Face Off: 3 Speaker Systems Around $3,500

Polk vs. Klipsch vs. RBH

Time after time, I find myself asking, "Now what did I go and say that for?" Recently, while sitting in our weekly staff editorial meeting, I once again opened myself up to an idea that would inevitably lead to more work for me. After requesting speaker systems to have on hand for review, I realized that they all shared one common similarity: They were all around $3,500 or less. I don't know of a retailer on this planet where you can audition Polk, Klipsch, and RBH speakers at the same time, yet I'm sure it will cross some reader's mind who's looking to spend that extra change under the mattress.

"Why not do a Face Off of speaker systems around $3,500?" I suggested. Maureen Jenson just smiled and replied, "Go ahead and put Clint down for a Face Off."Suddenly, even the brownies that Mike Wood bakes every week tasted bitter. "Damn! Right in the middle of trout-fly-fishing season, "I thought. "This will surely keep me home for a weekend or two."

To make a short story even longer, it's now 3:00 a.m. After spending the day conducting the Face Off at our sound laboratory in Woodland Hills, I rushed home (sitting in traffic for two and a half hours) to watch the Lakers win the NBA championship before compiling my notes and beginning to bang out these very words. (My goodness, that was a long sentence.)

The Arena
If I haven't said this before, I like Face Offs about as much as I hate them. I like them because they let me know exactly which companies have the guts to participate and because they satisfy my curiosity (and hopefully yours) as to what really is the best product in a particular price range. What I don't like is the amount of work it takes to do one correctly. Don't get me wrong—I'm not a lazy person. Let me explain.

After each ensemble has been unpacked, I have to plug it in and begin the break-in period of a few hundred hours. On the day of the Face Off, I hang sheets of black, acoustically transparent material from the ceiling to conceal all of the speakers from the listeners' eyes. I feel this gives each of the manufacturers a fair and unbiased audition. The person switching the speakers (in this case, me) is the only person in the evaluation who knows exactly what is being played.

Next, and this is the part that gets tedious, I match the output level of each speaker to ensure that I can maintain a consistent level for each group of speakers. Volume differences of more than 0.2 decibels can make a subjective difference in the listener's opinion of the product. First, I use a dB meter to properly calibrate the volume level of the first group of speakers to the Dolby reference level. Next, I play a 1-kilohertz test tone through each speaker in the ensemble, measuring the voltage level. I have to repeat the calibration for each speaker ensemble when I switch them, matching the output levels within less than 0.2 dB. Once I've matched each speaker to the "reference" gain level, I'm ready to begin.

The speaker systems in this Face Off were connected to a Sony DVP-C650D five-disc DVD changer and Pioneer Elite CLD-97 laserdisc player running through a Lexicon MC-1 preamp/processor and a Parasound HCA-1205A five-channel amplifier. The Lexicon LDD-1 RF demodulator was used between the LD player and the MC-1. The components were connected using Monster Cable interconnects, and the speakers were connected via Kimber Kable speaker wire.

Let the Listening Begin
With each of the speaker ensembles in the aforementioned environment, I began the evaluation. Each ensemble would undergo testing utilizing three preselected pieces of program material: For the two-channel music selection, I used Sheffield Laboratories' My Disc, track 6, "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay"; for DTS/DVD-Audio, I used the Eagles' When Hell Freezes Over; lastly, for theater, I used the pod-race scene from The Phantom Menace.