Polk Reserve R100
The Reserve R100s are compact bookshelf speakers that were launched this spring. A pleasant price tag – you pay about 225 euros each – is linked to sleek looks and audio performance that is supported by technology from more expensive speakers. But why choose these small speakers over affordable alternatives from names like Bowers & Wilkins, KEF, Monitor Audio or Q Acoustic?
Polk is the major speaker brand that you probably do not immediately think of when you go on the hunt for new speakers. Why is that? Actually, this has to do with all kinds of things that are very typical of the still very regional hi-fi world. Polk, for example, is an American company that has been strongly focused on its own market for a long time. With success, because it is a market leader there. With us? Not really. But Sound United – the holding company above Polk and a handful of other audio brands – wants to do something about that. Earlier it brought all the Signature E series with a tuning that was more universal than the American sound produced by the first iteration of these speakers.
However, the new Reserve line is even more explicitly intended as a loudspeaker family that should be appreciated all over the world. Polk is bursting with ambition; the intention is clearly to compete with major rivals such as Dali, KEF and Monitor Audio. Those are three brands that know how to score in the affordable mid-range segment – and that’s exactly what the Reserve speakers fit in. In this review, we look at the smallest Reserve R100 bookshelf speakers at 549 euros per pair. That’s not a lot of money for a duo of speakers packed with tricks from the audio science box. A number of innovations have even been taken from much more expensive Polk speakers.
Roots in the high end
If you look at the R100s without prior knowledge, you do not immediately suspect that the modest speaker has really special technology on board. You don’t always come across groundbreaking innovations at this lower price point. Solid products, yes, but real high-tech? Usually you have to look for that in more expensive speakers. In itself that is not so bad. A speaker is not a smartphone and should not necessarily always push technological boundaries. Speaker technology does not suddenly become outdated, the way software does.
Still, Sound United decided to equip even this cheapest Reserve loudspeaker with a number of finds from the expensive Legend family. Don’t feel bad if ‘Polk Legend’ really doesn’t mean anything to you. These luxurious speakers were never actually marketed to us, but they made a notable entry into the home market in the US.The most striking Legend model is without a doubt the largest floorstander, with a typical Polk split front with two midrange- driver and tweeter arrays that each radiate sound into the room at an angle. You will not find that SDA PRO construction on the much cheaper Reserves, but a number of other Legend techniques. The Pinnacle Ring Radiator tweeter and the Turbine cone at the midrange woofer are particularly eye-catching. Both are things that you should not look long behind, because you immediately see what matters once you purchase the supplied grids. If you’re careless, you might even get a little prick from the pinnacle on the tweeter, the thin spire in the center of the tweeter cone that sticks out a long way. It’s unbelievably striking, it’s like a thin needle sticking out an inch. The distinct construction may visually stand out, but it is primarily there to improve sound performance. The whole Pinnancle Ring Radiator with the peak and the waveguide erron is aimed at distributing music evenly in the room, both horizontally and vertically. That should also make the installation a bit easier. We also notice this when setting up and trying it out, always the first step of a speaker test. On our fixed stands (actually intended for the Focal Kanta N ° 1’s) the tweeter is a bit below our ear height, but that is not at the expense of the high-detail reproduction. You can place a little lower on a TV cabinet or even a little higher on a bookshelf, without too much impact on the sound quality.
That Turbine cone also immediately attracts your attention. Where most cones are flat or have a certain light texture due to the material used (as with Continuum from Bowers & Wilkins, for example), the cone of the R100 woofer has seven large ‘shark fins’ which, according to the designers, provide greater rigidity and cushioning without weighing down the mass. Or put differently: the midtones that people find so important are put down accurately and quickly.
Reserve floorstanders have a specially designed bass port in the base, with an accompanying metal base. Unusually, that base was permanently mounted at the factory and is part of what Polk calls the PowerPort 2.0. You can read more information in the review of the Reserve speakers in a surround setup. A big advantage of this Power Port is that the slim R600 floor stand is very easy to install. Also very close to a wall.
With the R100, a different version of this port has been placed on the back, perhaps because otherwise the loudspeaker would become too large and a foot would seem strange with a small speaker. The bass port on this monitor is not just an opening with a specific rounded shape, as with most small speakers. You can see that immediately. As with the large Reserve models, the R100 is an X-Port 2.0, in which the port has tubular absorbers that ‘absorbs’ unwanted resonance frequencies that arise in the port and the cabinet, as it were. The goal is primarily to prevent the gate itself from making a noise, a phenomenon that can be especially noticeable at high volumes and is caused by a large flow of air being forced through a small opening. The gate construction also addresses resonance that can form in the gate and housing.
