Polk Audio is certainly no stranger to the soundbar genre. The company has been producing mid- to high-end soundbars for many years now, and a quick visit to the soundbar page at PolkAudio.com shows six current models, ranging in price from $350 up to $1,000. The Polk soundbar lineup consists of two series: the Component Home Theater (CHT) Series includes passive soundbars that are sold primarily through specialty channels, while the Instant Home Theater (IHT) Series consists of active soundbars that you can find through mainstream retailers like Amazon and Crutchfield. The most recent addition to the IHT Series, the SurroundBar 9000, is also the most advanced active soundbar that Polk has developed to date.
As the name suggests, active soundbars include all of the necessary amplification and signal processing to deliver the audio goods. There's no need to add an AV receiver; just plug your sources directly into the SurroundBar 9000, and you're good to go. This five-in-one speaker uses Polk's SDA Surround technology to help broaden the soundfield and create a better sense of envelopment than you'll get from many of the lower-priced 2.1-channel soundbars on the market. As with all of the IHT soundbars, the SurroundBar 9000 comes with a wireless subwoofer to flesh out the low end. The package price for both the soundbar and subwoofer is $799.95.
Given the small stature of both the SurroundBar 9000 and its accompanying subwoofer, I was a bit taken aback by the size of the box I received that contained these components. As it turns out, Polk is just being extra careful, as everything is carefully packed with lots of buffer space to protect the products during transit. The SurroundBar 9000 measures 44.5 inches long by 3.75 inches high by only 2.25 inches deep and weighs eight pounds. This is the longest of Polk's active soundbars, so it's a better visual compliment to a larger-screen flat panel than Polk's other IHT models (which have a length of 35 inches less). Of course, people will love the bar's super-slim depth, but I really appreciated its 3.75-inch height. The soundbar was short enough that I could simply set it on the tabletop directly in front of my Panasonic TV without blocking any of the screen (it still blocks the TV's IR receiver, though). Two rubberized feet are attached to the soundbar so that it can sit stably on a flat surface right out of the box; you can peel off these feet and move them to different positions on the bar, or you can remove them entirely and use the keyhole slots on the backside to wall-mount the soundbar (mounting kit not included). The subwoofer, meanwhile, measures 13.5 high by 12 wide by 13.5 deep and weighs 18.2 pounds. The sub has no connections beyond the power cord; it communicates wirelessly with the soundbar at a distance of up to 50 feet.
The SurroundBar 9000 has a satin black finish with a glossy black trim around the front edges and a black cloth grille. The well-built cabinet is constructed of ABS and Plexiglas, with two ports on the backside. Front and center, you'll find controls for power, source, mute, volume, and learn (more on this in a moment). The connection panel offers two optical digital inputs and two analog 3.5mm jacks, and the package includes one six-foot optical cable, one mini-plug to mini-plug cable, and one mini-plug to RCA cable. The SurroundBar 9000 lacks HDMI inputs, and it does not offer integrated Bluetooth support to wirelessly stream music from compatible sources like a smart phone or tablet, a feature that is available on the lower-priced SurroundBar 5000 ($399.95).
As I mentioned in the introduction, the SurroundBar 9000 is the most advanced of Polk's active soundbars. For one, it has more power; each of the bar's eight drivers (three 0.5-inch silk dome tweeters and five 2.5-inch midwoofers) has its own dedicated 45-watt amplifier, for a total of 360 watts. The subwoofer has a larger woofer and a more powerful amp than any sub in the IHT Series: an eight-inch down-firing long-throw woofer and a 150-watt amplifier. The SurroundBar 9000 accepts both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1-channel signals through its digital audio inputs and, more importantly, it decodes and outputs them in 5.1 channels as well. Obviously, if you count the drivers, you can see that the speaker doesn't have a dedicated tweeter/midwoofer array for each of the five channels; instead, the SurroundBar 9000 relies on the most advanced DSP engine that Polk has ever put in a soundbar (capable of 160 MIPS, or millions of instructions per second) to analyze the signal and divide it between the different drivers.
Polk was kind enough to provide me with a tech brief that explains everything the DSP engine does, most of which I won't try to reinterpret for you here. Allow me, though, to hit some of the major points. The center tweeter/midwoofer array is dedicated to center-channel reproduction to ensure strong, stable, intelligible dialogue. The three drivers to left of center share front-left and surround-left duties, while the three drivers to the right share front-right and surround-right duties. But wait, there's more. Because dialogue intelligibility was one of Polk's primary goals with this soundbar, the company developed Optimized Center Array technology that actually has all five midwoofers contributing to center-channel performance, using processing techniques that I'm not even going to try to describe to help improve center-channel clarity across a wider listening area. But wait, there's still more. I was surprised when my Polk rep told me that the system crosses over everything at 80Hz to the subwoofer; the company wanted to preserve the THX-recommended 80Hz crossover, but how can you ask a speaker that uses 2.5-inch midwoofers to handle info down to 80Hz? Through a technology that Polk calls Full Complement Bass, all five midwoofers also reproduce the sum of the left, center, right, and surround channels in the range from 80Hz to 200Hz. This is designed to provide the equivalent surface area of a 5.25-inch driver that's better able to handle lower-midrange information. But wait, there's yet still more. The soundbar also employs Polk's SDA Surround technology that applies the principles of stereo crosstalk cancellation to the multi-channel signal to help broaden the soundfield and produce a better sense of envelopment without dedicated surrounds. Polk soundbars do not rely on boundaries to try to direct reflected sounds to certain locations in the room.
