Michael DiTullo is the Chief Design Officer at Sound United, Polk's parent company.
There is an old story about Picasso that goes something like this: A young woman recognizes old Pablo on the street and exclaims "OMG! You're Picasso! Would you draw me?" He replies "but of course!" and quickly scribbles something on a piece of scrap paper. Offering the sketch to her he simply states "That will be $25,000 madam." Shocked, she responds "What?! It only took you 30 seconds!" To which Picasso explains, "On the contrary, it took my entire life to make that drawing."
That simple notion—to encompass everything we have learned in over 40 years of making great audio in a single product—is the concept behind the Hampden. Polk got its start in Baltimore by a small group engineering majors from Johns Hopkins who loved music so much they started making speakers by hand. Beautiful, wooden cabinet speakers. The brand spent decades perfecting the art of making great home audio for those who shared their love for music.
This project began like most projects in our studio: as a simple user insight. While people love music just as much as they did in 1972, they now enjoy it very differently. We wanted to create something that brought our sound to the desktop with USB and Bluetooth connectivity and built off of our recently launched Polk Heritage Collection of speakers and headphones. We stated with an open competition amongst our designers. Our studio is set up similar to an auto studio where multiple designers participate in the research, ideation and design phases of a program. As the concepts are winnowed down through the design phase, the creator of the winning design becomes the lead designer of the project. I prefer running things like this because it becomes a very democratic way to assign projects. Designers being naturally a touch competitive typically ensures a relatively even distribution of projects.
Some of the initial concept directions
Cameron Nielsen's selected thumbnail sketch
In the case of the Hampden, the winning design was by Cameron Nielsen. He captured the metaphor of a classic pair of Polk speakers purpose build for modern listening. The speakers are real wooden cabinets covered in bent teak veneer. The audio gain control is a rotary wheel with a window that indicates the volume level, as in the date window on a premium watch. The glass-filled nylon bezels angle the sound stage up at you and minimizes wave reflection off your desktop; the silk dome tweeters make them sing; and the polypropylene woofers with rubber surrounds make them loud enough to fill your living room if you use them as your TV home theater solution.
With the Hampden, named after a Baltimore neighborhood adjacent to Johns Hopkins, we wanted to take all of that analog, two-channel magic, and purpose-build a product for the digital age. So we added in a fully digital amp, which bypasses your computer's subpar Digital to Analog Converter and handles all of the Digital Signal Processing when you connect via USB. It also has a bluetooth module that enables up to four phones to wirelessly connect simultaneously, and we designed an app called DJ Stream that allows four individual phone clients to create a shared playlist, managing which phone is playing what content, all via the cloud. Then we packed it with four individual amplifiers, one for each woofer and one for each tweeter, just to make sure your neighbors really hate you.
At $400 for the pair , you might be thinking the same thing as the young woman in my Picasso story, but let me remind you, it took us 40 years to make these speakers. They were worth the wait.