Inside Polk Audio- a Visit to Polk Audio’s Headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland

Experiencing Polk in the 1980s

I first became familiar with Polk Audio during my college days in the mid-late 1980s. Audio was a newly adopted hobby and as I read many magazines to learn all as much as I could, I saw many Polk advertisements featuring Matthew Polk in his white lab coat, standing with his latest creations.

Back then Polk speakers were sold only in stereo specialty shops (no home theater to speak of back then) and had achieved a solid following in the middle to upper middle of the speaker market. Two fellow college students I knew owned Polk speakers: one had a pair of Monitor series speakers that sold for around $500 per pair, and the other, the son of a wealthy industrialist, had a pair from Polk’s SDA series that cost quite a bit more than that.

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Polk’s 1980s vintage SDA series speakers- college kid’s dream, rich kid’s reality!

Hearing the SDAs in his dorm room for the first time was a very memorable experience. They used a special driver array that projected a very large, holographic 3-D soundfield. I remember hearing notes appear what seemed to be inches in front of my nose, much in the same way a well produced 3-D movie waves special effects right in front of your face.

Fast Forward to Today

Since my initial experience with Polk almost 20 years ago, they have expanded in both directions to cover the entire market spectrum. At the entry level, Polk offers a high quality but value priced line found in mass-market retailers such as Circuit City. The highest end of speakers, a place where Polk had not really dwelled before, has been challenged by their LSi series.

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Polk Audio’s outstanding LSi9 bookshelf speaker

The LSi speakers offer a true high-end listening experience without requiring the big-budget expenditure. They have achieved universal acclaim in the typically finicky high-end audio publications and outperform many speakers selling for large multiples of their reasonable asking prices. I myself am an extremely satisfied LSi user- as I type this, I am listening to LSi9s here in my home office.

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Visiting Polk
When Polk’s Marketing Manager Paul DiComo invited me to tour their headquarters in Baltimore, I was quick to accept. Not only would I see how the speakers are designed and made, I might get to meet the guy in the white lab coat I saw in the advertisements way back when!

Polk’s headquarters is located in an industrial park outside of downtown Baltimore, about four hours from my home in Pittsburgh, PA. The building is quite large; I would not be surprised if they are the park’s most prominent tenant. After checking me in with a visitor’s pass, Paul led me past a cubicle farm that handled accounting and customer service to the marketing department where his office resides.

XM Reference Satellite Tuner

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Polk XM Satellite Radio Tuner on the test bench
There were several of Polk’s new XM radio tuners in the public area of the marketing department, some on boxes, some in offices connected to antenna wires leading to small antennas positioned by windows. Paul started my tour by telling me about Polk’s XM plans.”This is the first component XM radio tuner, and it is a very big deal to us,” Paul said. “We’ve put a lot into making this a successful product launch. We think once people have XM in their homes, they are really going to love it. Until our component tuner, you had to use a tuner device something like a car radio faceplate connected to a cradle to have XM in the house. These tuners don’t perform like ours does.
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XM Antenna- quarter shown for scale

“XM provides audio quality not quite at the CD level- it’s like very good MP3,” Paul continued. “What XM is about is the radio experience- it’s what radio was like years ago, a very high quality listening experience. XM has studios in Washington, DC and they have recruited expert producers who specialize in their field to develop outstanding music programming. We’ve been down there and have built a relationship with the XM people… and of course, there are the news and talk radio stations.”

I brought up the fact that many digital cable and satellite TV subscribers have access to digital music… would this make XM a redundant add-on? “Nope,” said Paul. “That stuff is tolerable for background listening at best. XM is special and when people try it in their own homes, they will see why.” He then offered to send me a loaner sample of the tuner so I could experience it for a few weeks myself, once the tuner becomes available.

Though I have never experienced XM radio other than brief demonstrations, there are a lot of times I wished I had it- like two hours before, when I was driving to Baltimore and couldn’t tune a good radio station, or three weeks ago, when I drove over 600 miles from South Carolina to Pittsburgh. Up to now I have thought of XM more of a car audio product than a home product. I admit to lusting for XM for my cars- as someone who lives for summer road trips, XM would be a great way to make the miles go faster. Perhaps I have never experienced the high-quality music listening experience via radio as Paul described it. I’m looking forward to trying the tuner myself and will report my findings on my website and in my column.

Speaker “Standards

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These speakers are the benchmarks for the Polk speakers you buy in stores.

Paul led me up a hall and we passed a large number of speakers arranged around metal shelving. “These are the “standards,” Paul said. “They are the official benchmarks for our speaker production. That pair of LSi7s over there, they have been determined to sound EXACTLY as LSi7s should sound. We compare production speakers to the standards to make sure our products always sound exactly as they are intended to sound.”

Designed in the USA, manufactured offshore

I asked about seeing the factory, and was surprised to be informed that their was no Polk factory on the premises- or anywhere else in the USA. “We’ve had to move production offshore to Asia because, frankly, that’s what you have to do to stay competitive these days,” Paul said. “We have not made any speakers here for a few years. What we learned in the process is that we were not very good at manufacturing- what we really excel at is design. By concentrating all of our efforts on design and letting someone else concentrate all of their efforts on manufacturing, we are offering a better product than we ever did when we did everything by ourselves.”

