Brent has been a professional audio journalist since 1989, and has reviewed thousands of audio products over the years. He has served as editor-in-chief of Home Theater and Home Entertainment magazines, contributing technical editor for Sound & Vision magazine, senior editor of Video magazine, and reviews editor of Windows Sources magazine, and he also worked as marketing director for Dolby Laboratories. He's now on staff at Wirecutter.
Andrew Jones really started something when he did his line of ultra-inexpensive yet shockingly good speakers for Pioneer. I'm surprised, though, at how long it has taken other mainstream speaker manufacturers to come up with a response, especially since Jones left Pioneer early this year for Elac and has already come up with a whole new budget speaker line for that company. Finally, though, at least one of the big names is trying to get in on the trend: Polk just introduced the T50, a tower speaker that costs just $129 each, or $258 per pair.
There's nothing fancy about the T50, but neither is there anything obviously lacking. The 36.25-inch-high enclosure is wrapped in vinyl with a simulated black ash finish--just like almost every other budget speaker ever made. Drivers include a one-inch silk dome tweeter, a 6.5-inch composite (i.e., paper) cone woofer, and two 6.5-inch passive radiators that from the front look identical to the woofer. On the back, there's just one set of five-way binding posts. The enclosure is made from relatively thin MDF (it yields a resonant clunk when rapped with a knuckle), but it seems fairly well braced inside.
Michael Greco, Polk's global brand director, stressed to me that the company hadn't "cheaped out" by stripping the crossover down to just a couple of components, something I've complained about in lots of reviews of budget speakers. I confirmed this by popping off the back panel and finding a crossover with two capacitors, two chokes, and two resistors; a trace of the circuit plus my later measurements suggest that the electrical roll-off is second-order (12 dB/octave) on both the woofer and tweeter. That's about what I hoped for in a speaker like this.
If you want to augment your T50s to build a full home theater system, Polk also offers the $99 T30 bookshelf speaker and the $129 T30 center speaker.
I used the Polk Audio T50 towers mostly with my Denon AVR-2809CI AV receiver, but also with my usual reference system, which includes a Classé Audio CA-2300 amp and CP-800 preamp/DAC. For level-matched comparisons with other speakers, I used my Audio by Van Alstine AVA ABX switcher.
There's not much to do in terms of setup. The T50 comes fully assembled and doesn't include or accommodate floor spikes, so I just plopped them down, toed them in to point at my listening chair, plucked off the grilles, and got to listening.
I usually start my tower-speaker tests with music, then move to movies toward the end of my testing. In the case of the Polk T50, I did it just the opposite because I spent the fall doing a lot of traveling--and when I've been on the road for a while, nothing feels so relaxing as sitting down to watch a movie using my Samsung projector (one of the old Joe Kane models) and a good audio system. There's a good reason why movies are more relaxing for me: with music I listen a lot deeper, start wanting to dig into the pile of LPs I've found at swap meets and used record stores, and maybe even go grab my bass and start lifting lines and licks. With movies, I open a beer, pop some popcorn, sit back, and barely move for at least 90 minutes.
With the T50s in my system, it was easy to enjoy the movies and not think about the sound. I watched Fury, the Brad Pitt WWII tank movie, in part because I thought the numerous explosions of the tanks' 75mm rounds would tax the T50's sole 6.5-inch woofer, but no...the speakers weathered the punishment just fine, even with the volume cranked to +3 dB on my Denon receiver. More important, though, I loved the natural sound and clarity of the dialogue. With one caveat I'll discuss below, the T50 seems quite up to the task of slam-bang home theater sound.
I had to play "Matte Kudasai" from the LP Levin Brothers three times to catch all the good stuff going on. Best of all was the imaging on the percussion. I really got the feel of the drumsticks on the snare head and the cymbals, and the occasional accents from chimes and shakers were as perfectly and precisely imaged between the speakers as they could be. Pete Levin's piano stretched from speaker to speaker, giving me the feeling I could hear the individual parts of the instrument from one end to the other, contributing their own little bits to the sound. I found myself wondering how these speakers would fare if you dressed them up in some fancy veneer, brought them to Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, and offered them at $1,000 per pair. I bet they'd be lauded as the best bargain at the show even at roughly four times their price.
