Polk Audio XRt12 XM Tuner
that years of working in the automotive industry taught me is that robots ensure
consistency and nothing more. Quality can be consistently good or consistently bad, but
unless something goes wrong, itll always be the same. The level of quality depends,
to a great extent, on how well the machine is programmed.
Im convinced that, sometime during the last 30 years,
robots took over FM radio. You have to admit that theyre consistent -- consistently
bad. One local station is so consistent that they frequently play the same song during my
half-hour run at the gym -- three or four days in a row. Would a human do this? I think
not -- at least, not anyone who actually cares about music. I picture a bunch of dark
suits sitting around a conference table poring over the latest surveys, demographics, and
ratings results to decide what it is we want to hear. I bet most of them dont even
listen to the music they put on the air.
The truth is that FM has been taken over by corporate
America, with the result that the independents are all but dead, and along with them most
of the innovative and cutting-edge programming. By the time you hear anything coming out
of your radio today, its been programmed, processed, and homogenized to make sure
its just like everything else. This is no way to run a radio station. Judging by the
droves of people abandoning FM as a music source, it seems a lot of you agree. Then along
comes satellite radio and the subject of this review, the Polk XRt12 XM tuner ($329 USD).
What is XM Radio?
For the few of you who havent heard about it, XM
Radio is a satellite radio service featuring more than 130 channels of digital music,
talk, news, sports, and weather. The XRt12 is Polks implementation of an XM tuner in
a high-quality, standard-sized home audio component. XM programming can be delivered to
your home or car via the magic of modern science almost anywhere in the country for the
nominal monthly fee of $9.95 for the first receiver, plus $6.95 for each additional
The initial reaction Ive heard from most people is
that they dont want to pay for radio programming, yet approximately 75% of US
households get their television programming from a cable or satellite provider. Most
people I know pay $50 or more per month for television programming, which makes satellite
radio look like a relative bargain. I dont think the problem is the monthly fee as
much as it is most peoples uncertainty about whether theyd like or use the
service enough to make it worth the money. Until just a few months ago, I counted myself
If you love music, you want satellite radio. Period. As far
as Im concerned, this is the coolest thing since sliced bread. No, its way
cooler than that. Really. How many times have you complained about the sad state of FM
radio? I find that, even when Im in Chicago, Im constantly searching for a
different station. Then, when I finally find a station thats playing something I
like, they launch into ten minutes of commercials and inane chatter thats enough to
drive me over the edge and off the dial. After a few minutes of meaningless blather, I
reach for the Scan button before Im driven to a senseless act of road rage. Worse, I
live a couple of hours outside the city, where the options quickly dwindle and the
chatter grows increasingly mind-numbing.
With satellite radio, you can kiss all that goodbye. All 68
of the music channels offered on XM are commercial-free, and the DJs, refreshingly, seem
more interested in the music than in hearing the sound of their own voices. You no longer
have to endure screaming car commercials, "location promos," or talking heads
who spend their lives trying to say something clever. When XMs DJs do talk, they
seem to actually know something about music. The media conglomerates that run FM radio
should be afraid. Very afraid.
Why the XRt12?
I can hear the question: If I can get a portable unit that
I can carry from one location to another, why would I want a component thats tied to
a home system?
First, theres the convenience of not having to carry
the unit back and forth between car and house. If you dont remember to bring the
unit in when you come home, its not likely that youre going to make a trip
back out to the car to get it.
Second, theres sound quality. The digital-to-analog
converters used in portable units are selected more for price considerations than for
sound quality. In the XRt12 Polk uses Burr-Brown DACs, which are generally considered
among the best available.
Third is more convenience. The XRt12 has a video output so
that you can view artist and title information on your TV instead of having to go over to
the portable unit to see what it is youre listening to.
Fourth is more sound quality. Portable units typically use
inferior headphone amps to bring the signal up to a level that can be handled by a
preamplifier or receiver. The Polk XRt12 uses a true preamplifier circuit that provides
better dynamic range and a signal thats lower in distortion and noise.
Fifth is convenience again. (See a pattern developing
here?) How about a 12V trigger so that an appropriately equipped receiver or preamp can
automatically turn the unit on and off? Or the RS-232 output so that you can tie the XRt12
into any one of a number of whole-house audio-distribution systems?
Sixth is, um, sound quality. Surprised? The XRt12 has
coaxial and optical digital outputs so that the pure digital signal can be passed along,
allowing the full use of the digital processing and subwoofer crossover functions of a
receiver or preamp.
I think you get the picture. Suffice it to say that the
Polk XRt12 offers a number of advantages that fully justify its price and status as a
dedicated tuner in your home system.