As one who normally associates the best, highest-quality speakers with American companies that both design and manufacture their products in the USA, I was a little disappointed that Polk speakers were no longer coming off assembly lines in the USA. I then realized that my prejudice was possibly unfounded- for many months I have delighted in my own pair of LSi9s and had no idea they were made in Asia, not the USA. (I never checked the box or speakers for country of manufacture, assuming they were made in the USA.

Looking at the speaker samples Paul offered to illustrate his point, the offshore manufactured speakers had better fit and finish and the wood had a deeper, richer finish as well. Of course, a comparable quality of finish could be easily achieved in a US plant- but at what cost?

Comparison Testing

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Comparing a Polk Home Theater Speaker System to a competitor from Bose

Next stop was a listening room with several wall-mounted speakers mounted to removable assemblies, as well as a Bose speaker system connected alongside a competing Polk system. “You always have to know how the competition stacks up,” Paul said.

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In-wall speakers ith quick release fasteners

Towards the back of the room were in-wall and ceiling speakers mounted on particleboard and affixed to the wall with pressure mechanisms that reminded me of ski bindings. The mounts allow quick changing of speakers for comparison testing.

Measuring frequency response

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An adjacent room held sophisticated measuring equipment and sound-deadening material used to test speakers for accuracy. In the picture above, you can see the microphone on a boom in front of the speaker on the stand. Though the speaker is designed to be used on the floor, it was placed on a stand to remove any possible interaction between the speaker and the floor when it is measured.

Research and development

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Entering the research and development department

Up the hall in an open area was the research and development department. There were speakers in various state of disassembly, CAD drawings, and a wide variety of electronic testing equipment. Since a picture is worth a thousands words, I’ll let the pictures do the talking for this department.

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CAD/CAM (Computer Aided Design/Computer Aided Manufacture) drawing

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There is a reason you have never seen these three Polk models in stores- they never made it into production.

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Polk LSi subwoofer with driver and amplifier removed

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Cabinet shows extremely solid construction

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This photograph does not do the driver justice. The heavy-duty basket structure must be seen to be appreiated.

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Powerful subwoofer amplifier has huge transformer

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XM Reference tuner tested with LSi7 speakers

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Experimental subwoofers and amplifiers

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More amplifiers and testing gear

Testing and quality control

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Coordinate measuring machine

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Environmental chamber for accelerated weather testing

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Environmental testing- corrosion chamber

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Environmental Chamber- Extreme Temperatures and Humidity

Klippel machine

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Klippel machine

Paul had special praise for a machine referred to as “The Klippel”. “”It’s named after an Austrian engineer who invented and manufactures them,” Paul said. “It uses a laser to measure the movement of speaker drivers. Most drivers do a pretty good job when they make an outwards excursion, but on the inwards movement they are not as accurate. By using the Klippel we have been able to design drivers that are very accurate throughout the range of motion, and we have seen a big improvement in quality as a result. The investment was well worth it.”

Experimental finishes

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LSi15 and Monitor Series speakers in an experimental finish

As we walked down the hall to the next stop on the tour, we passed several current production speakers in finishes I had never seen before. The speakers were just sitting in the hallway in a high traffic area as if someone had just left them sitting there.

When I remarked I had never seen that finish before, Paul explained, “Every once in a while we will come up with an idea for a new finish and the prototype guys will put them together to see what it actually looks like. We put them in the hall to get feedback from the employees. That particular finish would probably be good in Europe.”

Speaker parts rising from primordial goo

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Paul led me into a small room with a large machine and a computer. “Aww… too bad they aren’t running it now, it’s really cool!” Paul said. “There is this clear goo- the cost is incredibly expensive, like tens of thousands of dollars per gallon- that goes in the grid on the bottom. A laser shines from the top and forms speaker parts out of the goo- when the laser hits the goo, it hardens. So you put a CAD/CAM file in the computer and it uses the machine to make prototype parts- they just rise out of the bottom of the grid. If you are going to spend $100,000 on an injection-molding mold, you better make sure the parts fit first! This machine helps us do that.”

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Laser shines from this slot above…
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Into the goo in this grid below…

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…creating speaker parts from a computer file!

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Paul holding a prototype speaker enclosure made with the machine

Polk heritage on display

Near the employee break room, there were several Polk speakers lined up to show the evolution of the brand from one of the first Polk PA speakers to the famed SDA-SRS model.

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On the left is a very early Polk speaker. It was part of a series of PA speakers produced by co-founders Matt Polk and George Klopfer for bands and concert promoters.

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This is the RTA12 with the grill covers removed from the speaker on the left. This particular pair features cabinets handmade out of real rosewood by George Klopfer.

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Paul standing next to the famed SDA-SRS, similar to the speakers my rich college friend once owned. Many of the original buyers still own and swear by these speakers!

Conference room

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Next stop was an immense conference room used for sales presentations and company briefings. Current Polk speaker models and media awards were displayed throughout.

