Polk RTi A1 loudspeaker Page 2

I was curious about how deep these puppies would go. Kraftwerk's "Man Machine," from Minimum/Maximum (CD, EMI ASW 60611), had plenty of dynamic slam at the bottom end, and the bass-drum synths shook the room a bit at higher volumes. There was plenty of bloom to spare from Timothy Seelig and the Turtle Creek Chorale's recording of John Rutter's Requiem (CD, Reference RR-57CD). I fully expected this disc's organ-pedal notes to go missing in action, as they have with every other $350/pair bookshelf speaker I've heard—but there they were, sounding surprisingly realistic through the Polks. Where's the subwoofer? I wondered.

The word appearing most frequently in the listening notes I wrote during these sessions is coherence. The integration of all instruments in the title track of Steely Dan's Aja (LP, ABC AA 1006) would have Linnies tapping their toes. As I listened to the interplay of Wayne Shorter's tenor sax and Steve Gadd's wonderful percussive backfills, it brought back memories of a live Dan performance I attended many years ago.

For a $350/pair speaker, the RTi A1 reproduced an extraordinary amount of inner detail. Listening to Retrospective: The Best of Buffalo Springfield (LP, Atco SD-283), I found myself analyzing the layering of instruments in the mixes of those tasteful arrangements. Then, listening to "Sins of My Father," from Tom Waits' Real Gone (CD, Anti- 86678-2), I found myself analyzing the overdubbed interaction of Mark Ribot's banjo and electric guitar, and reveling in the low-level dynamic articulation of Ribot's down'n'dirty Bigsby tremolo guitar solo. All of the works on Aki Takahashi Plays Morton Feldman (CD, Mode 54) rely extensively on space, and the long decay of Takahashi's piano was particularly realistic, especially at the extremes of the instrument's range.

The organic and linear rendition of low-level dynamics worked hand in hand with the Polk's resolution of detail to render well-recorded jazz with extreme realism. I reveled in Thelonious Monk's richly dynamic soloing on the title track of his We See (LP, Prestige 7235), against the backdrop of Art Blakey's syncopated, polyrhythmic drumming. And I continued to scratch my head at how the little Polks blasted like big floorstanders without a hint of strain, even when pushed to high levels. Near the end of "Mansour's Gift," from my jazz quartet Attention Screen's Live at Merkin Hall, (CD, Stereophile STPH018-2), there's a cascading, crushing crescendo with considerable bass content—mostly my piano and Mark Flynn's drums—that has me cringing every time I run it at high volumes through a pair of inexpensive bookshelf speakers. The Polks didn't flinch—not a trace of distortion, breakup, or compression.

Even more remarkable was the alternation of a low-level pianissimo and closely miked percussion blasts from pianist Steven Drury, conductor Charles Peltz, and the Callithumpian Consort's recording of John Cage's Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra (CD, Mode 57). This recording has the widest dynamic range of any chamber recording I own, and to sit in the listening room with the Polks was unsettling—a few times, the fortissimos actually scared me.

For rock headbangers who shy away from small bookshelf speakers, no worries. I had to prepare for two concerts in one week: first, a jazz gig with Attention Screen, and then another with my classic rock ensemble, Assisted Living. My piano chops were ready, but I needed some more guitar work. So I plugged my handmade Robin Machete into my Vox DA5 amplifier, cranked it up to 11, and played along to the first five tracks of Mountain's Man's World (CD, Viceroy VA 8033-2) at about 95dB (the wife and kids and dogs were out of town). The kick-ass sound of this, one of guitarist Leslie West's best more recent recordings, made me not want to put my guitar down. Which I guess is the idea.

I compared the Polk RTi A1 ($349.95/pair) with the Paradigm Atom v.4 ($250/pair), the Infinity Primus 150 ($198/pair, now discontinued), and the Epos ELS 3 ($399/pair).

The Paradigm Atom v.4's midrange was as natural as the Polk's, but the high frequencies were not as crisp or as extended, and there was less inner detail. The Paradigm's midbass was much warmer, its highs brighter, and its overall sound less coherent.

The Infinity Primus 150's highs were fairly natural, but the Polk sounded still more natural and detailed. The Infinity's midbass was fast and clean, but without the Polk's weight and slam. On balance, the Infinity sounded less refined than the Polk, though still pleasant and involving.

The Epos ELS 3 sounded far more detailed than the Polk, with highs that were more extended, pure, and clean. The Epos's midbass was uncolored, dynamic, and clean, but lacked the Polk's sense of high-level slam.

Summing up
I applaud any company that takes seriously the design of inexpensive loudspeakers—and, as they continue to revisit and refine their lines of loudspeakers, the designers at Polk Audio continue to impress me. I enjoyed every minute I spent with the RTi A1. The speaker's greatest strengths—the natural and detailed midrange, the excellent bass extension—are unheard of at this size and price, and its minor deviations from neutrality have been so carefully thought out and balanced that I wanted to mine my entire record collection, playing more and more different types of music. And its gorgeous real-wood veneer will not only satisfy the non-audiophile spouse, but will impress your friends, who will think you've spent more money than you have. Keep up the good work, Polk.

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

crispincrunch's picture

How do these compare with the RTi A3? Are there any disadvantages such as less bass refinement with the larger A3?