Polk SurroundBar 9000 IHT Soundbar Page 2
Although the amalgamation of technologies inside isn’t simple, pretty much everything else having to do with the SB9000 is. Depending on your outlook on life, this could be wonderful—or terrible. There are no HDMI connections, for instance. No onscreen displays. No independent level settings to adjust (except for sub volume). No setup procedure for pairing the sub with the soundbar (it does it automatically). And no complicated and glaring LED display on the front of the speaker (and, therefore, no master volume or sub level indicators, either). The SB9000 has four inputs, which are all audio only (two optical plus two 3.5mm stereo analog), and no outputs. In the simplest of worlds, the owner of an SB9000 would hook his cable box/satellite receiver/BD player to his HDTV (using HDMI) and then connect the optical audio output of the HDTV to one of the optical inputs on the SB9000. Teach the soundbar the TV’s remote codes, turn on the power, and, bam, you’ve instantly got sound.
But there’s a price you’ll pay for this simplicity. For most HDTVs, that nice, fat, juicy, multichannel Dolby Digital or DTS soundtrack that’s sent to the TV via HDMI gets rudely slimmed down to two channels when it squeezes out the TV’s optical jack. Terrestrial HD broadcasts from the TV’s internal ATSC tuner may be output with discrete multichannel audio intact, but signals from the HDMI inputs rarely are. If ease of use is primary—let’s say you’re remote-o-phobic, or it’s for use with a TV in a bedroom—the good news is that the SB9000 did a fine job of re-creating a wide and open soundstage using my TV’s optical digital output. If maximum performance is of equal or higher priority than simplicity, however, there’s also some good news: The SB9000 does a fantastic job of decoding and reproducing 5.1-channel Dolby Digital or DTS signals sluicing directly into one of its optical inputs. (One of the SB9000’s very few frivolous features is that the source indicator lights turn from blue to green when the system detects a Dolby Digital source and from blue to orange for DTS.) The small downside to this scheme is that it will require switching audio inputs on the SB9000 as well as video inputs on the TV when you change sources. All this can be programmed into an inexpensive Harmony or other activity-based remote if you’d like to automate the process.
Rain and Shine
A great example of the difference in audio performance between using the optical out from my HDTV and the optical out from the BD player happens near the end of The Amazing Spider-Man while Gwen is confronting Peter Parker at the door of his home as rain pours down. Starting with the optical out from the TV, the spread of the rain across the front of the room and slightly to the sides is very good. After switching inputs from the TV to the BD player’s output, however, there’s a subtle—but definitely noticeable—difference involving the background noise of the rain and the music, which instantly feel much more natural and integral to the scene. After Gwen walks away and Peter closes the front door, the sound of the falling rain is not only more distinct, it’s also spread very wide, clearly wrapping much farther around the room with the 5.1 signal. Likewise, in the final scene, as Spider-Man slings himself through the construction trusses and begins zigzagging from building to building in the city, the soundstage is more lively and expansive. Everything seems to come into a slightly sharper focus, including dialogue, such as when Peter sits down behind Gwen after arriving late for class and whispers, “Yeah, but those are the best kind,” in response to the teacher’s advice to not make promises you can’t keep. While there’s no trouble clearly understanding the whisper with the TV’s output, the line becomes more present and defined using the signal directly from the multichannel source.
More than anything else in audio, I’ve always been fascinated by speakers, so it was easy for me to get orgasmatronically lost in discussing the complicated shenanigans involving multiple drivers contributing to the overall bass output in the SB9000 (with the additional titillation of drivers cancelling drivers). But you don’t have to be a speaker geek (spgeaker?) to appreciate the real-world results Polk gets out of this surroundbar/sub combo. It’s absolutely amazing how those five laughably small bass drivers can actually work together and produce reasonable bass output—unlike many other slim (and not so slim) soundbars that peter out at 150 Hz or even higher. Since the SB9000’s subwoofer doesn’t have to fill in any significant upper bass, it can be crossed over lower than most. The fabulous result is that it’s virtually impossible to localize the subwoofer in the room. Of course, there’s no way the SB9000’s subwoofer can compete with component subs that cost as much as (or more than) the entire SB9000 system; but it does an extremely capable job of getting down into what sounds like the lower-40-Hz range in my room. During the nightclub scenes in The Cold Light of Day, for example, the pounding bass of the echoing music is very powerful, dynamic, and totally believable. In Seven Psychopaths, the initial gunshots on the bridge are deep and strong. Certain aspects of the bass response, by the way, were also improved by going the source-direct audio route. It sounded a bit more dynamic and tight, for instance, with my setup.
I’ve never seen any surveys indicating how many people rely on soundbars as their primary music system. When it comes to music, everything Polk has done to make the SB9000 sound great with movies also contributes to stellar performance with two-channel audio. I tried out an old favorite demo track, Crash Test Dummies’ “Superman’s Song” from The Ghosts That Haunt Me, to see how the soundbar would fare. Once again, for its price, the SB9000 was absolutely stunning in its reproduction of Brad Roberts’s mesmerizing voice and Ellen Reid’s higher harmonies. You’d think that if at any time the SB9000’s sub would reveal itself as a separate entity, it would be with Roberts’s rich bass-baritone vocals. Instead, the system was seamless.
Perhaps the only caveat to note about the SB9000’s musical performance is the fact that it is what it is. In other words, you can’t adjust the processing. (In fact, the only user-adjustable audio settings are volume and subwoofer level.) If, by chance, you want to use the SB9000 to listen to pure two-channel, it’s not going to happen. Aside from maintaining simplicity of use, another reason for this lack of adjustable parameters is that the SDA Surround technology— most of what makes this skinny soundbar sound so full and wide—is an integral part of the speaker’s design. Take away SDA, and you’ve essentially got a pair of tiny bookshelf speakers lying on their sides in front of you. While 98.476 percent of the time (approximately), the SDA Surround works splendidly, every now and then the way a song is mixed will fool the SDA Surround setup—resulting in a soundstage that’s actually a bit narrower with slightly com- pressed vocals.
Because all the electronics are hidden, it’s sometimes hard for me to remember to compare the price point of an active soundbar to a full system (AVR, speakers, subwoofer) costing the same amount. In the case of Polk’s SB9000, you get a lot (in a small, very convenient package) for $800. Acoustically, there aren’t many other active soundbars at that price that can perform as convincingly when it comes to bass response. While it doesn’t do the near impossible and convince you there’s actually sound coming from behind you, the SB9000 does create an exceptionally wide, dynamic soundstage that fills the entire front wall and often reaches part way down the sides of the room. When you add in the overwhelming simplicity, especially the speaker’s remote-control-learning capability, as well as the wireless subwoofer, it makes the SB9000 a fantastic bargain for the person who wants his TV watching to be easy on the brain—but awesome for the ears. Just remember to bring home an extra optical digital audio cable for your BD/DVD player.