Jazz guitarist Corey Christiansen's Lone Prairie is a more studio-fied, slicker recording than the Levin Brothers' album, so its drum tracks didn't dazzle me as much. But still, it sounded solid through the Polk T50s. The bass and the kick drum both sounded pretty much perfectly defined, and by that I mean they were tight but didn't have the excessive, unnatural punch I hear from some subwoofers and tower speakers. The electric piano (or the digital simulation of electric piano) and electric guitar had a great sense of studio reverb--by that I mean electronic reverb applied separately (or at least differently) to each instrument to give it its own sense of space. (Purists may scoff, but I've loved this sound since I first heard it way back in the 1970s on CTI jazz records.) Rather than stretching across the soundstage or filling the room, the electric piano occupied its own space over toward the left of the soundstage, almost like it was in its own little room. It takes a good speaker--and especially, a good tweeter--to reproduce these subtleties of space. (BTW, the link here is to a live performance, not the studio version.)
Norwegian folk/avant-garde singer Jenny Hval's LP Viscera has become one of the go-to sides if you want to hear spectacular imaging, spaciousness, and genitalia-obsessed, NSFW lyrics. The T50 did a nice job of capturing the unique sense of sonic space that Hval created on this record. On "Portrait of the Young Girl as an Artist," the T50s precisely portrayed the contrasts between Hval's reverb-soaked voice, the ethereal image of the even more reverb-soaked tom toms in the distance, and the toy piano-type sound that seems like it's coming from the other end of a 50-foot-long concrete tube--almost like the background music from the TV classic "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" re-imagined by an elvish folk singer on acid. I've heard even more spectacular and compelling presentations of this material, but that was on big, expensive panel speakers.
I know, I know: I'm committing the all-too-common sin of the audio writer talking about nothing but obscure and/or weird music. So let's play what some consider to be the best pop record of all time: Big Star's #1 Record. Fortunately, the T50 works at least as well with this kind of music as it does with weird stuff that uses toy pianos. "Thirteen," the power-pop pioneers' gorgeous acoustic number, sounds as neutral and colorless through the T50 as it does through almost anything...and certainly better than most of the headphones on which I usually listen to this tune (in 256-Kbps MP3 from my phone).
Click over to Page Two for Measurements, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
Here are the measurements for the Polk T50 speaker (click on each chart to view it in a larger window).
Min. 4.0 ohms/200 Hz/-6, nominal six ohms
Sensitivity (2.83 volts/1 meter, anechoic)
The first chart shows the frequency response of the Polk T50; the second shows the impedance. For frequency response, three measurements are shown: at 0° on-axis (blue trace); an average of responses at 0, ±10, ±20° and ±30° off-axis horizontal (green trace); and an average of responses at 0, ±15° horizontally and ±15° vertically (red trace). I consider the 0° on-axis and horizontal 0°-30° curves the most important. Ideally, the former should be more or less flat, and the latter should look the same but should tilt down slightly as the frequency increases.
Except for a couple of roughly half-octave-wide response peaks (centered at 930 Hz and 13 kHz), the T50 measures pretty much flat. I didn't notice the midrange peak in my listening, probably because it's fairly narrow, but I did, apparently, notice the elevated upper treble, as you'll read below. Off-axis response in the horizontal plane is among the most consistent I've seen, with the result at ±30° barely different from the 0° result, and the result at ±60° showing no anomalies other than the expected high-frequency roll-off at large off-axis angles. Vertical off-axis response is also excellent. Bass response goes down to about 37 Hz, which is impressive for such a small tower, and especially for one with just one relatively small active woofer. The grille has a mild but noticeable effect, causing a very narrow -5dB dip at 3.1 kHz and a general reduction of treble output of -1 to -2 dB in most of the range above 4.5 kHz.
The impedance of the T50 is slightly on the low side for an affordable, relatively small speaker, and its sensitivity is just okay at 86.0 dB (measured at one meter with a 2.83-volt signal, averaged from 300 Hz to 3 kHz). Still, though, any receiver should be able to drive it to loud levels. Perhaps not the best choice for one of those little basket-case, 10-watt-per-channel Class D amps, but even that should get you up into the high 90s, dB-wise, provided the amp actually makes its power rating.
