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Polk Audio I-Sonic review: Polk Audio I-Sonic

Polk Audio I-Sonic

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Mobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
6 min read
The market for upscale "executive stereos" used to begin and end with the Bose Wave Radio. In recent years, savvy competitors such as Boston Acoustics, Tivoli Audio, and Cambridge SoundWorks have challenged Bose's monopoly. The result is a market for sweet-sounding tabletop radios that has more choices than ever but still counts the addition of a CD player as a major feature innovation. Enter the Polk Audio I-Sonic. For its first tabletop product, Polk has opted to throw quite a few more features into a box that sonically matches--and maybe surpasses--those aforementioned competitors'. Yes, the I-Sonic costs $100 more than the Bose, but the idea is that when you're ready to pay $500, you'll think spending a mere 20 percent more to get nifty extras such as a built-in DVD player, an HD Radio tuner, and support for XM Satellite Radio is well worth it.

As you'd expect from a tabletop radio that's so packed full of features, the I-Sonic is slightly bigger than competing products from Boston Acoustics and Bose, but it's still very compact, weighing in at 9 pounds and measuring 4.75 inches by 14.5 inches by 9.75 inches (HWD). While it has two speakers in the front and two on its back side, the unit can be placed on a table in front of a TV as you would with a center channel speaker or tucked directly below a set on a shelf. Ideally, wherever you stick it--yes, it can be easily carried from room to room--you'll want to give it some room to breathe.


Polk Audio I-Sonic

The Good

The Polk Audio I-Sonic is a do-everything tabletop radio that one-ups the competition by adding HD Radio, XM Satellite Radio support, and DVD video playback to the standard AM/FM/CD features roster. Its two front and two rear speakers combine to deliver a full-bodied sound.

The Bad

The I-Sonic is quite expensive, and the utilitarian DVD player seems like an afterthought compared to the more well-rounded audio features. The control interface isn't as user-friendly as it could be.

The Bottom Line

While its built-in DVD player is going to disappoint videophiles, the Polk Audio I-Sonic sounds impressive for its size and offers a bevy of cool features not found on competing tabletop audio systems.

Overall, the I-Sonic is an attractively designed tabletop home-entertainment system, but it probably won't make you say to yourself, "Wow, that's one slick piece of gear." The interface isn't a picture of elegance and user friendliness, but it's straightforward enough, and icons and labels on the blue-backlit display are sufficiently large to be read from a distance of about five to six feet. The large digits of the clock are even more legible, and you can toggle between a 12-hour or 24-hour display. As a testament to the fact that the I-Sonic will find a home in many a bedroom, you have the option of setting up to two alarms--and yes, there is a snooze button. As for the small, credit-card-style remote, its buttons are all the same size, but they are clearly labeled and have a bit of color variation to distinguish them.

Radio lovers may well find the Polk Audio I-Sonic to be their dream machine. In addition to the standard AM and FM bands, the Polk is one of the first home radios to offer HD Radio as well. It's not a separate band; you simply tune in your favorite FM station, and--if a digital simulcast is present and within range--the HD Radio icon will begin blinking as it tries to lock in. Once it does--it usually takes just a couple of seconds--you'll have access to a digital signal that offers the potential for better quality and no static, hissing, or pops. Many stations even offer a secondary channel (for instance, 92.3-2) with alternate programming. You'll increase your chances of pulling in stations--analog or digital--when you attach the included external AM and FM antennas. But you'll need to let the I-Sonic know that each one is connected, or it will keep using the default internal antennas. Curiously, the AM toggle is a switch on the radio's back, while the FM toggle is accessed via the system's menu.

But the radio options don't stop there: the I-Sonic is also XM-ready, which means it can receive and decode XM Satellite Radio--with the addition of a Connect-and-Play XM antenna such as the Audiovox CNP1000 and an active XM subscription ($13 a month). What radio lovers will really appreciate is the I-Sonic's ample presets: you can store as many as 30 stations and seamlessly mix and match between AM, FM, HD, and XM stations at your leisure.

