Polk Audio SurroundBar Speaker System

Home Theater in a (Very Narrow) Box.

Thanks to plasma TVs, everyone is convinced that skinny and flat are where it's at when it comes to home theater—and those now-out-of-work robotic assembly lines that used to crank out CRTs by the boatload haven't been the only ones affected by the slender-is-better trend. You can't throw a crumbled-up extended-warranty brochure in an electronics store nowadays without hitting some sort of sleek, on-wall, "plasma-friendly" home theater speaker. Some manufacturers, fully embracing the slim trend, have created three-in-one (left front, center, and right front) single-cabinet on-wall speakers designed to be mounted above or below your flat-panel TV—or set on top of a rear-projection TV. Boston Acoustics, Definitive Technology, Atlantic Technology, and Mirage, for example, have all come up with their own variations of three channels coexisting in one narrow box.

The primary selling point for these combo speakers is style. That's not to say they can't sound good—nor am I implying that the folks who buy these speakers don't give a flip about sound quality. (Some do, and some don't.) The fact is, though, that the speaker's overall physical size, appearance, and minimal-installation requirements are the draw here.

But think of the poor salesperson with a dapper couple ready to pop for a flat-panel TV and DVD player, along with a respectable surround sound system that includes one of those stylish three-in-one speakers, a surround receiver, and a pair of rear-channel speakers. "Rear-channel speakers?" asks the perfectly preened gentleman, quite taken aback. "Wires…" sneers the impeccably coiffed lady next to him. Before the salesperson can utter, "No interest financing," the sale shrivels down to the flat-panel and a cheap DVD player. "We think the TV's built-in speakers are good enough for now." ("Noooooooooooo…!")

So along comes Polk Audio with the idea of giving those style-conscious home theater buyers an experience that's pretty darn close to full-blown multiple-speaker-location surround sound—but that comes from a similarly styled, single-cabinet speaker system that can be hung under/above/on a plasma or other type of shallow TV. No mention of rear speakers—and no need to install any either. Polk calls it a SurroundBar, and while you might think it's for rear-channel use only, it's actually for mounting in the front of the room. (Home theater lovers with allergies are safe. The SurroundBar contains no nuts and, sadly, no chocolate.)

Is it legal to do that?
There are a couple of other variations of single-cabinet surround sound speaker systems out there, but none that I know of use such a low-profile enclosure. And I believe the SurroundBar is currently the only one that accomplishes its room-filling duties without the use of active circuitry. All it requires is a speaker-level connection from the five speaker terminals on the back of your A/V receiver—no AC power cord, no internal amplification, and no other inputs of any kind. As a result, on-wall installations are about as simple as possible. To make setup super easy—especially for the guy (or girl) who's going to plunk the SurroundBar on top of the TV when he gets it home—Polk includes a 25-foot, five-in-one, color-coded speaker cable. The wiring is not proprietary, though, so you can use whatever speaker cable suits your fancy.

I suppose it's fitting that, just as modern-day surround sound is a descendant of decades-old quadraphonic sound, Polk turned to a technology they developed in the late 1980s—Polk's SDA (Stereo Dimensional Array)—in designing this modern-day surround speaker. They're calling the new technology SDA Surround, and Matthew Polk says it "relies on a mixture of acoustical engineering, psychoacoustic principles, and a little magic." ("Magic" isn't listed in the spec sheet, though.) SDA Surround is supposed to work in just about any size or shape room—with or without reflecting surfaces—and deliver a surprisingly effective surround experience for a wide variety of listening locations.

Polk designed the original SDA technology as an acoustic method of eliminating Interaural Crosstalk—sound from one speaker that "crosses over" your head and is heard by the opposite ear, which can destroy the illusion of listening to live music. SDA, in very simplified terms, involved adding to each speaker a special SDA driver that reproduced an inverted version of the audio signal from the opposite speaker, ideally canceling out the sound that slipped around your head and entered the wrong ear. Polk has based the SDA Surround technology on the same principle, but it is much more involved because, in addition to providing Interaural Crosstalk Cancellation, they used special front-to-back transformation filters to fool your ears into thinking sounds from the surround speaker drivers are coming from around and behind you.

