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Published February 15, 2005

 

Polk Audio XRt12 XM Tuner

One thing 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, it’ll always be the same. The level of quality depends, to a great extent, on how well the machine is programmed.

I’m convinced that, sometime during the last 30 years, robots took over FM radio. You have to admit that they’re 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 don’t 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, it’s been programmed, processed, and homogenized to make sure it’s 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 haven’t 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 Polk’s 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 receiver.

The initial reaction I’ve heard from most people is that they don’t 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 don’t think the problem is the monthly fee as much as it is most peoples’ uncertainty about whether they’d like or use the service enough to make it worth the money. Until just a few months ago, I counted myself among them.

If you love music, you want satellite radio. Period. As far as I’m concerned, this is the coolest thing since sliced bread. No, it’s way cooler than that. Really. How many times have you complained about the sad state of FM radio? I find that, even when I’m in Chicago, I’m constantly searching for a different station. Then, when I finally find a station that’s playing something I like, they launch into ten minutes of commercials and inane chatter that’s 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 I’m 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 XM’s 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 that’s tied to a home system?

First, there’s the convenience of not having to carry the unit back and forth between car and house. If you don’t remember to bring the unit in when you come home, it’s not likely that you’re going to make a trip back out to the car to get it.

Second, there’s 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 you’re 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 that’s 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 it’s 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 owner’s manual, and an XM Radio channel-reference card.

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 window.

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. Voil! The system is ready to use.

Once the XRt12 is up and running, you’ll 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 children’s 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, you’re 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 Radio’s 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 Frank’s 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 I’m in the mood to listen to. If you can’t find something you like among XM’s 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 doesn’t get much easier.

While I lack a reference to validate Polk’s claim of better sound quality than portable XM units, I can say that the XRt12’s 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 Monheit’s voice is bright with lots of air. Her take on "I Won’t 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 cymbals.

A quick sound-quality comparison with DirecTV’s Music Choice channels was over almost before it began. While I can’t 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.

Conclusions

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 don’t see why the same isn’t possible for satellite radio. If the execs at the media conglomerates aren’t 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 wouldn’t 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 don’t 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. I’m happy to report that the drought is over.

...Jeff Van Dyne

Price of equipment reviewed


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