Polk RTA 11t loudspeaker Page 3

The one thing the Polks did well was to achieve good levels of low bass. Bass drum had satisfactory weight. Double basses may have been too boomy in their upper registers, but their sound was sufficiently nourished lower down in frequency. Organ recordings came over well as a result, and as the transient-free sound typical of the organ is only slightly affected by midrange colorations, the music communicated more successfully than with voice, piano, or orchestral program material.

Listening to the Peter Mitchell organ recording on the Stereophile Test CD, however, which was recorded in such a manner so as to capture the spatial differentiation between the close "positiv" pipes and those more distant, revealed that the Polks threw a soundstage with very little depth. This was confirmed by the soundstage depth tracks on the Chesky Test CD. Although it could be heard that the voice and tambourine were recorded increasingly farther away from the microphone, the smaller ratio between the direct sound and the reverberant field being reproduced satisfactorily, the reverberation failed to gel with the direct sound. The result was that distant-sounding sound sources still stayed pretty much in the plane of the speakers.

The LEDR imaging tests on the Chesky CD also revealed the imaging to clump around the speaker positions—always a sign of resonant colorations—with the central image considerably wider in the midband than in the treble. The "Up" and "Over" tests also reproduced particularly poorly. The "Up" pathway, which on the other two speakers reviewed this month approximated to a signal rising in the air above the speakers, was presented via the Polks as an unstable and vague sound darting between the speaker positions and the central point between them (footnote 2).

Against the Thiel CS1.2
I carried out one set of specific comparisons, with the pair of Thiel CS1.2s that Larry Archibald reviewed a year or so ago. Though the Thiel costs $1090/pair and thus does not represent direct commercial competition for the RTA 11t, its performance sets a benchmark for true high-end speaker performance, in my opinion, in this approximate price range. With the exception of the Polk's HF peak, the tonal balance of the two speakers was surprisingly comparable, both having rather a laid-back sound with a warm bass register. (In order to be fair to the Polks, I used the Thiels without any spikes or Tiptoes coupling them to the floor beneath the carpet and pad.) Beyond that similarity, however, there was no comparison. The clarity of the Thiel's midrange sound, and the lack of clarity of the Polks', coupled with the difference in presentation of the soundstage, meant it was no contest. It was Tyson vs Spinks all over again.

Worried by my negative reactions to what I believe to be a commercially successful loudspeaker, I concluded the auditioning by asking two friends who were visiting Santa Fe, experienced listeners both and to some extent mentors of mine, to spend some time in my listening room with the Polks before we went out to dinner. I made myself scarce, having blueline proofs of the February issue of the magazine to read, but rest assured that I hadn't given my friends any clue concerning my own feelings about the speaker's sound. When we got together later, both listeners gave me descriptions of the 11t's signature that tied in exactly with my own: apparently flat in the midrange, with warm, rather muddy lows and exaggerated, spitty highs; very restricted image depth; and overall, a rather confused, musically very uninvolving presentation. So be it.

The Polk company may have an excellent reputation for product reliability, dealer support, and service backup, but I can't help but wonder what those attributes are worth when the basic sound quality of their products is compromised, as I felt the RTA 11t's to be. Of high perceived value, it failed to deliver the musical goods, in my opinion. It may have a reasonably neutral tonal balance, but its sound is flawed by a spitty, rather exaggerated treble and a loose, not particularly well-defined bass. These aspects would be more forgivable if the severe lack of midrange clarity, coupled with a recessed presence region, hadn't rendered the speaker's sound so musically uninvolving. Ultimately, I feel the RTA 11t, at $950/pair, just isn't competitive in a high-end environment.

Polk Audio
5602 Metro Drive
Baltimore, MD 21215
(800) 377-7655