After the R100s took the role of rears in a 5.x.4 surround setup, we place the little Polks at the front of stands and connected them to a Hegel Röst amplifier. We mainly listen to music through Roon, which is slightly more challenging with this Hegel. Fortunately, the handy plugin RooUPnP appeared this spring, so that you can also control devices that only have DLNA / UPnP functionality from the music software. For example, we stream our hi-res files to the Norwegian amplifier just a little bit easier. This (now replaced by the H120) Hegel is of course a relatively expensive device to match with speakers of this price point, so we also paired them with a Sonos Amp. That’s okay, because the Sonos amplifier is more competent than you would expect given its extensive functionality. But the Hegel is significantly better, which is especially noticeable when we turn up the volume on tracks with a solid bass layer. Techno or bombastic classic, those kinds of things.
The fact is that the Reserve speakers like to work together with something with some power. The sensitivity of 86 dB is not extremely low, but that the impedance can dive to 3.6 Ohm is something to take into account. Sound United itself likes to combine Polk with Denon, in which case the Denon PMA800 is an obvious choice.
Tight and controlled
When going through a number of test tracks to which we always subject test speakers, we immediately note that the R100 can put down an extensive sound wall without messy or over-greasy basses. Craig Armstrong’s cover of Massive Attacks ‘Weather Storm’ is much more famous than the original and now also a song that has just been played too much on the radio. But come on, let’s play it again, and note that the heartbeat beats that start around minute 1 are absent and clean from the R100s. The well-known thin piano and the orchestral synth sounds that play a little further away in an echoing room are also effectively detached from the Polk speakers. The detached atmosphere that Weather Storm radiates is nicely served with these speakers. The attention that the designers had for the midrange and the timing of the speakers make these Polks exceptionally suitable for rock and metal, genres that quickly degenerate into chaos with small speakers. But no problem, even with the Foo Fighters brand new ‘Medicine at Midnight’ at a high volume, the R100s remain on track. There is a solid speed acceleration at the end of ‘Waiting on a War’, still. The drum kit is really nicely defined, the guitars tear but keep their own identity. Rock on!
Of course, this remains a compact speaker that, even with the X-Port technology, will not chase ultra-basses through your living room. Physics imposes certain limits; a small box imposes restrictions. If you are looking for that deep bass experience, then you have to add a speaker of a size larger or a subwoofer to the setup. In a smaller living room, such a 2.1 setup can definitely be an acceptable option.
So we don’t expect to hear any subsonic tones, but we are pleasantly surprised by the bass extension that is available. And especially about his character. The X-Port does its job well and seems to prevent ‘chuffing’ – blowing noises that sometimes come from bass ports – well indeed. Even if we chase Eric Moe’s percussion party on ‘Cross Chop’ on Uncanny Affable Machines through the R100s.
Even on these small Reserves, the slow cellos at the start of Gorécki’s ‘Sympathy of Sorrowful Songs Op.36’ (in the beautiful version of the Polish radio orchestra and with Beth Gibbons of Portishead behind the microphone) know themselves in a deep, rich way to manifest. While this modest piece of music slowly unfolds and more and more parts of the orchestra participate to work towards a climax, the R100 holds up well. Although it doesn’t sound as enveloping now as on the large R600 floorstanders, it is room-filling in a surprising way. Even when we walk around the room, the performance remains at a high level. No, we are not completely immersed in the music so that we can really join that stage and point out instruments. But that enveloping as you can get at the back of a concert hall is absolutely present. You could characterize the R100 as a little dark at such a point, with a great sense of texture and detail in the middle. If we turn up the volume really hard, then the picture is really correct. The threat, the sadness, it is conveyed really well. The voice of Gibbons, which can only be heard after about ten minutes, is also portrayed flawlessly by the Polk, but not too sharply. Sometimes things can go wrong here, also because of the contrast with the previous instrumental part. But the R100 does not disappoint at all.
The Polk Reserve R100 enters an arena already filled with skilled speakers. Good news for the consumer: those who aim slightly higher than the budget segment and spend a slightly larger amount, can now choose between a number of speakers that all perform at least ‘well’ and sometimes even ‘very well’. Thanks to breakthroughs in audio design and science.
The R100 undoubtedly belongs in such a championship row, where the Polk will stand out with its modest size and beautiful smooth, room-filling music reproduction. It also does not seek extremes in terms of tonality, which makes it a relatively neutral reproducer. This impression is reinforced by the clean character of the basses, the control and the wide distribution throughout the room. To get the most out of it, you may have to invest a little more in terms of reinforcement.