Setup and Use
The Polk XRt12 measures 17"W x 2.3"H x
10.5"D, weighs five pounds, and comes in any color so long as its black. With
the possible exception of the antenna, installation was about as simple as installing a
basic FM tuner. The tuner is plugged into the receiver or preamp via a pair of analog RCA
cables or an optical or coaxial digital cable. In most cases installation of the small
antenna will be a simple matter of dropping it in place and aiming it until you get the
best reading on the built-in signal-strength meter. Also included are a full-function
remote control, RCA cables for stereo audio and composite video (for the onscreen
display), an optical digital cable, an owners manual, and an XM Radio
The antenna is the only possible sticking point --
interference from buildings or trees can degrade the signal. However, the XM signal is not
nearly as finicky as a satellite television installation. Polk suggests a clear view of
the southern sky, but I was able to get a solid signal through the walls and roof of my
brick-and-frame house by simply placing the antenna atop the TV and pointing it in the
right direction. This means that for many of us, a window or exterior installation may not
be necessary. A concrete-and-steel high-rise apartment building is another matter
entirely, but if you live in one, fear not. XM has installed signal repeaters in most
major metropolitan areas that eliminate the need for a view of the southern sky. City
dwellers should be able to get a signal with minimal effort from any location with a
Once the physical installation is complete, the last step
is to log on to the Internet or call XM to activate the service. There is a one-time
service fee for activation ($9.95 online, $14.95 by phone), but no contractual obligation
that locks you in to continuing service for a preset period of time, as there is with
satellite TV services. Voilą! The system is ready to use.
Once the XRt12 is up and running, youll find much to
like. To me, 68 channels of commercial-free music make a pretty convincing argument in
favor of satellite radio. However, on top of the music channels are another 45 channels of
news, talk, sports, weather, comedy, and childrens programming. You also get
continuous local weather broadcasts for 21 major markets. The XRt12 includes enough memory
for 20 channel presets.
For someone like me, this level of programming is almost
unimaginable. In my area I can get, at most, a dozen stations with any sort of regularity,
mostly with classic rock or Top 40 pop/country/hip-hop programming that gets old very
quickly. The only bright spot on the entire spectrum is the local campus-run,
jazz-oriented NPR station. This is the whole point of XM. With 68 channels of music on
tap, youre free to explore far beyond the boundaries of what corporate radio has the
will and foresight to deliver. The only question that remained was whether reality would
measure up to promise.
Living with the XRt12
My answer is a simple Yes! XM Radios channels
cover virtually every musical genre, from classical to hip-hop, decade by decade for the
last 60 years. Within each genre are three or more channel selections, each with a
different take on the subject at hand. For example, the Jazz category includes
Franks Place, which plays standards from the likes of Frank Sinatra and Billie
Holliday. Real Jazz plays traditional, mostly instrumental jazz. Bluesville plays
blues. Beyond Jazz plays modern and experimental jazz, while Watercolors is lighter jazz
fare. With all these selections, the hardest part some days is deciding what Im in
the mood to listen to. If you cant find something you like among XMs 68
channels, then you need to give up on music altogether.
Navigating the channels is simple. Scrolling to the left or
right with the remote pages through the various category groupings. Scrolling up or down
selects the channels within a group. Pressing Enter tunes in the selected channel. It
doesnt get much easier.
While I lack a reference to validate Polks claim of
better sound quality than portable XM units, I can say that the XRt12s construction
and electronics will squeeze every last drop of performance out of the medium that it is
currently possible to squeeze. Overall, I found the sound quality excellent. While still a
notch below that of CD, it was clearly superior to MP3 and FM broadcasts.
On Taking a Chance on Love [CD, Sony 92495], Jane
Monheits voice is bright with lots of air. Her take on "I Wont
Dance," as broadcast on Real Jazz, had an excellent sense of spatial imaging and,
unlike a lot of MP3s, no serious compression artifacts. However, much of the air was gone,
and there was a very slight congestion and loss of brilliance in her voice. This was also
noticeable in the decay of snare-drum beats and in the loss of some of the shimmer from
A quick sound-quality comparison with DirecTVs Music
Choice channels was over almost before it began. While I cant say there was a huge
difference in the overall sound quality for background listening, the Music Choice
channels have always sounded flat and lifeless to me, lacking in dynamics and spatial
imaging. The Polk XRt12 confirmed that perception almost immediately. I happily switched
back to XM Radio and ended the test.
We may be witnessing the reshaping of radio broadcasting as
we know it. In 1980, who would have thought that something like cable and satellite would
grab 75% of the market for television service delivery? Considering the limited options
presented today by FM stations, I dont see why the same isnt possible for
satellite radio. If the execs at the media conglomerates arent shaking in their
Florsheims, they should be.
The Polk XRt12 XM tuner is a no-brainer. A lot of equipment
cycles through our house over the course of a year, but this unit has completed a one-way
trip. Even if I wanted to send it back, my wife wouldnt let me. Its sound quality is
good enough to satisfy my audiophile tendencies, and the continuous voyage of musical
discovery is enough to keep both of us settled into our listening chairs for hours on end.
I dont care where you live or what your musical tastes are -- the XRt12 should be on
your short list to audition.
For several years now, the difficulty of finding new and
interesting music has stifled the growth of my musical interest and library. Im
happy to report that the drought is over.
...Jeff Van Dyne
Price of equipment reviewed