It was my fourteenth birthday and I got an awesome gift from my dad. At the time, I lived in Philadelphia with my mom, so on the day of my birthday my dad picked me up and took me to Bryn Mawr Stereo in Maple Shade, New Jersey, where he let me pick out a really cool stereo system. For a teenaged kid like me, it was a hi-fi dream come true: a Nakamichi Music Bank CD changer, an NAD receiver with 125 watts per channel and a remote, along with a pair of Polk floorstanding speakers and some Monster Cable to connect everything. I am not sure anybody could have predicted the audio junkie that this system would turn me into, but with my coat room tip money and any other funds I could scrounge up--perhaps some winnings from the golf course or minimum wage from running the range picker at Philadelphia Cricket Club’s driving range--I started out on a path of audio upgrades that years and years later developed into one hell of an audiophile habit.
The subject of this review is without question a throwback to those early audiophile days and the crucial component of the system that flamed the fires in my audiophile heart. Polk’s Signature S50 floorstanding speakers, priced at a mere $499 per pair, share a lot of DNA with the little towers on which I rocked Appetite For Destruction back in the late 1980s. But they prove just how far we’ve come since then. The S50’s form factor is familiarly slim, coming in at 37.4 inches tall, 10.25 inches wide, 11 inches deep, and weighing a manageable 32 pounds. But th Polk Signature S50 comes packing a one-inch Terylene tweeter and two 5.25 inch mid-range drivers as well as a Power Port at the bottom of the speaker, which helps put out a reported and respectable 33 Hz of low end sound. The S50 is 89dB sensitive and can be driven by today’s more modest receivers--Polk would likely suggest a Denon or a Marantz as they are all part of the Sound United family of products. In my case, I was using a $799-retail Denon AVR-X2500H receiver (review pending) which powered the Polk S50s with ease.
The Polk Signature S50s have very nice feet included that can be installed easily once you spend a little time testing speaker placement in your room. Getting the S50s to image nicely was no problem, as they aren’t finicky like some more expensive audiophile speakers. Just a little toe-in and these Polks imaged fantastically in a somewhat nearfield application.
Despite their ported design, the speakers aren’t as fussy about positioning in relation to the wall behind them as I may have expected, either. In the end, I placed the S50s between nine to 12 inches away from the wall and just a little in front of the $79 IKEA equipment rack that I used for this modest application. With the speakers placed just a little in front of the rack, I was able to get the type of imaging that I hoped for without having to make any meaningful compromises in terms of other furniture in this small room.
For just under $500 per pair, you get gold binding posts, really nice cabinetry--including your choice of a black or cherry finish--and a five-year warranty. Polk states that the speakers are designed in California and engineered in Baltimore, but they are almost assuredly made in China and by today’s standards. That is a good thing, because it would be really hard to have a speaker this sophisticated built in the good old U-S-of-A and have it come out at this price. Sorry, that is just our global manufacturing reality today.
Although I disconnected it for much of my testing of the Polk Signature S50s, I also added a $150 Polk PSW 108 subwoofer in a 2.1 configuration to go just a little lower for music and movies in this apartment-like environment. If you aren’t pissing off your neighbors a little bit with your system, perhaps you aren’t trying hard enough?
I listened to a lot of music on the Polk Signature S50s, and for a speaker that costs 30 times less than my reference Focal Sopra no. 2 speakers, I really had a lot of fun with these speakers, starting with “Little Red Corvette” (AIFF 16-bit CD rip), which, because of its age, can sound a little folded down or closed off. Prince’s underrated guitar solo at the 1:51 mark showed the Polk’s ability to resolve detail and bring life to one of the most excellent pop songs ever recorded, though, even if the recording itself isn’t the most gleaming example of modern audiophile 24-bit excellence. The fact of the matter is that I spend more time listening to great music like classic Prince rather than stuffy audiophile music recorded to exacting standards, and these Polks deliver in spades with the music I love the most.
