Face Off: 3 Speaker Systems Around $3,500 Polk

The Polk speaker ensemble tested in this report includes speakers from the RTi series of towers, the CS series of center channels, and the f/x series of surround speakers—as well as a PSW450 12-inch powered subwoofer. There's no question that the Polk system is the most well-built ensemble in the group. Not only are the speakers built well, but they all feature impressive attributes to their utility.

I'll begin first with the description of the RT2000i tower. Designed to be the main L/R speaker in this ensemble, each RT2000i offers excellent construction, transducer selection, and value. Standing atop Polk's proprietary Power Port (a port-noise management system), the RT2000i measures nearly 46 inches tall. The cabinet houses a pair of 8-inch powered woofers, a single 61/2-inch midwoof, and a single 1-inch Tri-Laminate dome tweeter. The rear baffle more-closely resembles a subwoofer back panel. With high- and low-level ins and outs, auto on/off, and a subwoofer gain control, it appears as though the towers have enough to get the theater ball rolling. Of course, the ensemble still comes with an additional subwoofer for increased LFE. At this price point, that's unheard of . . . but is it necessary?

The PSW450 subwoofer features a single 12-inch, frontward-firing woofer with a dual-rear-port design. Interestingly enough, the woofer does not utilize the Power Port, which to my knowledge is on most every offering Polk sells—including their multimedia speakers. The subwoofer is powered by a 150-watt (continuous) amplifier and features all the goodies you need to bring it into any speaker family. On the rear panel, expect to find high and low ins/outs, a variable crossover between 60 and 125 Hz, a 180-degree phase-shifting switch, and auto on/off. There's even an unfiltered LFE input that prevents cascading crossovers with your processor.

The CS400i center channel was my personal favorite in regards to design and build quality. Ironically, it weighed more than the Klipsch subwoofer. The CS400i features a pair of 61/2-inch midwoofers, a single Tri-Laminate dome tweeter, and a rear Power Port enclosure.

The f/x500i surrounds round out the ensemble with a very sexy dipolar design. Each f/x500i features a pair of Dynamic Balance dome tweeters and a single 61/2-inch woofer. Here again, I can't say enough good things about the build quality and attention to detail on each speaker in this ensemble.

Moving into the evaluation, I inserted the Eagles DTS DVD for the listening panel, and we began to take notes. Immediately, I noted a very enveloping sound and the best bass response in the group on this particular selection. The center channel, on the other hand, sounded somewhat subdued compared with the rest of the speakers in the ensemble and, at times, had a muddy presence. The f/x500i surrounds quickly proved to be my favorite in music-listening mode. They were able to capture concise sounds and an ambient surround field.

In two-channel mode, the towers lacked the tight, punchy bass I expected from the dual-powered 8-inch design. Overall, I would say that the towers are very flat-responding. Of course, a simple adjustment of the gain on the towers or LFE would compensate for this.

During the pod-race scene, the entire ensemble really came alive. Although the bass response left me hiding in a corner, I found it to be a bit overwhelming at times—as did the rest of the listening panel. If I had to pinpoint a problem with the system, I'd say it was in the bass management. There were several times when I could detect the overlapping of midbass frequencies between the sub and tower cutoff points. This can most certainly be fixed with a day of tweaking and setup. The center channel was a much better performer in the theater evaluation than it was with music. I was most impressed with the huge sound it belted out during explosive onscreen information.

I would not recommend this system for folks who don't have some previous knowledge of proper speaker setup and placement. The Polk ensemble is most definitely not a plug-and-play ensemble; then again, I don't believe any system truly is.

• Excellent build quality
• Well-designed powered tower
• Top-quality driver selection

HT Labs Measures: Polk RTi Series

This graph shows the quasi-anechoic (employing close-miking of all woofers) frequency response of the RT2000i main L/R (purple trace), PSW450 subwoofer (blue trace), CS400i center channel (green trace), and f/x500i surround channel (green trace). All passive loudspeakers were measured at a distance of 1 meter with a 2.83-volt input and scaled for display purposes.

On-axis response of the RT2000i L/R measures +1.0/-2.8 decibels from 200 hertz to 10 kilohertz. The -3dB point is at 32 Hz, and the -6dB point is at 30 Hz. Impedance reaches a minimum of 3.5 ohms at 291 Hz and a phase angle of -52.8 degrees at 111 Hz. Sensitivity is 89 dB from 500 Hz to 2 kHz.

On-axis response of the CS400i center measures +2.5/-3.0 dB from 200 Hz to 10 kHz. An average of axial and (+/-15 degree) horizontal responses measures +2.4/-2.1 dB from 200 Hz to 10 kHz. The -3dB point is at 65 Hz, and the -6dB point is at 57 Hz. Impedance reaches a minimum of 3.0 ohms at 4.8 kHz and a phase angle of -64.1 degrees at 129 Hz. Sensitivity is 91 dB from 500 Hz to 2 kHz.

Three-point averaged response of the f/x500i surround (in dipole mode) measures +1.6/-2.0 dB from 200 Hz to 20 kHz. The -3dB point is at 69 Hz, and the -6dB point is at 59 Hz. Impedance reaches a minimum of 3.6 ohms at 7.4 kHz and a phase angle of -74.9 degrees at 97 Hz. Sensitivity is 85 dB from 500 Hz to 2 kHz.

Close-miked response of the PSW450 subwoofer, normalized to the average level from 40 Hz to 80 Hz, indicates that the lower -3dB point is at 42 Hz and the -6dB point is at 36 Hz. The upper -3dB point is at 113 Hz.—AJ