Review: Polk Reference XM HomeTuner Tuner

Category: Miscellaneous

A month I received an offer from Polk Audio to purchase their soon to be released XRt12 Reference XM Home Tuner for $299 shipped to my door. I have XM radio in my car and I have always liked the programming available. To be honest, the majority of my car listening winds up being ESPN and CNBC. That being said, I did find some of their stations, The Loft XM50 and Music Lab XM51, to be great stations to listen to on long trips. I am often on the road and I find that the ability to keep any station on for a trip duration is well worth the ten dollars a month to subscribe. I accepted their offer and a few weeks ago it arrived at my house.

Setting up the XRt12 was simple. The antenna comes with 20 feet of cable to place it by or at a window. I purchased an additional 50 foot extension cable and have the antenna outside my garage. The tuner as a setup menu guide that lets you know what signal strength it is receiving. I called XM radio and within 15 minutes I was up and running. The subsription to XM Radio is ten dollars a month. It is an additional seven dollars if you already have an account with them.

The greatest strength about the XM Reference Home Tuner is the unlimited amount of programming that it offers commercial free twenty four hours a day seven days a week. I live within 10 miles of New York City and I have been blessed with some great FM stations. Most of the stations offered, however, are either full of commercials, way overmodulated, sonically inferior, or offer poor playlists. Their are over 70 stations of pure music offered, including a number of classical stations, each of which with a particular theme that I think could satisify any of us.

The sound quality of the tuner itself is very good. Some stations sound better than other stations. The tuner sounds better than the digital cable that I get from my cable box. My assumption is that this is the case because of the better quality internal parts used in the Polk XRt12. I used the same interconnects to compare the digital tuner in cable box to the XRt12 in that comparison. On every station with similar programming directly compared the Polk had better dynamics, stronger bass response, less stringent high frequencies, and a deeper and wider soundstage.

The XRt12 has both optical and rca digital outputs. With the tuner connected to my Northstar 192 Dac the sound is exceptional. Many of us who own outboard Dacs have an input that they do not use. I cannot think of a better way to get the most out of your outboard Dac than to use it with this component. With the Polk tuner connected to the NorthStar 192 Dac the sound was closer to the NorthStar Dac connected to the NorthStar Transport than the sound of the digital cable from the cable box. Very dynamic, individual instruments and performers identified in the soundstage, and extreme frequency response at another level. All this and so many musical choices.

This is the best three hundred dollars that I have spent on my system. If you are looking for greater musical variety than you now have access to this is a great component to have. If you have an outboard Dac with an extra optical or rca input then a cannot make a higher recommendation than going to your local retailer and picking one of these up. You will not be disappointed.

Associated gear
Pass Labs X2.5 Preamplifier
BAT VK500 Amplifier
NorthStar 192 DAC
NorthStar 192 Transport
Tandberg 3001A Tuner
VMPS FF1 Speakers
Wireworld Gold Eclipse Interconnects
Analysis Plus Oval 9 Speaker Cable
I just replaced the Delphi Skyfi in my home theater system with the Polk XRt12. The Polk is connected via TOSLINK to a Rotel RSP1068 Pre/Pro. A Rotel RMB1075 powers B&W 805 speakers. Video-wise, the Polk's composite output goes through the Rotel 1068, with monitor output to the TV.

I haven't listened to it long enough to really get a feel for the audio quality, and my comments on that will be posted later. This response deals with the Polk's interface and convenience features.

It's a significant step up from the Skyfi to get the Polk's video display on a TV screen. Being able to see channel title, music category, artist and title are one of the real advantages of the XM format. Now, I can actually see the numbers of the channels I'm changing to while I'm seated in the sweet spot, unlike on the Skyfi. I was able to see Artist/Title information before on the Skyfi, since it scrolled across the Skyfi's LED disply in a fairly large font. But there is no comparison with the TV output, where I can see all the information, all the time. (The Polk's remote allows you to toggle the composite video display completely off if you like, but I don't believe there is a way to turn off the Polk's 1.25" x 2.25" blue LED display.)

- Having a choice between RCA/analog, Coax/digital or Optical (TOSLINK)/digital is an advantage, so you can choose whether to use the onboard Burr-Brown DACs or an outboard converter as Drewfidelity mentions, above. I haven't decided whether I like the onboard DACs or my Rotel 1068 better..

- Just listening to the preview channel (channel 1), the audio is better, in that the high-frequency noise and harshness the Skyfi had is gone. (I'm still waiting for the channels to download as I write this.)

- The ability to preview channels other than what's playing, and see the song and artist before switching to a different channel, is a nice feature. This is another feature that is only truly enabled if you have a TV screen hooked up to the Polk, since it would be hard to read this information on the 4-line LED display from across the room.

I'm ambivalent about whether the Polk's non-audio feature set is worth the price of the upgrade from the Skyfi.

- The remote interface (not the control, but the unit's response to remote control) is the same as Skyfi's. In fact, this product apparently has Skyfi guts hidden inside it, since all interface controls and displays are EXACTLY the same. Both the Polk and the Skyfi have the same remote protocol and can share controllers if you desire. Unfortunately, universal remotes like my Rotel RR1050 can't express all of the commands for these two units. For example, the numbered inputs will work, but only for the first digit in a repeating sequence. I can't enter "110" to get to XM's classical station, or "112" to get to Vox! or "44" to get to Fred. I also can only go up or down one channel at a time. All repeating commands have this limitation, when using the universal remote. The hope of fixing this problem was one of the reasons I upgraded from the Skyfi, but since this unit apparently has the Skyfi controller hidden inside, it didn't help. (I've had to partially work around it by using the special "Repeat command" buttons on the Rotel RR1050, of which there are only 5. The bottom line on this is that the workaround is not fully functional, so I'll be unable to get rid of the Polk's remote.)

