $499.