Review: Polk's I-Sonic plays hard on its way to the tabletop

The small field of high-end table radios has an impressive new entry: Polk Audio's I-Sonic. It's the company's first offering into the category, and Polk has upped the ante, offering more features out of the box than most, if not all, of its competitors. Essentially, it's an all-format digital entertainment system that looks like the serious tabletop radio that it is. I-Sonic isn't really for your entertainment center (unless you have a basic setup), but it's a contender for every other room including dorms, offices, bedroom, and kitchens. Maybe not the bathroom, though.

The I-Sonic can do a lot: it plays AM and FM as well as the new digital standard of HD Radio, and it's even XM-ready (you'll still need a $13-a-month subscription to tune in, however). In addition to having a DVD player, it plays CDs, MP3 CDs, and Kodak Photodiscs, too. It's a feature set that puts other table radios to shame.

A Major Player
Cool-looking, but slightly bigger than all other tabletop radios (15 x 10 x 5 inches), the I-Sonic is certainly much heftier, weighing 9 pounds. It features four speakers, two front and two rear, which is a first in this class. The configuration is effective, too — it works especially well if the I-Sonic is in the middle of a room. Put it in front of the television, and it goes a long way toward a complete entertainment system. Too bad the DVD player isn't progressive scan (there isn't even a component-video output) and has no simulated-surround mode. You'd think all DVD players had this stuff by now.

Moving on to the radio, not only does it have the expected AM/FM, but I-Sonic also has HD radio, which completely sets itself up — no tweaking. Tune into your regular FM station and if that station offers an HD channel the radio will tell you and give you access to it. Also, HD radio stations offer secondary channels. So if you were listening to 89.1, you could tune into, say, 89.1-2 (a big benefit to station owners is that every channel can have seven secondary channels in the same band — think ad sales).

HD Radio is digital, which supposedly leads to better quality. I'm not so sure about that, but there are certainly no pops, hissing, or static. It gets better: I-Sonic is XM satellite-ready, wonderful in itself but the radio does one better by giving you 30 station presets that you can mingle between AM, FM, HD and XM stations.

Sounds Great
Now for the music. The CD/DVD player sound is excellent — bass, midrange, and treble were balanced. The FM and HDFM also sound really good. I-Sonic XM is equal to any other XM-ready system I've heard. Polk uses their patented "Power Port" venting technology, which is essentially a custom bass-reflex speaker port. The proof is in the pudding: the I-Sonic provides powerful and resonant bass, comparable to much larger systems.

Of course, there's a clock radio with dual alarm and the beloved snooze button. The blue backlit display has three settings and is large enough to read from either side of the bed. There are two auxiliary inputs (one for your iPod) as well as a headphone jack. The handy credit-card-size remote works well enough and all the buttons are the same size and easy to read, but they aren't backlit so you will need a flashlight for fun in the dark.

At the End of the Day…
There are certainly plenty of tabletop radios out there to choose from: models from Bose, Cambridge SoundWorks, Boston Acoustics, and Tivoli make for a crowded field. While they all sound good, for the most part they offer only a regular (non-HD) AM/FM radio with a CD player. The Bose Wave at $500 has been king of the hill for the longest time, but for $600 the I-Sonic does more and sounds as good if not better. If you're already spending that kind of money, the extra 100 bucks gets you so much more.