Polk Audio is trying its hands at making gaming accessories, and one of its first big products is also one of the first big peripherals for the Xbox One. The N1 Surroundbar is a $299.95 (direct) soundbar designed for the Xbox One and Xbox 360 with dedicated Halo and Forza-optimized audio modes. The N1 Surroundbar sounds full and clear, even if the lack of a separate subwoofer hurts low-end performance.
The N1 avoids the usual design of a rectangular black slab by instead favoring an inverted trapezoidal frame. It’s available in flat black, which compliments the Xbox One, and brown-and-steel, which looks a bit nicer outside the context of a game system. The front is dominated by horizontal plastic slats that serve as the soundbar’s grille. The N1 is held up on two small, stable brown legs that can be removed if you want to wall-mount it. The bar measures 4 by 39.25 by 4.5 inches (HWD), giving it a relatively tall profile that still shouldn’t block your standing HDTV.
The top edge of the soundbar holds Power, Learn, Source, Bluetooth, Mute, and Volume Up/Down buttons. The Learn button puts the N1 into learning mode so you can program it to recognize your HDTV’s remote commands. The Source button toggles between the three wired inputs, and the Bluetooth button switches to the Bluetooth source. A row of LEDs sit under the controls, showing if the soundbar is turned on and which source is selected. The LEDs can light up blue, red, or purple, and all information is shown through different patterns of lights. The volume and bass adjustments are fairly clear as single bars, but switching between the modes is registered only by a quick light animation in red or blue for the gaming modes (the red and blue buttons on the remote) or different purple patterns for the movie and music modes, making it tough to tell at a glance just what you’ve selected. The back holds, facing down, optical, coaxial, and analog audio inputs, a subwoofer output, and the power connector.
A credit card-sized membrane remote lets you control the N1 from across the room. While it lacks the Learn button of the soundbar itself, it has all other controls, including individual buttons for each source, Volume and Bass Up/Down, Mute, Power, and four Mode buttons. The rightmost modes are Movie and Music, shown by a movie camera and a musical note. The leftmost modes are Halo and Forza, shown by the Halo and Forza Motorsport series logos. A Game mode would be natural, and even different game modes for different genres like sports and shooters would make sense, but Halo and Forza-specific modes are just puzzling. Neither game series is necessarily known for its sound design, and Halo isn’t actually available in any form on the Xbox One yet.
I tested the N1 by playing some Forza Motorsport 5 and Killer Instinct on the Xbox One, switching between Forza and Halo modes to determine how each work. Effectively, Halo mode is a surround-sound-simulating mode that broadens the dynamic range and employs audio processing to produce a larger sound field, which can give the impression of side and rear audio depending on the geometry of your room. Forza mode is a more stereo-sounding mode, focusing the audio effects and emphasizing the mid-lows bring out the sound of the engine when you’re driving in Forza. The Halo mode can be safely considered the main gaming mode, and the Forza mode should be considered only if the Halo mode sounds off to you. The Movie and Music modes work similarly, with Movie mode producing a simulated surround sound (but not expanding the dynamic range quite as much as the Halo mode, making it seem less “loud”) and Music mode offering a pure stereo sound.
Killer Instinct sounds loud and bombastic, just as it should, with the utterly rad theme music offering plenty of energy and the strikes of the fights and the screams of the announcer sounding punchy and forceful. Forza Motorsport 5 sounded slightly odd in Halo mode, with the rumbling of the engine and the simulated surround sound producing a slightly underwater-sounding effect. In Forza mode, though, the roar of my Honda S2000 as I lost races was full, gritty, and satisfying, even without the larger-sounding effect of the Halo mode. In both games and modes, while the Halo mode made the sound seem fuller and the Forza mode brought out the low-mids of the car engine, neither was particularly heavy in bass or produced a real sense of low-end force. That’s a common issue for soundbars without separate subwoofers, and the inclusion of a subwoofer output helps make the N1 more flexible for its size and price range.
For a gaming-oriented soundbar, the N1 offers respectable music playback. The electro-industrial sound of The Prodigy’s “Their Law” sounded forceful and clear, with the electronic beats and harsh guitar rendered as properly contrasting textures. David Bowie’s “Rock ‘n Roll Suicide” was similarly solid, with Bowie’s vocals crisp and full against the guitar. Monster Magnet’s “Negasonic Teenage Wasteland” had just the right rough edge that defines the band’s slightly sludgy sound, and drums, riffs, and vocals all sounded full and clear. In all cases, I had to experiment with the bass adjustments to get the best sound; if the bass is set too loud, strings can completely overwhelm vocals. Our bass test track, The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” showed the N1′s relative bass weakness; at top volumes, the kick drum started to sound slightly crunchy, and the bass synth notes didn’t quite have the forcefulness expected of good bass reproduction.
A soundbar made specifically for gaming can potentially be gimmicky and overpriced, but the Polk N1 Surroundbar fortunately avoids that by simply being a very good soundbar. Even if you’re not a gamer, its modest price, eye-catching design, Bluetooth support, and powerful sound make it a good choice to enhance your home theater’s sound, especially if you want to break free of the drab black rectangles of most soundbars. The Xbox tie-in is silly and the two game modes look out of place and risk looking dated in a few years, but the soundbar’s performance and features make it worth keeping on your radar. If you want more bass for the same price, the Editors’ Choice Sony HT-CT260 features the same Bluetooth flexibility and an included wireless subwoofer to round out its low end.
|Connections||3.5mm, Optical, Coaxial Digital|
|Wireless Remote Control||Yes|
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc