Surround sound, as in speakers placed all around your room, is a gimmick. There I said it. I have wanted to utter those horrible words for years. Most of the sound emanating from a film does so from the front three speakers, so is it really necessary to spend the extra money for two, four, or even six additional speakers and the channels of amplification required to power them? OK, I know, the illusion of space is important and rear speakers can be helpful in getting that illusion across, but where does the escalation end? There are surround receivers available now that offer a 9.2 channel configuration and unless you have a dedicated home theater in your home, I can't imagine that installing that many loudspeakers in your den or living room is going to be a huge hit with the lady of the house.
In-wall and in-ceiling speakers might work if that is the issue, but there will certainly be a trade-off in sound quality. Running cables through your walls and under your floors is an expensive endeavor (I did it myself and it wasn't a walk in the park). My existing surround system is a 5.1 configuration and while I love the overall sound quality, I could live without the surround channels if I had to. I recently watched the Blu-ray release of Apocalypse Now which has a tremendous attack scene filled with helicopters. I've taken my fair share of helicopter rides and I was genuinely floored by the intensity of the sound. Yes, it did add to the cinematic experience. That being said, Apocalypse Now is an awesome movie in stereo too. But wouldn't it be great to get some of that immersive experience -- some of that illusion of space -- without the added expense (and complexity) of rear speakers? Well that's where Polk's family of SurroundBar Instant Home Theater speaker comes in.
Over the past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to watch a lot of movies and television through the Polk Audio SurroundBar6000 Instant Home Theater, and I must confess that it flipped a few switches in my head about the necessity of rear chanel speakers.
Back to Basics
Our own Chris Chiarella recently reviewed the Blu-ray release of Charlie Chaplin's classic Modern Times and what resonated with me were his comments about the uncompressed linear PCM mono track. Criterion did the best job that they could with the original source material and that's all there is folks. Call me the grumpy old man if you desire (In my day, we didn't have surround sound, we stood in traffic and went deaf listening to the cars and trucks going by and we liked it), but I think it is wrong to add surround tracks to movies that were originally mono or stereo. Want to restore dirty and damaged film prints? Go for it. It is certainly cool to improve the sound quality, but don't integrate what wasn't there to begin with.
I must confess that I own hundreds of films that were made before 1970 and that a majority of them sound just fine in only two channels. The addition of the center channel has certainly helped with the intelligibility of dialogue, but someone explain to me how Stalag 17, Double Indemnity, or Paths of Glory are somehow better films in 5.1 versus 2.0? Unless your film library is limited to Star Wars, Avatar, and films from Pixar (which may be the case...sad...but the dumbing down of society continues) which absolutely sound better in surround sound, I think most people could survive with a good 3.1-channel system. Throw in a nice diffuse illusion of rear speakers for when you want surround, and call it a day. Imagine how many more films you could buy with the savings. End of rant. Sorta.
This may come as a shock to certain manufacturers, but not everyone wants a ful blown surround sound system. Many people don't have the space for it and even more people don't have the shekels. The popularity of inexpensive and diminutive home-theater-in-a-box systems is evidence of that. People shell out a lot of money for a new flat-screen television and Blu-ray player, and feel disappointed by the anemic sound quality of the television. Spending an additional $500-800 (especially if it includes a Blu-ray player) on a 5.1 system makes them feel better and smarter (what a bargain!). The obnoxious audio/video snob that resides inside of me just smiles politely when friends show me their new HTiB systems. As an Orthodox Jew, I have plenty of religion on a daily basis. Well, Mrs. Rabinowitz...I may have found religion again. The Surroundbar! Oy vey is right.
Just pour a little water on it...
Instant Home Theater. Polk Audio has been selling quality loudspeakers for almost as long as I have been alive, so you will have to excuse me if I give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to loudspeaker design. Not only do they build really good stuff, but it's very affordable. Even their new LSi M series of loudspeakers are considered affordable by high-end standards. Polk Audio is based in Baltimore, Maryland; home of Camden Yard, Johns Hopkins University, and the setting for the greatest television show ever - The Wire. Polk Audio has been making surroundbars (the industry term is "soundbar") for a number of years and the SurroundBar 6000 is their latest entry; it is certainly the most svelte.
