Sunday, August 6, 2017

Budget Fighter II - Championship Edition: Klipsch Reference R-15m vs. Polk Signature Series S15

Budget Fighter II - Championship Edition. 
Klipsch Reference R-15m vs. Polk Signature Series S15

It's been a long while since there has been a head to head Budget Battle. My previous Budget Champion, the Infinity Primus line, is now discontinued and some very worthy contenders have come vying for position.

Over the last few years the entry level speaker market has become one of the most competitive and quickly improving segments there is in home audio. Be it because of trickle down technologies from higher end siblings or fantastic offerings from internet direct brands, it doesn't matter. In the long run we all end up winners here.

The Tale of the Tape

We won't be crowning on overall champion, at this price point there are multiple great options that anyone would enjoy. This time we are going to take a detailed look at two major mass market and easily found products from Klipsch and Polk.

Enter Player One: The Klipsch Reference 15m. Released in late 2014 with a MSRP of $249.99. They are the improved successor to the Klipsch Icon line of speakers.

Enter Player Two: The Polk Signature Series s15. New for 2017 with a MSRP of $229.99. They appear to be the successor to the Polk TSi line and now appears to sit between the T series and the RTiA series.

Both of these speaker are easily found at Amazon, Best Buy and Fry's; which will make in-store and in-home additions all the more easier.

Let's start with a breakdown of each pair. 

Klipsch Reference R-15m

Basic front and back shot. Not a bad looking speaker, the rest of the Reference and Reference Premier line, the copper cones quickly grab your attention.

While the Reference line is a replacement for the Icon line; according the the Klipsch forums, there has been some actual updates to the drivers, going well beyond just the color of the cone.

  • All new Reference Linear Travel Suspension tweeter design for smoother, more powerful high frequencies.
  • All new mechanical woofer design with seamless dustcap for minimized mid frequency diffraction and distortion.
  • All new Spun Copper IMG woofer cone is incredibly rigid, with new design adding structural integrity for minimal cone break up at high excursion levels. This makes for even cleaner, more accurate low frequency reproduction.
  • All new Brushed Polymer Veneer finish is exceptionally durable with a much more contemporary aesthetic over the previous wood grain vinyl of the Icon series.

Reports are that this midrange update has resulted in better performing speaker, so it appears that these updates may have brought performance up a notch and are not purely cosmetic.

If someone with an Icon KB-15 would like to let me borrow a pair, we can do some indepth tests to see for ourselves.

I didn't want to try and pry the faceplates off, so we won't get as detailed of a view of the drivers, though removing tjr terminal cup shows the crossover, which proves that it's also the same crossover used in the Icon KB-15.

The inside of the box is about par for the course for many speakers at this price point. No center bracing, some corner braces, and a marginal amount of stuffing taken out for the photo.

Polk Signature Series S15

Completely new for 2017, The Polk Signature Series offers a little more than just a black box. The Polks also get a nice set of magnetic grills that easily pop on and off. Nice rounded edges on the top and bottom. The gloss plastic face plate is a little reminiscent of the Definitive Technology Studiomonitor line.

While I didn't experience it, there are reports of the lower part of the baffle vibrating a little bit, so watch out for that. Good news is that they are removeable so if you do encounter anything, the fix is an easy dab or two of glue away.

Album for some additional breakdown and driver photos

Easy access to the crossover. Couple caps, couple resistors and a couple coils. Don't know much about crossover design. But it looks like there is a cap, inductor and resistor combo for each driver.

Corner braces and the top and bottom, and CENTER BRACING!!!! Something not seen on a many products in that price point. Looking at you ELAC.

Round One..FIGHT

Klipsch r-15m Graphs: Close Mic and 1m 

The first thing I noticed was just how flat the tweeter output was in the close mic measurements. Within a 1db from 2.3khz to 10khz. The quick roll off and little peak at ~14k were present in both the close mic and 1m measurements. 

The crossover claims seem to be pretty spot on at 1800hz, and rolls off impressively steep with little cone break up

Even in the close mic measurements the midrange output gets a bit of a ripple in the 600-1200hz range.

It does look like some of the port is tuned to around 60hz, but noise may find its way into the audible midrange output, as both peaks closely match the peaks in the 1m response. 

Overall the Klipsch r-15m is a pretty well behaved speaker. But the peaks are noticeable in critical listening. 

Klipsch r-15m Grill vs No grill.

The grills to have an measurable effect on the output. Further accentuating the bump at 2k and adding a null at 6k. I would leave the grills off if possible.

Klipsch r-15m: Horizontal off axis response. 

The Klipsch horn does a great job here. Even very far off axis the output remains smooth, though becomes shoved down as you angle away from the horn. Sitting a little bit off axis shouldn't be too much of a problem in home theater use. The midrange humps remain. I think some minor EQing  in the 500-1000hz range could really assist with their performance.

Klipsch r-15m: - Vertical off axis response.

The speaker is a much less well behaved as the listening axis raises or lowers. With treble out put getting much more uneven and significant nulls developing.

Round Two...FIGHT!
Polk Signature Series S15 - and honest +/- 3db speaker for 70hz to 19khz.  

1m outdoor gated with averaged and summed below 400hz.

Port looks like it is tuned to about 70hz. Not particularly low for a 5.25 inch speaker. However in listening tests, where the speakers were 5+ feet away from a rear wall, indicated it can get plenty low for just about any music. Lower than the Klipsch often could. Perhaps an effect of the Power Port design? Searching seems to indicate that you are able to achieve similar tunings with shorter port lengths. Comparing them to the now discontinued Infinity Primus line of bookshelf speaker, which were all also ported in the 70 to 80 hz range, these manage to play much deeper.

