Polk LSi9 surround speaker system Page 2

Polk Songs
I began my listening in 2-channel stereo. Arriving late to the party, I've just discovered Shawn Colvin's 1992 masterpiece, Fat City (CD, Columbia CK 47122). David Lindley's Hawaiian guitar, Larry Campbell's pedal steel, and, of course, Colvin's acoustic guitar set up a triumvirate of percussive, slippery strings, beautifully imaged across two speakers. The Polk LSi9s gently placed the musicians in the plane between them, evoking a warm resolution that permeated all of my listening sessions with them.

When I slouched deep down into my listening chair, the LSi9s were less than average in their vertical presentation, with no sense of developed height beyond that provided by their stands. Forcing myself upright until my ears were at or slightly above the tweeters' axes did a world of good for the Polks' vertical and horizontal imaging, and ameliorated some lower-midrange emphasis that had manifested as heaviness in vocal passages.

Group gatherings in home theaters are frequently subject to volume creep, but music listening is often an intimate affair conducted at levels lower than the realistic. Speakers answer this challenge with differing degrees of success. With MartinLogan electrostatics, for example, the continuity of timbre and dynamics is managed very linearly. Even at very low levels, I can relate to the way they handle microdynamic swings. More noticeably, timbre—the relative balance between instruments and their harmonics across all frequency ranges—remains intact.

Many conventional speakers aren't nearly as linear, which has led to the observation that some speakers "come to life" only when they reach a certain minimum threshold of volume. The Polk LSi9 proved to be just such a speaker, though not to any gross degree. At lower levels, the sound was thin but not unpleasant.

But after I'd crossed that minimum-volume threshold—which will vary with the size of your room and your musical tastes but wasn't objectionably high in any regard—I entered a magical kingdom where the Polk was as resolute, warm, and inviting as that oft-imagined steaming-hot bath on a chilly day (if only we had the time . . . ). The treble, in particular, was extended and inviting, incisive but not evicting. Credit Polk's well-designed tweeter here, which approached the beautiful translucence of the one in the Thiel CS1.6.

Across the midrange, the LSi9 made it sound so easy, when I knew it wasn't. Marc Cohn's distinctive piano work on Marc Cohn (CD, Atlantic 782178-2) was broad, harmonically rich, and forceful. On "Dig Down Deep," the percussive finger cymbals and the slide and acoustic guitars lit up the fantasized soundstage and left me feeling like a deer in the headlights. Vocalists as diverse as Colvin and Cohn held up realistically well. I've heard Cohn sound deeper and more gravelly when singing "Walking in Memphis" or "Ghost Train" through $5000 speakers, but then, I had to reach a lot deeper into my wallet, too. For the asking price, the Polk got me 80% of the way there for 20% of the price of admission.

Having just snagged the requisite equipment for partaking of SACD and DVD-Audio, I was keen to listen to some multichannel music over the five LSi9s. Finding suitable 5.1-channel material is another matter, but Telarc has brilliantly recorded some much-needed extravaganzas to promote multichannel music by demonstrating its potential. One disc, Carl Orff's Carmina Burana (Donald Runnicles, Atlanta Symphony, SACD-60575), is blessed with the SACD format's low-noise floor, from which the chorus grows to larger-than-life proportions. This recording largely puts to rest any fears that multichannel Ping-Pong will rule the day. The rear channels contain much the same material as the front, only lower in level and captured from a greater distance, exactly as one would expect from the hall reverberation of a live event. However, for some reason, whether by design or by virtue of their percussive nature, any type of cymbal or bell still had me turning around, hoping to see an usher shepherding the musical heckler toward an exit door.

I can't say the Polk LSi9s created the best free-floating soundstage I've ever heard, or even that they came close to such a laudable goal, but when properly positioned, they were better than average. Another multichannel Telarc recording, this one of Glire's Symphony No. 3 (Leon Botstein, London Symphony, SACD-60609), approaches acoustical infinity with its mellow timbre and depth. The Polks refused to let the strings get steely, even when driven to levels that would have awakened poor Glire. Dynamically, the Polks moved huge amounts of air with no noticeable compression—a rarity in any speaker, much less one at this price.

Polk Fiction
The opening storm scene in The Bourne Identity (DVD, Universal 21551) has enough rain, thunder, ocean swells, and shouting to convince you of the benefits of using five identical speakers. In this case, the Polk's high level of resolution lifted the curtain between looking in and being there. I first viewed the film while listening to its 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, then switched to the DTS track. The Polks revealed subtle differences in the mixes. DTS's warmer, deeper mix is usually the winner for me when I compare the two formats—the rear channels, in particular, usually seem deeper and louder in level. This was true of Bourne as well, but this time I found the DD track more detailed, coherent, and, ultimately, believable. The DD track did a better job than the DTS version of preserving the individuality of hard rain pounding the ocean surface. The DTS track was richer to a fault, sounding more homogenized and imprecise. Bear in mind that such track-to-track comparisons often require the services of speakers with much higher resolution than what I'd expect from a speaker at or near the LSi9's price. Draw your own conclusions.

The special two-disc director's cut of Amadeus (DVD, Warner Bros. 37464) was satisfying fare with the Polks. Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, particularly in some favorite Mozart piano concertos, were richly reproduced and joyful to hear. The rear channels contributed subtly to ambience without drawing specific attention to themselves. Being somewhat lean, this recording relies on Sir Neville's use of original instruments, which have brighter, more etched sounds that are faithful to the period (the late 18th century), yet are often unfamiliar to modern audiences. The Polks' image was sufficiently expansive, but again, the material and choice of period instruments drew the stage with more sharpness of tone than contemporary audiences might expect, offering immediacy in place of cavernous depth.

The Others (DVD, Dimension 24168) has lots of creepy squeaks and utterances that the sound engineers skillfully placed throughout the room. In chapter 7, Nicole Kidman's character finds herself in an attic room, ghostly voices swirling around her. Herein lay the great advantage of using five identical speakers: As sounds traveled from speaker to speaker, they did so without adopting different sonic personalities. If nothing else, a quintet of lesser speakers can still create a more plausible surround environment than a hodgepodge of expensive speakers of different designs. Even within a product line, nothing says "no difference" like no difference. The Polks, great-sounding at a minimum plurality of two, were only more impressive in greater numbers.

That's All, Polks
Sounding better than an inexpensive speaker has any right to, the Polk LSi9 is a pleasant find. Low to unnoticeable levels of compression, a sweetly extended treble, and a warm midrange (once you get above that minimum-volume threshold) make the LSi9 a natural for music or movies. Don't forget that good stands will drive the system price up and force you to consider comparisons with floorstanding speakers. But until you start talking lots more money, bigger isn't always better. The competition is tough in the $2000/pair category, but few buffalo roam where the LSi9 play. The Polk LSi9 is clearly a big winner. And now, Maestro, a little Polk music to take us out: And a-one, and a-two . . .