By Don Lindich
Week 14, 2021
Q. I’m helping a buddy who is looking for new speakers. He has a built-in entertainment center and per his wife, the speakers need to fit into the cabinets (not more than about 2’ high) and sound good in an enclosed space. He is looking to spend up to $500 on the pair, but would probably go a little higher if needed. What do you suggest?
-G.A., Fort Mill, SC
A. You said, “a little higher if needed.” If you can get him to part with another $99 I have a recommendation that looks especially promising. I’ve been singing the praises of the Polk Audio Legend series for over a year now, specifically the Legend L100 bookshelf speaker, even making it my 2020 Product of the Year. At $999 the Legend L100 is twice his budget, so not something I would recommend here. His timing is good though because now he can get much of the experience for a lot closer to $500 than $1,000.
The recently introduced Polk Audio Reserve Series takes the same drivers and design concepts of the Legend speakers and brings them down to a more attainable price point. The speakers look almost exactly like the Legend models and the specifications are similar, which is to be expected since they use the same woofers and tweeters.
The $599 Reserve R100 is analogous to the Legend L100 and if the performance is anywhere in the same ballpark as the Legend L100, it will be very hard to beat. I was not expecting any products like this from Polk and they are to be commended for bringing their best technology to a bigger audience, rather than only offering it to those with deep pockets. polkaudio.com
Going back to the “a little higher if needed,” it is not necessary to spend $500 or more to get great-sounding bookshelf speakers. The Q Acoustics 3020i has won awards across multiple lifestyle and electronics publications, and has satisfied many readers who have purchased them on my recommendation. At $315 they are about half the price of the Reserve R100, a very meaningful difference. Unfortunately they are sold out at present but likely to be available again soon, and their very small form factor makes them a perfect choice for situations where space is at a premium. qacoustics.com
For even less Cambridge Audio has a real sleeper of a small speaker that has somehow been flying under the radar of everyone but their satisfied owners. The $199 Cambridge Audio SX-50 bookshelf speakers are very plain-looking black boxes with very good sound. They were sent to me by accident by the PR company and I told them I would like to give them a listen before I returned them. I was surprised by the amount of bass that came out of the tiny boxes, and by how smooth, detailed, and natural they sounded. A subwoofer would be needed in a bigger room but if you are not trying to shake the walls, you will be fine. They lose a bit of refinement at high volumes, but for $199, who is complaining? It was a happy accident that I got to try them, though now that they have made it in print I am wondering if their PR person is even craftier than I knew. cambridgeaudio.com
The small size and low price of the SX-50 open up some neat system-building opportunities, especially when paired with some of the tiny digital amps you can buy for under $50. I will be highlighting some of these system-building ideas in an upcoming column.