Polk Audio T50 Speaker System Review Page 2

Before I started my critical evaluation, I used the system as my TV sound rig for a few days so the speakers could get a few break-in hours on them. I’m glad I did, because I did notice a gradual but undeniable improvement in treble smoothness and overall dynamics over that period.

As I normally do, I started my listening with just the T50 towers playing full range by themselves with no subwoofer. When I listen to any speaker with my critic’s hat on, it’s easy to start picking apart the sound. That’s normal; but with the T50s, I had to constantly remind myself that these speakers are only $260 a pair. Heck, I have silly little accessories for my system that cost way more than that, and here we had a decent-sized pair of floorstanding speakers cranking away.

Using Tidal to stream lossless music through the system, I played Sponji Reggae from Black Uhuru’s Red album. Through the T50s, percussionist Sticky Thompson’s bells rang clear and bright, while Robbie Shakespeare’s reggae bass line had plenty of impact. Bass notes were not quite as solid in their ability to shake the room like my PSB Synchrony Ones, but I should point out that those speakers cost more than 20 times as much as the T50s! Toward the end of the song, there’s a kind of dub section, where some of the drum hits have massive amounts of additional reverb added. With the T50s, the added sense of space and dimensionality was readily apparent. While it couldn’t quite match the midrange transparency of some fancier speakers, whenever I started to get nit-picky, I just kept repeating the mantra, “$260 a pair, $260 a pair,” and then I would be suitably impressed.

Tom Waits has a voice about as distinctive as they come, and listening to “Murder in the Red Barn” from the Bone Machine album through the T50s brought out plenty of the gravely whisky-hewn grit in his voice. This is another recording with a very natural sense of space, and the T50s delivered it with gobs of room sound and air. OK, so maybe the standup bass was just a little woofy, and the banjo didn’t quite have all of the attack on the pluck you’d hear on a really high-end speaker, but again, $260 a pair, $260 a pair.

Firing up the rest of the speakers in the system, I dusted off my SACD and DVD-Audio shelf to spin a few surround music discs. Talking Heads made a fabulous DVD-Audio (actually DualDisc) box set with surround mixes of all their studio albums a few years back, so I slipped in Speaking in Tongues and played the track “Moon Rocks.” This is one of those surround mixes that sticks some of the percussion and guitars in the surround channels, rather than just creating an ambient space, and through the T50 5.1 system, the effect was pretty compelling. High-frequency sounds like drummer Chris Franz’s cymbals were clean, although just a little soft, with slightly bleached tonal color. Tina Weymouth’s bass lines were clear and easy to follow, and you could easily hear her characteristic playing style of a simple line followed by a slightly accented note on the fundamental.

For most people, the whole point of having a home theater system is to give you an immersive audio experience when watching movies, and this is why a true 5.1 system will always beat a soundbar. The Polk system does a pretty amazing job as long as you stick within its limitations, which are mostly in the area of maximum volume and dynamic capabilities. In my 14 x 17-foot room, the system would play as loudly as I ever want to listen to movies in a New York City apartment surrounded by neighbors; but then again, I know some people who really want their home theater to pummel them with sound. It’s hard to tell by listening, but I did feel that at times I was able to hit the limiters in the subwoofer and reach a point where it simply wouldn’t go any louder. I got that feeling during the scene in The Twilight Saga: New Moon where Bella gets into a fight with Edward and Jasper. The PSW108 did a good job with this at moderate levels, but if I really cranked it up, it started to lose some of the visceral impact as their bodies slammed into the walls of the room.

During my initial setup, I noticed that while the three front stage speakers were a very good sonic match for each other, the T15 surround speakers had a noticeably different timbre. I was concerned that this might make front-to-rear pans sound somewhat discontinuous, but I didn’t hear a problem during the flying scenes in Astro Boy. Generally, I find that while a good timbral match is important between the center and the main left and right speakers, matching the surrounds is less critical. I found that Astro Boy was able to buzz around the room convincingly, with no noticeable sense of discontinuity as the sound passed through the surround channels.

Soundbars are cool if you want something unobtrusive that will improve the sound of your TV, but please don’t mistake them for a real surround music or home theater system. If you want to do it right, it’s hard to beat a real multi-speaker package with a subwoofer. The Polk T Series makes getting there eminently affordable, and the system sounds great as long as you’re not looking for movie theater volume levels and lease-breaking dynamics. By themselves, the T50 towers deliver the kind of performance that forces you to keep reminding yourself of just how affordable they are. I recommend them highly, especially if you can enjoy them with a really good five-cent cigar.

Polk Audio
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