Budget loudspeakers which offer a high level of performance are difficult to find, especially for the novice listener who can soon tire of a choice that was impressive in the showroom. Could the Polk Audio loudspeakers assembled before John R. Potis Jr., be the answer?
Many thanks go to Mr. Paul DiComo for his help and for providing the review sample.
Polk Audio RT35 Loudspeaker Specifications
Two-way bookshelf loudspeaker
Polk Audio RT25 Loudspeaker Specifications
Two-way bookshelf loudspeaker
Polk Audio CS245 Loudspeaker Specifications
Frequency Response, -3dB 55Hz- 23kHz
Polk Audio PSW-120 Sub-woofer Specifications
Overall Frequency Response 35Hz - 160Hz -3dB
|(All specifications as per manufacturer)|
Polk Audio RT35, RT25, CS245 & PSW-120 Loudspeakers/Sub-woofer
After reviewing Polks RT2000s and their RT5000 theater system, I was excited about reviewing something from Polk designed with the word "budget" in mind. Well, sort of.
I mean, anybody who can make a great $6000 video system can make a good little system for those on a budget, right? Unfortunately, the answer is "not necessarily", and conversely, there are companies that make great little affordable speakers but loose the edge as they attempt loftier designs.
Being a theatre enthusiast with a musical priority, the first thing I did was put these speakers in my twospeaker music system. It has been my experience that any speaker that can excel in the music system will do an admirable job in the video system, so this is my "pre" proving ground. It was here, with the most inexpensive speaker under review here, the RT25, where I had my question answered and any reservations put to rest.
All of the speakers (with the exception of the PSW 120 subwoofer) came in wood grained black vinyl. I have to say at the get-go that I usually hate black speakers, but the Polks actually looked very good, especially for their price. They have a molded looking front fascia with a slightly glossy pebbled texture, and a very attractive cloth covered grill with a raised ovoid feature which circles the bezel on which the speaker drivers are mounted. This contrast of the grill cloth, the molded looking fascia and the wood-grained vinyl (over the enclosure) gave the speakers a very sophisticated and attractive appearance.
The RT 25 and RT 35 share several technologies and design goals. They both use shielded polymer dome tweeters as well as Polks "Dynamic Balance" polymer/mineral composite drivers, also shielded. The RT35 features drivers mounted on Polks raised mineral filled bezel, which is credited for reducing fascia and grill induced diffraction effects. The RT 25 features a raised bezel, but its injection molded as part of the fascia and composed of polymers. Both speakers use ¾" MDF enclosures and the RT35 features a 1" thick MDF front baffle.
Additionally, they both share Polks "Power Port" technology. This is their patented method of reducing air turbulence at the bass port thereby increasing air velocity as it exits the port into the room. Polk says that this technology increases bass efficiency by 3dB and reduces "chuffing" and "port noise". A novel and useful offshoot of this technology is that Polk has adapted this Power port into their wall mount facilities. They have incorporated a screw hole into the port mechanism and then installed two stand-off-legs at the bottom of the speaker to act as spacers between the speaker and wall (see picture). This makes an excellent and handy wall mount system.
Another proprietary technology incorporated is Polks "Acoustic Resonance Control" (ARC) ports. This is a system of small ports located on the front of the speaker. According to Polk, these are used to cancel internal standing waves and box resonance. The ports are tuned to the same frequencies as the internal resonance, but as they are out of phase, they cancel the offending frequencies, resulting in increased detail and resolution with significantly lower levels of coloration.
Quite frankly, I was blown away by the RT25s. With an MSRP of less than $280 for the pair, these babies may be the surprise of the year and are definitely one of audios great bargains. With a first class tonal balance and an amazingly short list of things that they couldnt do, the RT25s are exceptional performers. As no speaker in this price range is going to be all things to all people (and shouldnt even try), Polk did the wise thing and designed the RT25s to be exactly what speakers of their size and price should be - an honest little speaker from about 60Hz on up. While its true that the RT25s are no chest thumpers when it comes to bass, the good news is that they dont pretend to be. While they dont shake walls, they dont try to fake it with an elevated upper-bass/lower-midrange either. This gives them a wonderfully natural midrange which never adds any artificial chesty-ness to male vocals. It also makes them a great match for a sub-woofer, but more on that later.
