These days it’s easy enough to reproduce a stunning picture at home–flat-panel display plus Blu-ray equals good.
Unfortunately the equation for getting theater-quality audio at home is a little more advanced. There’s the receiver. Or the processor plus the amplifier. Plus the speakers (how many do I need?). Plus the subwoofer (or four). And the cables. And where am I going to put all this stuff?
Luckily the folks at Polk Audio have developed the SurroundBar 6000, a quick-and-easy solution for producing excellent sound at home that doesn’t require its users to have the bank account of Mark Zuckerberg or a doctorate in audio engineering.
The SurroundBar 6000 is a 280-watt (total power), single-speaker surround sound system with a 120-watt wireless powered subwoofer, designed to complement the latest paper-thin flat-panel displays. Polk understands that hardcore audiophiles are likely to always opt for a tricked out system with a gazillion speakers and is marketing the SurroundBar primarily as a companion for secondary displays. At only 3-3/4 inches high by 35 inches wide, and only two inches deep, the SurroundBar should look great underneath a wall-mounted television. And it’ll sound great great, too, because Polk has put the same effort into its design as the company does with its flagship satellite and floor-standing speakers. But best of all, the SurroundBar 6000 is a cinch to setup. In fact, you’re likely to spend more time unpacking and discarding the protective cardboard around the speaker than you’ll spend setting it up. Even the most technically-challenged user should have no trouble getting the SurroundBar up and running. It’s as simple as this:
1. Plug in the SurroundBar and its wireless subwoofer.
2. Attach an optical cable to the SurroundBar and connect it to the source of your choice.
3. Flip the master power switch on both the SurroundBar and the subwoofer.
No, really. That’s it.
The SurroundBar’s wireless subwoofer and main speaker are even pre-paired at the factory, so there’s no need for syncing. The unit does have a sync button in case something goes wrong, but I doubt you’ll ever need to look for it.
The SurroundBar 6000 also comes with a simple remote that should be sufficient for most users. The remote is rather small, however, and I did find that it would sometimes miss a command on the first click. For those who can’t stand the thought of another control device cluttering up the coffee table, Polk has programmed a handy “learn” function into the SurroundBar. With most electronics, users must teach their universal or cable remote to play nice with their new components. Polk has reversed this process, though, and it’s the SurroundBar that will learn to function with whatever remote you use. Polk spells out this procedure in the SurroundBar’s manual (probably the first and only time you’ll need to consult the product’s paperwork), but I found this process far easier than the typical button-mashing and code-finding required for most remotes.
Okay, so the setup is a breeze, but I’m a skeptic at heart. How can one speaker recreate an engaging surround experience?
And so with this cynical mindset I decide to throw the SurroundBar a true challenge right out of the gate: Christopher Nolan’s dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream flick, Inception. The mere physics of the film provide a challenge for any multi-speaker system, not to mention for a setup like the SurroundBar 6000, where every bullet whizzing by, every punch, every kick, and every runaway locomotive relies on essentially one speaker.
Skip directly to the point in the story where our gang of subconscious spies first enters the mind of Robert Fischer to give the SurroundBar a test. There’s a lot going on here to say the least: torrential rain, a car chase, a shootout, plenty of dialogue, and Hans Zimmer’s pounding score just for good measure. If the SurroundBar is going to flinch, it would most certainly do so here. But the speaker doesn’t miss a beat. In fact, I venture to say that as the action ramps up and the gunfire seems to come from every direction, you’ll have to look over your shoulder several times to make sure a satellite surround speaker hasn’t sprouted out of the wall behind your chair. All the while, the subwoofer provides a real backbone to these fast-paced scenes that a television’s speaker could never achieve.
The SurroundBar 6000 also does a fine job with another one of my favorite demo scenes: the bank robbery in Michael Mann’s Heat, once again planting the audience at the center of the action, keeping pace with each burst of ammunition, while the subwoofer provides a great punch to Elliot Goldenthal’s pulse-pounding score.
So the SurroundBar can handle scenes with lots of bullets, but what about those talkie pictures that are heavy on dialogue and light on action? I could think of no better test than David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network. One needs to look no further than the opening scene of the film–a brilliant piece of writing by Sorkin–to see (or more accurately hear) that the SurroundBar is no slouch when it comes to dialogue. For my money, there’s as much going on sonically in this scene as there is during the cranial commandeering of Inception, yet the actors here are simply sitting across a table from one another. In this scene, Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara are talking–not really to each other, as their characters are clearly having two conversations at once–in a crowded and noisy college bar while the White Stripes’ “Ball And Biscuit” plays on a jukebox in the background. With all those elements happening at once, a dedicated center channel seems essential for handling the dialogue. Thankfully the SurroundBar 6000 renders each word cleanly and clearly, but also has enough room for the ambient noise and music.
