Project: Polk – The 5.1 Speaker Upgrade
It all started with DJ’s excellent “Audiophile On A Budget” article. Now, I do still love my MartinLogan MLT-2 5.1 set. But the simple fact of the matter is that small speakers have an extraordinarily difficult time, or are simply incapable of, reproducing sound at certain ranges, especially bass and lower mid-range. So, I found myself wanting a little more kick from the ol’ speakers. If your budget is $200, the MLT-2 still blow away nearly everything else in that price-range. But, what if your budget is a bit more than $200, but less than DJ’s 2 grand? That’s the position I found myself… with the added wrinkle of living in an apartment, not a house – gotta respect the neighbors.
As I mentioned in the original MLT-2 review, I am partial to speakers from Infinity, Cerwin Vega, Energy and Polk Audio… expensive tastes, as these speakers can cost hundreds for a single one. Steeling myself for a long-term scan of deal websites for onesie-twosie speakers for the upgrade, I prepped for the siege. Fortunately, after only a couple of weeks of hunting, Fry’s kicked off a series of sales, followed by Newegg and Best Buy, which allowed me to quickly build out a very nice 5.1 speaker system for the living room. Now I can move the MLT-2 set into the 2nd Bedroom/Office.
First up was the Polk Audio RTi8 speakers. Floor-standing, with two 6.5in mid-range/woofers, supported by bass-venting for additional low-end, and a 1in silk dome tweeter. Polk has discontinued this model, which originally retailed for around $500-600 per speaker. Fry’s Electronics normally sells the RTi8’s for around $380 each, but, a couple of months ago, had them on sale for $170 each. After reading as many reviews as I could find, I hurried on down and picked up a set. For that price, the RTi8’s are absolutely fantastic speakers. They create a wonderfully full, rich sound, with a solid bass punch all on their own. They sound excellent from high to low and are simply a delight to the ears.
Sting’s version of “I Burn For You” from Bring On The Night Live, is a complex arrangement, with deep bass sweeps, cymbals, saxophone, xylophone, drums, and vocals all blended. The RTi8’s deliver them crisp and clear. Peter Gabriel’s “The Rhythm Of The Heat” from Security is another challenging track, mixing deep bass lines with synthesizers, drums and vocals. The RTi8’s have no problem, handling the track with easy and clarity. Grandadbob’s “Mmmn” from Waltz For Weirdos is a house/trip-hop track with a club-beat and lots of multitrack texturing. Again, everything is reproduced beautifully across the range. The increased fidelity and clarity of the sound from the Polk RTi8’s did demonstrate the weaknesses of the MLT-2 center channel, as it tried keep pace with its much smaller speakers.
Lucky me, the very next week Fry’s had another sale, this time on the Polk Audio CSR center channel, marked down to $100. With two 5.25 inch midrange/woofers and a .75 inch silk dome tweeter, the CSR is massive compared to the MLT-2’s center channel. I am quite happy with the CSR. Originally, I wondered if I should have gone with a center that features a second tweeter, or mids that pair better with the size of the speakers in the RTi8’s. But, so far, no complaints at all, the CSR is great speaker, and a jawdroppingly good speaker at $100.
Before adding the CSR, I went to playing music in 2.1 mode, as the MLT-2’s center really struggled. Again, when it comes to speakers, size matters, and the CSR is able to produce sound with a clarity and feel that the MLT-2 center just cannot do. With all due respect to the MLT-2, it was like having a couple of slightly mistuned instruments in an orchestra. With the Polk CSR center in the mix, I’ve been able to switch back to 5.1 for music, and the soundstage is a pleasure.
