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Polk Audio SurroundBar SDA IHT review: Polk Audio SurroundBar SDA IHT

Polk Audio SurroundBar SDA IHT

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Matthew Moskovciak Steve Guttenberg
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Matthew Moskovciak

Senior Associate Editor / Reviews - Home theater

Covering home audio and video, Matthew Moskovciak helps CNET readers find the best sights and sounds for their home theaters. E-mail Matthew or follow him on Twitter @cnetmoskovciak.

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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.

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7 min read

OVR
6.3

Polk Audio SurroundBar SDA IHT

The Good

TV add-on speaker with wireless subwoofer; subwoofer and sound bar are particularly well-matched; attractive, but understated design; can be used with existing TV remote.

The Bad

No remote; only one analog audio input; "gain control" switch on the back of the sound bar needs to be adjusted for some DVDs; no front-panel display; doesn't get as loud as some competitors.

The Bottom Line

The Polk Audio SurroundBar SDA IHT sounds better than most sound bars and puts a focus on simplicity, but its feature limitations and lack of a remote make it less appealing against the competition.

Just because you don't want a full surround-sound home audio system doesn't mean you have to settle for the sound coming out of your TV's speakers. That's the pitch behind TV add-on speakers, which are stripped-down versions of sound bar home theater systems that offer minimal connectivity, but promise a significant upgrade over your TV's tinny speakers. Polk Audio's SurroundBar SDA IHT is the company's entry-level sound bar, and it offers just the bare essentials, with just one analog audio input, no remote, and no front display. If all you need is a dead-simple TV add-on speaker, we did like the SurroundBar IHT SDA's subtle design; the balance between the wireless subwoofer and the surround bar was also well above average. On the other hand, we found it hard to accept many of the missing features when competitors like the Sony HT-CT100 (three HDMI inputs, $250 street price), and JVC TH-BA1 (three inputs, $300 street price) offer much more for the same price.

Design
In an era where glossy finishes tend to dominate, the SurroundBar SDA IHT's understated design ethos is a welcome relief. The front is dominated by a dark gray speaker grille, while the rest of the cabinet features a matte gray finish. Two cradles are included to prop up the sound bar, although the bar itself has rubber feet and will sit flat on a TV stand. The SurroundBar SDA IHT's low-key aesthetics are a step up compared with other sound bars, although we still prefer the pedestal design of Zvox's Z-Base 525, which allows it to disappear even further under your TV, and thus won't block your TV's remote sensor.


Two small cradles are included, although the SurroundBar SDA sits flat even without them.

On top of the sound bar are a few controls, including volume, mute power, and a remote-pairing button. One feature conspicuously missing from the SurroundBar SDA IHT's front panel is any kind of display, aside from a colored LED to give feedback. The lack of a display helps the product's looks but detracts from its usability. When you're increasing the volume, there's no way to know if you're at maximum volume or if there's still some headroom. We preferred the LCD display on the JVC TH-BA1, which would light up when active, but then go dark when you finish making adjustments.


The front-panel buttons are nice, but we really would have liked a display so we'd know how loud the volume is.

The other major component of the SurroundBar SDA IHT is the wireless subwoofer, which shares the sound bar's matte gray styling. It's a smallish for a sub, and the controls are located on the back.


The included sub is small, wireless, and has an attractive matte finish.

If you're searching the box for a remote, stop. The SDA doesn't include one, instead requiring you to pair your TV's remote with the sound bar.

Setup
Programming the SDA to respond to your TV remotes signals is pretty easy and takes just a couple of minutes to complete. The thinking here is that since you still have to use your TV's remote it makes sense to also use it to control the SurroundBar SDA's volume, mute, and power on/off functions. It's not a bad idea--and in some ways it's easier than using a separate remote--but occasionally the arrangement didn't work as planned, with the volume controls adjusting both the TV's volume and the SurroundBar's volume. Some TVs allow you to permanently turn the speaker off, but it's not always an option. We thought Polk should include a remote to use in home theaters where it's a better solution.

Because the SDA IHT only has one audio input (more on this later), setup is a little different than on competing products. If you only have one device in your home theater (say, a cable box), you can connect it directly to the SDA IHT. If you have more than one device, like most home theaters, Polk's solution is to connect your devices directly to your TV, then connect the TV's analog stereo output to the SDA IHT.

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.

Features
TV add-on speakers generally don't have that many features to begin with, but the SurroundBar SDA is underfeatured even with lowered expectations.


There's only one audio input, so anyone with more than one device will need to connect everything to the TV first.

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.

Performance
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.

OVR
6.3

Polk Audio SurroundBar SDA IHT

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 4Performance 7
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