Polk Audio XRT12 XM Satellite Radio Tuner 
Home Theater Accessories Accessories
Written by Matthew Evert   
Tuesday, 01 March 2005

Satellite television has been at the epicenter of the home theater boom for more than a decade and now enjoys over 20,000,000 subscribers between the two major services. Satellite radio is banking on following in DirecTV and Dish Network’s path. Anyone who watches Wall Street or has been to a car dealer lately now knows XM and Sirius are the two primary players in the satellite radio market. XM reports having over three million subscribers. Sirius recently topped one million. Many car radios support one of the two satellite radio services, if not both. Portable XM radio players, as small as the size of a deck of cards, are available to consumers at all sorts of mass market consumer electronics locations. With the unquestioned boom in satellite radio, the consumers who have been forgotten are the serious audio enthusiasts. Until now.

Polk Audio has been a lauded brand name in home and car loudspeakers for over 30 years. Now they are expanding into consumer electronics in the form of standalone XM radio tuners for audio and home theater systems. The XRT12 is the first attempt at a XM satellite tuner for the enthusiast who truly cares about high-quality sound. The XRT12 retails for $299.

The XRT12 is a slick-looking audio component. At 17 inches wide and 10-and-a-half inches deep, this black beauty will fit right into the most sophisticated of systems ranging from guys with receivers to massive racks of gear designed by the most technically advanced CEDIA installers. Weighing only five pounds and sized at only two-and-one-third inches in height, the XRT12 is the most petite component in my rack. No complaints from me about that detail, frankly it is a welcome relief to finally have a component that does not need a sumo wrestler as a spotter to pick up. I actually had a TiVo that was less than seventeen inches wide and much shallower than the XRT12, making it tough to stack other components on it. Polk managed to avoid that issue with this tuner and features some nice rubber feet to allow for convenient stacking.

The construction is true to Polk standards. Like my reference LSI15 loudspeakers, this tuner is made with durable parts and has a sexy finish. The aluminum chassis and case fit together snugly and the front buttons are firmly seated with no excess wiggle to them. The buttons are divided into two sections. The first features gray buttons that control the method of display, menu, memory functions and selection (enter). The second section is for the two black plastic two-way rocker switches that control the category and manual tuning functions. The power button is integrated with a cool blue LED to match the blue display for an added “wow” factor. As a bonus, my amp and preamp rock the stylish blue LEDs as well.

The front panel of the tuner is surprisingly useful and one of my favorite parts of this player. The front panel buttons allow you most of the same functionality that the remote does and is complemented with a large blue monochrome display. I am a big fan of companies that put all the functions of the remote into the front panel, since remotes tend to get eaten by couches. There is no greater AV blunder than a shameless act of couch diving for a remote when you have a VIP guest over. The four-line blue display will communicate the channel name, channel number, the artist names, song title and XM signal strength in its default state. If you wish to see the information presented larger, you can tap the display button and it will enlarge the aforementioned information and scroll it across the display. At eight feet away, you can still make out what is playing without issue. Unless you have better than 20/20 vision or have telescopes for eyes, I would suggest using the scrolling version if you are surfing channels from the couch. The third option is to use the composite video out on the back of the unit to connect to your TV, so you can display the information there instead. The content will scroll up your screen and you will feel like you are watching a Bloomberg ticker tape, but with Flock of Seagulls floating across instead of Google stock prices.

The input and output connectors are well organized on the back of the unit and offer the basics to getting the XRT12 dialed into your home theater system. As mentioned before, a composite video output is provided to connect to your TV. For those with home theater control systems like Crestron or AMX, a RS-232 connector is provided on this tuner to allow for easy integration. Analog audio outputs are provided to pump two-channel XM radio to your preamp or receiver. Although premium grade D/A converters are used in this tuner, both a coaxial and an optical digital output are offered, just in case you want to use an external D/A converter instead. This is a great option, considering there are thousands of older D/A converters in the hands of enthusiasts around the world that have been shelved since the inception of multi-channel media.

