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.