Polk Audio RT800 Speaker System
|Polk Audio RT800 Speaker System
|16 May 2000
Surround: f/x 500
System Total Price $2,900
5601 Metro Drive
“This system really trips the reality switch in your brain and draws you into the movie. The Polk RT800 home theater speaker system has become my new personal reference.”
I have always loved music and movies. I especially enjoy music when it is performed live and movies when shown in a theater with a large screen and a great sound system. Imagine my excitement when home theater was introduced. The concept of bringing the sights and sounds of the theater into my home captivated me. Since my introduction to home theater, I have sought to educate myself about audio and video technologies and incorporate them into my home system. I became a videophile. The qualifier I might add is that I am an economical videophile, given my limited budget.
That leads me to the reason I chose Polk Speakers as the subject of my first article. I have listened to Polk speakers over the years and have always admired their sound. I especially like them because they not only sounded great but I could afford them. When I became affiliated with the Stereo Times, I was given the opportunity to review home theater equipment. I was, and still am, ecstatic about the opportunity. Naturally, I was intrigued when presented with the opportunity to review Polk speakers. Well here goes….
Polk has been in the speaker business for over 25 years and has over 20 loudspeaker related patents. Some of those, such as Acoustic Resonance Control (ARC), Dynamic Balance and Power-Port are found in the RT800 system (RT stands for Reference Theater). The design goal of the system is a combination of performance and value. The system consists of two RT800 front main tower speakers, a CS400 center channel speaker, two f/x500 surround speakers and a PSW650 powered subwoofer. Any of these speakers would be a great add to a home theater system but as a whole they are awesome.
“Recording nuances became discernable enough to allow me to distinguish between the different levels of CD recording quality. This was largely the reason that I have become a big fan of Diana Krall. Her recordings really sound great with these speakers.”
The RT800 is a two-way speaker with a bass-reflex enclosure and a textured front panel. On a raised driver bezel (designed to reduce grille-edge diffraction for improved imaging) is a single 1″ tri-laminate metal-dome tweeter and two 6.5″ mid-bass drivers. All the drivers are magnetically shielded and utilize Polk’s “Dynamic Balance Technology.” Dynamic Balance resulted from a research project between Polk and Johns Hopkins University. It is designed to dramatically improve the sound quality of the speakers by minimizing the unwanted vibrations (resonance) on the speaker diaphragm that cause distortion and artifacts like ringing. The front baffle is 1’’ medium density fiberboard (MDF) and all other enclosure panels are ¾” MDF. The front baffle is finished in a soft damping material. There is a small diameter port below the bottom driver on the raised bezel called an “Acoustic Resonance Control” (ARC) port. The ARC port is tuned to deal with colorations caused by internal cabinet resonances. The RT800 also has a downward firing “Power-Port,” located at the bottom of the cabinet. Polk’s Power-Port design (fires back against a cone with a concave curvature) is meant to go further than conventional ports by reducing air turbulence at the mouth of the port. This is claimed to diminish port noise and improve the bass performance.
The well-built cabinet has asymmetrical bracing to control resonance and standing waves. It measures 40 ¼’’ H × 8’’ W × 10 ½’’ D, and its base measures 9 ¼’’ W × 14″ D with adjustable carpet spikes and detachable rubber feet. Each speaker has two pairs of gold plated five-way binding posts, which allow normal or bi-amp/bi-wire hook-ups. Rated frequency response is 42Hz – 25kHz (-3db), nominal impedance is 8 ohms and recommended amplification is 20 to 250 watts. Efficiency is 90dB for 2.83V input at 1 meter. The cabinets are finished in durable black woodgrain vinyl.
The RT800s are equally at home playing music as a stereo pair or as the left and right satellites of a home theater system. Overall, the speakers sounded clear, crisp and well balanced, even at higher volumes. The speakers reproduce a wide dynamic range from the softest sounds to the loudest orchestral peaks without overshadowing the quiet sections or compressing or breaking up during loud passages. Music reproduction is realistic with an accurate and even tonal balance. The speakers sounded different, depending on which CD or DVD is played. Recording nuances became discernable enough to allow me to distinguish between the different levels of CD recording quality. This was largely the reason that I have become a big fan of Diana Krall. Her recordings really sound great with these speakers.
