The Power of One: Five Soundbar Speaker Systems Polk SurroundBar 50
If we’re talking solely about audio performance, Polk’s SurroundBar 50 was the winner by unanimous decision. It’s no coincidence that our winner most resembled a straightforward speaker system, in that it’s a passive design with no internal amplification, input panel, or digital signal processing. That means you need to add an external A/V receiver or amplifier, so the setup process (and total cost) is similar to that of a more traditional HT system. You run five sets of speaker wire to the soundbar’s five gold-plated binding posts (which accept banana plugs) and perform speaker setup via your receiver’s setup menu. In the manual, Polk recommends that you set your front, center, and surrounds to small, using the same distance and a 120-hertz crossover for each. My Pioneer receiver doesn’t have a 120-Hz option, so I went with 100 Hz, which is asking the speakers to go a little lower than they’re designed to. Obviously, the addition of a subwoofer is strongly encouraged. As with the Marantz and Yamaha models, I fleshed out the low end by adding the Polk PSW111. The company also recommends that you match levels for the front L/C/R channels and set the surrounds at least 3 dB higher. As a seasoned HT fan, I didn’t find this setup procedure difficult, but it certainly required a bit more A/V knowledge and effort than some of the other all-in-one solutions we reviewed.
Despite its form factor, the SurroundBar 50 isn’t just five traditional speakers lined up in one cabinet. Polk’s SDA Surround technology achieves its larger, more enveloping soundstage through unique positioning of the nine 3.5-inch woofers and three 0.75-inch tweeters in the cabinet, as well as through analog-based manipulation of the sound cues. The analog approach paid dividends with both the music and movie demos, as the word “natural” graced everyone’s notes. We spent less time analyzing what the DSP was doing to the sound and more time just listening to it. Scott described the music tracks as “very hi-fi sounding,” while Johnny liked the “delicate” highs and generally warm tonal quality. We all agreed that a subwoofer was a necessity and that, with a good sub, the system presented a nicely balanced soundstage with good dynamic range. Obviously, this is still a small-box speaker system, so individual sounds aren’t as open, airy, or full as those of a larger system. Still, this was the only demo in which people wanted me to turn the volume up, not down, and that says a lot. It helps that I was able to use my own, higher-end Pioneer receiver, too.
Vocals neither got buried within the multichannel tracks, nor did they exhibit the processed, echoey quality that I heard with some of the other systems. With the Immortal Beloved demo, all three men commented on the clear dialogue reproduction, and Dano appreciated the natural instrument reproduction. The soundstage was wide and three-dimensional, with sounds occupying a clear and proper place in space. Scott loved that he could actually hear the orchestra’s triangle floating in the soundfield. That said, the rear and side effects weren’t as enveloping or convincing as they could be with the other soundbars. Dano described the sound in the Underworld demo as moving “into the room but not around it.” Johnny felt that surrounds were more immersive when he sat in the center of the room, while Scott felt that the higher placement yielded better results. During my own listening tests, I turned up the surround decibel level a bit more than the recommended 3 dB, which brought the surround cues further around to the sides. What I found most interesting about the reaction to the Polk system was that, at the end of the day, all of the panelists agreed that we would gladly forfeit some surround envelopment in exchange for the more natural sound we got from this particular speaker.
The SurroundBar 50’s cabinet was the longest, but also the slimmest and least boxy, with a curvy, brushed-black finish and black fabric grille (it’s also available in silver). Its appearance drew positive comments like “elegant,” “sleek,” and “love it!” Scott liked the fact that there were no distracting front-panel lights, and I appreciated the simple, freestanding pedestal bases that can accommodate cabinets of varying widths. Wall brackets are also included.
The SurroundBar 50 was the performance and aesthetic favorite, and mathematically it landed in first place overall; however, it didn’t earn everybody’s first-place vote. It was the clear number one for Dano and Johnny, but Scott and I both felt that having to use your own receiver and subwoofer adds to the system’s profile and overall cost while subtracting from its ease of use. That may be fine for a true HT system but doesn’t quite fit the soundbar philosophy, so we ranked it second. It is worth noting that, because the system works with an external receiver, it has more flexibility to accommodate higher- resolution audio soundtracks, whereas the other proprietary systems are limited to analog and basic Dolby Digital/DTS options.
Interestingly enough, after the Face Off, I headed to CES and got a demo of Polk’s newest soundbar, the SurroundBar 360. The new model, available this summer, is an active solution, with amplification, DSP, an input panel, and a DVD player built into an outboard controller that links to the speaker via a single cable. The 360 will cost $1,199 and won’t require separate electronics or (Polk claims) a subwoofer. The question is, will this new digital-based soundbar retain those natural elements that earned the SurroundBar 50 our praise? Let’s hope so.