We love pretty much everything about satellite radio programming. From commercial-free music and uncensored hip hop, comedy, and talk channels to religious and sports programming, there's something for everyone. Less impressive, however, is satellite's sound quality. It's not a big concern for the vast satellite audience listening from their cars, but at home, over a decent set of speakers, satellite radio's ultracompressed digital streams can sound more like a grungy, low-bit-rate MP3 than a CD. Thankfully, refined listeners now have an alternative: Polk's XRt12 XM Reference Tuner is the first satellite radio that's truly audiophile-grade.
The introduction of the XRt12 represents Polk Audio's first foray into the component audio business; until now, the company's been best known for its high-quality speakers. Unlike the large number of satellite tuners that are compact plug-and-play designs intended for shuttling between car dashboards and home bookshelves, the XRt12 is a full-size home audio component, measuring 2.3 inches high, 17 inches wide, and 10.5 inches deep--about the size of a DVD player. The XRt12's gently curved black faceplate, large buttons, and deep-blue display are styled to match premium audio gear.
The radio is available through Polk dealers or direct from Polk's Web site for $250. The box includes an indoor/outdoor XM antenna and hookup cables, but naturally you'll need to sign up for XM's satellite service, which currently runs $12.95 a month. Fans of rival sat service Sirius should check out Kenwood's similarly well-appointed DT-7000S home receiver, while the truly deep-pocketed may want to step up to Antex's XM-3000, which sports three XM tuners for multiroom, whole-house satellite audio. (To see how Sirius and XM stack up against one another, check out CNET's quick guide to satellite radio.)
Sound quality was a design priority, so Polk's engineers included audiophile-grade digital-to-analog converters. Connectivity options demonstrate the radio's higher-end aspirations: you get stereo analog outputs, optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, and something new for a XM Radio: a video output. No, the device can't stream video, but it can display relevant information--channel number, artist, and song title--on your TV. A 12-volt trigger input can be used with compatible A/V receivers for automatically powering the XRt12 on or off, and an RS-232 connector is provided for use with AMX, Crestron, and NetStream's home automation systems. The radio can store up to 20 channel presets, in four banks of 5 each. Push the Memory button, and the XRt12 will record the artist name and song data for the songs you hear. The remote duplicates the front panel's controls.
Polk makes big claims about the XRt12's sound quality, and we must say, the unit delivers. Compared with Delphi's play anywhere SkyFi2 XM radio the XRt12 offers significantly improved stereo separation. As we switched back and forth between the two XM tuners, the XRt12's detailed treble and tautly defined bass was closer to true CD quality. The SkyFi2's sonics were actually pretty good, but compared to the Polk's, they sounded closer to MP3s. Tuning to the classical music channels, the XRt12's sound was truly remarkable, with vivid transparency and a deep soundstage.
Polk sells the XM Reference Tuner direct with a money-back guarantee, although we don't expect many customers to take Polk up on its offer. As it stands, XRt12 is the best-sounding satellite radio we've tested.
Editor's note: We have lowered the rating of the Polk XRt12 to reflect its lack of Neural surround processing, now a standard feature on XM Radio products. Click here to find out more about CNET's adjusted ratings scale.