[img]http://www.hometheaterreview.com/images/Polk_soundbar_360.gif[/img]Polk SurroundBar 360 DVD Theater Reviewed
By: Sean Killebrew
July 29, 2009
If you've picked up a home theater magazine or perused this or one of the other audio/video sites online, then you've surely noticed the proliferation of sound bars and all-in-one home theater systems. Increasingly, home theater enthusiasts are looking to streamline their systems and, as a direct result, keep their significant others smiling. Instead of a receiver, a DVD player, five speakers and a subwoofer (which always carries a low wife-acceptance factor), why not consolidate everything into two pieces? It's a compelling case and one worth investigating. One of Polk's newest entries into this realm is the SurroundBar 360 DVD Theater ($899). Polk's product line seems geared toward the philosophy of creating a solution for just about every conceivable need; whether you're a true audiophile, someone looking for an outdoor speaker solution or in the market for an all-in-one system, Polk has a product for you.
The SurroundBar 360 DVD Theater consists of two main components, the speaker and the console. The speaker itself is four inches tall by 44-and-a-half inches wide by five inches deep. Clearly, the speaker is designed for larger flat panel TVs as it looks a bit awkward at the base of my 37-inch LCD. Under the grille, you'll find eight two-and-a-half-inch full-range drivers, along with a center channel. These drivers and their positioning are the cornerstone of Polk's SDA (Stereo Dimensional Array) technology, which somewhat surprisingly delivers on its promise of surround sound from one speaker (more on that later). The console is roughly the size of a large DVD player and measures 16-and-a-half inches wide by 11-and-a-half inches deep by three inches high. Considering the fact that it houses an amplifier, AM/FM tuner, DVD player and multiple input/output connections, I consider the size to be very reasonable. In terms of outputs, the console offers both HDMI and component video, although no such inputs exist, so if you're looking to connect an HD component to the SurroundBar 360 for video switching, you're out of luck. This said, it is possible to route the video from another component directly to your TV and the audio through the SurroundBar 360. There's also a subwoofer output for those seeking a little more thump. In terms of inputs, there are the usual suspects - composite (three), S-Video (three), optical (three) and coaxial (one). Of note is a USB input on the side of the console, which is convenient for playing MP3 files or viewing JPEG photographs.
Inside the box, you'll find a universal remote, an optical cable, a proprietary speaker cable, composite audio/video cables, AM/FM antennas and mounting options. The SoundBar 360 is well-packaged and couldn't have been easier to set up. I simply connected the proprietary speaker cable from the console to the SurroundBar, ran an HDMI cable from the console to my TV and then ran my DirecTV box straight into the TV, using component video cables. Oddly, there was no HDMI cable included in the box, a bit surprising at this price point. You can either mount the SurroundBar on the included high and low cradles in front of your TV, or you can wall-mount it. I found these mounting options to be more than adequate and ended up using the high cradles to mount the speaker in front of my TV. It felt liberating to replace a rather large Yamaha receiver and DVD player with one unit, something my wife noticed and approved of immediately.
The manuals are perfectly suited to this sort of product, rudimentary and thoughtfully written. Experienced home theater junkies won't need to open them, while rookies should find them informative and easy to navigate. The onscreen menu system is also very straightforward, with explanations for most of the settings. The universal remote control is easy to program with the included product codes and has a decent layout. Wonky remotes tend to be commonplace in all-in-one systems, but that isn't the case here.
I have to admit that, while I can't pinpoint exactly what had me fired up, I was giddy about testing this system. Despite my desire to drop in one of my favorite flicks and test the SurroundBar 360's movie moxie out of the gate, I eased into it with some two-channel music in the form of Beck's The Information (Universal Music). I'm not a huge Beck guy, but this album is undeniably good and masterfully recorded. Starting with "Think I'm in Love," the SurroundBar 360 immediately impressed me with its bass response, which is not what I was expecting. It's pretty amazing what Matthew Polk and company have been able to procure from such small drivers. I actually had to dial the bass back a bit via the dedicated bass output control on the remote (a nice touch). Despite the reduction in bass output, I did find the bass to be a bit boomy overall. Next up was "Soldier Jane," and I was impressed by the how well the speaker articulated the vocals and instrumentation. The drums also registered with palpable impact and speed. This song has many layers and, as each instrument kicked in, the Polk handled it with aplomb.
