Matthew Polk's Surround Bar 360

You'd think I would have learned to trust Matthew Polk by now, but I attended an NYC demonstration for his new SurroundBar 360 with relatively low expectations. That's because there's a current vogue for low profile, multichannel "bars" that give flatscreen monitor viewers a low profile, single-mount solution to the "problem" of all those extra speakers a multichannel A/V system requires.

Most of them aren't very good sounding and the tiny drivers their manufacturers employ lack dynamic range—and, worst of all, midrange clarity, without which dialogue is indecipherable. Even so, I should have realized that if Matt Polk was schlepping his $1200 HTIB-killer around himself, it was going to be worth at least an hour of my time.

The SurroundBar 360 is, in a manner of speaking, a Home Theater in a Box, since it consists of the soundbar itself—a 48' long speaker cabinet containing eight drivers—and a single component containing DSP, video processing, and a DVD drive. The box also accepts digital inputs from set-top boxes and suchlike and upscales video to 1080i via its HDMI connection.

I kind of knew all of that, but what I hadn't realized is that the SurroundBar 360's DSP incorporated Polk's latest incarnation of his Stereo Dimensional Array (SDA) technology. Audiophiles of a certain vintage (like me) will remember the SDA designs of the '80s. At the time the SDA was current, I was a fledgling "purist" audiophile and without hearing any of them, dismissed them as a class as "gimmicky." Years later, my pal Al bought a pair of CRS +s at an estate sale and sat me down in the sweet spot.

"My lord!" I exclaimed. "That's one heck of a convincing soundstage. You got these for $200?"

"Your friend was lucky," Polk told me. "If he'd bought them on eBay, he'd have paid more for them. There's a fairly fanatical cult that has grown up around them.

"What we were attempting to work around in the original SDA technology was interaural crosstalk (IAC), which restricts the sound we hear from two speakers to the area between the speakers.

"What people responded to in the original SDA loudspeakers was our reduction of IAC, but SDA Surround clusters four pairs of loudspeakers along the Soundbar, each of them separated from its mate by a distance calculated to eliminate head related transfer function (HRTF) and appear to produce sound in back of the listener as well as solidly in front of him. In other words, the processor is crunching the signal to cancel crosstalk, stabilize the binaural image, and cancel IAC while creating a front-to-back soundstage."

"Oh sure, it sounds so easy when you put it like that."

Polk smiled. "Take a seat and let's listen." He cued a scene from Master and Commander and I became lost in the scene where the HMS Surprise and the French fleet engage in the fog bank. The sound was amazingly dynamic—and full-range!—and damned if I wasn't clearly identifying sounds as coming from behind me.

"That's remarkable," I said. "Where's the subwoofer?"

"We're not using one. There's a sub output on the SoundBar box and it will automatically switch in a low-pass filter when it detects a connection. Now let's listen to some music, because you know I wouldn't be happy with this if it didn't work just as well on two-channel audio as it does on movies."

Day-yum! For the SurroundBar 360 to go from a product launch I had my doubts about to the product I most wanted all of my non-'phile friends to own, took only about 10 minutes.

"So let me get this straight," I said. "One cable connects the SurroundBar to the processor/player and one cable connects to the television and that's it?"

"That would be the simplest set-up," Polk responded. "But the fact is that most people will also need to connect a set-top cable box at the very least. That's what the S-Video and digital inputs are there for (also analog inputs, a tape loop, and a video loop, as well as AM and FM antenna inputs for the radio).

"I built the SurroundBar 360 because I really wanted something this simple myself."

"Surely Matthew Polk can have any hi-fi or A/V system he wants," I said.

"Sure I can. But my wife and I built a new house and we wanted entertainment options in the guest bedrooms—preferably ones with good enough performance that I could be proud of them and easy enough to use that our guests could operate them."

On the elevator ride down from the demo, I was talking with CNET's Steve Guttenberg, who, like me, once sold retail hi-fi in New York. "That's a product I could have sold thousands of," Guttenberg opined. I agreed. Guttenberg, like me, also reviews A/V receivers and we've shared stories about the complexities of connecting contemporary receivers. We call it "HDMI hell" when we get together to bellyache about the hardships we endure. (Just kidding, I love my job.)

But seriously, a DVD player, A/V receiver, natural-sounding DSP, and a slim speaker—land with only two connections to deal with? Plus, it sounds really, really good. What's not to like? I think Polk is going to have to beat consumers off with a stick—that or change banks, because his is going to be full soon. Thanks to Steve Guttenberg for taking the photos accompanying this entry.

Buddha's picture

Great piece. Now I gotta ho find a way to hear it!

Scrutinizer's picture

Saw it, heard it....bought it! Thanks for the info...just what I was looking for!