Not surprisingly, the SurroundBar includes seven 3.5-inch drivers, three tweeters, and a very complex 39-element crossover. What is surprising is how well it works.

Did I just hear what I thought I heard?
As you might guess, with the largest drivers being only 3.5 inches, the SurroundBar benefits immensely from the presence of a powered subwoofer. Although it was probably overkill, I matched it with a BG Radia 210i powered subwoofer ($1,499) I'd been using for another review. The combination worked exceedingly well, although I'm sure Polk would prefer it if you used one of their subwoofers. I think it was a smart choice on Polk's part not to sell the SurroundBar with a specific subwoofer. Customers who don't want to have one aren't forced into it (even though they ought to be), and those who do can choose the sub that's best for their room.

Polk says the SurroundBar works with any multichannel audio format your receiver can decode, as well as with standard two-channel material, and that's exactly what I found to be the case. For two-channel sources, the SDA technology helped extend the soundstage out much wider than you would think possible with a speaker array only 42 inches across, and, as Polk claims, it was difficult to localize distinct front speakers. With multichannel music, such as Monster Cable's surround release of Ray Charles' Genius Loves Company, there was undoubtedly a large arc of sound extending well out to the sides—yet the integrity of the placement of the musicians and instruments in front of me remained unaffected.

Music was impressive, but the SurroundBar really shows off when it comes to movies. The bizarre bean-flicking circle of drums scene in House of Flying Daggers (I've been told the original script called for booger flicking, but it got changed in production after a threatened walkout by the actors and crew) worked thoroughly—well, in terms of audio, at least—as beans and scarves bounced off the drums all around. The shots across the bow in Master and Commander came straight out before disappearing just past my head. In the opening chase scene from The Transporter, there was the definite sensation of scenery flying by.

Should you dump your B&W 801 speakers on eBay?
Listening to movies, or multichannel music, with the SurroundBar isn't a 100-percent substitute for a full-blown surround sound system. Whereas you'll be fully surrounded by sound with a properly set-up and calibrated multiple-speaker system, the SurroundBar offers a more limited immersive experience. Typically, I found it to be more of a 180-degree (or higher) surround field, and, at times, it approached 270 degrees. But, unlike a lot of home-theater-in-a-box systems—and even some expensive-but-poorly-set up speaker packages—the sound field generated is a smooth and continuous arc around you. Flyovers, for example, don't start in the front, disappear in the middle, and then become audible again in the rear. In addition, the SurroundBar performs surprisingly well in seating locations well off from the system's sweet spot—better even than what you'd often find with a traditional home theater setup.

If you really want to plug that hole in the back, Polk suggests adding one or two center rear speakers (for 6.1 or 7.1 sound, respectively) if your processor supports it—but I think that defeats the purpose of buying it to begin with (unless maybe you've started with the SurroundBar, gotten hooked, and decided to upgrade at a later time).

Remember, the SurroundBar isn't aimed at the die-hard home theater fanatic who will sacrifice space in his living room to get the best performance. This five-in-one speaker system is primarily meant for the style-conscious flat-panel TV owner who wants something simple to use that looks and sounds good. To try to compare the surround performance to that of a $950 home theater speaker package misses the point.

That doesn't mean the SurroundBar can't hold its own against equivalently priced systems. In fact, in difficult rooms, such as those in which the rear speakers have to be mounted in acoustically undesirable locations or the seating area is not ideal for surround (up against a wall, for example), the SurroundBar will surely outperform a multiple-speaker arrangement.

It's quite possible that, given the way the SurroundBar performs, there are more than a few higher-performance home theater owners who will use it (without guilt or shame) as a second system in a home office or bedroom. Of course, if this "style" thing really catches on, Polk's going to have to come up with some additional finishes in order to keep the interior decorators happy—options like white, green, pink, or brown. (It's a hard choice, I know.) Even without the extra colors, the SurroundBar does a great job of doing exactly what it was designed to do: fill a room with quite fine surround sound without intruding on the homeowner's dcor or lifestyle. And that's the (sound) wave of the future.

• 25-foot multichannel (all-in-one) speaker cable
• Wall-mount bracket and table-top cradle
• Works with any surround sound receiver

Polk Audio