Polk RTi A9 Speaker System Page 2

I reviewed the Polk system in my 26-by-15.5-by-8-foot home theater. First, I positioned the left and right RTi A9s on either side of my projection screen, which I later retracted when the test material was music only. I toed in the RTi A9s to cross axes in front of the main listening seat, which put the center listening position slightly off axis. I then placed the CSi A6 center on a stand beneath the screen, the FXi A6 surrounds (in bipole mode) on 24-inch stands at the back of the room, and the subwoofer in the right front corner. Finally, I positioned all of the front speakers 3 feet or more from the side or front walls and removed most of the speaker grilles.

At 75 pounds, the RTi A9 is remarkably light given its size. A knuckle-rap test with my ear against the cabinet suggested a fairly high resonant frequency. But the ping I heard sounded well damped. I heard nothing in the sound that indicated the cabinet itself was singing along with the drivers, which is never a good thing.

Listening: Music
I’d been living for weeks with a system built around the new B&W 683 floorstanding speakers (see my review at www.UltimateAVmag.com). Compared with the B&Ws’ detail and sweetness, the Polks initially sounded lean, crisp, and almost aggressive. I wouldn’t describe their sound as harsh or edgy, but it definitely leaned toward brightness, particularly in the mid-treble region. While this could produce a vivid and exciting sound with most program material, it seemed less well suited for classical music.

When I took some basic room-response measurements to try to pin this down, I didn’t see anything in the speakers’ response that suggested brightness. However, I did measure a nearly flat, uniform room response above 800 Hz, taken at 11 feet. This suggests that a closer-miked response might show a rising top end.

While my first listening impressions never completely disappeared, I soon began to appreciate the RTi A9’s strengths. Even when I drove them full range, they still went relatively deep. The mid and upper bass sounded a bit lean in my setup, but the overall low-frequency performance sounded well defined and not sloppy or boomy. Because of my projection screen, I couldn’t position the speakers closer to my wall. But I suspect this would firm up the low end and warm up the midbass.

For most of my listening, I rolled off the RTi A9 below 80 Hz and let the DSW PRO 600 subwoofer perform the deep-bass chores for both music and movies.

The midrange showed no obvious coloration aside from its somewhat forward presentation. The RTi A9 is no wallflower and brings the performers front and center. Thankfully, it falls short of dropping them into your lap, but it can provide an uncommon sense of immediacy. Some listeners don’t like this type of sound and prefer a more subtle, laid-back quality in their speakers. Others will sit up and take notice when they hear the Polks. I normally prefer a more neutral perspective, but I still found the RTi A9’s vividness addictive. (A discussion of how you prove that a speaker is “neutral” might be interesting for another time.)

The DSW PRO 600 subwoofer combined seamlessly with the RTi A9—down to 30 Hz or so. Organ and synthesizer tracks did not extend into the subterranean region. The lowest notes often disappeared or only became evident from their upper harmonics. But the subwoofer was extremely capable with percussive bass. The pounding drums on the Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World soundtrack CD sounded awesomely tight and punchy. Considering the Polk sub’s size and price, I’m not complaining. It never let the system down.

The sub’s room-optimizer settings didn’t make any significant difference in my room. I did find that the 180-degree phase setting produced smoother overall bass performance in my setup. This was easy to find out when I used test tones and the convenient remote control.

The uppermost frequencies, from brushed cymbals to cleanly recorded sibilants, sounded silky smooth. This went a long way from the low-treble brightness that I found distracting earlier. The Polk system has a clean, tight midbass, an uncolored midrange, and a striking soundstage with superb width and good depth. When you combine that with the fine top octave, you get memorable music listening.

Listening: Movies
The Polk system was tremendously effective on movie soundtracks. With Ratatouille (uncompressed PCM on Blu-ray), I heard every detail, from the patter of “little feet” to the subtlest pot-to-pan clank in Gusteau’s busy kitchen.

The CSi A6 center speaker sounded sibilant when I listened directly on axis. But from the slightly off-axis seat I use for movie watching, the system’s sound was well balanced. I only heard a trace of edginess on the loudest bits, such as the action sequence when the rat colony rushes to escape their lair in the country. You can tame the CSi A6 center’s bright on-axis sound by using your AVR or pre/pro’s ReEQ feature. You can also tame the sound to a lesser extent by using the center with its grille on.

The Polk sub didn’t produce bass that was as overwhelmingly deep and room shaking as I’ve heard in my room from more upscale subs. But it did work overtime to generate a solid, clean bass foundation that few listeners will likely complain about. I only heard it lapse into a drone once, on a particularly resonant note in the soundtrack for Déjà Vu (uncompressed PCM on Blu-ray). This effect likely happened because of a bad match between the soundtrack, the setup, and room modes.

The Polk system impressed me the most with its huge dynamic range in movies. It equaled or bettered the dynamic range of most of the speaker systems I’ve reviewed, some of them far more expensive. Whatever you might think of the recent remake of War of the Worlds, its standard DTS soundtrack sounds spectacular. Its sound is slightly edgier than either of the films I mentioned above, even though it’s not yet available on HD in a higher-resolution audio format. But that edgy quality may actually enhance its effectiveness. The lightning strikes at the beginning sounded fearsome, the heat rays from the alien machines were terrifying, the foghorn bleat of the tripods sent a chill up my spine, and the fighter jets passing from front to back made me want to dive for cover. Clearly, these were the responses that filmmaker Steven Spielberg intended. This isn’t a soundtrack for the faint of heart. But don’t blame the Polks. They delivered.

The Polk system’s low-treble brightness remained a constant. At least one British reviewer colorfully dubbed this quality “a sting in the tail.” But the longer I listened, the less obvious it became. Some listeners prefer the sweeter audio quality of the Polk’s competitors, but others will be thrilled by what they hear from this system. Either way, I recommend a careful audition. You just might find what you’re looking for.

A lot of speaker for the money
Exceptional dynamics and detail
Tends toward brightness, particularly on axis

Polk Audio
(800) 377-7655