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...