The SurroundBar 360 aims for simplicity in design and setup, and--thanks to a straightforward two-piece design--largely achieves that. The speakerbar portion is 4.5 inches tall by 64 inches wide by 5 inches deep. Externally, it looks similar to the original Polk Audio SurroundBar we reviewed in 2005. Like that model--and subsequent Polk SurroundBars--the 360 version uses Polk's proprietary "SDA Surround" technology (Stereo Dimensional Array). Remove the grille, and you'll notice the eight separate 2.5-inch speaker drivers are evenly grouped at both ends, with nothing in the middle.
Polk includes two pairs of cradles for the speaker bar--one that makes it nearly flush with the table, and another that raises it a couple of inches. (If you're sitting in front of a TV, note that you might be blocking the TV's remote control IR receptor.) Alternately, the speaker can be mounted with keyhole slots or screwmounts.
A single 15-foot umbilical cable connects the speaker bar to the head unit, which Polk refers to as a "DVD Console" because it houses the disc player, in addition to all of the electronics and inputs and outputs. The umbilical cable uses proprietary connections, so don't expect to do any DIY extensions. The DVD Console is a reasonably svelte 3.25 inches tall by 16.5 inches wide by 11.5 inches deep--not much larger than a standard DVD player. If you want to keep things simple, you can get away with just the three wires: the speaker cable, the video output to TV (HDMI or otherwise), and a power cord.
The remote is a fairly elaborate affair that doesn't quite match the otherwise straightforward design of the SurroundBar 360. It's a universal model that can also be programmed to control a TV and cable/satellite box (including changing inputs on the TV). We'd be more comfortable investing in a dedicated universal remote instead, but this one gets the job done in the meantime.
You'll probably want to stick with the remote, though, because the controls on the DVD Console are somewhat cramped and confusing. They use a piano keyboard design, with five small buttons (video transport) inset between six larger ones (volume, source, power, and disc eject). The Console also includes a dimmable LCD screen on the front panel, while the disc tray is stealthily hidden on the right-hand side.
Setup is aimed at novices, and--for once--is pretty simple and straightforward. Just hit the "360 setup" key on the remote for an onscreen menu, and adjust settings as you see fit. We particularly liked that the remote programming--setting it to control third-party TVs and cable/satellite boxes--was all done via the onscreen menu as well. You're still doing some tedious trial and error (enter "0004" and see if your TV turns off), but at least it's up there on the screen, and not in a hard-to-read manual.
The SurroundBar 360 is designed as a full-service home theater system that includes a built-in CD/DVD player and AM/FM radio. Right off the bat, though, there's a problem: no Blu-ray. Given the fact that the Polk was released in late 2008, that's an issue: nearly all the home theater systems we expect to see in this price range in 2009--including some single-speaker models--include Blu-ray.
On the plus side, the SurroundBar's DVD Console does include some expansion options: there are two rear-panel AV inputs with S-Video, both of which can use analog stereo or optical digital audio. Additionally, there's an additional audio-only input (analog stereo, optical digital, or coaxial digital). Unfortunately, there's no HDMI--if Polk had included an HDMI input or two, that would've somewhat ameliorated the lack of onboard Blu-ray.
The side of the DVD Console includes another S-Video AV input, along with a 3.5mm headphone jack. There's also a USB port that can be used for MP3 music and JPEG video files--but the source flash drive must be smaller than 1GB, and have fewer than 100 files.
Taken together, that means you can get video and stereo or surround audio from three sources, such as a cable/satellite box, video-on-demand box, and game console--but it'll be limited to standard definition. Alternately, you can hook up an HD video player directly to your TV, and use the optical inputs on the Polk for audio. It works fine; you'll just be sacrificing the convenience and efficiency of the single remote and unified system.
As for outputs, the DVD Console includes the standard DVD connections to your TV: HDMI, component, S-Video, and composite. There's also a subwoofer output (for adding an optional sub) and an analog stereo output.
Thankfully, the SurroundBar 360 does upconvert the analog video inputs mentioned above to HDMI output. It's fine, but not the highest quality we've seen. The same can be said for the unit's DVD upconversion capabilities (480p, 720p, or 1080i can be selected). Casual viewers--the overwhelming portion of the market for this sort of product--will find little to complain about, but videophiles may be chagrined at the soft image quality on larger TVs.
The Polk SurroundBar 360 DVD Theater was conceived with a very specific type of home theater buyer in mind: someone who wants much better sound than they are getting from the speakers built into their TV, but without the hassles associated with separately hooking up and calibrating a HTIB with five satellite speakers and a powered subwoofer.
We've heard those claims before, but with the SurroundBar 360 DVD Theater there's nothing to calibrate, so as soon as we had it wired up we heard surprisingly well-balanced sound. The skinny speaker produced an amazing amount of bass without a subwoofer. Even demanding fare such as "The Incredible Hulk" DVD didn't overtax the SurroundBar 360 DVD Theater's endurance. The green superhero's menacing growls were fierce, and the speaker's soundstage stretched well out to the sides, but not the rear of our listening room. We did note that when the Hulk hurls armored vehicles at soldiers, their crashes weren't as loud as they should have been; it's as if the SurroundBar 360 DVD Theater had an automatic "Night Mode" that intentionally subdued the film's loudest dynamics. That's why the sound never overtly distorted--the SurroundBar 360 DVD Theater handled special effects-driven films better than most single speaker surround systems that don't come with self-powered subwoofers.
The SurroundBar 360 DVD Theater's bass is probably full enough to satisfy most buyers, but since the console/DVD player has a subwoofer output jack, we couldn't resist plugging in a Polk PSW111 sub to hear what it would do. So sure, the Hulk sounded considerably more incredible thanks to the sub's deeper, more powerful and all-round better bass. The SurroundBar 360 DVD Theater's dynamic range also opened up, bringing the sound closer to what we'd get from a 5.1 channel HTIB.
Still, after we disconnected the sub, the SurroundBar 360 DVD Theater's sound didn't disappoint. Add a subwoofer only if you're a serious bass hound. Otherwise you'll probably be fine without one--a major boon to anyone who's looking for the most minimalist setup possible.
Freelancer Steve Guttenberg contributed to this review.