Polk SurroundBar 9000 IHT Soundbar
Addicted, as millions of us are, to the near instantaneous gratification of loaded DVRs and streaming services capable of providing lifetimes of mindless entertainment, it’s no surprise that we want speed and simplicity to apply to the entire process of watching TV. In fact, digging the remote control out from under the couch cushions ought to be about the limit of the physical and mental effort involved.
Simplicity, of course, in both physical setup and daily operation, is the driving force behind the phenomenon that is the soundbar—and it’s a big phenomenon, too, seeing as how more than two-and-a-half million soundbars were sold in 2012. Polk Audio thinks its active surroundbars are so simple that it boldly includes “Instant Home Theater” (IHT) in each of the model numbers. The company’s newest and best IHT system is the SurroundBar 9000 Instant Home Theater. At $800, it’s the most expensive active SurroundBar Polk makes, and with a claimed total of 510 watts (eight discrete 45-watt amplifiers in the SurroundBar plus a 150-watt amplifier in the wireless subwoofer), it’s also the most power-packed.
That’s All You’ve Got?
“Slim and slender” is the mantra of most industrial designers when it comes to soundbars; and while the SB9000 might not be the world’s slimmest, slenderest active soundbar, it’s definitely a contender. The satin black speaker is a respectable 44.6 inches wide, but it’s the soundbar’s 3.75-inch height and amazingly shallow 2.25-inch depth that will make you doubt even the remotest chance of it sounding good. Remember, this lissome bar is the part of the SB9000 system that contains all the primary drivers, eight amplifiers, boatloads of processing circuitry, the wireless transmitter for the subwoofer, input switching controls, and a couple of bass ports. Since the modest-size wireless sub (13.5 x 12 x 13.5 inches) isn’t physically connected to the soundbar, none of the main system electronics or amplification can be squirreled away in the sub’s cabinet. Take the grille off the SB9000, and the sight of five minuscule 2.5-inch convex woofers and a trio of half-inch silk-dome tweeters spread across the front baffle won’t especially fill you with thoughts of high fidelity, either. At least the SB9000’s powered subwoofer includes a reassuringly substantial 8-inch down-firing driver in its ported cabinet.
Even before judging the ultimate audio performance, there were a number of aspects to the SB9000’s design that I liked a lot. For example, the soundbar comes with two flat, rubber feet that are removable and re-stickable anywhere along the bottom of the speaker. This not-often-found adjustability makes it easy to adapt the SB9000 to almost any size shelf, table, or TV top. Mounting the speaker on the wall or a TV stand/mount is almost as simple, courtesy of two keyhole mounting slots on the back of the cabinet. The input jack panel is recessed and easily accessible from the bottom even when the speaker is mounted against the wall. By far, though, the SB9000’s most outstanding feature is what Polk calls Smartbar Remote Control Learning. While the SB9000 comes with a small, dedicated remote control, the speaker itself can be taught to respond to specific commands from another device’s remote control, such as your system’s TV remote. You can then use the volume up/down on your TV’s remote, for instance, to control the volume of the SB9000. It’ll also learn commands for Mute and Power. (Don’t toss the SB9000’s remote in the trash, however. It’ll allow you to adjust the subwoofer volume level and change sources from your couch instead of using the buttons on the front of the soundbar.)
Al Baron, VP of obfuscation and weapons of mass deception at Polk, worked hard to convince me that while Polk’s engineers worked hard to make the SB9000 as simple—or simpler—to set up and use as any traditional soundbar, they worked even harder to make it sound less like a 45-inch-wide, 3.75-inch-tall, 2.25-inch-shallow box and more like a traditional component audio system. The design puts a strong emphasis on dynamic range, bass response, and overall system clarity, a point proven by one of the company’s technical white papers. After reading through, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the amount of effort and technology Polk has put into this $800 soundbar. For starters, as noted earlier, each driver (five woofers and three tweeters) is driven by its own dedicated 45-watt amplifier. In addition to providing more punch and overall dynamic range, dedicated amps allow all the high- and low-pass filtering to be done electronically, thereby eliminating the potential losses and distortion that pesky passive crossovers can cause (especially those used in lower-priced speakers).
Of course, soundbars certainly ain’t your grandpa’s Wurlitzer. There’s a heck of a lot more digital signal manipulation that needs to be done in addition to crossing over the drivers. For that, Polk says the SB9000 includes the most powerful DSP engine the company has ever used in an active soundbar. Part of the processing prowess resides in 58 discrete DSP blocks that are used to control delays, parametric compression, frequency shaping, signal mixing, and, yes, the various crossover points. (Think of the DSP as steroids for loudspeakers, fortunately, perfectly legal ones.) Riding on top of all that is SRS’s TruSurround HD4 “immersive” audio processing and Polk’s own proprietary SDA Surround technology. Did I mention that the SB9000 also decodes—and discretely reproduces all 5.1 channels of—Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks?
This next part gets a little techy, so if you’re squeamish about delving into a soundbar’s innards, you might want to skip to the next section. Although there are five 2.5-inch bass drivers in the SB9000, playback is not as simple as merely assigning each driver to a channel. In the SB9000, the center tweeter and woofer do, indeed, function as the center channel. To get a decent amount of bass from the soundbar, however, as well as add dynamics and fullness to the center channel, Polk uses what it calls an Optimized Center Array (OCA) setup in which each woofer and tweeter in the speaker reproduces center-channel information at varying amplitudes and frequencies. Because indiscriminately blasting all the center-channel info into different drivers can result in interference that affects the soundstage (comb filtering, as it’s known), all five woofers contribute frequencies from 80 to 200 hertz. The resulting combined surface area of those small drivers is equivalent to a single 5.25-inch driver. But the outermost pair of drivers cuts off above 450 Hz, while the innermost pair extends up to 700 Hz. In comparison, the center woofer handles frequencies up to 4 kilohertz. Likewise, the outer two tweeters deliver center-channel information above 6 kHz, whereas the center tweeter goes down to 4 kHz. (Center-channel info coming from the outer two tweeters is delayed slightly to prevent localization.)