In recent years, some in the audiophile world have been actively engaged in the debate over which business model, Internet-direct or dealer-distributed, produces the best components. The most hotly debated topic is in the area of value, rather than absolute performance. Every audiophile and home theater enthusiast is looking for better performance, but this isn't entirely in a vacuum, without consideration for cost. After all, who actually has an unlimited budget for home audio and video? Even for those with virtually limitless funds, who wouldn't love to save some money for other pursuits, all else being equal?
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One longstanding name in home AV is Polk Audio. It's a name sometimes ignored by the extreme audiophile community, since the company does not boast a lot of cost-no-object products in its speaker line. Nonetheless, Polk has consistently brought outstanding performance and value to the consumer for decades. The company's distribution strategy transcends the traditional vs. online debate. You can find Polk speakers in many high-end audio dealer locations, as well as directly through the Polk website, within big-box retailers, through online sites like Amazon, in off-the-wall places like car- and boat-audio shops, and possibly through other channels I don't yet know about. This wide distribution matrix is also what contributes to significant economies of scale for Polk Audio.
The TSx Series is Polk's newly revamped entry-level line, replacing the outgoing and highly successful TSi Series. The lineup includes three tower speakers that range from $499 to $999 per pair, but I opted to review the smaller bookshelf speakers in the line. The TSx220B bookshelf speaker, which retails for $299 per pair, features a one-inch silk/polymer dome tweeter and a 6.5-inch bi-laminate cone woofer in a cabinet that measures 14 inches high by 8 inches wide by 13 inches deep, weighing 13.6 pounds. The smaller TSx110B retails for $199 per pair and uses a 5.25-inch woofer; it's housed in an 11- by 7- by 9-inch cabinet that weighs 9.4 pounds. Both speakers' 90dB efficiency and eight-ohm resistance make them easy loads to drive with pretty much any reasonable source of amplification that a user might employ. To round out a 5.1-channel system, the manufacturer was kind enough to also send me the TSx250C center channel ($299 each) and PSW110 10-inch powered subwoofer ($249 each).
All music and movie sources were driven through my Oppo BDP-105. Rather than my reference preamp and amplifier setup, I chose to use the Onkyo TX-NR515, a receiver that I thought would be more typical of the amplification that would be matched with the Polks in a real-world system. All source signals were fed digitally through a Blue Jeans HDMI cable from my Oppo unit to the Onkyo. I then hooked up all the speakers to the Onkyo via 10-gauge Monoprice speaker wire.
At their price, the Polks are only slightly more expensive than a lot of cheap desktop computer speakers for sale at your local mass retailer (ahem, Wal-Mart), not something you would expect to find on demo at your local high-end audio dealer. I'll be completely honest - I tethered my expectations accordingly. After all, for that price, I couldn't possibly expect the Polk TSx speakers to perform like a pair of reference monitors, the ones that cost tens of thousands and can make you believe you are listening to large full-range floor-standers if you close your eyes.
First, I hooked up just the TSx220B speakers for some stereo music listening. I queued up the late Amy Winehouse's Back to Black album (Republic). I think it was serendipity that I started with female vocals, as I feel this is one of the speaker's best strengths. Ms. Winehouse's voice was clear and detailed. Highs were crisp. Those who enjoy her music know that her voice has some unique textures and a lot of character. It's not even and smooth like that of a lot of other singers. Far from what I expected of any lower-cost speaker, the 220B produced so many of these textures that I had a hard time telling what was missing that was actually supposed to be there. My wife's first reaction was, "These are really good. How much are they?" Upon hearing that they cost only $299 per pair, she replied in her usual, very direct and pointed manner, "So why did we buy your speakers for so much more?" I was in shock, because I didn't really have a good rebuttal. True, my reference system does produce greater transparency and openness, and its imaging is more precise, with resolution and clarity on an absolute level, inching closer to the Holy Grail. But I had to admit, the difference wasn't night and day. And certainly, the performance was beyond what you would expect from a $299 pair of bookshelf speakers.
Read more about the performance on the Polk TSx220B on Page 2.