Vocals and midrange instruments sounded natural and detailed — not too prominent or recessed, nor too bright or too dull. The treble is open, airy, detailed and extended without harshness or roll-off. Bass extension was adequate for most music, but benefited from the use of the PSW650 subwoofer when used for home theater. The speakers have clarity and fine low-level resolution. They reproduce music with speed, accuracy and a natural decay. The image specificity is quite good. Instruments and vocals seemed to originate from precise locations within their spacious soundstages. Dispersion characteristics were impressive as well, both vertically and horizontally. When standing, sitting, or moving about the room, the sound field remained credible.
I had read that sonic improvements often resulted from replacing the gold-plated jumpers (used to strap the binding posts) with high quality speaker wire. I tried it and boy did it work! This simple tweak added a greater degree of realism to the reproduction, which resulted in my music and movies being even more enjoyable and enveloping.
“When it comes to home theater applications, the PSW650 rises to the occasion. This is one powerful subwoofer. It adds a foundation of deep bass to movies that you can feel.”
The PSW650 uses two 10″ direct-radiating “Dynamic Balance” subwoofers, and dual rear-mounted “Power-Port” bass ports. The enclosure’s baffles are 1″ MDF, while all other walls are ¾”. The PSW650 incorporates a high-current 250-watt power amplifier, subwoofer volume control (found on the front of the subwoofer), variable crossover control and a phase switch. The 3-position AC power switch can be set to “off,” “on,” or “automatic.” The automatic setting turns the subwoofer on, after a two-second delay, when it senses a program signal, and turns the amplifier off in 15 minutes when a signal is no longer present. Also included are a +3dB bass boost switch, speaker and line level inputs, and an unfiltered LFE input (for use with low-pass filtered subwoofer output jacks). The rated frequency response is 28Hz to 125Hz (-3dB). The low-pass crossover frequency is adjustable from 40Hz to 120Hz. High-pass filtering is available via both speaker-level and preamp-level inputs. There are two sets of outputs, speaker-level and line-level, both of which are switchable to pass-through or employ 80Hz high-pass filtering. The cabinet dimensions are 18 ¾” H × 17 ½” W × 18 ¾” D, and the subwoofer weighs in at about 75 pounds. As with the other speakers in this series, the PSW650 appears to be well constructed.
When it comes to music reproduction, when supplementing the stereo pair, the PSW650 is not as accurate and tight as I would like but is very powerful. It adds a warmth and bass energy, but at a cost. This may be due, at least in part, to phase and timing problems.
The phase alignment issue is created by the disparity in placement between the subwoofer and the main satellites. If the subwoofer’s driver is moving inward while the main speaker’s woofers are moving outward, cancellations are likely to occur to some degree. Phase alignment errors can impact the bass performance and the way the speakers image, thereby altering the feel of music. This is less important on recordings where the bass dominates. Often, phase-related cancellations can be minimized by careful positioning of the subwoofer relative to the satellites, and by experimenting with the sub’s phase switch.
When it comes to home theater applications, the PSW650 rises to the occasion. This is one powerful subwoofer. It adds a foundation of deep bass to movies that you can feel. The PSW650 brought my home theater to life. During explosions it saturated the room with bass but excelled even during subtle events such as doors closing. I won’t get into how I set the PSW650 up because what works best depends on your system’s configuration and the listening room’s acoustics. The PSW650 has all the hook-up options you could want for incorporating it into your system and for optimizing its performance. In a Dolby Digital 5.1 home theater system a subwoofer is a must and the issues of timing and phase are not so critical, primarily due to the separation and specialized purpose of each individual channel. Overall, the PSW650 rendered very satisfying performance.
“Surround speakers are supposed to give you the three-dimensional sound effects that simulate being in the middle of the action. The f/x 500s handle this task with flying colors.”