The subwoofer that is included with the MLT-2 is a powerful and clear 10in beast, and probably the part of the set that needed to be replaced the least. But, as luck would have it, a few weeks after picking up the Polk CSR, Newegg decided to blow out the Polk Audio PSW505 subwoofer for $200. If the MLT-2’s sub is a beast, the PSW505 is a mutant super-beast. Blasting away with a 12 inch forward-firing sub, the PSW505 gets very deep and very loud. At the same time, to my ear, it is able to pull off jazz and classical music with a beautiful sharpness and clarity too. Yes, you will feel the bass. Perhaps a bit of a one-trick-pony, but the PSW505 does it’s one thing very well indeed. All the while, it plays and blends with the other Polks very, very well.
Just a week later, Best Buy stepped up with a sale on the Polk Audio T151 bookshelf speakers. Usually selling for $100 for a pair, the sale brought them down to $60. And, with a $30 gift card, I was able to pick them up for a ridiculously cheap $30. With the one of the same 5.25in mid-range/woofer and .75in tweeter as the CSR center channel, the T15’s would actually make a really good set of front bookshelf speakers for most folks. They are certainly not as clear or loud as the RTi8’s, but, wow, they are a very solid pair of speakers. As the rear-channel set they are truly outstanding, especially for $30. I think $100 is perfectly fair for them at retail.
So, after about 5-6 weeks, and $700, I was able to significantly upgrade the 5.1 speaker system in the living room. This new Polk Audio system is awesome and I’m really happy with it, in spite of my early concerns about the CSR center. The sound is rich, warm, full, and immersive. I need to stress how fond I am of the MartinLogan MLT-2 set, they continue to serve me very well. But the Polk’s are just able to create sound in much fuller fidelity. From music, to movies and video games, this new 5.1 system is a treat. I was lucky to have all the sales fall one-after-the-other like dominos. With patience, and by diligently checking bargain sites like TechBargains and SlickDeals, you can pull off your own speaker upgrade too. Now I just need to stop looking at receiver/amplifier upgrades.
UPDATE – 12/13/14:
Recently, Fry’s ran a sale on the Polk Audio RTi4 bookshelf speakers at $100 for a set. Since they pair with the RTi8’s better than the T15’s, I picked them up. The T15’s are still outstanding, and live on as the primary speakers in my bedroom. But the RTi4’s – as miniaturized RTi8’s – are better speakers. They feature the same size, 5.25 inch midrange, but the quality is better. And they step-up from the T15’s .75 inch tweeter to a 1 inch silk/composite dome. The RTi4’s are not as loud, or get as bassy, as the RTi8’s, but are built just as well and sound just as good. This new 5.1 system is sounds devastatingly good, I’m extremely pleased with it. The RTi4’s are about 50% greater volume (in terms of size) than the T15’s. Each speaker weighs bit over 5 pounds, and are about a foot deep. Bottom line, these are big, but outstanding, speakers to use for rear channel, so plan accordingly.
Summarizing the whole 5.1 upgrade:
Fronts –Polk Audio RTi82
- Outstanding sound for the $170/each price, very fair deal at MSRP.
- Rock-solid build quality.
- Attractive design.
- Not that big, as floor-standing speakers go, but pretty heavy considering their size.
Center – Polk Audio CSR3
- Great sound across a wide range.
- High quality materials.
- Big and heavy – this is not something that can sit on one of those on-top-of-the-TV shelves.
Rears – Polk Audio RTi44
- Some of the best sounding speakers, for their size, that I’ve ever heard.
- Standard, high-quality, Polk construction.
- Same good-looking, but not flashy, design as the RTi8’s.
- Big, as far as bookshelf speakers go, nearly 50% larger than the T15’s.
- Heavy. They come with rear mounts, but you’d need to anchor them to a beam to hang them on a wall.
Sub – Polk Audio PSW505 subwoofer5
- Ludicrously deep bass. I had to dial it back. The glass sliding-door was rattling. That was at “4”.
- Syncs well, and does not drown out the rest of the range, when playing music such as jazz, older rock, classical, etc.
- Has a large foot-print, and the nearly 2 cubic square feet of space it takes can be a lot in smaller rooms.
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