Polk Audio RTi4 Surround System
Polk is a ubiquitous and well-respected speaker manufacturer that has been around for a long time; longer than me, in fact. I’ve read the great reviews, heard many good things, and seen some impressive demonstrations. As a reasonably priced, mainstream speaker manufacturer, it is no stretch to call them a reference for value and performance for the consumer. It seems that with each product cycle, Polk has some serious kick butt performer for not too much money. But I have confession to make: in all my years as an audio nerd, and through the dozens and dozens of speakers that have made their way through my house, I have never heard a pair of Polk Speakers outside of a Circuit City demonstration. This entire paragraph has been based entirely on hearsay. Shame on me.
So I was excited when I got a phone call from Paul DiComo, Polk’s Marketing Manager, offering up a review sample. Finally I would get a chance to try out these great speakers that I have heard so much about but haven’t actually heard. Soon enough I had the RTi4 Surround Package, based on two pairs of the RTi4, which is a medium sized bookshelf speaker. The set also features the CSi3, a large center channel speaker and the PW404 subwoofer.
Right Down to Business
The RTi4’s feature one 5.25” midrange/woofer and one 1” silk/polymer composite dome tweeter per speaker. They reach down to about 50 – 60Hz and present your amplifier with an easy to drive 8ohm load and 89db sensitivity. They’re 12” tall and a little less deep, and 7” wide. Polk recommends a power amplifier or 20 – 120 watts per channel, and I used power amplifiers all over that recommended power range.
The CSi3 center channel, as I mentioned, is a larger center channel in relation to the RTi4’s. Like the RTi4, it reaches down to about 50-60Hz and boasts a very nice wood grain cabinet. The top of the speaker (or the bottom, depending on how you position it) is slanted so that you can point upward in case you have to place it below the television.
The subwoofer is based on a 10 inch “long throw” woofer, powered by a 200 watt RMS amplifier. It features an LFE input for connection to a home theater receiver, or you can use the subs' built-in crossover through the speaker level connections or line-level RCA inputs. I appreciated the line-level input and internal crossover, as it allowed me to connect it directly to my Yamaha stereo pre-amp, which does not have a cross-over. This is not an uncommon feature but still not found in every sub at this price. Also, the PSW404 does not feature the nice wood grain cabinet found on the main speakers, but instead a decent laminate. This is understandable as it would add a bit to the cost when the sub is usually hidden away anyway. And like the old Ford Model T, it is available in any color you want so long as it is black.
I used these speakers in a variety of configurations, both stereo and surround. First very casually and briefly in two channel configurations powered by Yamaha separates, and then a Panasonic surround receiver. Later in the review I moved the speakers into different configurations for more serious review.
Using the Polks in combination with the budget Yamaha receiver I reviewed a few weeks ago was a quite a treat. In that review I described a gripping home theater experience; where regardless of content or genre I was drawn into the movie with a tremendous and nuanced audio performance. The Polks obviously played a big part in creating that enveloping and involving experience. They could do action and over the top special effects. They could do subtle, tender and emotional. It was never about the speakers, though. It was about the movie, and the Polk’s do a fantastic job of delivering an exciting and engaging home theater experience.
They created a seamless sound field that put the movie right into the living room. Sound effects were three dimensional and had a almost tangible “texture”; at one point a car flew over my head while watching “Collateral”, and I really ducked to avoid it. This seamless sound field was achieved without much fuss in speaker positioning.
In terms of ease of placement, the center channel was something of an exception. Not because of poor audio performance, but because of its larger size. As I've mentioned, this speaker is somewhat large for a center channel, especially in comparison to the medium/small RTi4s the system is based on. The speaker would not fit in entertainment center which is fairly large and spacious and usually accommodating. I had to use a speaker stand, which isn’t really practical for me in a long term setup. It did have quite a command of source material, however, likely a big factor in bringing the movie “into the living room” as I described in the previous paragraphs.
The subwoofer contributed a solid performance. It performed well when called into action, and I never felt like I was missing bass. Although I couldn’t push the volume too far without causing the sub to break up, the output of the 10” woofer seemed to be adequate for my room. This was a definite improvement over the 8” woofer of the Aperion system subwoofer I reviewed a while back, which I found to be far too small and anemic for my living room.
As good as the speakers were for home theater, my favorite part is hooking gear up to my main system and seeing what it can do. I saved the best for last. After wrapping up the home theater portion of review, I moved the sub and one pair of RTi4’s into my nice two channel system, consisting of a variety of sources, a Yamaha pre-amp, and an Audio Electronic Supply Super Amp, which is a sweet little push-pull tube amp that can be used in Single Ended mode for 15 watts or Ultra-Linear for 25 watts. Sources included a Thorens turntable, a Denon universal disc player and an Apple Airport Express for pc based music and radio. I also hooked up the Polk sub to the Yamaha pre to help out with the low frequencies.
After fooling around a bit with speaker positioning, I found a good spot and got some startlingly good sound. Even from humble sources such as Internet radio via Airport Express, I was amazed by the synergy between the Super Amp and the Polks. Powered by the Super Amp, these speakers sound spectacular. The midrange was rich and open, and loaded with texture. Bass was absolutely voluptuous, with great extension and definition. Nice full tone all across the spectrum. I guess what I am saying is, these speakers are damn sexy!
I was impressed by the Polks great separation of instruments. Details are very well delineated. High frequencies were extended and super smooth, free of fatigue and harshness. Instruments and sound effects arose from nowhere, and sounded very full and powerful every time. Each note was full of life.
As I mentioned in the discussion about home theater performance above, the Polks created a wonderful sound field in a two-channel configuration as well. Music was wonderfully three-dimensional, with voices, instruments, and sound effects arising out of nowhere, and then disappearing right back from whence they came.
I had trouble finding many things wrong with this speaker that couldn't be attributed to upstream components.
For example, I got less than stellar results when I hooked the Polks up my Yamaha MX-830, a bruiser of a power amp that puts out a hefty 170 watts per channel. I usually use this guy to power my VMPS subwoofer, where it does a terrific job. When paired with the Polks, however, music was just plain harsh and not very enjoyable. This was very out of character for the Polks, but not solely the fault of the amplifier, as I have heard it sound great when matched with other speakers. This looks to be a rare case of poor synergy more than a pox on the performance of either component, and something to watch out for. Even with friendly and flexible speakers like these, you can't expect them to sound great with everything.
The subwoofer did a decent job of filling out the bottom and providing a nice foundation for the rest of the music, but there were also times where it seemed to be lagging behind the tube powered RTi4’s. When the music contained more articulate bass – from a stand up bass, for example – the sub seemed to just get in the way and foul up the great performance of the RTi4. With more aggressive rock or hip hop, it was essential, but even within those genres the RTi4's were quite capable of handling low frequencies all on their own. More than anything, this is likely a function of what types of music you listen to, the volume at which you listen and the size and configuration of your room, etc.
These speakers have a lot going for them. They’re great for home theater, providing an involving and exciting home theater experience, but at the same time will not leave you wanting one bit when used for music. Their compatibility with many different types of amplifiers (including lower powered tubes) and in large or small rooms means that they can be used successfully in a wide variety of applications. Not only that, but improvements to your upstream equipment will not go unrewarded. To top it all off, in addition to sounding fantastic, they are both attractive and very affordable.
Polk RTi4 Surround System
Exceptional sound quality
Center channel large and awkward compared to mains
No option for real wood grain for the Subwoofer
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