On the surface, Polk Audio's little L100 bookshelf may seem like the least interesting offering in the company's new Legend Series lineup. That's especially the case when you consider that the upper end of the lineup, the L800, includes the return of distinctive Polk technologies like Stereo Dimensional Array. Heck, the L100 isn't even compatible with the line's Legend Series Height Module, which adds an up-firing element to the L600 and aforementioned L800.
But don't discount this compact wunderkind. While the L100 may not pack quite as much in the way of whizbang wizardry as its bigger brethren, it's still representative of the design philosophy that went into the overall Legend Series lineup. At $1,199 per pair, the L100 boasts the same Pinnacle Tweeter as the rest of the family--a newly designed one-inch ring radiator that extends the speaker's frequency response up to 38,000 Hz (±3dB). This two-way speaker also features a 5.25-inch version of the Turbine Cone driver found throughout the line, which is essentially a foam-core woofer with molded spiral protrusions that enhance the rigidity of the driver without adding mass.
To see the niftiest of the L100's features, though, I would argue that you need to spin the 13.64-inch tall, 7.78-inch wide, 11.29-inch deep cabinet around and take a gander at its derrière. There'll you'll find what Polk refers to as the Enhanced Power Port, which is something of a familiar sight for Polk fans (the LSiM703, for which the L100 could be considered a replacement, boasted a similar structure).
We'll be touching on the Enhanced Power Port quite a bit in the Hookup section, so I won't dwell on it much here in the intro, but in short, it effectively inserts a cone (or anti-funnel of sorts, if you will) into the mouth of the rear-firing port of the speaker to promote laminar airflow. It also has the side-effect of dispersing the ported sound parallel to the back surface of the speaker, which changes the way the L100 interacts with the room.
One thing worth pointing out is that the Enhanced Power Port does add to the depth of the speakers, accounting for roughly an inch-and-a-half of its 11.29-inches from front to back. It does little, in my opinion to take away from the elegant simplicity of the speaker, which is available in your choice of a black ash or brown walnut veneer (the latter of which I've only seen in photos and at CEDIA Expo, as my review samples were finished in the former. But given my druthers, I would greatly prefer the brown walnut).
The L100 also comes equipped with a magnetically affixed grille that Polk says was designed with minimal sonic interference in mind. I'll admit that I don't always have a strong preference one way or another for grilles-on or grilles off, but I think displaying the L100 in the altogether does go a long way toward shifting the aesthetic emphasis more toward the elegant and less toward the simple end of the design spectrum. I dig the look of the ring tweeter, as well as the vortex-like design of the Turbine Cone.
Unlike the rest of the cabinet, though, the front façade of the speaker does sport a very glossy finish, so that may sway your opinion more toward grilles-on, especially if you're planning to use this speaker at the front of an AV setup and have any stray ambient light from behind to worry about. The finish surrounding the drivers is almost mirror-like in its ability to reflect light, which could serve as a distraction. Furthermore, in addition to protecting the drivers themselves, the grille in this case provides some small level of protection from the tweeter's phase plug, which is a dangerous-looking spike smack-dab in the middle of the ring tweeter.
Still, though, the grilles bop on and slip off so easily that it's hardly a hassle to experiment and see which option works best in your listening/viewing environment.
As I alluded to above, the L100 represents an interesting problem-solver for me. My two-channel listening room also happens to be my home office. It's where I do the bulk of my testing for bookshelf and tower speakers alike (those that come in stereo pairs, obviously; full surround systems go in one of the media rooms). That does result in rather cramped quarters, though. To give speakers--especially rear ported ones--enough room to breathe, I normally have to position them out in front of the pair of short bookshelves in the room. Which puts my main listening position a little closer to the rear wall of the room than I'm comfortable with. It's a necessary compromise, though, even for bookshelf speakers (which I normally stand mount), because those shelves not only leave little room for airspace behind a speaker, but they're also cheap Walmart specials, and hence don't provide a very inert platform on which to perch a pair of transducers.
The one bookshelf speaker that I've ever successfully employed as an actual bookshelf speaker in this room was the aforementioned Polk LSiM703, in large part due to its Power Port. So, upon unboxing the pair of L100s, I immediately plopped them atop those shelves, with about six inches between them and the wall behind, intent upon bringing them down and out into the room on stands if they didn't sound their best.
