Polk Hampden review

With versatility and a golden sound, Polk’s Hampden speakers hit the sweet spot of the desktop genre.
With versatility and a golden sound, Polk’s Hampden speakers hit the sweet spot of the desktop genre.
With versatility and a golden sound, Polk’s Hampden speakers hit the sweet spot of the desktop genre.

Highs

  • Rich, golden sound
  • Wide, accurate sound stage
  • Powerful max volume
  • Cool, intuitive design
  • Multiple connections

Lows

  • Lead vocals occasionally muffled
  • Cagey USB cable
  • Pricey

With versatility and a golden sound, Polk’s Hampden speakers hit the sweet spot of the desktop genre.

In the era of wireless audio, the basic computer speaker has taken a back seat. Not many folks out there are looking for a boring pair of beige towers, anchored to that aging desktop on the back-room desk. But Polk’s new Hampden powered speakers aren’t your average desktop set.

Designed as a sort of hybrid, the Hampden ($400) have both the form and function to cross genres, bearing an understated vintage design, as well as digital, wireless, and analog connection options to cover a host of applications. And the best part is, they sound pretty damned good, too.

Hands on video

Out of the box

Pulling the Hampden from the box creates the same woody, back-porch vibe that Polk has carefully crafted for other pieces in its Heritage line, such as the Polk Buckle headphones. The teak veneers wrapped around the side panels are just realistic enough to avoid the wood-paneled Dodge Caravan look, and the satiny white surface along the front has a classic look and feel.

We immediately enjoyed the flash of the gold-grey drivers in the Hampdens’ open face design, and little touches like the angled stands and the vintage rotary volume dial at the side add just enough style to set these speakers apart from just about anything else we’ve seen in the category.

Inside the box we found a few accessories, including a quick-start guide, a power cable, and a devilishly-tight USB type A to type B connector cable which we’ll discuss more below.

Features and design

As mentioned above, the Hampden’s vibe is all about the rustic vintage aesthetic, right down to the speakers’ homepage on Polk’s website, which has a wooden backdrop that looks to be inspired by the front porch of a cabin or an old dock. And that style suits us just fine, especially compared to the alternative offerings in the desktop genre, which are often either too boring, or trying too hard to look futuristic and techy.

A window on the front lights up like an old school analog flip clock.

The kicked back design isn’t just for show, however, as the angle of the speakers is designed to aim the sweet spot right at your ears, to great effect. The rotary-style volume/power dial on the right speaker is mostly for show, but we’re fine with that too. The dimly lit front window displays volume level with white painted numbers like an old school analog flip clock, and it just looks cool.

A side button marks the only other control on board, changing source to digital USB, analog 3.5mm, or Bluetooth, which also shifts the backlight to correspondent white, orange, or blue tones respectively. Control is extremely intuitive, right down to the Bluetooth connection which pairs automatically to your device when selected. The hardwired inputs are found at the back side of the right speaker, which routes the sound to the left piece via a four-pin cable.

Strangely, the supplied USB cable was extremely tight when we tried to connect. We were able to get it to work by jamming it in (never a good idea, by the way) but a colleague actually ended up stripping plastic off the USB port on his computer with the cable. We’re hoping this was a fluke, but we thought it worth mentioning — you might want to get your own cable.

Polk Hampden

Inside those rustic-looking cabinets, the speakers house some clever engineering, including four discrete amplifiers for each of the system’s drivers, which Polk claims translates to greater realism in the sound. Active crossover’s route audio between the drivers, and the internal DAC is claimed to outperform the one inside your PC (which isn’t a stretch for many PCs).

Each speaker hosts a 1-inch soft dome tweeter, set above a 4.5-inch polypropylene midrange woofer, both mounted in a bass reflex enclosure, which takes its job of beefing up the sound seriously.

Music performance

The Hampdens have a sweet and immediately engaging sound signature that’s warm and toasty on the bottom, punchy in the middle, and crystal clear at the top end. The speakers have a knack for displaying detail, as well as wide open spaces across the soundstage, making for a very pleasant listening experience across a variety of genres.

A few muffled vocal lines and a strangely stubborn USB cable keep us from an all-out love fest

Some of our favorite moments came when we auditioned a few go-to acoustic tracks, such as Ray Lamontagne’s “I Still Care for You.” Silver and gold seemed to fill our ears as the speakers brushed out clear, metallic lines on the top from the string clicks of acoustic guitars, matched by deeper resonating tones from the bass and detailed thumps from the toms. Listening on, we were continuously impressed by both the precision and fluidity in the instrumentation. From fuzz bass, to papery snares and powdery ride cymbals, instruments were a delight to behold.

The speakers also exhibited some powerful bass chops for their size, which played well for hip-hop tracks like Jurassic 5’s “Concrete Schoolyard,” which sounded excellent. The speakers never made it down to the 60Hz zone, but upper bass was always full and rich. Pushing Lorde’s “Royals” hard, we did get a bit of driver rattle, but that’s to be expected, especially since the Hampden are able to get loud — VERY loud. In fact, we never had the courage to push them to more than around 7, even from across the room.

For whatever reason vocals with a lot of effects in the production had a tendency to get a little lost in the mix during our evaluation, falling into the background as the instrumentation took the spotlight. The issue occurred in songs as varied as Bowie’s “Rebel, Rebel,” to Sting’s “Seven Days.” It was subtle, and far from a deal breaker, but we sometimes felt we had to strain a little to hear the vocal line above the fray.

On the flipside, Queen’s heavily affected tune “In the Lap of the Gods” showed startling depth and clarity as Freddy’s other-worldly vocals zoomed back and forth (and front to back), displayed with brilliant dynamic expression.

Movie/TV audio

These being desktop speakers, we checked out a few movies and TV shows via our Macbook as well. Users will likely notice far too much delay to use Bluetooth here — it looked like a kung-fu movie for us. But plugging in via USB offered a very solid experience. Dialog was textured and clear, backing music was full and well arranged in space, and there was more than enough detail to elevate the experience.

Throwing on The Avengers was also a pretty good time. We were again impressed with the stereo spacing, as well as the precision of the treble, such as the crystalline ring of glass shards as Tony Stark is heaved out the window. Thor’s lightning was displayed with less depth than we would’ve liked, sounding a little too light and crunchy, and we couldn’t help but wish for a subwoofer at times. Still, for desktop speakers, the Hampden did a great job of bringing the action to life.

Conclusion

Showcasing versatility, a rustic vibe, and a clear, golden sound, Polk’s Hampden speakers hit the sweet spot of the desktop speaker genre. A few muffled vocal lines and a strangely stubborn USB cable keep us from an all-out love fest, but for those eyeing a handsome pair of desktop speakers, wireless or wired, Polk’s Hampden are a solid choice.

Score: 4 out of 5 (Recommended Product)

Highs

  • Rich, golden sound
  • Wide, accurate sound stage
  • Powerful max volume
  • Cool, intuitive design
  • Multiple connections

Lows

  • Lead vocals occasionally muffled
  • Cagey USB cable
  • Pricey