Polk's SurroundBar may be a sound investment

ON GADGETS

December 09, 2008|By Kevin Hunt | Kevin Hunt,Hartford Courant

Prepackaged surround-sound systems, known as home-theaters-in-a-box, have been voted out of entertainment rooms across America.

A current favorite, the soundbar, eliminates speaker glut. It might look like a 4-foot baguette, but it's really a single low-rider speaker that tries, vainly, to replicate a surround-sound system. It's a little science, a little technology and a little sleight-of-hand.

Polk, a Baltimore speaker company founded in 1972 by Matthew Polk and two other Johns Hopkins University graduates, has experimented with virtual surround since the late 1980s.

The basics haven't changed much. Virtual surround still relies on psychoacoustic technology called head-related transfer function algorithms to deliver spatial cues to the ear. When certain signals are delayed, the ear perceives a wider and deeper sound field. The number-crunching and speaker technology has gotten so good that some of today's soundbars, including Polk's, sound eerily like true surround sound.

Polk does it with a glossy black 44.5-inch SurroundBar that's less than 5 inches deep and only about 4 inches high. Behind a black cloth grille, eight minispeakers - a quartet aligned on either side - appear incapable of producing rock-your-world sound.

Al Baron, Polk's line manager, says it's all in the magnets that move these little (2.5-inch diameter) drivers. Polk uses neodymium 45, a magnet so powerful that Baron compares the bass from these eight little drivers to a single 7.5-inch woofer using a standard magnet. I'm not sure the SurroundBar 360 sounds that big, but it sounds too big to be true.

Deception is any surroundbar's game. It must sound bigger, wider and deeper than a conventional speaker. While four of the SurroundBar 360's speakers, for instance, play center-channel information, one of them will also deliver left-channel and left-surround information. The outer two drivers on either side, using Polk's SDA technology, control sound that the opposite ear hears.

With so much going on, the ears start thinking sound is coming from here, there and everywhere except from behind.

There are other ways to spend $1,200 on a soundbar - the $700 Zvox 425 with a $500 PlayStation 3 that plays both high-definition Blu-ray movies and the kids' favorite video games is a nice alternative - but Polk's latest is as close to real surround as it gets.

surroundbar

Price: $1,200

Hot: A single speaker that almost sounds like five; surprising bass. Mounts on a wall with two screws. Easy setup: Insert power cord, connect DVD receiver to speaker, connect an HDMI cable to your TV.

Not: Expensive. At this price, a real surround system becomes an option.

Available: Best Buy, polkaudio.com

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