Normally, for such placement, I would also use a pair of Auralex isolation pads (in a flat configuration), but upon lifting the L100s and giving them a good rap, I found the cabinets to be incredible inert, so I skipped the pads but kept them nearby in case they were needed. Spoiler warning: they weren't.
One other thing worth noting regarding the hookup for the L100 is that its binding posts, while lovely, don't follow the standard spacing of 0.75-inch. They are, rather, separated by about an inch-and-a-half on center, which shouldn't be a concern if you're using a bare-wire connection, spades, or single banana plugs (as I am, courtesy of the pre-terminated ELAC Sensible Speaker Cables I used throughout this review), but which definitely won't work if you're using dual banana plug connectors, or if your speaker wires are housed in a single jacket that doesn't give you a lot of flexibility at the point of connection.
Other equipment used in the course of my evaluation included my Peachtree Audio Nova220SE integrated amp, along with my Maingear Vybe media and gaming PC running JRiver Media Center 20 (nope, I haven't upgraded in a year or three). I also, at times, added an RSL Speedwoofer 10S to the mix, to give the L100 a bit of extra reinforcement in the bottom end.
Whether the L100 needed that extra help in the low frequencies really depended upon what sort of music I was listening to. The speaker has total frequency response down to a reported 43 Hz, but Polk reports a -3dB point of 57Hz, which is right in line with my experience. In other words, you're really not going to get a lot of useable energy below 60Hz, but that's a little lower than I would have guessed upon my first visual inspection of the speakers.
Above that point, the speaker is admirably neutral until you get to the upper end of the audible range, where it becomes a bit zippier and more forward. Again, dependent upon the type of music you feed it, this can lead to the L100 sounding a bit bright, especially at higher listening levels, without the benefit of a sub to bolster the bottom end.
"I Could Have Lied" from Red Hot Chili Peppers' seminal Blood Sugar Sex Magik (AIFF rip of the original 1991 CD release) is a perfect example of a track handled beautifully by the pair of L100s on its own, sans sub. The way the speakers delivered the tones, timbres, and textures of John Frusciante's delicate acoustic guitarwork in the intro is nothing short of thoroughly engaging, and when Kiedis' vocals kicked in, there was just this wonderful sense of intimacy and life to every word. The speakers are so revealing and dynamic, in fact, that you can really hear one of this album's few (in my opinion) significant mastering flaws: the dynamic compression that accompanies the introduction of bass and drums at right around the 49-second mark.
That does little to diminish the beauty of this cut, though, especially through these speakers. Even Flea's bass line, which plays around quite a bit in mid-60s territory, sounds forceful and authoritative through the little bookshelves, leaving me wanting for nothing that a subwoofer could have provided.
The album's next track, though, "Mellowship Slinky in B Major," does definitely benefit from the addition of a sub, despite the fact that the bass doesn't dip significantly deeper. This could be due to the fact that the bass in this cut is a lot more attack-heavy than that of "I Could Have Lied."
At any rate, one thing I noticed--with or without subs--is that the L100s deliver "Mellowship" with sumptuous detail. Little background elements, like Flea's playful piano noodling during the chorus, are simply less obscured, and imaging and sound staging are fabulous from beginning to end.
While the entire RHCP album exhibited excellent sound staging throughout via the L100s, it didn't really provide ample opportunity for very complex sound staging. For that, I turned to some Cake, starting first with "The Guitar Man" from the band's album Pressure Chief.
The somewhat zippier voicing of the L100 did nothing to alter the inimitable vocals of John McCrea in this track, but one thing I noticed is the positively holographic nature of the soundstage, especially the cheesy Moog lines that permeate the mix.
For truly mind-blowing sound staging, though, I turned to "Opera Singer" from the band's album Comfort Eagle. Even when McCrea's vocals are doubled in the second verse, he still remains the rock-solid center of the mix, his voice existing as a tangle ball that hangs behind the plane of the speakers a foot or two, while the instrumentation expands outward and even forward. By the time you get to the 2:10 mark and the horns really kick in full-force, what you're left with via the L100s is a scooped-out soundstage that extends out into the room, for sure, but only as it expands to the edge of the room.