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Several photographs were necessary to show the immense size of this room, even with a wide-angle lens.

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Camera facilitates videoconferencing with Polk’s California warehouse

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Polk’s critically-acclaimed LSi series speakers on display

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Cut-away view of a Polk RTi12 speaker

Demo room

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Paul kicking back in the demo room. Fujitsu plasma display at center, Samsung DLP TV at left, Loewe direct-view TV on the right.

Polk’s demo room was an audiophile’s dream! All of Polk’s current speaker offerings were on display, along with top-notch audio and video equipment. Here I was treated to a demonstration of Polk’s in-ceiling speakers, which when used with a subwoofer, sounded spacious and convincing enough to fool someone into thinking they were listening to the LSi floorstanding models. This is a real accomplishment, as any audiophile will tell you that ceiling and wall speakers usually represent serious sonic compromises compared to bookshelf or floorstanding speakers.

“Not only is this were we do sales demonstrations, this is also where we do final testing of all of our speaker designs,” Paul said. “Matt Polk still has the final OK on the “voicing” of all of our speakers, and this is where he evaluates them. He still takes an active role in the design of many of our products, such as the LSi series, which was a pet project of his.”

 

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Conrad-Johnson multichannel amplifier and Theta Digital Processor: top-quality audio gear that would be welcomed in any audiophile’s dream system.

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An audio classic, the Sota Star Sapphire turntable uses a vacuum platter to suck the record totally flat for flawless playback. One of these babies would set you back several thousand dollars when they were made twenty years ago.

Workshop

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If the demo room was an audiophile’s dream, the workshop would be the dream of home shopworkers. “We have two master craftsmen who work in here,” Paul said. “They build all of our prototypes, as well as different finishes like the ones you saw in the hall. They also build the displays we use at trade shows. Those two guys can build anything…”

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This shop equipment looks to be the high-end tool counterparts to the gear in the demo room.

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Paint booth for finishing prototypes.

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Raw materials, destined to one day become prototypes… perhaps a prototype of a speaker that will one day be in your living room!

Car audio

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Cars with demo systems installed, or in the process of being installed.

Last stop on the tour was Polk’s car audio installation and testing areas. A Ford pickup was in the midst of a custom installation. Very fine workmanship and fabrication was evident throughout.

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The speaker hole in the door is actually a part of a single piece of custom-made fiberglass

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Much of the interior and the entire roofliner was removed and wired in this installation

Car speaker testing area

Down the hall from the installation area was a room devoted to testing car speakers. Just like the home audio comparison room I had seen at the beginning of the tour, both Polk speakers and samples from competing companies were on hand.

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A mix of speakers from Polk and their competitors, on-hand for testing

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Testing board allowing instant comparison between speakers from a central control panel

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Microphone positioned above a car speaker tweeter for testing. Doors in the background open wide enough to allow a car to be driven inside for testing with speakers mounted inside a car.

Got the shirt!

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I didn’t get to meet the man in the lab coat, but I did get the shirt to remember my tour! (Author’s note, 4-8-2007: I did get to meet Matthew Polk on my visit to Polk Audio HQ in December of 2006… very neat after seeing him in the magazines all those years ago.)

Closing thoughts

Including an excellent lunch I received courtesy of my hosts, my entire time at Polk was around five hours. As I drove away, I reflected on my visit and what I had experienced. I did not really have any expectations before the tour, but had considered Polk’s position in the marketplace as one of the most successful speaker manufacturers doing business in North America.

Touring the building showed me that Polk is run like a business- employees were always busy, and seemed comfortable in their work and their environment. But it was obvious that they loved the business there were in, and that’s why they were there.

Polk competes in every area of the speaker market save for the very bottom, where prices are too low to support a quality product, or the very high-end, where speakers in the tens of thousands of dollars are the norm. Within their section of the market, Polk competes very aggressively. They have a consistently strong marketing effort featuring comprehensive advertising on the web and in print, as well as special promotional offers to make their speakers an even more appealing buy.

A frequent criticism of some prominent, well-known speaker companies is they devote more resources to marketing efforts than delivering the best possible product. (I won’t mention any names, but many people who are familiar with the industry will know who I am talking about.)

Despite their strong marketing efforts, this criticism would certainly not apply to Polk Audio. The marketing department was just a few small offices and almost an afterthought- at least it was for me, as I later realized I forgot to take any pictures there!

The photographs tell the tale- almost the entire building was devoted to designing and testing speakers, to get the most enjoyment out of music and movies. I could tell from their electronics equipment choices that they know their stuff and want the best, too.

As a columnist who does a lot of product recommendations through my column, my website, and via email, it’s nice to have a company such as Polk to recommend. The name is familiar with shoppers, they offer speakers in a wide variety of price ranges, and unlike some smaller manufacturers, their products are very easy to find in retail stores. My readers report a high level of satisfaction, and Polk’s website offers some useful resources that are valuable to any shopper. I was particularly impressed that their Home Theater Handbook is just that- a handbook, not a big advertisement disguised as one. All in all, two thumbs way up for Polk.

 

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