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Polk Audio Offers Bright Spot for the Audio Biz

I’ve gotten used to filtering out positive spin from companies trying to position themselves in a down economy. That’s why I took what Polk Audio’s Al Baron said to me back in May 2009 with a grain of salt.  

I’ve gotten used to filtering out positive spin from companies trying to position themselves in a down economy. That’s why I took what Polk Audio’s Al Baron said to me back in May 2009 with a grain of salt.

The Polk Audio team with the top tower speaker in the planned flagship LSi M series (from left): product line management VP Mark Suskind, senior systems engineer Scott Orth, engineering VP Stu Lumsden, product line manager Al Baron, marketing and customer experience VP Al Ballard, senior sales and marketing VP Ben Newhall, and COO Joseph Tristani.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always like Baron and never took him for the slick sales and marketing type. In fact, Polk’s custom installation product manager is actually one of the nicest and most genuine people you’ll ever meet in this business. But when he told me 15 months ago that his company would be going “full steam ahead” with product development plans in preparation for the economic turnaround (instead of hunkering down like so many other companies at the time), I thought the guy might be selling me a bit.

As evidenced by what I saw personally this past Thursday in Baltimore, Baron was telling the truth (though his company’s prediction that 2010 would be “a turnaround year for the industry” turned out to be a wee bit optimistic.

Nonetheless, there’s no denying that Polk Audio has been bullish during the Great Recession. In fact, the company expects to ship more than 80 new products before the year is out and will continue its momentum early next year when it delivers an improved flagship tower speaker system (with home theater configurations available) and two new passive SurroundBar systems.

As my colleague Joe Palenchar of TWICE magazine reports, “…those products, to be introduced at January’s CES, will follow the shipment of a new satellite-speaker series, three active subwoofers with a wireless option, a single-chassis behind-the-couch virtual-surround speaker system, and in-ceiling Vanishing Series three-way speakers, which feature small footprints, narrow bezels, and low-profile micro-perf grilles to significantly reduce their visibility.”

Last week, Palenchar and I were part of a group of trade and consumer AV publications that got to see and hear those products in person. I enjoyed the demos, of course, but I was taken more by the realization that Polk is the type of audio company that can’t be labeled as either a strictly mass-marketer or a stubbornly high-end manufacturer. It seems as if great care has been taken to make sure it offers uncompromised loudspeakers for any application or price point. Sounds like a recession-proof recipe, if there is such a thing.

On the high-end the company is redesigning its nearly 10-year-old flagship LSi series of in-room speakers from the ground up to step up the series’ performance and price points. The new series, called the LSi M series, is promoted as offering the most advanced speaker technology in the company’s 40-year history and positioned as an affordable option for serious listeners.

The series, targeted to ship in January, tops out with a four-way floorstanding tower at $4,000/pair, up from the LSI series’ current top-end $2,500/pair. The series will also include a second four-way floorstanding towers targeted at $3,000/pair, two three-way center-channel speakers, a three-way bookshelf speaker, a three-way bipole surround, and a subwoofer.

The company went to great lengths to explain how much care went into the redesign. Everything from a “super cell aerated polypropylene cone” (it’s more “puffed up” with air to provide an effective structure for sound reproduction) to “splayed-strut” cast aluminum baskets that are designed to support the speakers’ mid-woofers and subwoofers and to help Polk achieve natural sound reproduction of source material.

Polk product line manager Al Baron shows off the new Blackstone satellite speaker.

The speakers sounded great, of course, but I appreciated them even more after being given such a complete tour through the entire product development process for the line. Just a taste of what goes into bringing these speakers to market could seal the deal for a client who digs the details about the products that he or she is looking to buy.

Just as much care was put into the company’s tiny eighth-generation two-way satellite speakers: the Blackstone TL1 and TL2 Series. These satellite/surrounds fit in the palm of your hand, yet still deliver a punch. The company says their acoustic success is a result of a new time lens technology that puts the acoustic centers of the tweeter and mid-bass driver on the same plane for improved imaging.

Senior sales and marketing VP Ben Newhall describes the in-ceiling additions to the Vanishing Series.

We also learned more about products previously announced by Polk that are arriving to dealers soon, including a one-chassis wireless-surround speaker system and in-ceiling speakers in the company’s Vanishing Series.

Like their previously announced in-wall counterparts, which are now due in October, the in-ceiling Vanishing Series models feature slim 3mm bezels, grilles that protrude only 7mm from the sheetrock, and micro-perf grilles backed with a fine-mesh scrim to appear as unobtrusive as possible.

Unlike the in-wall models, the ceiling models reduce their footprint without sacrificing bass output and extension by mounting an oval woofer to a behind-the-ceiling tube that in turn fires through a 15-degree-angled baffle. The angled baffle is also home to the midrange and tweeter. The in-ceiling speaker with nine-inch oval woofer delivers the surface area of an 8-inch round woofer and fits in the cutout usually required for a traditional 6.5-inch speaker, the company said.

Polk Audio was founded in 1972 and boasts of an amazing record of employee retention. This consistency of vision and passion for quality seems to have created a company that understands it customers and knows how to weather a recession.