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Polk T50 review: Low-priced, big-sounding speaker a towering value

The Polk T50 is a remarkably decent-sounding tower speaker for not a lot of money, but it faces stiff competition.

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Steve Guttenberg
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Steve Guttenberg

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.

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4 min read

While many of today's speaker shoppers are looking for increasingly smaller and more style-conscious home theater and music speakers, the performance and sound quality advantages of larger speakers have never been clearer. And while sound bars are getting better all the time, and they may be perfectly satisfactory for the majority of users, a great set of full-size tower speakers deliver dramatically superior detailing, dynamic range, bass power, and stereo imaging.

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7.8

Polk T50

The Good

The big Polk T50 tower speakers sound very good for the money. They look sharp, too, and feature a 1-inch tweeter, 6.5-inch woofer and two 6.5-inch bass radiators.

The Bad

The Pioneer SP-PK52FS sounds better and costs the same. The Polk is only available in a black, wood-grain vinyl finish. Its treble detailing can, on some recordings, sound harsh.

The Bottom Line

The Polk T50 is a remarkably decent-sounding tower speaker for not a lot of money, but it faces stiff competition.

Which leads us to Polk's spiffy new tower, the T50. This affordable speaker takes up no more floor space than a pair of monitor speakers on stands. It offers excellent home theater performance for the price, and looks more expensive than it is thanks to handsome cabinetry.

Polk was clearly aiming at the superb, budget-friendly Pioneer SP-FS52 tower when designing this speaker, but it doesn't quite hit the same level of audio quality. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; the Pioneers are quite uncommonly excellent and the Polks, meanwhile, are a solid "very good."

On the other hand, the designer of those Pioneer speakers, Andrew Jones, is no longer with the company and its AV division is now owned by Onkyo. In other words it's unclear how long those SP-FS52 speakers will remain on sale, and in case of their absence, the Polk T50 would make a very good substitute.

Design and features

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Polk is a handsome speaker, the T50's medium-density fiberboard cabinet is covered with an attractive black grain, wood vinyl finish, and a removable, curved black cloth grille protects the drivers. The speaker has a small, flat pedestal base with an overall fit and finish that are above average for the price class. It certainly doesn't look like an entry-level model.

As towers go, the T50 isn't very big; it measures 36.25 inches high, 7.75 inches wide and 8.75 inches deep.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The T50 is a two-way, bass-reflex design with a 1-inch silk dome tweeter, one 6.5-inch extended throw composite midrange/woofer and two 6.5-inch bass radiators (bass radiators are passive devices, meaning they are not actively driven by your receiver's power amplifiers). One advantage of bass radiators is they replace bass ports (it's a closed box), so bass radiators never produce audible "chuffing" noises. They also free up more placement options in the room than ported speakers do.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The T50's back has one set of five-way binding posts that work with speaker cables terminated with banana plugs, spades, pins or stripped bare-wire ends; the speaker's impedance is rated at 6 ohms. The T50 is sold with a five-year warranty.

Sarah Tew/CNET

For buyers seeking a bona fide 5.1-channel home theater experience, the T Series also includes the T30 center-channel speaker, and the T15 bookshelf/surround channel speakers. Polk also offers a number of compatible subwoofers; the PSW10 and PSW111 would be worth checking out.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance

The T50 makes a good first impression right from the get-go with its bright and clear sound and commendably tight and defined bass.

Watching the "Mad Max: Fury Road" Blu-ray in stereo with just the T50s flanking our display, we didn't miss surround sound or even a subwoofer. The T50s on their own summoned up hard-hitting dynamics from the film's never ending parade of muscle cars roaring across a post-apocalyptic landscape, and the score's pounding drums were immensely satisfying, fully exercising the T50's three bass drivers. The T50s survived our heavy-handed auditions without straining or producing audible distortion.

Happy with the T50s home theater skills, we settled down and checked out a few high-res files from Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" album. The T50s' immediacy highlighted Davis' horn, the sound was exciting, and the band's grooves felt lively. Paul Chambers' stand-up bass definition was spot-on.

At that point we switched over to a set of Pioneer SP-FS52 towers , which are almost the same size as the T50s, and the two speakers are exactly the same price. They didn't sound the same, however. The Pioneer's won the listening comparison in most areas.

The SP-FS52 has three, smaller 5.25-inch woofers, yet they produced a richer and fuller tonal balance, so it sounds like a bigger speaker than the T50. The Pioneers' soundstage was bigger and deeper, while the Polks' image had less depth and dimensionality.

On Jack White's "Lazaretto" album, the vocals and guitars had greater presence on the T50s, and bass definition was better; meanwhile, the SP-FS52s opened up the sound more, and we preferred its smoother bass-midrange-treble balance. The SP-FS52s also did a better job rocking out with Queens of the Stone Age's "Lullabies to Paralyze" album.

Conclusion

No doubt, the Polk T50 is a great speaker for the money, but the Pioneer SP-FS52 tower for the same dollars would be our preferred option. That Pioneer's fuller balance and its bigger, and deeper soundstage were more to our liking. Others might prefer the T50 for its more immediate sound signature.

Keep in mind that the tweeters on these entry level speakers can't provide the last word in clarity; both speakers have a tendency to exacerbate sibilance and grit in movies and music. To be fair, these tweeter shortcomings are only apparent when compared with more expensive speakers like the SVS Prime Tower and the Wharfedale Diamond 230.

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7.8

Polk T50

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Sound 7Value 9
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