Continuing to explore female vocals, I put in Whitney Houston's sophomore album Whitney (Arista). The track "I Know Him So Well" featuring Houston in a duet with her mother, Cissy Houston, was thoroughly enjoyable. The very different vocal characters of the older and younger Houstons were reproduced accurately and matter-of-factly, without any romanticizing or smoothing over of effects using mid-bass boosts or other tweaks you often hear in lower-priced bookshelf models.
What continued to impress me was the fact that my listening room, being a very large 17 feet wide by 24 feet long by nine feet tall, did not seem far too large a space for the speakers to fill. No, I didn't quite get the immersive experience that a large floor-standing speaker pair would deliver in fully pressurizing the room with sound, but again, we aren't talking about the same class of speaker on multiple fronts. Without subwoofer accompaniment, the piano in the background sounded a little flat and lacked some energy, consistent with the fact that these were never meant to be full-range speakers. When I added the budget-friendly PSW110 to mix, though (with the Onkyo set to cross over below 80Hz), the sound was respectable and pleasing. The upper bass registers were very crisp and natural, the way piano sounds should be. The pairing was quite clean, in that the total frequency range was seamless. It wasn't like I had a treble and midrange and then, boom, a subwoofer. Overall, it was a clean sound.
I switched to some classical music to see what the speakers could do with a whole lot of things going on simultaneously and with a much wider frequency range than female vocals. I put in the first CD (which held all the Star Wars music) in the six-CD set The Music of John Williams: The Definitive Collection (Silva Screen), which features the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra playing through an anthology of 40 years of movie soundtrack magic composed by the maestro. In the tracks "Star Wars: A New Hope" and "Throne Room (Finale)," the TSx220B speakers handled the scale of orchestral music amazingly well, but here is where the illusion of invincibility that the Polks fought so valiantly to uphold finally began to break down. While the separation of sounds between instruments was handled reasonably well, a truly high-performance pair of monitors, such as the Focal Diablo Utopia, would add that extra level of resolution and detail from the strings section, as well as a little more energy and brightness in the horns and trumpets that are so prevalent in Williams' early works. In addition, with full orchestral music, the subwoofer was absolutely necessary in order to fully reproduce the essence and grandeur of the tracks. With the subwoofer added, I again got absolutely pleasing upper bass. However, on Track Five, "Imperial March," the smaller subwoofer was not able to master the strong and dynamic mid-bass and deeper base registers that Williams uses to convey the fear associated with an army of storm troopers marching to the orders of Darth Vader and the evil Emperor. That richness and depth in the lowest registers that you get with a much larger and more powerful subwoofer just wasn't there. I also tried out the smaller TSx110Bs with these tracks, which expectedly had a more difficult time pressurizing the room with sound.
Next, I went with a 5.1-channel setup, using the TSx220B speakers as my front left and right speakers and the TSx110B speakers as my left and right surrounds. I added the TSx250C center channel and, of course, the PSW110 sub. I played Brave on Blu-ray (Buena Vista), which is one of my favorite demo movies for speakers, as it features a rich score of Scottish-themed music, action sequences, and plenty of dialog. More than that, it's just good clean fun. With all six speakers firing, especially the three front channels, I got the fullness of sound that wasn't quite there with the more complex two-channel music demos. The little TSx110Bs did not disappoint in any way as surrounds. In one scene, where King Fergus gathers his court around to recount, in his thunderous, bellowing voice, how he stood up against a menacing bear, dialog was clean and precise. The speaker/subwoofer combo reproduced all of the energy of the roar and laughter from the king's audience, giving you the full sense of the festivities the scene is trying to portray.
Moving to an action genre film, I chose The Expendables (Millennium Films) on Blu-ray. Dialog, even in quieter scenes like the one where Barney (Sylvester Stallone) and Tool (Mickey Rourke) are having a heart to heart in a tattoo parlor about the dismal life of a mercenary, was effortless and delivered with great resolution. The TSx110Bs as surrounds never left anything to be desired throughout the film's many bullet-ridden and effects-heavy scenes. What continued to amaze me was that the combination of smaller-sized speakers never gave way and lost that sense of scale that you often get with these action movies at reference volume levels, except perhaps in scenes requiring extreme low frequencies, like an early scene where Barney and his crew are escaping an evil dictator's fortress in a noisy prop plane. Here, the impact of the rumble was not felt as much as it would via a larger subwoofer. I'm not saying I didn't hear the plane take off or the low-frequency percussive sounds of heavy artillery explosions, but my room wasn't shaking like it would with a pair of, say, large JL Gotham subs.
The Polk TSx220B bookshelf speakers aren't the last word in detail and resolution, and they are not meant to be full-range speakers, so pairing them with some sort of subwoofer is recommended to get a real full-range music experience. A larger high-performance subwoofer would add even more to the quality of the home theater experience. In addition, you want to make sure that your room size is not excessively large (although, as I mentioned previously, I think you'll be surprised how much sound you can get out of these Polks). Really these aren't faults that are unique to the Polks in this price range. In fact, I would argue that, for what one should expect for the price, the TSx220B really doesn't have any glaring faults.
Comparison and Competition
Polk's entry-level TSx Series faces a solid amount of competition in its price category. For $225 per pair, you have the Emp Tek E5Bi, which has a higher reported sensitivity and a broader suggested range in power rating for suitable amplification. I imagine the Polks would be easier to drive. The Paradigm Shift A2 at $279 may be a more versatile option, having its own power. Based on my brief encounters with the A2s, I believe the Polks would prove to be more neutral and have better clarity. At $250 per pair, the Hsu Research HB-1 may be great competition for the Polks, but horn speakers have a unique sound profile somewhat different than that of traditional cone driver speakers. I would also throw in the well-reviewed Pioneer SP-FS52 speakers, which are actually floor-standing models that carry a price tag of just $130 each.
I talked a bit about what these speakers were not, and I even compared them with speakers that are so far beyond what would be competition for their price range that it might seem ridiculous. This is not out of disrespect or any intent to somehow downgrade the Polk TSx speakers. Rather, I was so impressed with what they could do that I didn't think it right not to seriously compare them with models from higher performance classes. All in all, the Polk TSx speakers made for a thoroughly enjoyable music-listening and movie-watching experience. Even after all my listening tests were completed, I found myself procrastinating in packing up the speakers and sending them back to the manufacturer. It's just so easy to keep listening to them. The Polk TSx220B is an astoundingly great value that you can purchase through pretty much whatever distribution channel you please.
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