“I think the surround bar is the home-theater-in-a-box of the future,” famed speaker designer Matthew Polk told journalists during day-long sessions in New York Thursday where Polk demoed his latest system, the SurroundBar 360.
Noting the decline in popularity of the home-theater-in-a-box concept, Polk auditioned the two-piece surround bar system at the Grand Hyatt hotel in New York using a range of audio/video material from early two-channel Bonnie Raitt to 5.1-channel Jake Gyllenhaal and friends as they escaped thundering tidal waves rushing over nearby Manhattan landmarks. (It can be a little unnerving to watch the New York Public Library flood with water when it’s only a couple of blocks away.)
Polk’s SurroundBar 360 combines a 44 ½-inch wide speaker system—eight drivers total—matched with a compact control center bundling an amplifier, processor, AM/FM tuner, DVD/CD player and switcher. Polk uses a proprietary algorithm combining signal processing and “acoustical geometry” to produce a three-dimensional surround field that exists on the original recording. What you hear is essentially the same as if sounds were actually coming from all around and behind you, the company says.
The Bar connects to the main unit via a single 15-foot cable and accepts audio inputs via RCA cable, optical digital, coaxial digital and on the video side from S-Video, component video and HDMI cables. A USB input completes the jack pack. Connect your cable box and you’re good to go.
The sound bar, or surround bar, concept isn’t new. Companies including Polk cousin Definitive Technology, Mitsubishi, Yamaha, Pioneer, Denon, Boston Acoustics and others are among the companies testing the waters. The bar-shaped sound solutions only make sense in an environment where TVs hang on the wall and are getting thinner by the week.
Polk saw the need for the product in his own home and began working on the project while his architect wife, Amy, was designing their new home. It was during the 9-year design of the house—and the subsequent sea change in the world of TV from deep to flat—that Polk began noodling around the concept of speakers to match. “I had to think about how my wife was going to feel about fitting five speakers in a room that she had designed. She’s an architect. I realized that’s not happening,” Polk said. “So I asked myself, ‘could I really do surround sound from one surround bar?’ It took me five years.”
The SurroundBar 360 will be available in September at stores including Best Buy, Tweeter, Fry’s Electronics, and Circuit City, where it’s worth getting a demo to hear just how much better sound can be from a flat-screen TV—without devoting any floor space to boxy loudspeakers. It will also be sold on Amazon and Crutchfield in the online world. Suggested retail price is $1,199.
The price is a bit steep considering that the DVD player doesn’t offer the latest technology, Blu-ray Disc. Polk said design of the system began prior to availability of the Blu-ray technology and adding it would have extended development time of the project. He added that the high-res technology couldn’t be incorporated into the system and still meet the $1,200 price.
Polk, for one, isn’t sorry. He described the current state of the Blu-ray market as “a mess. You have three versions of one disc,” he said, referring to Blu-ray, Bonus View and BD Live discs. “Consumers who buy a Blu-ray player expect that their players should be able to play all the discs.” Don’t rule out a Blu-ray player in future versions of SurroundBar, though. Meantime, says Polk, “If you want Blu-ray, buy the PS3. It’s the only player out there that will play all the discs.”
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