The f/x 500 surround speakers use the same midrange drivers and tweeters as those found in the RT800s. Each speaker houses two 2-driver arrays angled at 45 degrees to the side walls. They have the capability to switch between dipolar and bipolar phase relationships, between the two sets of drivers. One set of drivers is mounted on a raised driver bezel. It consists of a single 1″ tri-laminate metal-dome tweeter and one 6.5″ mid-bass driver, both of which utilize Polk’s Dynamic Balance Technology and ARC port. A second driver, located on the other baffle also has a one-inch tri-laminate Dynamic Balance dome tweeter.
The wall mountable cabinets are made of black or white woodgrain vinyl and measure 15 ¼’’H × 9 e’’W × 9 :’’D (includes depth of wall mount brackets). Each speaker has one pair of five-way binding posts. Rated frequency response is 50Hz – 25kHz (-3db), nominal impedance is 8 ohms, recommended amplification is 10 to 150 watts, and the efficiency is 90dB per watt @ 1 meter.
Surround speakers are supposed to give you the three-dimensional sound effects that simulate being in the middle of the action. The f/x 500s handle this task with flying colors. I found myself turning around at times thinking someone or something was behind me. They sound clear, crisp and robust. Having the ability to switch between dipolar and bipolar operation is great since it offers a lot of flexibility with regard to placement and the listener’s particular taste.
Identical midrange drivers and tweeters are also used in the CS400 center channel speaker as those in the RT800s. The CS400 features one set of drivers on a raised bezel with an ARC port. It consists of a single 1″ tri-laminate metal-dome tweeter that sits between two 6.5″ mid-bass drivers and utilizes Polk’s “Dynamic Balance” technology. The drivers are magnetically shielded and there is also a “Power-Port” in the rear.
The cabinet is made of black woodgrain vinyl and measures 8 b’’H × 18 ¾’’W × 12:’’D. Each speaker has a dual set of gold plated five-way binding posts, which allow normal or bi-amp/bi-wire hook-ups. Rated frequency response is 50Hz – 25kHz (-3db), nominal impedance is 8 ohm, recommended amplification is 10 to 250 watts and the efficiency is 91db. The crossover topology is a second order (12dB/octave slope) low-pass filter cascade at 1.5 Hz and 800 Hz and a second order high-pass filter at 1.5 Hz.
The tonal qualities of a center speaker should blend seamlessly with the left and right front speakers. The center channel reproduces at least half of the soundtrack information and keeps the sound anchored to the on-screen action. In use, I found that the CS400 blends seamlessly with the front speakers, as it should. Dialog intelligibility was clean and natural even at high volumes.
As I said earlier, any one of these speakers would be a great addition to your home theater setup but as a complete integrated package they are awesome. By now you can probably understand why. With the RT800 home theater system, Polk uses a technique known as “timbre matching” to achieve a consistent character of sound from main to center to surround. Identical mid-bass drivers, tweeters and technology are used throughout the system to ensure a seamless blend among the channels and smooth image transitions. There is no sense that different speakers are playing as the imagery shifts from speaker to speaker. This brings the experience to life because what you are watching is matched by well coordinated, realistic sounds coming from the appropriate directions. This system really trips the reality switch in your brain and draws you into the movie. The Polk RT800 home theater speaker system has become my new personal reference.
As you head out to look at speakers remember that they will sound different in your home than in the store. Once you have them home or even when listening in the store, keep in mind the fact that room placement is critical. Often retailers are unable to showcase systems to their best advantage due to the large number of components they must house in a given room. Repositioning the speakers just a couple of feet or less can have a dramatic impact on their bass response and soundstaging performance. If possible, try to arrange for a home trial with return privileges.
Note: Polk has recently made some minor changes to the RT800 system including the RT towers, which are now available standard in real wood veneers– Black Oak, Cherry, or Maple. The PSW650 is unchanged. The new model numbers are RT800i, CS400i and f/x500i. Prices are unchanged except for the RT800i, which went up by $80/pr.
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