The L100 also did a fantastic job with the digital download of Tool's new album, Fear Inoculum, which--to be fair--I'm nowhere near as familiar with as I am the other cuts referenced here. But I've binged it enough through multiple sound systems already to get a good sense of its overall tonal balance and such. With "Invincible" in particular, I was especially impressed with the way the speaker handled not only the percussive nature of the guitar riff that kicks off the track, but also the hard-hitting drums that kick in around a minute-and-a-half in. But what bowled me over more was the way the speakers deliver--and indeed enhance--the album's multitude of disparate textures. The music struck me as richly and diversely tactile, not to mention punchy and oh-so-in-your-face.
Really, the only place where these little bookshelves simply couldn't keep up with my music collection was when I veered away from pop and prog metal into R&B and hip-hop territory. With "Know How" from Young MC's Stone Cold Rhymin', I couldn't help but notice that the L100s tried with all their might to deliver the song's bass kick, to no avail. What should be a kick was more of a whimper, and a compressed one at that. While the speakers did a wonderful job of representing the rest of the song, especially the samples of "Theme from Shaft," their handling of the bass was simple a little less than graceful. That's not a knock against the speakers, mind you, since we are talking about small-ish bookshelves, after all. I simply point it out to give you a tangible idea of where they give up the ghost.
This is a matter of personal preference, of course, but I think listeners with my taste in speakers may find the L100's forward treble to be a mixed blessing. Yes, it contributes to that wonderful imaging and holographic sound staging mentioned above, but it also changes the sound of some albums I know like the back of my hand. I found the beloved (but less-than-spectacularly recorded) Rumours by Fleetwood Mac all but unlistenable through these speakers, mostly because Lindsey Buckingham's tenor vocals sounded downright wrong to my ears, especially during the verses of "Go Your Own Way." And I say this while also fully admitting that the jingle-jangle guitars and Mick Fleetwood's pounding drumline sounded like a gift from the heavens.
Long story short: The Legend L100 is voiced like an audiophile speaker. If you dig that voicing, I think you'll dig the hell out of these speakers. If not, you'd probably need to apply some custom PEQ filtering above 10,000Hz or so to find a sound you can truly fall in love with.
Comparison and Competition
Three bookshelf speakers that I think belong in the conversation alongside Polk Audio's Legend L100 are Monitor Audio's Silver 100 ($1,149.99/pair), Bowers & Wilkins' 707 S2 ($1,199.99/pair), and ELAC's Carina BS243.4 ($1,199.99/pair).
The Silver 100s might be a better option for those looking for a bit more bass slam in a package that's only a couple inches wider and taller (owing to the speaker's eight-inch woofer), while the B&Ws might be a better option if you're looking for something just as distinctive, but with a more pronounced midrange.
The ELACs are noteworthy for employing a folded-ribbon tweeter, similar to that found in GoldenEar speakers, and might appeal to those looking for all of the imaging capabilities of the L100 in a speaker that's voiced a bit more neutrally across the entire audible spectrum.
As I mentioned in both the introduction and the hookup section, the Polk Audio Legend L100 is an incredible little problem solver for me, since it's the rare rear-ported bookshelf speaker that actually works as a legitimate bookshelf speaker in my two-channel listening rooms due to space constraints. The Enhanced Power Port, as Polk calls it, allowed me to position the speakers a mere few inches away from the wall behind them without any deleterious audible effects, which freed up a lot of space in this room. Space that's going to be hard to give up when I have to repackage the speakers and send them back home.
If you have a similar problem, I seriously suggest making your way to your local authorized Polk dealer and auditioning a pair, or perhaps the L100's bigger sibling, the L200 (which sells for $ 1,799.00/pair but boasts a larger 6.5-inch bass driver and a 3dB-down point of 46Hz). Whether you're employing them alone as part of a stereo or 2.1 system, or perhaps as surrounds for a full Polk Legend Series surround sound setup, there's just no denying that this is one incredibly detailed, textural, and holographic speaker. It may not be for everyone due to its audiophile voicing, but if you love that sort of sonic profile, you owe this one a listen.
• Visit the Polk Audio website for more product information.
• Read Polk Audio Launches New Legend Series at RMAF at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Polk Signature S55 Floorstanding Speakers Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.