With all that tech-speak out of the way, let's talk setup. Frankly, it could not have been easier. I simply set the SurroundBar 9000 on the TV stand in front of my TV, connected my DirecTV receiver and OPPO Blu-ray player to the two optical digital inputs, plugged in the soundbar and sub, and turned them on. The soundbar and sub automatically sync with one another (the manual does include instructions to re-sync the two if they lose their connection, but that never happened during my time with the system). An even easier setup is to run a cable from your TV's optical digital audio output (if it has one, and most do) into one of the bar's digital inputs. However, many TVs will only output HDMI signals (the ones sent from your sources into the TV) in PCM form through the optical output, so you lose the Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 coming straight out of your sources. If you use your TV's Web platform to stream video-on-demand content from the likes of VUDU or Netflix, then you should treat the TV as a source and run that optical digital cable anyhow; you will get available 5.1-channel signals from the TV's internal sources.
I began my evaluation in my family/theater room, which is a more enclosed (but still large) space that measures about 18.75 x 12 x 7.75 feet. I then moved the system to my living room, a wide-open space that feeds into the dining room/kitchen/stairway, which is where I would more likely use a product like this.
The SurroundBar 9000 comes with a tiny IR remote that includes buttons for power, source, mute, overall volume, and subwoofer volume. One nice perk is Polk's Smartbar technology, which allows you to quickly and easily set up your TV or cable/satellite remote to control the soundbar's power, volume, and mute, using the "learn" button on the bar's front panel.
Read about the performance of the Polk SurroundBar 9000 on Page 2.
Since this is a soundbar, I spent a majority of my time sampling film and television sources. I began, as I often do, with the lobby shooting spree from The Matrix (Warner Brothers) on DVD, which is filled with high-frequency effects like gunshots, cracks, and shell casings ringing against tile.
The SurroundBar 9000 produced crisp, clean effects and did a very good dispersing those effects around the soundfield. No, the bar didn't trick me into believing there were surround speakers directly to the sides or behind, but the stage reached very far out into my large rooms, and the effects did reside in fairly distinct locations within that soundstage. Dynamic ability was outstanding, and the subwoofer fleshed out the low-end explosions effectively. As for the midrange, the Full Complement Bass technology helped the soundbar produce fuller mids than I would've expected from 2.5-inch drivers, but you shouldn't expect miracles either. The scene's techno soundtrack did get a little buried under all those high-frequency sounds, lacking the fullness and dynamic presence that it will often have through larger bookshelf speakers.
To really test the subwoofer's prowess, I popped in the depth-charge sequence from U-571 (Universal). Both in my closed theater room and my wide-open living room, I found that the corner was not the ideal placement for this Polk subwoofer. All of that corner-loading caused the bass in this scene to be boomy and muddy, and it tended to overwhelm everything else unless I turned the volume so far down that it lost all impact. I experimented with some different placements and ultimately found the ideal location to be along an open wall behind the seating area. From this location, the subwoofer served cleaner, more defined bass and was still able to show solid low-end prowess, although it certainly couldn't compete with my reference subwoofer that's more than twice as large and costs more than the entire Polk system. With my ideal sub location being behind the seating area, across the room from the soundbar, I gained a new appreciation for the sub's wireless configuration. I simply picked it up and moved it, without having to track down a 20-foot-plus interconnect. I also appreciated Polk's insistence on that 80Hz crossover point; a higher crossover point would've increased the likelihood that I could hear some lower-midrange effects coming from the sub, which is the last thing you want when the subwoofer is sitting behind you. The male vocals in this scene had a solid amount of depth without sounding tinny, hollow, or muddy. The high-frequency cacophony of bursting pipes and shattering glass held together quite well; it wasn't as smooth and easy on the ears as you'll get from the sweetest tweeters, but it did not fall apart into a grating, harsh mess. I was able to push the volume quite high, and the SurroundBar 9000 did not shrink from the challenge of delivering a room-filling experience.
I rented Skyfall (MGM/UA) on Blu-ray and watched the complete film through the SurroundBar 9000. Once again, the system delivered impressive dynamics and a fairly well-balanced presentation, with clean high frequencies, effective bass, and a broad soundfield. The attention Polk gave to dialogue reproduction paid dividends. Daniel Craig's vocals were crisp and full, not diffuse and hollow as deeper male vocals can often be through tiny drivers. That trend continued when I switched over to TV content and took in a lot of NBA, March Madness, and SportsCenter. The Optimized Center Array technology did an effective job of keeping the dialogue focused, even when I moved to other spots around the room, outside the sweet spot.
