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Polk Audio SurroundBar 50 review: Polk Audio SurroundBar 50

Polk Audio SurroundBar 50

Steve Guttenberg
Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
5 min read

Single-speaker surround speakers had already been around for a couple of years when Polk Audio introduced the original SurroundBar in 2005. Polk has since followed up that unit with two more SurroundBar offerings: the SurroundBar 360 DVD Theater (due later in 2008) and the subject of this review, the SurroundBar 50. The latter speaker is an even wider version of the elegant original: it's 51 inches wide versus 42.6 inches, and it features new midrange drivers and tweeters, along with a revised crossover design. We didn't have the original SurroundBar on hand, but if our memory serves, the SurroundBar 50 is a very significant advance over the smaller model. It sounds better with music and movies.


Polk Audio SurroundBar 50

The Good

Virtual surround speaker housed in 51-inch-wide extruded aluminum cabinet; proprietary SDA technology produces room-filling spacious sound from the single-speaker design; nine 3.5-inch midrange drivers, three 0.75-inch silk dome tweeters; shelf stand, wall mount bracket, and color-coded 15-foot speaker wire is also included.

The Bad

Somewhat expensive; you'll also need an AV receiver and a subwoofer.

The Bottom Line

The Polk SurroundBar 50 sounds great with music and movies, making it a worthwhile improvement over the company's earlier single-speaker surround offering.

The SurroundBar 50 can be shelf-mounted above or below flat screen TVs with the supplied "cradles," or wall-mounted with the included bracket. The speaker's extruded aluminum cabinet's deep curves and contemporary design was sized to match the width of 50-inch plasma and LCD screens: it measures 51 inches wide, 4.5 high, a little more than 5 inches deep, and weighs 15 pounds. It's available in Titanium or Black anodized finishes with matching cloth grilles.

The SurroundBar 50 is a five-channel speaker, but uses nine 3.5-inch midrange drivers and three 0.75-inch tweeters. The speaker's high-quality binding posts accept bare wire ends, spades, or banana plugs. You use your own cables or the included 15-foot-long five-channel flat cable to hook up your SurroundBar 50 to an AV receiver or amplifier. The latter might be preferable if only because Polk's color-coded cable eliminates the confusion some buyers might experience when hooking up so many wires on the speaker's crowded rear panel (and making a mistake with five pairs of otherwise identical speaker wires would be easy indeed).

The included wire is color coded for the speaker's rear panel, but you can use standard speaker wire as well.

Speaker setup is a little easier than a standard 5.1 channel system: just bring up your AV receiver's setup menu and adjust the front left, center, and right speaker levels to "0 dB" and the surround channel to plus 3 dB. Next, turn off all of the speaker delays (usually referred to as "speaker distance") by setting them to 0 feet. If you can set your AV receiver's crossover control, Polk recommends using 100 or 120 Hertz.

If that sounds a bit high, there's a reason: Polk doesn't claim the SurroundBar 50 is a "full range" design, so plan on adding a subwoofer. We used a Polk PSW111 sub to supply the missing bass for all of our listening tests, but any worthwhile sub should do the job.

The SurroundBar 50's User's Guide describes an alternative hookup method Polk claims produces even better blending between the speaker and sub, but the straightforward approach referred to above worked perfectly well. One gripe: each information section in the multilingual User's Guide has six languages, making things a little hard to decipher. It would have been more readable if each language's text were laid out in separate sections, as is the norm.

Unlike the Yamaha Digital Sound Projector single-speaker systems, the SurroundBar 50 doesn't rely on wall reflections and room acoustics to generate surround effects. Instead, the speaker produces its own surround ambiance, with an updated version of Polk's patented "SDA Surround" technology (Stereo Dimensional Array) that first appeared on the company's speaker systems in the late 1980s. SDA Surround technology uses signal processing to produce "virtual" surround sound and can also work in stereo. We did note it works best when we were at least 6 or 7 feet away from the SurroundBar 50.

We started our listening sessions with our new favorite demo, the Sunshine Blu-ray disc. The sci-fi space-mission-to-the-sun flick is loaded with explosions and deep bass sounds, and the SurroundBar 50 (and its companion subwoofer) passed those torture tests with flying colors. The sound was remarkably pure and clear, much more so than what we've experienced with the Yamaha YSP-3000 single-speaker surround system.

That said, the SurroundBar 50's handling of the film's surround sound was good, but not as three-dimensionally developed as what we heard from the Yamahas. The Polk's soundfield is wide and had a nice sense of depth, but it never came forward or out to the sides of the CNET listening room like the Yamaha YSP-3000 or 4000. Likewise, the SurroundBar 50's spatial effects work best for listeners seated directly in line with the speaker--the "surround" sound collapses back into the speaker for listeners seated off to the right or left side of our couch. (By comparison, the YSP-3000's surround effects were more uniformly projected throughout the room.)

The Rolling Stones Four Flicks DVD set's full-blown rock and roll made us sit up and take notice. The skinny SurroundBar 50, ably assisted by the Polk PSW111, didn't pull any punches so the Stones sounded live, and we could hear the concert venue's ambiance and space. Resolution of fine detail was quite good, and Mick Jagger's vocals were very natural, without any of the hard/thin quality we complained about when we reviewed the original SurroundBar and the Yamaha YSP-3000. No, the new speaker's warmer, fuller tonal balance is more to our liking. The sound held together, even when we pushed the volume way up.

The House of Flying Daggers Blu-ray Disc made even greater demands in the Polk system, especially when we played our favorite circle of drums scene. The big drums sounded plenty big, and each thwack on the skins was clear and distinct. Still, the surround limitations were noticeable: effects never encircled the CNET home-theater room as they do when we've played the Blu-ray on full 5.1-channel systems.

We knocked the original SurroundBar's sound with CDs, but the new speaker and subwoofer combination was equally strong on CD as it was on DVD and Blu-ray. Stereo separation stretched well out to the sides of the speaker. Rock, jazz, and classical music were all well served by the SurroundBar 50.

To finish up, we compared the SurroundBar 50 with the similar Definitive Technology Mythos SSA-50. We listened sans subwoofers to better ascertain the differences between the two. In the end, we felt the two soundbars were closely matched, but the SSA-50 was somewhat more "full range," and therefore less dependent on the subwoofer. The Polk and the Definitive are both very, very good soundbars, but we'd give a slight edge on sonics to the SSA-50. That said, the Polk wins points for that fact that it's slightly more affordable and offers a better assortment of included accessories (color-coded speaker wire, table stands).


Polk Audio SurroundBar 50

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 7Performance 8
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