Polk has carefully selected high-grade audiophile components within this tuner, which is not to be confused with the more cost-constrained portable XM tuners. A Burr-Brown D/A converter proves that this tuner is designed for audio enthusiasts. Each significant function (such as the power supply, display, preamp, tuner, etc.) is allocated its own separate circuit board, so crosstalk between them is minimized. The high gain preamp is not only quiet but also offers negligible distortion to the sound, so you are hearing only what the artist (and XM) intended. The preamp can also match (using the analog outputs) the output of your other audio sources. This line out level function allows you to minimize the noticeable change in volume when switching from one source to the next.

The tuner hooks up just like a normal radio tuner would. The exception is that you need to use a special high-gain XM home antenna, which is included with the Polk tuner. The antenna has a black square face that sits on an adjustable stand. In my set-up, I just had to place the stand on top of my amp and I got enough signal to party. The 20-foot of antenna cable allows plenty of flexibility if you needed to mount the antenna in an adjacent room or screw it into a wall. You do not need to place the antenna outside, as you do with car stereos. There is an antenna locator option in the menu of the tuner that is very helpful in figuring out where to place the antenna in the house. The easiest way to configure and use the device is by using the remote. The remote is very functional and the buttons are intuitively laid out. The “XM” button is the “enter” button for the remote. Apart from this curious anomaly, the remote and front panel buttons were both consistent to use. The remote adds a number pad to jump quickly to your favorite stations. The category arrow buttons were my favorite to use, since I could skip to all the rock or hip-hop station groupings, rather have to memorize their channel numbers. If you really like a station, there are 20 presets that you can use to lock them into memory. There is also a feature I liked that stores the last 10 tracks that you listened to into memory, so that you can see artist and song title and go buy the album later. This feature is great for those who listen to and/or buy a lot of music and don’t have a scratch pad handy at all times. Within months, you can become unbeatable in Name That Tune with this tuner in your system.

About XM Radio
Satellite radio offers many advantages over traditional FM radio. There are more stations than FM and, in most areas, and the stations are far more creative with content than local FM stations. Additionally, XM features commercial-free music channels. Some of the syndicated talk shows have commercials, but I don’t really listen to those much, so it didn’t bother me too much. Another perk is that the music on XM is uncensored. It totally rocks not having to imagine all the “naughty” words removed from all my hardcore gangsta rap songs that I hold so close to my heart. Another huge advantage is that XM has terrestrial repeaters in most major cities, so when you are in city buildings, you still can get signal without problem. Some of these repeaters could be used to broadcast local programming, something XM says they do not plan on doing anytime soon. With more terrestrial repeaters, XM’s signal is stronger than Sirius for many users in many parts of the country.

The Music
I listened in on a Live Robert Cray concert in early February and got to hear the legend prior to actually going to one of his concerts. Attending one of Cray’s shows has long been on my to-do list, but the XM concert was a great substitute. While listening in on the Bluesville channel, I got to sample some Ruth Brown. On “5-10-15,” Brown invokes her best vocal performance to set audiences at ease. The sweet midranges of the lead saxophone and the classic walking bass line screamed out to me that I was listening to the blues. I sampled a local blues/jazz FM station to compare with the XM experiences I had. It was obvious to me that satellite was not only easier to use than FM, but also the sound quality was ultimately not sacrificed in the process. The sound of the XM versions of music was clearer and more linear. Music sounded more like CDs without the normal compressed sound of FM. After extended listening sessions with the Polk XRT12, I quickly realized I never really wanted to listen to FM again. Literally, it only took weeks to wean myself from traditional radio after 30 years of growing up listening to the media. To say FM radio is dead would be to understate the obvious.

XMLM-XL featured all-you-can-eat metal, 24 hours a day. As soon as I found this channel, I was in heaven. Slayer is certainly something you don’t hear on any stations in San Diego anymore. The fast-paced pounding of the double bass during “Threshold” was thoroughly impressive on my system at home. The chun-chun-chun moars of Kerry King’s guitar ripped through my MartinLogan speakers. Having heard the same song from my collection of Slayer CDs, there did not appear to be any large-scale loss of any pertinent metal grinding information via the XRT12. Perhaps you could hear a little glean on the high end with a bit of compression, but overall, the sound quality was nearly CD quality and far superior to most MP3s or terrestrial radio.

