The Polk Audio SurroundBar is best summed up by the company's tag line: "Five channels. One speaker. Zero clutter." We agree: the tidy package is ideal for buyers who get wobbly at the thought of stringing a mess of wires and speakers around their living rooms or for folks who are still using the speakers built into their TVs but want more of a surround effect. The SurroundBar retails for $950, but since it doesn't make much bass on its own, tack on another $500 or so for a subwoofer. The Polk Audio SurroundBar can create a satisfying home-theater experience on DVDs, though we found its sound lacking on CD. Furthermore, Yamaha's second-generation single-speaker unit, the YSP-800, delivered better overall sound at a lower price. The Polk Audio SurroundBar will look great mounted above or below flat-screen TVs, but you can use it with any type of television. The SurroundBar's extruded-aluminum cabinet has an upscale look and feel. It weighs a substantial 25 pounds and measures 42.5 inches wide, 4.5 inches high, and a bit more than 5 inches deep. Its anodized finish is available in black or titanium with matching cloth grilles. A wall-mount bracket and a table stand are included.
The SurroundBar doesn't produce deep bass, so plan on using it with a subwoofer. Polk didn't make specific recommendations on that score, but we imagine the company's PSW404 ($480) or PSW505 ($590) subs would do nicely.
After you've situated your SurroundBar, bring up your A/V receiver's setup menu, zero out the speaker levels, and turn off the speaker delays (usually referred to as speaker distances). Next, tackle the crossover control of your subwoofer or A/V receiver. Polk recommends starting at around 100Hz, but in our room we preferred 120Hz. Before we upped the crossover to 120Hz, we detected a sizable bass gap between the subwoofer and the SurroundBar, and vocals sounded undernourished and lacked body. Plan on investing some time refining the blend between the Polk Audio SurroundBar and your subwoofer. (For a more detailed look at subs, check out CNET's in-depth "How to set up a subwoofer" feature.) The Polk Audio SurroundBar uses seven 3.5-inch woofers and three 0.75-inch tweeters. The surround effect is generated by Polk's proprietary SDA (Stereo Dimensional Array) technology, first used in the late 1980s. The system uses patented signal-processing techniques in an attempt to simulate the effect of side and rear speakers. Since the SurroundBar doesn't bounce sound off side walls, it's less affected by room acoustics than many other virtual surround-speaker systems. Just make sure not to place the SurroundBar right next to any large objects, furniture, or walls; they might impair its sound.
Polk includes a 25-foot-long, five-channel flat cable to hook up the SurroundBar, but you can also use standard cables. The speaker's high-quality connectors are color-coded and clearly labeled, which is especially useful because they're arranged backward from left to right. In other words, as you look at the speaker from the front, the right-channel inputs are on the left side, and the left inputs are on the right side. Just read the labels and you'll be OK.
The speaker has three alternative connection schemes that can dramatically improve the system's surround effectiveness. One: Hook up only the SurroundBar's left, center, and right channels and use separate surround speakers--Polk's RM6801 ($220 per pair), for instance--on the room's side or rear walls. Two: Hook up the extra surround speakers in addition to the SurroundBar's surround channels. Three: If you have a 6.1- or 7.1-channel A/V receiver, connect the "rear" channels to one or two extra speakers and hook up the other 5 channels to the SurroundBar as you normally would.
The SurroundBar isn't the first of its kind. Yamaha's similar debuted earlier in 2005. The company has since released its second-generation models, the YSP-800 and the YSP-1000. Unlike the Polk model, the Yamahas include built-in amplifiers, so they can operate independent of a receiver (straight from a DVD player, for example). However, unlike the Polk SurroundBar, the Yamahas rely on reflective sonics to create the virtual-surround effect, which makes them particularly susceptible to the layout and the obstructions within the room. We started our evaluation of the Polk Audio SurroundBar with the standard hookup routine: just the 'Bar and a subwoofer. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy DVD produced a wide arc of sound across the front of our home theater, amply demonstrating the effectiveness of the SurroundBar's technology. True, we never heard sound coming from the sides or the rear, but the SurroundBar projected sound far beyond the location of the speaker. Its ability to faithfully re-create the front left, center, and right soundstage of a bona fide 5.1 system put it ahead of most virtual-surround systems we've tried. The SurroundBar can play darn loud, though we preferred listening at more moderate levels. Dialogue sounded very clear but lacked body; we would have been a little happier if the SurroundBar had a bit more weight to its sound.
The SurroundBar's spatial effects sound best for listeners seated directly in line with the speaker; the surround sound collapsed back into the front soundstage for listeners seated on the right or left side of our couch. That'll be less of a concern in the SurroundBar's intended environment: a small bedroom or a den where actual surround speakers and wires would be unviable.
We were curious about the alternative hookup options described in the section of this review, so we connected a set of surround speakers and positioned them on either side of our couch, as in the second option we described. That certainly opened the surround field and eliminated the need to sit in the exact center of our couch to hear the surround effects.
Returning to the standard SurroundBar setup, we listened to CDs. In stereo, the sound was claustrophobically small, coming as it did from the left and right speakers, which are just three feet apart. Our receiver's Dolby Pro Logic II surround processing opened up the sound to a small degree but not enough to make us happy. All in all, the SurroundBar works best in its mission as a home-theater solution for small rooms.