If the dozens of commercial-free XM music stations aren't enough, you can opt to connect as many as two external devices to the I-Sonic. You get a set of analog RCA inputs on the back, along with a 1/8-inch minijack input on the side. Rounding out the I-Sonic's connectivity options are two outputs: a side-mounted headphone minijack and a set of RCA stereo outputs. The RCAs are variable outs, not line-level, so they're controlled by the I-Sonic's volume control.

As noted, the I-Sonic is the first tabletop radio we've seen to feature a DVD player, but video--no great surprise--isn't the system's forte. Around back you'll find S-Video and composite-video connectors, but no component-video connection, so it isn't a good idea to pair this with a large, expensive HDTV if you care strongly about video quality. Considering that the I-Sonic is destined to be hooked up to a bedroom or den TV for casual viewing--and the fact that it's difficult to include component video or an HDMI connection in an audio product of this size--we're willing to forgive Polk for that. That said, the company's done a poor job in burying the settings for the DVD player. For example, out of the box, the player assumes you have a standard 4:3 TV, which creates aspect ratio problems if you happen to have a wide-screen HDTV--such as many of those bedroom-friendly 20- to 32-inch flat panels with which the I-Sonic will undoubtedly be paired. To change the default setting from 4:3 to 16:9, you have to hit the Presets button on the remote when you're in the DVD menu. If we didn't just tell you that, you'd probably have a hard time figuring it out. On the bright side, the disc player handles DVDs, VCDs, and audio CDs, as well as home-burned MP3 CD-Rs and CD-RWs and JPEG photo discs.

Once we hooked up the external antennas and fixed the aspect ratio, we moved on to performance testing, which is ultimately where this Polk hits its stride. Cream's Royal Albert Hall 2005 DVD rocked out with a vengeance. Jack Bruce's bass guitar and Ginger Baker's drums packed a wallop and didn't distort, even when we played the I-Sonic at a room-filling volume. Bass definition among tabletop radios is too often sacrificed to provide the impression of big, booming bass, but thanks to Polk's PowerPort venting technology, the I-Sonic's bass was powerful and surprisingly tuneful, so we could pick out each note.

The I-Sonic's two rear speakers and digital processing rely on reflections from the wall behind the unit to create a large sound. We experimented with different placements of the I-Sonic in our room, but the surreal helicopter battle sequences on the Apocalypse Now DVD weren't as spacious sounding as we get from a 5.1-channel speaker system. That said, once we were involved with the film we never thought about the size of the I-Sonic. Dialog intelligibility was another strength of the little system. Treble and bass controls are also available to tweak the sound of the system.

The Polk Audio I-Sonic's CD sound was exceptional. Bass, midrange, and treble were perfectly balanced, so the I-Sonic sounded equally accomplished with all types of music. Likewise, the sound quality on radio stations was generally superb, although the FM reception of I-Sonic was merely average, so it failed--even with the external antenna--to pull in hard-to-receive college stations without static background noise. HD-encoded FM stations produced some fidelity improvement over non-HD stations, with more treble detail and dramatically reduced levels of background hiss. Some stations do HD radio better than others, so you'll potentially hear some variations in sound quality from station to station. Meanwhile, XM satellite radio reception was on a par with that of most other XM-ready systems we've heard.

Like many modern A/V devices, the I-Sonic does have an upgradeable firmware; they can be uploaded from a CD-R or via a USB port on the back (it's strictly for service and has no other function). Polk provided us with an update disc to correct a small glitch that the I-Sonic experienced when switching from DVDs to CDs; following the onscreen prompts loaded the new firmware in a jiffy and fixed the problem.

In the end, even with its handful of noticeable and somewhat irritating quirks, the Polk Audio I-Sonic represents a strong challenge to the Bose Wave Music System and its ilk. From a features standpoint it's an easy winner, and it holds its own--if not beats--the Bose from a performance standpoint, too. Yes, it costs a pretty penny, but when you consider that rivals such as the forthcoming $600 Tivoli Audio Music System don't offer satellite radio, HD radio, or DVD options, the I-Sonic almost looks like a bargain. Hopefully, Polk will be able to further refine the system's menus and options with further firmware upgrades. If it does, we'll update our review to reflect those changes.

Freelancer Steve Guttenberg contributed to this review.


Polk Audio I-Sonic

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 9Performance 8