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December 1, 2004

Polk Audio LC265i In-Wall Loudspeakers

Home theater has changed all the rules.

Ten years ago, everyone knew that receivers were, umm, not serious. Serviceable, yes. Affordable, yes. High-end? Heaven forefend! Yet today’s A/V receiver is a technological marvel that contains not only multiple channels of beefy power, but near-state-of-the-art digital-to-analog converters and multichannel processing devices.

Then there are DVD players. The first model I auditioned cost several thousand dollars and output S-video. Today I can go to Costco and buy a player that equals the performance of that unit -- and outputs progressive video! -- for under $100. It might not last five years, but it performs well now.

There is one area, however, where people’s expectations haven’t changed: in-wall loudspeakers. When I told fellow reviewers that I’d obtained samples of Polk’s LC265i ($649 USD each) for review, they all expressed sympathy.

My friend Tony saw things differently. "Really?" he said. "I heard those at Home Entertainment 2004, and they sounded so good I put them on my short list. Can I come over and hear them?"

I asked him why he was interested -- he can afford to live in Manhattan, so I knew he couldn’t be interested in them simply because of the price. I was wrong about that.

"I want to install a 7.1-channel system, so of course cost is a consideration," said Tony. "But I want to romp with my kids without worrying about knocking over loudspeakers. I want to mount my LCD monitor on the wall for the same reason -- and it would be silly to have an on-wall display and have a bunch of speakers pulled a few feet into the room. But most of all, I think it would be cool."

In-wall speakers? Cool? Home theater has changed everything.

Existence precedes and rules essence

I came to that conclusion back in 2003, when Polk announced that it would introduce a completely new line of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers. The drivers were impressive, and the crossovers looked top-drawer -- at least as far as I could tell from a silent display in a hotel ballroom.

Later, I spotted Matthew Polk at a reception and told him how impressive the new line looked. "Yes, I had incentive to make them sound really good," he confessed. "We’re building a new house, and my wife won’t let me put speakers in certain rooms."

Incentive? I guess so!

The LC265i is the top speaker in Polk’s in-wall line. Analogous to Polk’s LSi9 stand-mounted monitor ($1039.95/pair), it sports two 6.5" cone midrange-woofers (the upper one is aerated polypropylene and the lower one is mineral-filled polypropylene) and a 1" ring-radiator tweeter in a swivel mount. Also like the LSi9, the 265i incorporates Polk’s Power Port bass-reflex technology, which gives it surprising bass response -- it’s rated down to 43Hz (-3dB). However, the in-wall speaker offers additional control options; you can tune the speaker’s sound to its location.

Thanks to its swivel mount, the tweeter can be aimed; you can also attenuate its output by 3dB if you need to mount the 265is in a hard room or near a window. The LC265i also boasts a wall-distance toggle to compensate for the midbass bump caused by sidewalls less than 2’ away.

Mounting the LC265i is pretty simple, thanks to its rotating cam locks. All you have to do is use the supplied template to cut the appropriately sized hole in the wall, drop your speaker wires in, attach them to the speaker, then mount the baffle flush to the drywall. Turn the mounting screws on the baffle and spring-loaded locking cams rotate into position behind the drywall and allow you to cinch the speaker tightly in place. Of course, if you’re building a new house or room, you can install a mounting ring between the studs and even use cross-braced firebreaks to create a 0.03-cubic-meter enclosure, which will be more rigid and tuned.

But as long as you don’t have the walls up yet, or if you’re willing to go the extra mile to rip out your existing drywall and re-rock it later, why not go all the way? Polk offers Performance Enclosures made of MDF for the ultimate in vibration control and tuned volume. The performance enclosures for the 265is are 14" wide by 3 3/8" deep by 55 5/8" tall -- just wide enough and shallow enough to fit between 16"-on-center studs. The enclosures were dense and well-damped. Retail is $249/each.

