Depending on your point of view, this is either a clever simplifying design or a workaround for the underfeatured Polk. In some ways it's easier to connect everything directly to your TV, because when you change inputs on your TV, you won't need to change inputs on your sound bar. On the other hand, it's worth pointing out that any sound bar home theater system with multiple inputs can use this same connection scheme and also offer the capability to connect devices directly to the sound bar.
Subwoofer setup is as easy as it gets: it just needs to be plugged into an AC outlet and it's automatically paired with the sound bar. The sub has its own volume control on its rear panel, and like all small subs this one should be placed as close as possible to the speaker to achieve the best sound.
The SurroundBar SDA's rear panel also has a three-position "gain control" switch. We started in the factory-default low position, which worked well enough for all CDs and some movies. Problem being that some quieter DVDs, like the new Kenny G, "An Evening of Rhythm Romance," didn't get loud enough, even with the volume turned all the way up. So we moved the gain control switch to the middle position, which solved that problem, but it's annoying to have to get off the couch to make this adjustment depending on the DVD.
TV add-on speakers generally don't have that many features to begin with, but the SurroundBar SDA is underfeatured even with lowered expectations.
As we mentioned, the SDA's connectivity is limited to just a single stereo analog input. Yes, you can use your TV as an audio switcher as a workaround, but when Sony's HT-CT100 (which first debuted in 2008) sells for $100 less and includes three HDMI inputs, it's hard to accept the SDA IHT's connectivity limitations. Even if you don't have HDMI gear, JVC's TH-BA1 includes two optical audio inputs and an analog audio input, plus it also features a wireless sub, a remote, and LCD display. Between the lack of the remote and the audio routing, we wound up feeling like the Polk had an awful lot of workarounds where a few feature upgrades would have sufficed.
We had our quibbles when it came to features, but ultimately sound quality is the most important aspect of a sound bar. The SurroundBar SDA speaker and its potent little subwoofer had a rich tonal balance that was unusually easy on the ears, without a hint of the processed quality we get from some sound bar systems.
We first put the SurroundBar SDA through its paces with "The Soloist" on DVD. Robert Downey Jr. plays Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who finds Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless musician playing a cello in the street. Dialog sounded natural, and the dense urban traffic noise was detailed. The subwoofer's contributions were perfectly integrated, so it never called attention to itself.
Next, the opening car chase scene on the "Quantum of Solace" Blu-ray didn't have the sort of impact we've heard from sound bar systems powered by an AV receiver. The intensity of the high-speed car chases and gunfire exchanges were scaled down over the SurroundBar SDA, but that's true for most of the sound bars we've tested. The tiny subwoofer was a fine performer, but again, its deep bass and power limitations were readily apparent when the system was played loud. At moderately loud volume the sound was quite good.
The first time we tested the SurroundBar SDA, we ran into a problem when it would shut down when we played the naval battle sequences on the "Master and Commander" Blu-ray. After consulting with Polk, we were informed that the initial production run did suffer from a defect that caused it to turn off when it gets too loud, but that the problem had been corrected. Our second review sample did not turn off during the same scene. It's worth mentioning that Zvox's Z-Base 525 sound bar sailed through the cannon blasts without incident, and it was also a far more dynamic performer overall, even compared to the replacement SurroundBar SDA. (If you own a SurroundBar SDA that suffers from the "shut down" issue, contact Polk, and the company will replace it.)
The SurroundBar SDA's surround effects weren't projected ahead of the speaker or far out across the front wall of the CNET listening room. But the sound didn't feel cramped within the speaker itself. Yamaha's Digital Sound Projectors are still unrivaled in terms of creating some semblance of surround sound from a single speaker, although they're significantly more costly.
CD sound was also noteworthy, as long as the music wasn't overly dynamic or loud. Miles Davis jazz CDs shined over the SurroundBar SDA; the sound was laid-back and mellow, without any of the brashness we've heard from some sound bars. Rock was less convincing; we became more aware of the SurroundBar SDA's limits when we played the Rolling Stones.