Rush does so much right musically even if their songs tend to be a little lyrically silly. Their prequel to Wayne Carini’s Chasing Classic Cars, “Red Barchetta,” is one of the silliest premises for a song in the history of rock and roll. Sure, your uncle bought a Ferrari (which even back in the day cost a fortune) and just left it sitting in a garage just waiting for you find and explore (and express driving said car musically, of course). I mean, what comes next an instrumental song inspired by the Toronto Airport complete with whip sound effects? What were these guys smoking?
Anyway, at about 2:30 into “Red Barchetta,” Alex Lifeson’s staccato shifting section sounds vibrant and alive but not overly bright or shrill even at appropriately loud, Rush-worthy volumes when played back at CD quality. At around the 4:00 mark, with Geddy, Neil, and Alex rocking in full swing, the track holds up well with really good detail and control as you would expect to hear from far more expensive speakers. Much like car with good torque, you feel the urge to push these $500/pair Polks as hard as they can be pushed.
My remembrance of Polk speakers from the old days is that they were voiced to the bright side of neutral, especially compared to the British speakers that I bought after owning my first Polk towers. I don’t think that is such a fair description today, as the Signature S50s are lively but not in any way overly bright. A good test track to shine light on this is Diamond David Lee Roth’s cover of The Beach Boys classic “California Girls.” Dave’s backing band is really good, as is the production of this fully over-the-top track. The bass guitar on the outro sounded round, deep, and full even without the help of a sub. The sing-songy piano melodies floated on top of the overall musical bed, including the massively overdubbed backup vocals. You know this song is a lot of fun. It’s just a little more fun when listening to such a fun pair of speakers.
With one more bit of inspiration from my high school bedroom (aka: early audiophile listening room, which boasted a gigantic Led Zeppelin poster that I had somehow attached to the angled ceiling), I cued up the 12-string, double-neck classic “The Song Remains The Same” from Houses of the Holy and gave it the generous amount of volume that this epic track deserves.
This track might just be the most enthusiastic, break-neck, awesome opening to any rock album ever, and when pumping it through the Polk Signature S50s, I really leaned hard on the volume knob. You should hear how well these speakers hold up with the Jimmy Page riffs around the 3:00 mark. Robert Plant’s high-pitched vocals dance over the rocking beat and the jingly-jangly guitar parts glisten below.
The depth of this mid-1970s track sounded absolutely fantastic and every bit as much engaging today as I remembered it from my youth. Good speakers (not necessarily expensive speakers) will do that for you.
As fondly as I remember the TV shows of my youth--especially fake-Ferrari-driving, Versace-wearing undercover cops from Florida--television today is so much better on nearly all creative and technical levels. One of the best examples of this is Showtime’s Billions. The fictional world of AXE Capital and billion-dollar hedge funds and all of the ensuing craziness that goes along with it (from flying to Quebec to see Metallica from a back-stage perspective to all of the glorious visual shots of Wall Street and Manhattan’s finest, most glamourous apartments) makes for audio and visual gold. Last week’s Billions has a scene where Bobby Axelrod is test-driving a Mercedes SLS on a track with his Jersey-tastic and formerly estranged wife. The car zooming around the track was good content to test these Polk S50s in that the automotive sounds were dramatic but the dialogue was mixed in nicely too. It was a good balance of the two elements and in this case, without a center speaker, it sounded crystal clear and highly exciting. When Axe gets out the car, he orders two: one for him and another for his wife. I felt the urge to do the same with the Polk S50 speakers.
Moving to movies, I cued up the James Bond film GoldenEye on Blu-ray. A few minutes into the opening scene, when 006 cocks his gun at our hero 007 (the underrated Pierce Brosnan), the detail and dynamics of the machinery was impressive via the Polks. The space and imaging from a left and right speaker (and in this case one small Polk subwoofer) were truly engaging in ways that I might have thought would only come from a 5.1 system. The little details were resolute and clear. The enemy fire and explosions later in the scene were crazy yet somehow controlled.
Later in the scene, as only James Bond can, he drives a motorcycle off a cliff so that he can free fall into an empty nosediving plane, which he of course saves just so he can circle back to see the Russian base explode thanks to his explosive device. The explosion is not just a lot of fun with the Polks in 2.1 mode, but this is also a really good video demo in that the colorful explosion looks truly vibrant with the light blue sky and ample white snow on the ground.