FM radio is the closes competitor to XM. Its advantages include being free of charge and easily received, even on very affordable hardware. The downsides are nearly too many to list. Commercial stop sets that last as long as 14 minutes (think Howard Stern), short playlists, no new successful formats in well over 10 years (‘70s rock oldies, Soul Oldies) and no local flavor, thanks to deregulation of radio in the mid-1990s.

Making your MP3 player work in your car is a breeze and the shuffle feature allows you to give a new world order to your favorite songs. What is lacking on an MP3 playlist is the human element of a DJ. While all radio suffers from DJs who get diarrhea of the mouth from time to time, much of what makes radio successful is that it is a companion. It has a human element and that keeps listeners tuned in.

Sirius is the best competitor to XM. Sirius has 65 channels (68 on XM) of music and 55 channels (39 on XM) of sports, news and talk radio. Prices are a little higher with Sirius at $12.95 monthly ($9.95/month on XM). Each additional radio you add service too is the same as with XM at $6.99 a month. There is a $10-15 set-up fee for each radio that is set up for both XM and Sirius. Some critics suggest the programming is better on Sirius, and Kenwood currently offers a Sirius component tuner. Overall, in terms of competition for the Polk XRT12, there are few. The XRT12’s audiophile-grade guts and innovative way of bringing new music into your life makes it a worthwhile component in a $2,500 theater, as well as one costing $2,500,000.

The Downside
This is going to be hard. Most of my beefs are with XM’s service and not so much the player itself. In a perfect world, this tuner would also receive Sirius satellite, as both systems offer pretty strong, unique programming. For the hardcore music or sports junkie, it is perfectly reasonable to have subscriptions to both systems, depending on what kind of car you drive. It is possible many AVR readers already have subscriptions to both services. I fully understand this “downside” is an expensive one in terms of licensing and implementation and perhaps I am talking about a more expensive, bigger brother product for Polk. If they get inspired to make, say, a $599 version, be sure to also have a tuner for Internet radio, which will allow for even more niche programming in the same component without sacrificing the ease of use of the XRT12.

The player needs to add different video outputs other than composite video. I had to run an ugly composite video line from my preamp to my projector in order to view the onscreen display for this tuner. It would be much better if component video or S-video outputs were offered, so that you do not have to add more wires to your system when it is configured like mine.

With all the cool blue lights everywhere on the front panel of this tuner, it makes little sense that there is no backlit display, light or glow-in-the-dark buttons for the remote. The scrolling text for the onscreen display that you can view on your TV reminds me of my old-school Atari 2600. The scrolling upwards of the song information can make you dizzy; it would be nice if you could just have the info change when the song changes. I know that the scrolling prevents burn-in with your TV, but most modern TV sets would have to be left on for days before that happens.

At the time of writing this article, the XRT12 is one of only a few real offerings for audio enthusiasts looking to add satellite radio to their home theaters. Polk uses similar high-quality parts to what you would find in a good CD player and the XRT12 is impressive with its dynamic and realistic sound reproduction. For me, XM is for now the better of the two satellite radio services, especially if you are into more music than talk radio or sports programming. The advantages of satellite are many, especially when compared to FM.

If you have satellite radio in your car and have learned to love it, the Polk XRT12 is an affordable way to bring lots of excellent programming into your home theater. If you have never really played with satellite radio but have heard all of the hype, you might consider the nominal price of the Polk XRT12 for your AV system. Your system exists to play back excellent content and the XRT12 delivers it all day, every day, in ways we couldn’t have imagined even five years ago. The Polk XRT12 is a guaranteed winner and a stellar value.
Manufacturer Polk Audio
Model XRT12 XM Satellite Radio Tuner
Reviewer Matthew Evert

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