The Two-Box Solution

My favorite audio product of 2008 isn't precisely an audio product—it's a home theater in a box. I'm referring to Polk's lovely SurroundBar 360, which sells for $1200 and gives you a low-profile 48" "sound bar" and a base station, which includes an optical disc player, DSP processing, and an AM/FM tuner. The base station, of course, contains all the amplification the sound bar requires. Also included is a special umbilical to connect the two pieces—and, in a savvy little detail that tells you a great deal about how much thought has gone into the SurroundBar 360, the connectors on that cable cannot be connected "wrong."

That's important because the SB 360 employs Matt Polk's latest thinking about Stereo Dimensional Array (SDA), the technology he championed in the 1980s that blended a small amount of opposite channel information into the two speakers in order to create a more solid stereo image. SDA technology was probably ahead of its time, both n the sense that it wasn't widely accepted at the time (although try to buy an SDA speaker on eBay today and you'll have to cough up a bundle) and because the '80s-era levels of processing power and digital equalization weren't quite at the level to really make SDA work.

These days, I suppose, the "S" in SDA ought to stand for "surround," because the SurroundBar 360 recreates a multichannel soundstage rather than a two-channel one. (John Atkinson would debate that point, correctly observing that the stereo in "stereophonic" means solid.) Anyway, the SB 360 has eight drivers (four sets of two, spaced one "heads width" apart) that are fed a very calibrated set of signals, resulting not only in a solid centered soundstage, but one that is quite enveloping.

Okay, so why do I call this component, which is so obviously a home-theater my favorite audio device of 2008? Two reasons: It does one heck of a job reproducing music and it is so jolly well sorted out. Well, three reasons—it answers what I call the "brother-in-law" question. (We'll get back to that one.)

Setting up the SB 360 was pretty simple, except that I couldn't figure out how to adjust the aspect ratio. The owner's manual said to simply hit the button labeled "set-up" and choose from the drop-down menu (which is what I assumed was the correct answer in the first place, but it hadn't worked). Finally, I called Polk's customer service line. The extremely helpful human being I reached paused when I told him I was calling about the SurroundBar 360. Knowing that I had been sent one of the first samples available, I said, "This is probably the first call you've had about this one."

"It is, we're supposed to have a seminar on it later today, before they get shipped to stores," he said. "But if yo'll hold on, I'll speak to the design team about your problem." A minute later, he was back on the line. "There's a button labeled 'set-up.'" I explained that I'd pressed it to no avail. "Hang on," there was a brief pause. "It only works when the input is "DVD."

A detail left out of the owner's manual&$#151;one now corrected.

I relate this story because audio reviewers frequently only spend a short time with a product, whereas consumers (most of them, anyway) use them for years. How well a manufacturer treats its customers means more in the long run than how impressive a component sounds in the short run. Polk's customer service was very responsive and is evidence of how seriously the company takes post-sale service.

I kept running into small "problems" with the SB 360 that made me think I'd discovered a bug, but each time, Polk's engineers were two steps ahead of me. I really enjoyed the SB's up-conversion feature and used it to play all legacy DVDs at 1080i. Then Netflix sent me Michael Powell's Thief of Bagdad, filmed at Academy Ratio (4:3) and I could not get the aspect ratio correct. A call to Polk resulted in the answer: set the output to 480p. Bingo!

Despite its small size, the SB 360's sound was quite fullbodied, even when not paired with a subwoofer. In another of those well-thought-out details the SB 360 senses when it is connected to a sub and automatically re-EQs the sound to compensate for it. Brilliant.

I listened to a lot of radio on the SB 360. It sounded great—even AM. And I listened to far more music—both two-channel and multi—than is ever my custom in the home theater. Yup, I really dug the SB360.

I didn't realize how much until I took a flight to Denver. My seatmate asked what I did and I told him I wrote about audio (having learned ages ago that saying I wrote about high-end audio elicited a huh? reaction). Usually that gets me one of two other responses: 1) Is Polk really the best? or 2) What I call the brother-in-law question, a variation on what should I buy?

My new friend said he probably should buy a new system, his being about 20 years old. His wife leaned over and said he'd bought it before they were married and that they were about to celebrate there 30th anniversary, shooting him that pay attention look that all long-married men will immediately recognize. I could see him do the math and I suspected that the anniversary gift might be a new hi-fi, if I answered without being too much of an audio-geek.

How big was the place/ (Not very, they were downsizing.) Did they watch TV in the same room they listened to music in? (Yup—smaller place plus a new LCD monitor.) Now, if my seatmate had lived in New York or was a friend, I might have invited him over to my place and taken him into my smaller listening room and played him what I think of as a "real-world" two-channel system: say a Cayin A 50T ($1295) and a pair of Polk's RTi A1s ($340/pair), but did I really want to tell a guy I just met about a tube amp and "bookshelf" loudspeakers that shouldn't be put in a bookshelf? No, he'd have thought I was stark, raving mad and have thrown himself on the mercy of some kid about to be downsized at Circuit City.

Instead I said, "Well I've been listening to something that is really quite special that I know you'd love. The Polk SurroundBar 360 is and he will. I'll be the first to know if he doesn't—he asked for my card. I'm not worried.

David's picture

After you figure in the DVD player, tuner and amp, the 360 model is probably the best deal still, but for one teensy issue: it ain't Blu-Ray.So ... since you say you also review A/V receivers, Wes, I'd be interested to read about their two passive solutions also.