I finished my movie demos with the Copacabana scene from Goodfellas (Blu-ray). With the oldie “And He Kissed Me” by The Crystals in the background, Henry and Karen make their way through the back entrance to the club and through the kitchen. You can hear a lot of the varied details of the frenetic kitchen as Henry schmoozes and breaks balls with the staff en route to his front-of-house VIP table, where Karen starts to wonder what this slick I-talian does for a living.
The scene wraps up with an introduction to classic stand-up comedian, Henny Youngman, who as the noisy floor quiets launches into “Take my wife… PLEASE” as the scene comes to a rewarding ending. Through it all, the Signature S50s do a bang-up job of conveying not only the subtle background chatter and clatter, but also the voices of the on-screen actors with clarity, authority, and definition.
89 dB sensitivity isn’t terrible, but many of today’s speakers give you even more output-per-watt than the Polk Signature S50. With an entry-level Denon receiver, I was able to get audiophile quality sound at piss-off-the-neighbors levels, and that is good enough for me. But other speakers with different designs might play a little louder with equal amplification if that is a requirement for you.
I used these under $500 per pair Polk Signature S50s in a pretty small room on a side wall, so their size wasn’t a concern at all, but for larger rooms and especially for large-scale 5.1, 7.1, or object based AV systems, I could see the need for going up the line for a bigger speaker capable of more output. Once again, for this room, I couldn’t have wanted for more, especially when pairing the speakers with a very modestly priced subwoofer. I got all of the output I needed, but there are larger rooms that could demand a larger speaker. Don’t worry, Polk has them for you, too; they just cost a little more money.
Comparison and Competition
My recent love affair with affordable floorstanding speakers started with my review of the Paradigm Monitor SE6000F speakers, but the Paradigm Monitor SE 3000F speakers at around $700 per pair is likely a better comparison. The highs sound a little smoother to me on the Paradigms, but the Polks’ bass really rocked in comparison.
A new player to the market is SVS’ Prime Pinnacle speakers, which are more expensive at almost $800, and pack more/larger drivers, but could be competition to the Polk Signature series speakers. I got a quick listen to the Pinnacle at the recent AXPONA audiophile show in Chicago and as always, they are strong contenders. SVS doesn’t have a speaker priced as low as the Polks--their cheapest tower runs $499.99 apiece--but they are comparable in terms of overall enjoyment of sound even if you have to buck up a little more for the bigger form factor SVS towers.
Online audiophile retailer Aperion Audio’s Intimus 4T is good competition for the Polk Signature S50s and in the same price range. The Aperions are much thinner and come only in a black finish, but they’ve received great reviews globally and are beloved in AV enthusiast circles.
There are a lot of speakers that you could put into this comparison and competition section, but one that may not be on your radar but is Tekton Design’s Mini Lore at $595 per pair (plus $50 for grilles). These Utah-made, ultra-efficient speakers come from the design studio of Eric Alexander and they are a whopping 95 dB sensitive, so they can be driven by pretty much any amp out there. They have a ton of custom color options at a very small up-charge, and these ported speakers are a tremendous value, especially given that they’re made in the USA. They are sold direct or online almost exclusively.
The Polk Signature S50 speakers have been a blast to review. They are dynamic, fun, fantastically engineered speakers at a seemingly impossible price of just under $500 per pair. These little speakers can breathe a little life into dull recordings and reproduce both the dynamics and fine details of more modern, better sounding music. For movies, the Polk Signature S50s were put to the test in this review, as I only used them in a stereo or 2.1 configuration, but they simply shined for me.
If you were starting out looking for a speaker to build a modest, aspirational music playback or home theater system for a small to medium sized room, you wouldn’t be making a mistake by picking the Polk Signature S50s. Dollar for dollar, this little speaker a mighty performer and simply an excellent value.
• Visit the Polk Audio website for more product information.
• Check out our Floorstanding Speakers category page to read similar reviews.
•Polk Signature S55 Floorstanding Speakers Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.