Speaking of the RT25s midrange, this is the area where the speakers really excel. Its clean and articulate and amongst the most uncolored that Ive ever heard in its class. Vocals are clean and articulate and instrumental timbre is outstanding. Tonal balance is a tad on the brighter side of neutrality but never makes it into the truly bright category, instead it lends an energetic quality to the presentation.
Treble performance is the area in which the speakers suffer most to more expensive competition, but its truly excellent for the RT25s asking price. Like the speaker as a whole, the treble isnt audio perfection, but it is presented effectively and pleasingly. While it doesnt exactly give cymbals the shimmer of your average electrostatic, neither is it hard, brittle or splashy. Its major omission is more a lack of subjective extension, but as far as it goes, its quite agreeable.
The RT25s image like you wont believe too! They do a credible job of disappearing into my room leaving me with a wide and fairly tall sound-stage. Sound-stage depth and image specificity were both very good too.
As I unpacked this tiny sub, I was visited with thoughts of calling Polk to ask for something a bit larger. No way was I going to be happy with this puny little thing. WRONG! That would have been a big mistake and Im glad I was open minded enough to give it a fair shot (that sound you hear is me patting myself on the back!). Adding the PSW-120 powered subwoofer to the RT25s presented me with the last missing piece of the puzzle and quite frankly, the PSW-120/RT25 combo is the best way I know to spend $600 and change on a music system. As when they designed the RT25s, Polk seemed to have accepted that there is no way to get 20Hz extension out of this little sub, so they didnt try. Instead, they made it extend to 35Hz (which aint nothing to sneeze at, folks), superbly articulate and able to produce surprisingly loud bass. Not only is this my favorite $330 sub-woofer, its the only one I know of that I would care to own.
Read most of the above with regard to the RT25s and apply it to the RT35s with the following additions - make them play louder without strain, make their presentation a little more laid back and less bright. Give them more sound-stage depth and give them just enough bass to make them whole on their own. While the RT35s are not exactly chest-thumpers either, the music is well supported with enough bass such that kick-drums and floor-toms will surprise you with their weight. The 35s are a tad smoother and sweeter than the 25s too. These also mate very well with the PSW-120 and what results is an exceptionally sweet system for its class, something I fear doesnt bode well for Polk.
Doesnt bode well for Polk? Am I nuts? Well, after years of talking to dealers and customers alike, I have come to the conclusion that this type of sound may not sell all that well. You see, people shopping for speakers in this price range tend toward being novice listeners. By and large, novice listeners share one mistake when listening to speakers in stores. Almost invariably (and I was no exception!) they go toward the brighter speakers because they mistake this brightness for "detail". Unfortunately, once they get their speakers home and listen to them for a while, what attracted them in the store is exactly what is going to wear on their nerves at home. What they get at home induces what is referred to as "listening fatigue" and it can make you sleepy, it can actually give you a headache and is just generally irritating. The only thing it doesnt do is make you want to listen to your music. Ive talked to so many people who have fallen into this trap. They dislike their systems and they dont understand why- "it sounded so good in the store". If you take nothing else from this review, please keep my words in mind: real detail will never make your ears bleed.
So much for my shopping tip of the day! Ill just add one more thing about the RT35s: they like it loud. Crank up the volume a bit and the Polks absolutely come alive. Resolution increases, imaging becomes more delineated, sound-staging more expansive and bass becomes more physical. My ears forced me to give up before the RT35s thought about it.
The final member of this review is the CS245 center channel speaker. The center channel speaker may be the unsung hero of the video system. So much is asked of it and so often its the cheapest speaker in the system. Up to 70% of all movie action emanates from the center channel speaker. So why do people skimp? Because in a lot of home environments, a large speaker just looks out of place sitting on top of a TV set, I guess! This just serves to put added pressure on the lowly center channel speaker. Hes the runt of the litter, but hes forced to run with the big dogs. Fortunately, the CS245 runs like the wind.