- The Polk has a "memory" feature which will allow you to save Title and Artist information for up to 10 songs. If you hear something you like, and want to remember it so you can go buy the album, push the memory button. This would be a nice feature, except that it's only available by pushing a button on the Polk's front panel. There is no button for this feature on the remote. I find this to be a major limitation in the Polk's feature set, since viewing and capturing the metadata from the XM signal is a real advantage of the XM format. But if a product gives me this capability and doesn't give me a way to conveniently use the feature without jumping up from my chair, it's very frustrating.

- The Polk also does not have the heft, nor finish, that one associates with reference-class components. Not that I expected it to be for $299, but the marketing is misleading.

- The onboard Burr-Brown DACs don't help if you're using digital output. That's obvious to the folks on this site I'd expect, but since it's a key part of Polk's marketing, I thought I'd point that out.

- This is nitpicky, but I wish the video display would automatically toggle off after a few seconds. The Polk displays the system mode, channel number and title, the category, the composer (in the case of classical), and the song title in full display mode. After a few seconds of no user input, it shifts to a sequence of mode, channel, composer, title in order to prevent screen burn-in. I would rather it just blank out entirely, then briefly show full information again, whenever the song changes. (As mentioned above, you can turn the display completely off using the remote, but you have to turn it back on again if you want to see who composed the piece you're hearing.)

In summary, getting full XM information disply on my TV screen is a significant advantage of this product over the Delphi Skyfi. However, I'm disappointed in several other features, particularly the remote control protocol and the non-remotable song memory. It's also a real disppointment to pay triple the money that I paid for the Skyfi, and for a component marketed as a "reference" product, and then find it's got the same old Skyfi guts inside.

However, if I were buying again without having bought the Skyfi first, I would still get this Polk as my home XM tuner if I couldn't wait for something better to come along. In terms of bang-for-the-buck, it's a value at $299, as long as you have already committed the 7-to-9 bucks for the XM service. (It's $7 if you're adding a 2nd tuner.) There currently isn't anything else available in a home audio form factor, that has a decent DAC and/or true digital output. (There is a TuneSuite from Audio Design which is a 4-tuner chassis with an XM option, and an XM Tuner from Crestron, but these are both distributed audio components primarily, not home audio components.) Also, the Polk's integration with a video system makes using the informational content of the XM format much more enjoyable.

Emotionally, I find myself feeling slightly overpromised and underdelivered. I counter that by reminding myself that this unit has Burr-Brown DACs (which I might not use), and true digital output, which I will be using. And then I remind myself that it only cost $299 and conclude that, for the money, it's probably worth it for the video capabilities it has. Hopefully I'll find that the audio is so good that my emotional "net-net" is unequivocably positive.

I'll submit my feedback on the audio later...
As a follow-up to my earlier comments on this Polk XM Tuner, I wanted to report that I'm returning the unit to Crutchfield.

Crutchfield, by the way, is a pleasure to work with. They include a return shipping label in the box when you receive a product from them, and they'll pick up the return shipping within 30 days.

As for the tuner, if you read my review above, you can pick up my disappointment in the fact that the Polk "Reference" XM tuner is nothing more than a repackaged Delphi SkyFi. It uses the same remote codes, it's got the same remote bugs, it has the same menu, and channel listing has the exact same buggy, quirky behavior.

To that I'll add that the Polk went totally dead yesterday. I've been getting some type of error mode, where the display on my TV would turn totally green. Nothing short of powering the Polk off, then on again, would get it out of this mode. In an event that may, or may not, be related to the "green screen" problem, it refused to power up at all last night.

So off it goes to Crutchfield. Although they, per their excellent policy, have offered to replace it, I'm so irritated by the fact that it's marketed as "reference", but has SkyFi guts, that I really don't want anything else to do with it.

Which is a shame, because I truly love XM's programming. On a more rhetorical note, what's up with satellite radio equipment??? What is it about the relationship of the satellite radio companies and the equipment manufacturers?? Why doesn't anyone make a decent mid-fi or high-fi tuner for the home market? I'm not talking about a $3000 distributed audio tuner controlled by touchpads (like the TuneSuite). I'm talking about a good tuner in the $600-1000 price range that is roughly comparable to a good quality FM tuner. Enough ranting... Off goes the Polk. And good riddance.
I for one find the Polk XRT12 tuner a joy to use. Having returned to South Florida with my venerable Yamaha T 1 tuner. I came to find out that much has changed since I left. The broadcast stations here are now pure dreck. Once again,Pilot,Clear Channel, and others of that ilk,have bought my favorite stations and turned their programming into pablum for the brain.

For me to be able to tune in a very wide variety of music and news and to use it with my audio system is what I was looking for. The $12.95 a month charge for the XM service is in my opinion an outright bargain. The Polk XRT12 tuner sells for $249.00 now and at present has a $20.00 rebate,which drops the cost to $229.00. More than affordable when one considers the entire package. At long last now I have music and news I want to hear and most of it without commercials.

Sure it has some quirks, but for the first home audio component for satelliate radio, it is amazing.

We can only hope that their will be future home units on the market soon. With competition comes better products.

But for now I am most satisfied with this unit.