Here's how I did the measurements. I measured frequency responses using an Audiomatica Clio FW 10 audio analyzer with the MIC-01 measurement microphone, and the speaker driven with an Outlaw Model 2200 amplifier. I used quasi-anechoic technique to remove the acoustical effects of surrounding objects. The T50 was placed atop a 33-inch (84-cm) stand. The mic was placed at a distance of one meter at tweeter height, and a pile of denim insulation was placed on the ground between the speaker and the mic to help absorb ground reflections and improve accuracy of the measurement at low frequencies. Bass response was measured by close-miking and summing the responses of the woofer and the passive radiators, which I confirmed using ground plane technique with the microphone on the ground two meters in front of the speaker. Quasi-anechoic results were smoothed to 1/12th octave, ground plane results to 1/6th octave. Measurements were made without the grille unless otherwise specified. Post-processing was done using LinearX LMS analyzer software.
I was surprised to hear that, while the Polk T50's woofer didn't choke on the cannon fire from Fury, it struggled with the kick drum on the Whiplash trailer also included on the same disc. The woofer and the passive radiators didn't obviously distort or rattle, but they did sound compressed and stressed, as if they were telling me in their own little speaker driver language that if I was going to play stuff like this, I really needed to hook up a subwoofer.
Likewise, the bass solo on "Streets of Laredo" gave me the same effect. The T50s handled it, but they didn't like it; on the peaks, they compressed and got into a couple percent total harmonic distortion. So it's fine to use the T50 without a subwoofer as long as you're not going to hit it with challenging material often. If you do insist on playing EDM or pipe-organ music, you should get a subwoofer and high-pass-filter the T50s at 60 or 80 Hz. The system will play louder and sound better.
Here's another potential downside, although it depends on your taste: The Polk T50's upper octave of treble sounds a bit elevated. Because the response in most of the treble region sounds generally flat and neutral, I seldom noticed this. But on recordings with a lot of high-frequency content--such as the cymbals and percussion on the Levin Brothers LP--the T50s sounded just a hair bright. Some audiophiles prefer this kind of response, though.
Comparison and Competition
As I hinted in the introduction, the Polk Audio T50 really doesn't have a lot of competition; there just aren't that many tower speakers in this price range that are designed to deliver high-quality sound.
It's pretty obvious that, with the T50, Polk is going after Pioneer's SP-FS52, the $129-each, Andrew Jones-designed tower. The big difference is that the SP-FS52 has three 5.25-inch woofers in a ported enclosure, versus the T50's 6.5-inch woofer and passive radiators. I didn't have the SP-FS52 on hand, but I have heard it; based on my far-from-perfect acoustic memory, I'd say the neutrality and dispersion of both are pretty close (and both are way more than excellent for the price), and that the T50 might have a little more oomph in the bass. I'd have expected that the T50's larger woofer would create a bit of "cupped hands" distortion, especially relative to the SP-FS52's smaller woofer, but no: the T50 exhibits not a trace of cupped-hands coloration, and its outstanding off-axis measurements show why. I don't have measurements for the SP-FS52, but I do have them for its little brother, the SP-BS22, and according to my tests it measures flatter than the T50: ±2.0 dB versus ±3.6 dB for the T50.
Here's something else that might be important to some: Pioneer offers an add-on Atmos-compatible speaker, the $199-per-pair SP-T22A-LR, designed to be used with the SP-FS52 and other Pioneer speakers. Polk has not announced plans for an Atmos-compatible speaker to complement the T50.
Elac has the $279-each F5 tower, which like the Pioneer SP-FS52 has three 5.25-inch woofers. It sounded really good at the recent Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, but that's not enough for me to speculate on how it compares to the T50.
Although my usual reference speakers, the Revel Performa2 F206, are about 14 times the price of the T50, that's my reference speaker, so that's what I compared to the T50. What I heard was pretty amazing: a difference in quality, but not in character. Both speakers have broad dispersion with little coloration; precise, realistic stereo imaging; and zero tendency to exaggerate anything in the movies or music you're listening to. That said, the F206 beats the T50 in almost every way. It plays louder without strain, its midrange and treble both sound smoother and more open, and there's nothing anywhere in the F206's sonic spectrum (at least above 100 Hz) that sounds elevated. Comparing the F206 to the T50 is like comparing a very good college trumpet player to Wynton Marsalis. They both do the same thing, but the F206 and Wynton Marsalis do it better.
The Polk Audio T50 is, simply, a great speaker. At its price, it can't do everything that a well-designed, $2,000-per-pair speaker can do, but it can do most of it. A pair of T50s with a good little stereo receiver like the Onkyo TX-8020 would blow away any wireless speaker and any soundbar, for a total investment of less than $500. Add a good turntable like the $299 Pro-Ject Essential II and some kind of decent $200 DAC, and you'd have genuine audiophile sound for $1,000. That's a tough combo to beat.
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