Just because you don't want a full surround-sound home audio system doesn't mean you have to settle for the sound coming out of your TV's speakers. That's the pitch behind TV add-on speakers, which are stripped-down versions of sound bar home theater systems that offer minimal connectivity, but promise a significant upgrade over your TV's tinny speakers. Polk Audio's SurroundBar SDA IHT is the company's entry-level sound bar, and it offers just the bare essentials, with just one analog audio input, no remote, and no front display. If all you need is a dead-simple TV add-on speaker, we did like the SurroundBar IHT SDA's subtle design; the balance between the wireless subwoofer and the surround bar was also well above average. On the other hand, we found it hard to accept many of the missing features when competitors like the Sony HT-CT100 (three HDMI inputs, $250 street price), and JVC TH-BA1 (three inputs, $300 street price) offer much more for the same price.
In an era where glossy finishes tend to dominate, the SurroundBar SDA IHT's understated design ethos is a welcome relief. The front is dominated by a dark gray speaker grille, while the rest of the cabinet features a matte gray finish. Two cradles are included to prop up the sound bar, although the bar itself has rubber feet and will sit flat on a TV stand. The SurroundBar SDA IHT's low-key aesthetics are a step up compared with other sound bars, although we still prefer the pedestal design of Zvox's Z-Base 525, which allows it to disappear even further under your TV, and thus won't block your TV's remote sensor.
On top of the sound bar are a few controls, including volume, mute power, and a remote-pairing button. One feature conspicuously missing from the SurroundBar SDA IHT's front panel is any kind of display, aside from a colored LED to give feedback. The lack of a display helps the product's looks but detracts from its usability. When you're increasing the volume, there's no way to know if you're at maximum volume or if there's still some headroom. We preferred the LCD display on the JVC TH-BA1, which would light up when active, but then go dark when you finish making adjustments.
The other major component of the SurroundBar SDA IHT is the wireless subwoofer, which shares the sound bar's matte gray styling. It's a smallish for a sub, and the controls are located on the back.
If you're searching the box for a remote, stop. The SDA doesn't include one, instead requiring you to pair your TV's remote with the sound bar.
Programming the SDA to respond to your TV remotes signals is pretty easy and takes just a couple of minutes to complete. The thinking here is that since you still have to use your TV's remote it makes sense to also use it to control the SurroundBar SDA's volume, mute, and power on/off functions. It's not a bad idea--and in some ways it's easier than using a separate remote--but occasionally the arrangement didn't work as planned, with the volume controls adjusting both the TV's volume and the SurroundBar's volume. Some TVs allow you to permanently turn the speaker off, but it's not always an option. We thought Polk should include a remote to use in home theaters where it's a better solution.
Because the SDA IHT only has one audio input (more on this later), setup is a little different than on competing products. If you only have one device in your home theater (say, a cable box), you can connect it directly to the SDA IHT. If you have more than one device, like most home theaters, Polk's solution is to connect your devices directly to your TV, then connect the TV's analog stereo output to the SDA IHT.
Depending on your point of view, this is either a clever simplifying design or a workaround for the underfeatured Polk. In some ways it's easier to connect everything directly to your TV, because when you change inputs on your TV, you won't need to change inputs on your sound bar. On the other hand, it's worth pointing out that any sound bar home theater system with multiple inputs can use this same connection scheme and also offer the capability to connect devices directly to the sound bar.