The SurroundBar 6000 also comes with everything you need to set it up including a 6-foot optical cable, 6-foot 1/8" analog cable, subwoofer power cord, 24v power supply, remote control, and instruction manuals. This is how it should be done.
The supplied remote control is tiny. Tiny enough that it is begging to be lost. Something I did more than once. It figures that my four year-old son found it before I did. Little fingers. The remote lets you mute the volume, select from one of the three inputs, and change the volume levels for the SurroundBar and the subwoofer (which proved to be very important).
One thing you can do with the SurroundBar 6000, is program it to work with your existing remote control. I have a Logitech Harmony 900 Universal Remote at home (although the iPad and iPod Touch are making great strides) and it took less than a minute to get it working with the Polk system. Press the "Learn" button on the SurroundBar 6000 and follow the flashing lights. It worked. Sweet. But it can also learn the commands of a standard TV remote so you can use your existing TV remote to control the SurroundBar's volume. Also, sweet.
Mount it, Stand it, Sit in on a Shelf. It won't complain.
The SurroundBar 6000 is designed to be mounted on a wall directly beneath your flat-screen television or sitting right in-front of it on a shelf. Both methods work just fine. The supplied rubber feet work OK too, but it would be preferable if you could snap them in place. What blew me away when I pulled it from the packaging was its thickness: two inches. That is not a lot of space for drivers or cabinet volume, but if anyone can make it work, Polk can.
At 35"W x 3.75"H x 2"D, the SurroundBar 6000 is perfectly sized for sets that are 42" or smaller. It looked great with my Samsung LN40C670 LCD TV. It also weighs only 4.75 lbs, so I doubt it is going to put much stress on your studs. The driver complement is fairly simple; four 2.75" dynamic balance polypropylene composite cone drivers with neodymium magnets. This is one of those "don't judge a book by its cover" moments. Those 2.75" drivers can play insanely loud and with great clarity.
Polk also fit a 160-watt amplifier inside the SurroundBar 6000 just to make the competition jealous. The rear panel has a surprising number of inputs (1 optical, 2 1/8" analog inputs) but this became issue #1 for me. I don't mean to single Polk Audio out as most manufacturers are guilty of this, but one digital input in 2010 is not acceptable. Between Blu-ray players, set-top boxes, iPod docks, media players, etc...there is clearly a real need for more than one digital input.
One way around this is to connect the sources to your television set (if it has a digital output which passes through the input signals, which the Samsung does) and run a single optical cable to the SurroundBar 6000. It certainly worked, but the sound quality was not what it could be. In fact, most TVs strip down connected digital sources to two-channel PCM coming out of the fiberoptic out. It's only for digital channels tuned by the TV's internal tuner that it will pass a full Dolby Digital 5.1 output through the fiberoptic output... but I digress. The bottom line is that routing digital signals through the TV is not nearly as good as plugging sources such as my Oppo BDP-83 Blu-ray player or the Logitech Touch media player directly into the bar. My suggestion? Connect your highest quality source directly into the bar via fiberoptic and leave the rest as analog.
By the way, there is a sync button on the real panel for the wireless subwoofer. Hold it down for a few seconds and the subwoofer should sync to the bar and activate. It did and it worked flawlessly throughout the review process.
That 7" wireless subwoofer is powered by a 120-watt built-in amplifier and uses a dynamic balance composite cone driver. The dimensions are 11"H x 10.25"W x 12"D. Ten pounds of bass thumping machine. Plug it into the wall for power and let the games begin.
Now go do that VUDU that you do so well...
Who doesn't love Blazing Saddles? Idi Amin (pre-Entebbe raid) loved this movie with its over-the-top Jewish humor. Rumor has it that he was watching it in his palace the night the Israeli army snuck into Uganda and rescued all of the hostages. Who knew that Mel Brooks worked for the Mossad? VUDU recently found its way inside my Samsung LN40C670 LCD set and not a moment too soon. Netflix has a lot of great B-movies, but it is missing some of the classics (if you want to watch them instantly) so I have gravitated over to VUDU. Having resolved our "wireless" situation, we rented the HDX version of the film and laughed hysterically for hours. The SurroundBar made a mockery of the Samsung's internal speakers (which henceforth shall forever be switched to the "off" position); greater clarity, punchier midrange, real bass extension. There is not a lot of surround information, so we never really looked behind our viewing position to determine the final landing spot of the man and horse being hanged in the courtyard. When my guests wouldn't stop laughing, I just turned the volume up even more.