As A Video System
So, as a video system, would this Polk combo be as good or greater than the sum of its parts? Over all, I would say yes, it was at least as good as the sum of its parts. The only area I found lacking was in the bass. As good as the PSW-120 was on music, it was merely adequate in the theatre. Keep in mind here that the bass system Im accustomed to is composed of three 15 inch woofers and 1,400 watts of power. Thats a pretty tall order for a sub with 90 watts of power and an 8" woofer to compete with! While I cant say that it shook the rafters, it didnt exactly run away with its tail between its legs either. Like I said, it is adequate, which means that I think a lot of people will be pleased with its performance and depending on your listening habits both in terms of loudness and viewing choices, it could be a great and economical choice. It was primarily on large-scale action/adventure movies where, although it gave plenty for the ears, it left me wanting for some real visceral impact. On other movies, even "Eraser" for example, with its jet planes and assorted weapon fire, it did a fine job. That being said, for apartment dwellers and those who must for one reason or another restrict volume levels, its a great little sub. For those in larger rooms or those just wanting more punch, I would suggest that you take a look at Polks larger $499 sub, the PSW-140. With a 10" driver and 180 watts, its one upgrade where spending more $$$s should get you some real return on your additional investment-something I cant really say about the rest of the system.
I cant say that about the rest of the system because when operated within its limits (which I was never tempted to exceed), I found it difficult to fault. If you set your processors bass management system to operate with small speakers all around, thereby removing the bass from all speakers, dynamics are surprisingly good and this is the one area where I would have expected the system under review to fall flat. While detail couldnt measure up to my reference system or Polks own RT5000 system, I always found it to be excellent for its class. For example, in "True Lies", when our hero takes the harrier jet to rescue his daughter (a scene I talked about as a standout in the RT5000 system), I didnt find the harrier to have quite the same realism as I had heard before. But Im being very unfair to the subjects of this review, akin to complaining that a Saturn doesnt do 0-60 as fast as a Corvette. This Polk System met or exceeded most of my expectations. As its a timbre matched system, I found pans, be them right to left, front to back, what ever, to be excellent and considering the mono-polar nature of the RT25s as surround speakers (I usually prefer di-polar), I found surround effects surprisingly enveloping.
"Outbreak" provided a good demo for the Polks strengths. The bass throughout the movie sounded excellent - clean and tight. Even the helicopter chase scene was satisfyingly reproduced. Surround effects were seamless too, what with all the panning of the helicopter effects. Dialog was strong and clear.
"Space Jam" sounded good. The overdone "disco" effected bass at the beginning of the movie sounded... well, disco like! Loose and loud! Bass effects throughout the movie were as they should be leaving little to be desired. In chapter 5, just before the alien ship lands on Elmer Fudds head, he trains the gun on Bugs Bunny and you hear him speaking from off camera right. As the camera turns to face him, looking down the barrel of the gun you hear his voice pan to the center channel. This was an excellent demo of how well the CD 245 speaker matches the RT35s, which is very well indeed.
My minor caveats regarding the bass aside, I was (and still am!) overly impressed with this modestly priced Polk System. Though it was months ago (at the time of writing), I still recall the feel of my initial excitement upon hearing them on both music and movies for the first time. Its a real pleasure being able to write about affordable products that I would be happy to own myself and this group certainly qualifies.
As music reproducers, they are excellent performers and I cant recommend highly enough that you check out Polks new RT25 with the littlest sub that could -the PSW-120 for an extremely capable and affordable stereo speaker system. They are so good, in fact, that Matt Polk will have to come over here and pry them out of my dying hands if he wants them back (or he can just accept my check!) Im keeping them as a reference on how good a $600 system can be.
As a home theatre package, I cant imagine anybody not being thrilled with their sound and great looks too- I was.
Good luck and listening,
More information about Polk Audio loudspeakers can be found at the Official Polk Audio Web Site.
Text © John R. Potis Jr.; HTML © SMR Home Theatre and Images © John R. Potis & SMR Home Theatre cannot be reproduced without permission. The images on this page are digitally watermarked: Digimarc http://www.digimarc.com/
Last updated 07 December, 1998
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