Not choice, but habit rules the unreflecting herd

I mounted the LC265i enclosures on either side of my wall-mounted Stewart GreyHawk screen, in what I assume would be a real-world scenario. This meant that one LC265i was in the middle of the front wall, the other fairly close to a sidewall. When I played music and DVDs through them before adjusting the tweeter position or wall-distance switch, I could clearly hear a difference between the left and right speakers. The sidewall smeared the sound emanating from the speaker adjacent to it; the sound from that speaker was spitchy.

I aimed both tweeters slightly toward the middle (be careful to use the mounting ring when you do this, not the suspension) and the spitchiness disappeared, creating an extremely solid center image. This made it obvious that I was getting more chestiness from the near-wall speaker than the other one, so I activated the proximity cut, which greatly reduced it. The fact is that nothing beats ideal speaker placement, but Polk’s adjustments go a long way toward leveling the playing field. I doubt I could have gotten better results from a pair of stand-mounted LSi9s.

I used the Linn Classik Movie Di and the T+A M system for both audio and A/V duties. The Magnepan MMG C and MMG W speakers served as my center and effects speakers. The speakers were connected to the amps with Kimber KWIK 12 in-wall cables. My SIM2 HT200 DMF put the picture on the screen.

Where love rules, there is no will to power

Despite my fellow reviewers’ misgivings, when it comes to performance, in-wall designs have one thing going for them -- the speaker designer knows where at least one boundary will be. That guarantees decent bass, but the problem with in-walls usually lies higher up in the spectrum. Most in-walls lack air and depth -- and quite a few have quite a bit of honk to boot. Think about it -- standalone speakers have gotten ever narrower over the years, and designers have gone to extremes to eliminate flat panels and sharp-edged contours around the tweeter; an in-wall speaker places the tweeter in one of the broadest, flattest surfaces in the room. So don’t ask me to explain how the 265is sounded so open and flat. They did, though.

I began by listening to Cantus’s . . . Against the Dying of the Light [CD, Cantus CTS 1202], a recording that suffers if its reproduction stints on soundstaging -- talk about a torture test! However, the Polks were up to it. The 265is gave me the deep crescent that the 11 male singers assumed between the microphones when the disc was recorded in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at Shattuck St. Mary’s School in Faribault, Minnesota. I was stunned to hear depth behind the singers, as well as the acoustic bloom -- and ring -- of the tiny stone chapel that contained them. And I was gobsmacked by the solidity and stability of Cantus basses Alan Dunbar, Erick Lichte, and Timothy Takach. Them boys was there -- well, somewhere behind the wall, where I couldn’t see ’em.

I moved on to Michelangeli’s recording of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G [CD, EMI 67258]. I wondered if the Polks could present the piano as solidly as they did the 11-voice chorus, speculating that delivering a large solo voice would prove a lot harder than even a group of human-sized ones.

Maybe it is harder, but the 265is handled it with ease. The vigorous Allegramente set the stage with its athletic jumps and sprints -- well, that’s all in the music; the piano itself was stable and solid and centered. Then came the magic of the Adagio assai, which flows as gently as water kissing the stones of a mountain brook. Michelangeli owns this movement, and the Polks did what any music lover would do: paid homage to its beauty by being faithful to it.

The strenuous Allegramente that begins the concerto and the merry Presto that concludes it offer dynamic swings and tuttis that, while taxing to any music system, also offer hiding places for infelicities. The music is so fast-moving and rambunctious that the ear can miss a lot. The Adagio, on the other hand, is music-making at its most naked; I think it was somewhere around the time the oboe joined the piano’s noble, resigned melodic line that I fell head over heels in love with the LC265i. It wasn’t the perfection of the notes so much as the purity of the emotion. Lots of speakers can deliver the notes; the Polk delivered the music’s soul.

A reviewer and an in-wall loudspeaker -- talk about a mixed marriage!

Obtruding false rules pranked in reason’s garb

Usually, music is hard and home theater is easy. The party line (at least among audiophiles) is that visual processing uses so much of your brain’s computing power that you’re less fastidious about what you’re hearing. I suspect that may have the teensiest measure of truth in it; I also suspect that the real reason we’re so forgiving of so many movie soundtracks in surround is that they have so little relationship to aural reality as we know it.