I watched my fair share of films via VUDU and the SurroundBar 6000 never failed to impress. The utterly dreadful Jonah Hex has a very spacious sounding audio track and while I was not completely enveloped by the mix, it certainly had some depth to it. The bass response of the subwoofer was quite strong. So strong that I had to reach for the remote and tone it down. If only I could tone down Megan Fox's horribly bad acting. How does this woman have a career? Lombard crashes and Fox makes millions. Go figure.
I don't watch a lot of television, but I still put in a few hours each week with Fox News and ESPN to judge the SurroundBar 6000 with typical cable news and sports programming. Fox News' Election Night coverage crushed the other networks (What is your Moses going to do now, Keith O.), and sounded quite good. Listening to all of those talking heads for hours became rather tedious, but the dialogue was crystal clear.
Blu-ray, shining on me...nothing but Blu-ray is what I see...
October was a rather generous month in the Blu-ray department, so I had plenty of new films to challenge the SurroundBar 6000 with. Stanley Kubrick made a lot of really great films; Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory, and Full Metal Jacket among others, but I really wanted to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time in many years. The Dolby 5.1 uncompressed PCM audio track is one of the best I've ever heard. Spacious? You don't have a room large enough. Enveloping? You feel like you are really there with HAL. The SurroundBar 6000 did three things well with this audio track; solid low end resolution, clarity, and a decent job with soundstage width. I wasn't expecting a $499 speaker system to really challenge my Spendor/Denon rig, or even the superb NHT system that I recently reviewed, but it was pretty good overall, and quite amazing for the size, form factor and price. I cranked the volume rather high and the sound did not fall apart.
I host a mini-movie night twice a month and we decided to watch the recently released Predators which stars a rather muscular looking Adrien Brody (who looks like he's been lifting pianos in his spare time). Not a horrible action film (certainly better than some of the other Predator-series films) by any means. Early in the film, the Russian Spetsnaz soldier opens up on the jungle with a GE mini-gun (note to the film's director: they don't use American weapons in the Russian Special Forces) and the audio is utterly deafening if you crank your system too high. The SurroundBar 6000 was fine, but the subwoofer went a tad meshuga. All of my guests asked me to lower the subwoofer's volume level. Nobody had an issue with the overall sound quality, but the subwoofer drew some raised eyebrows.
Interestingly, when I switched over to the Rush concert video that I recently reviewed, the subwoofer behaved rather well. Bass was deep and generally taut. Neil Peart has to be a Cylon (nobody should be able to play the drums like that and not collapse). Geddy Lee's voice has actually improved with age (doesn't screech anymore) and came across quite cleanly.
Pandora... no, not the planet...
Pandora internet radio has been on in our home for months and we can't get enough of it. The ability to create your own stations makes it a great source for music throughout the house. My wife happens to love Yaz, Erasure, and everything ‘80s, so because I am a nice guy, I created stations just for her. The SurroundBar 6000 is really good with movies, but it kicks major ass with music. I usually get yelled at for watching films at loud levels, but nobody said a word when I cranked the music through the Polk system. Vocals were wonderfully clear and warm sounding, and there was detail galore. The bass behaved itself for the most part, but I did overload the room with some AC/DC and Pink Floyd. You can't get everything that you want from a system, and while the Polk has some limitations, it more than delivers with all kinds of media.
The Polk Audio SurroundBar 6000 offers a lot of performance for only $499 and does so in a neat little package. It is a breeze to set-up and operate, and comes with an excellent remote. The three inputs make it quite practical, but it would be even better if had an additional optical input. Movie tracks and music sound great; just don't push the subwoofer too hard at loud levels. An excellent Christmas/Chanukah gift for someone who does not have the space for a 5.1 surround system.
For more information:
To Buy the Polk Audio SurroundBar 6000 IHT:
Product Details for the Polk Audio SurroundBar 6000 IHT
Polk Audio SurroundBar 6000 IHT(SurroundBar)
Polk Audio SurroundBar 6000 IHT (Subwoofer)
Manufacturer Contact Information:
5601 Metro Drive
Baltimore, MD 21215
Main Phone: 410-358-3600
Toll Free: 800-377-7655
On the Web: www.polkaudio.com