During measuring, the mic with at the mouth of the port while the "power port" was still installed, and shows some port noise at ~900hz which also corresponds with the only random peak in response.   
Repositioning the mic to the edge of the power port or removing the power port might give different results.

Polk says that the crossover point is 2.5.khz but measurements indicate it's closer to 1.7khz Regardless, the transition and summing is smooth.

Tweeter is plays smooth, without any major peaks or valleys. There is a slight rising rate which and and begins its slow roll off at about 13khz.

                                            Polk Signature Series S15 Grill vs No grill.

The grills are largely free of any extra bracing and aside from some minor ripples, pretty transparent. Overall having much less of an effect than many other grills.

Polk Signature Series S15 - Horizontal off axis Response 

Horizontal axis measurements are smooth with the peak at 950 becoming a little more prominent the farther you get off axis.
Polk Signature Series S15 - Vertical off axis Response 

Negative Horizontal axis measurement are predictable. Once you are getting much more than 15 degrees below the tweeter you will see significant nulls in the crossover region.

Positive Horizontal axis measurement are equally predictable. And once you get to 45 degrees off axis you begin to see similar nulls. 

At the end, if placement needs needs to be compromised, it's better to be above the speaker than below it. 

This also might be nice carry over to desktop usage, where getting the tweeter at ear level can be difficult.

Round Three...FIGHT

Polk Signature Series S15 vs Klipsch r-15m 

Getting the the results of this epic budget battle. The upper group of measurements are level matched at 1khz (and coincidentally at 500hz where the ground reflections take over). 

You can see that the Klipsch has a pretty significant 3db peak centered at 650hz and is essentially 2db louder from 1.2khz to 3khz. I think both of these are trouble spots in the midranges performance has a larger party to place in the listening experience then what the tweeter is doing. The rising rate and the roll off of the treble accelerates a little more quickly too. The horn tweeter was never honky or harsh, what problems exist remain in the midrange driver performance. 

In the lower direct A/B measurements, the Klipsch is very obviously and expectedly louder/more efficient. Giving a presentation that might seem more exciting if A/B tested in a show room.

The Polks have now become a legitimate go to choice and contender for anyone looking to spend in the $250 range for a set of speakers. Not only do they offer something new in looks, but construction is top notch and performance is very good. And in my opinion are better than the beloved ELAC's. 

Overall both are good speakers and neither suffer from major deficiencies (HTD Level 2) and we are past the era of speakers punching out of their weight class, there are too much great products at this price range now. The Klipsch remains a contender in the class and shouldn't be dismissed without a listen, especially by those who assume they are just a pallet swap of the Icons or by anyone who will be using them in pure home theater application. But the Polks are just a clear step more refined and a better performing speaker overall and the winner here today.

Final Round...FIGHT!
Listening Experience 

Overall, in AB testing its like the whole mix of the music changes between the two speakers.

The Klipsch r-15m is naturally more efficient, making for a easily louder presentation, vocals tended to be forward and things can be sharp or harsh at higher volumes. They repeatedly had the stronger center image and with the combo of forward vocals or where there was a lot of information in the peaky areas of the response could make that center placement distracting.

The Polk S15 had a sound stage far greater than the size of the speakers. Overall a much more neutral and natural presentation but still with a rising rate at the end of the tweeters range. Sometimes the midrange could seem slightly veiled, but always smooth. 

Guns and Roses - Estranged 

Klipsch - Sounds a little hollow. Like a "concert hall" effect has been put on the speakers. Very dynamic. Slash is dead center, almost distractingly so. Feeling a little hash.

Polk - Bass line is much more obvious. Almost drowned out with the Klipsch. Both handled the piano solos great. 

Govt. Mule - John the Revelator

Marked difference in vocal staging. With the Klipsch being forward and Warren Haynes voice little rough. The Polks smoother more natural sounding and were lacking the same strong center image.

Iggy Azalea - Black widow

Here with the Klipsch you could really notice that vocal fry. But very dynamic, a great example of a load and fun party speaker, not quite as full or deep in the bass. Pretty much everything the Klipsch got wrong the Polks got right, the played deeper, while you don't miss the technical nuances of Iggy's gangsta impression, the vocals were much smoother without any harsh fry.

The Heavy - Short Change Hero

I think the mix of this song is not one that lends itself to critical listening. But the Klipsch had a phone in a Red Solo Cup quality. The Polk's didn't fool you thinking you were watching the band live, but pulled the song off much better. 

The Civil Wars - Billy Jean

One of my favorite test tracks. The Klipsch repeated their same forward vocals, very obvious due to strong left and right separation in the mix. But things still sounded ok. With the Polks we had a good example of the slightly veiled upper mid range and were missing some of the dynamics. 

Dr. Dre - Kush

The Klipsch are clearly the party speaker winners here. Bass is a little lean, and Snoop Dogg sounds s little bit too in your face. The Polks were able to play a little deeper, but there was almost a bit of sibilance in T-Pain's hook.That was unexpected and the only time I ever noticed anything like that. 

Transformers Last Knight AND Justice League trailers 

The Klipsch really shine here, more dynamic, even in just a stereo configuration they provided a very strong center image. But again the bass impact was missing. The Polks kept their smoother characteristics, were able get a little closer to the bass depts of a Michael Bay explosion. Overall the sounded a bit fuller and the sound stage while not as laser focused in the center was much wider.


Polk Signature Series S15 vs ELAC B6

The ELACs have been a widely touted budget speaker since even before their release. While the hype has cooled, they remained a worthy choice. It's my opinion that Polk has usurped the former Budget King. Be it a case of economies of scale and being able to afford to build better cabinets, or design philosophies that didn't subdue the treble response. The Polks in my opinion best the ELACs in all but bass extension.

For a mass market speaker with easy access, the Polk Signature Series S15 is a major winner.

For more discussion join us at 

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