I have no idea what a Saturn V rocket or an M-16 rifle or an F-14 jet really sounds like -- nor, I might add, does anyone know what a dinosaur’s footfall or the Batmobile resembles sonically. Do those things sound convincing in big-budget movie soundtracks? Heck yes, but we have to keep in mind that film directors and advertisers discovered years ago that real sounds sound less than convincing when recorded with the acuity required by modern films and commercials.

As a result, no advertiser worth his salt would record soda fizzing for a soft-drink commercial -- it wouldn’t sound "real." If, in a movie, you hear someone marching in the snow, odds are the Foley artists at the studio did not record someone walking in snow. That very small detail may have taken the better part of a day to convincingly simulate. That probably means that the sound of the wind blowing through the trees, or of someone talking while walking from one room into another, is no more "real" than those T. rex footfalls in Jurassic Park -- but at least I know what the former are supposed to sound like.

So, while I watched Blade II -- its DTS soundtrack is of demo quality -- what it really told me was that the Polk LC265i can play really, really loud. It was great fun. And did I mention that it was also really -- I mean really -- loud?

I’m not sure that Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is any "realer" -- I’ve never sailed on a ship of the line in Nelson’s navy -- but the soundtrack is a lot subtler, with the wind susurrating through the hemp rigging and the HMS Surprise creaking and groaning all around us as we sail the southern oceans.

Lost In Translation is another film that uses the sounds of the familiar world (if not my usual stomping grounds, Tokyo is reassuringly urban) to anchor its reality and to illustrate the isolation of its protagonists -- we buy the premise because the soundscape is so believably mundane. In fact, the Polks were better at delivering dialogue intelligibly than the Magnepan MMG C center speaker I was using. Had I used a third LC265i (which would have been quite possible; its centrally mounted tweeter would have allowed it to work just as well horizontally below my screen), I might well have been tempted to retire so that I would never have to move another freestanding loudspeaker into my home theater. I am contemplating nominating the three-LC265i array to be my new standard reference HT setup.

The two golden rules for an orchestra are to start together and to end together

From a purchase (or review) perspective, there are two problems with in-wall speakers: They are difficult to audition, and they are almost impossible to compare. I do have a pair of high-quality in-walls in my house: the Mirage HDT-WM1 ($1250/each), which I reviewed for last January. But how do I move ’em from the soffit of my kitchen to my downstairs home theater? I can’t, and the Mirages’ near-ceiling locations make even room/room evaluations extremely difficult.

That said, the Polk and Mirage are more similar than different. Each features a range of adjustability that makes real-world in-wall placement simpler than I ever would have thought possible. Each has superb bottom-end response, although the HDT-WM1 sounds as if it goes about a third of an octave lower. (On the other hand, the Mirages are closer to a second boundary, placed near the ceiling as they are.)

The HDT-WM1’s 1" MDF baffle is even more substantial than the 265i’s, but it costs a lot more -- in fact, the 265is with Performance Enclosures come in at a few hundred dollars less than the Mirages.

Although I can’t completely discount it as a placement issue, the one marked difference I heard was the extent to which the Polks delivered a sense of soundstage depth and sonic holography. Perhaps it was the swiveling tweeter mounting, perhaps it was the crossover. I don’t have enough data to speculate intelligently; all I can do is tell you what I heard.

The golden rule is that there is no rule

The one thing I am sure of is that my friend Tony doesn’t know the half of it: The Polk LC265i is cool. A pair of ’em work like a dream flanking a video screen, and what they do with music is the stuff of magic.

If you’ve got the floor space, you can probably get better sound from similarly priced freestanding loudspeakers, but I wouldn’t insist that it’s a sure thing. In some spaces, the in-walls might actually offer better sound, even if they aren’t the logistical winner.

And if performance like that doesn’t establish a new rule, I have no idea what will.

...Wes Phillips

Polk Audio LC265i In-Wall Loudspeakers
Price: $649 USD each.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Polk Audio
5601 Metro Drive
Baltimore, MD 21215
Phone: (410) 358-3600



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