The White Stripes’ inclusion in the opening scene of The Social Network got me feeling a little nostalgic for their tunes, but also curious to see how the SurroundBar would handle music in a concert setting, so I popped in the Stripes’ superb concert film and documentary Under Great White Northern Lights. “Icky Thump” is a perfect example of what the SurroundBar can do with a screeching guitar and a pounding floor tom. The Stripes’ two-piece configuration is simple, although their sound is anything but. The weight and size of their music screams for multiple speakers, but the SurroundBar does a fine job keeping up with Jack and Meg’s frenetic energy.
The band’s treatment of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” also rings through beautifully. The SurroundBar 6000 picks up the song’s quiet moments as the audience sings along, and doesn’t miss a step as Jack launches into a trademark screech, and a guttural howl that causes a bit of feedback. The SurroundBar may not recreate that ear-bleeding experience of standing in the front row, but it will certainly transport viewers from the couch to the concert hall for a taste of a thunderous live performance.
The 6000 also handles another type of thunder: NASCAR racing. Any NASCAR experience at home is a far cry from the sheer seismic sensation of attending a race in person. But the SurroundBar brings a bit of that rumble to the living room. The subwoofer springs to surprising life during the trademark “Crank It Up” segments on Fox’s broadcasts–where the announcers shut up and allow the cars to do all the talking. It’s not the sort of rumble you’d get from a pair of thousand-watt 12-inch monsters parked in each corner, but if you’re upgrading directly from TV speakers, it’s a shocking amount of oomph.
That’s enough about the SurroundBar’s performance (it should be clear by this point that the SurroundBar has a lot to offer). Polk’s commitment to quality as well as customer service bears mentioning, as well. Soon after getting the SurroundBar 6000 going, I noticed a cracking and popping sound when the speaker was connected directly to my television’s optical output. This problem was eventually followed by a total loss of sound while the SurroundBar was connected to my cable box. I eventually diagnosed the problem as a loose optical connection. Polk was quick to replace the unit and explain that they were eager to see what had caused the problem. Polk thinks enough of its products that the company approaches a review unit the same as they would a SurroundBar 6000 purchased by a cash-paying customer.
Luckily only the first unit suffers from audio drop-outs, but the optical connection on the second still doesn’t fit as snug as I would expect. Since the novice home theater users seems to be a main target for the SurroundBar, I don’t know that such an audience will have the inclination to fuss with loose wires on a product that is otherwise very easy to use.
The SurroundBar 6000 also suffers by only having one optical connection. Polk’s product manager, Al Baron, told me that the company expects most SurroundBar users to connect the speaker directly to their television. By doing so, many users may miss out on one of the best attributes of the SurroundBar: its ability to decode Dolby Digital audio. Some televisions might be able to pass a Dolby Digital signal, but my set isn’t one of them. In order to enjoy the SurroundBar’s Dolby Digital decoding, I had to connect the SurroundBar directly to my Blu-ray player or cable box. It would be nice if both of these components could be connected at the same time. Mr. Baron also told me that future models may feature HDMI connections, but until that time, the single optical connection is frustrating.
These are minor quibbles, though, for a product that is largely a pleasure to use.
Home theater enthusiasts will probably insist that bigger is better when it comes to speakers. And I’m sure they’ll argue at length about why nine speakers is better than two. But Polk’s SurroundBar 6000 IHT deserves consideration by anyone looking to do an at-home upgrade. Its super-simple setup just can’t be dismissed, and most users will find the SurroundBar a perfect complement for their secondary display–an unobtrusive but plenty-powerful companion for a flat-panel in the living room or bedroom. The SurroundBar 6000 does pack enough power, however, to serve certain main systems quite well. Some users may find that their media room isn’t conducive to a multi-speaker system without knocking out a few walls or running miles of cable. The SurroundBar’s true “plug-and-play” installation just might prove to be the perfect solution for those media rooms that are light on square footage. It’s also great for users who don’t have the time, money, or patience to solve the multi-speaker audio equation, but still don’t want to settle for the lackluster sound trickling from their television’s tiny (and oftentimes tinny) internal speaker.