Since this is a "surround' system, I turned to some multi-channel music in the form of Seal's Live in Paris DVD (Warner Brothers). Typically, when given the choice in a DVD's set-up menu between Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, I opt for the latter. In doing so, I found an odd little quirk in terms of dynamic range - the DTS 5.1 setting played much louder than the Dolby Digital 5.1 setting. I've listened to this DVD on multiple systems and this is the first time I've encountered this problem. This said, it's a minor issue easily resolved by adjusting the volume. On "Crazy," Seal's voice was open and crystal clear, producing a convincing soundstage with noticeable surround elements. I noticed that the surround effect was much more intense when the SurroundBar 360 was placed at or just above ear level. I experimented by moving it higher and definitely lost some of the surround effects, which is something to consider if you're planning to mount the speaker above your TV. Keep in mind that room to room acoustics are never the same and this could prove to be a non-issue in yours. Moving on to "Prayer for the Dying," one of my favorite Seal tracks, I noticed that the guitar and keyboards sounded truly alive, exactly the sort of listening experience you want from a concert DVD. When I cranked the volume, the bass (again) got a bit boomy, but I was able to balance it with the bass output control.
Next is the first film I cue up whenever I tweak a home theater for a friend, Heat (Warner Home Video). In Chapter Three, "Countdown to a Heist," Robert De Niro and his baddies set off a pressure charge that blows out the windows of a series of cars. It's a surround sound smorgasbord (say that ten times) as the explosions and shattering glass sweep from the front left speaker all the way around you. Having watched this scene on many different home theater rigs, I was curious what sort of surround effect the 360 would produce. The answer is, in a word, compelling. While not as convincing in that regard as a dedicated 5.1 speaker set-up, it was more than adequate and quite surprising. It's clear that Polk spent some serious time and money in developing their SDA surround sound technology. As a rule, you cannot boot up Heat without watching the downtown LA shootout scene. For reference, it's Chapter 32, "Under Fire." In this scene, you're treated to just about every type of gun known to man - AR-15s, 9mms, AK-47s, 12-gauges and (I had to dig for this) a Fabrique Nationale FNC 80, which Al Pacino carries. As this scene progresses and the battle intensifies, you get a really good dose of the sounds each different caliber of gun makes, along with mass quantities of brass hitting the pavement. Both the picture quality and sound reproduction of the SurroundBar 360 were topnotch on this scene. I watched it several times, looking and listening for any shortcomings, and found none worth noting.
Despite the fact that this is a sophisticated home theater system, I'll make the assumption that some parents might end up buying one for their kids, so I moved on to some animation with Ratatouille on DVD (Walt Disney Home Entertainment). I found the picture to be sharp and the color saturation amazing, thanks to built-in Faroudja upscaling. I tried switching the resolution from the default setting of 480p to 720p, which produced a noticeable improvement in picture quality and sharpness. Getting back to the sound, I noticed that the dialogue through the center channel was highly intelligible and more consistent than it was in my much pricier 5.1 system. I constantly find myself tweaking the center channel volume when moving from source to source or disc to disc, so this was a welcome change.
At this price point, an HDMI cable should be included. However, my biggest gripe with the SurroundBar 360 is the lack of a component or HDMI video input. Your only options are composite and S-video, which is lovely if grandma wants her VCR connected, but these won't help with video switching on an HD cable box. Also, the fast-forward speed when watching a DVD maxes out at 8X. Maybe I'm a bit spoiled, but I'm used to having the option of going to at least 16X.
Lastly, all-in-one Blu-ray home theater systems are coming down in price, so this product might have some stiff competition in that realm. Wouldn't you want HD video with your high-definition audio? I do, even at a higher cost. Perhaps that is for another product down the road.
I've really had a lot of fun with the SurroundBar360 DVD Theater, which speaks volumes. Home theater is about recreating the movie theater experience; it's also about escapism. The better the picture and sound, the more fun you're going to have. Polk certainly delivers in this regard and I can recommend this system with confidence. Many people are intimidated by the thought of connecting a home theater, but at the same time don't want the expense of hiring a dork, geek or nerd to install it. For those of you in the market for an easy to use, high-performance home theater solution that won't take up a ton of space, the SurroundBar360 should be on your short list. You'll be up and running in 10 minutes, regardless of your skill level.