Next, I moved to two-channel music demos. I confess, I don't carry the highest expectations for active soundbars when it comes to music. The combination of all that digital signal processing and the speaker's cramped quarters doesn't lend itself to a pristine musical experience. While the SurroundBar 9000 is subject to those same limitations, it did an above-average job with music, offering respectable balance across the frequency range, great dynamics, and a large soundstage. Admittedly, you aren't really getting a true stereo presentation, as all eight drivers are usually playing a part. Within the first few bass notes of Ani DiFranco's "Little Plastic Castle," I surmised that I needed to turn the subwoofer down quite a bit to get the more subdued style of bass that I prefer with music. The remote's subwoofer volume controls proved handy to make quick on-the-fly adjustments. Once I achieved a desirable level of bass, the notes had solid presence without being overly boomy, even if the individual notes weren't as defined I can get through my tower speakers.
Male vocals like Tom Waits' growl in "Long Way Home" (from the Big Bad Love soundtrack) and the backing vocals of Peter Gabriel's "Sky Blue" had good meat, and high frequencies were crisp and clean, although not as smooth and airy as you're going to get from a better passive speaker. The SDA Surround technology did help with crosstalk cancellation to improve imaging. In simple tunes like Steve Earle's "Goodbye", the guitar had a distinct location to the side of the vocals. In really dense tracks, though, everything tended to get more crowded in the middle. I wouldn't trade in a good pair of dedicated speakers for this soundbar, but the SurroundBar 9000 delivered a pleasing musical experience.
After testing the SurroundBar 9000 in two different rooms, I actually preferred its performance in my wide-open living room, compared with the enclosed space of my theater room. The overall sound was cleaner, the bass was tighter, and the soundstage was more expansive, with movie surround effects reaching more effectively out into the room. Perhaps this experience was specific to my two rooms. I can say that, since Polk's SDA Surround technology doesn't require you to bounce sounds off of boundaries to create a sense of envelopment, it can create a convincingly large, enveloping presentation in a room with an open floor plan.
In my experience, active soundbars have a certain sound quality that is, expectedly, more "digital" than passive soundbars and other passive speakers that sound more natural, for lack of a better word. I don't know if that's a blatant downside, but it's something to keep in mind. Furthermore, while Polk's Full Complement Bass technology does a good job improving the lower-midrange response of this tiny soundbar, you still should not expect the kind of performance you can get from a larger cabinet and larger drivers.
As with many active soundbars, what you gain in ease of use with the SurroundBar 9000, you lose in flexibility. You can't tweak the crossover or change sound modes. Because there are no HDMI inputs, there's no video pass-through and no support for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks via HDMI. This is a common limitation of many active soundbars in this price range, although at least one company (Yamaha) offers HDMI connections in an $800 bar. I do wish Polk had included Bluetooth music streaming in this model, as you'll find in the SurroundBar 5000. Music reproduction may not be the SurroundBar 9000's top priority, but it performs well enough in this regard that I'd certainly stream my music through it, if I could. Finally, while the bar does have two optical digital audio inputs, it does not have any coaxial digital inputs, so if your source device only has a coaxial audio output, you can't connect it digitally to the SurroundBar 9000.
The soundbar's IR sensor could be sluggish. Sometimes the bar would respond quickly to remote commands; other times, I would need to be slower and more deliberate in my button presses to get a response. That proved true whether I used the supplied Polk remote or one of my own remotes that I had programmed to control the bar. The soundbar's front-panel LED will blink quickly when it receives an IR command, so at least you get some visual feedback to know if a command is being executed.
Comparison and Competition
Active soundbars are hugely popular, and this is a crowded category, even around the $800 price point. Check out our review of the $800 Outlaw OSB-1. Other active soundbars in the same price range include the Harman Kardon SB 30, the Paradigm Soundtrack, the Klipsch HD Theater SB3, and the Yamaha YSP-2200. We've also reviewed a few higher-end active soundbars, such as the MartinLogan Motion Vision ($1,500) and the Definitive Solo Cinema XTR ($1,999). For even more options, please visit Home Theater Review's Soundbar section.
All in all, I came away quite impressed with the Polk SurroundBar 9000, especially its dynamic prowess, its dialogue intelligibility and its broad soundfield with multi-channel soundtracks. Yes, it's still a soundbar and carries some typical soundbar limitations in areas like lower-midrange reproduction and precise imaging; however, Polk has clearly put a lot of thought and effort into pulling the maximum amount of potential out of a minimally-sized speaker, and the hard work has paid off. The SurroundBar 9000 would be a good fit for the theaterphile who is looking to add a higher-performance solution to a secondary room, or for the movie lover who wants the simplicity and aesthetic of a soundbar but also craves a higher level of performance and envelopment than the current crop of two- or three-channel soundbars can deliver.