PSB Alpha B1 loudspeaker Page 2

I recorded Attention Screen, Bob Reina's jazz fusion group, live at Manhattan's Merkin Hall in February, and used the Alpha B1s as monitors while I prepared rough mixes of the eight improvisations for the musicians to listen to. I had used an AKG D112 mike for Mark Flynn's kick drum, which tends to accentuate the boom of the drum's sound when placed close to the front skin. Even so, with the 24-bit, 88.2kHz-sampled files played back from DVD over the PSBs, the kick drum sounded well defined while the speaker's lack of low-bass extension didn't detract from the body of the tone, which is rich in upper-bass content. Similarly, the sound of Chris Jones' fretless Fender Jazz bass guitar, which I had recorded direct as well as with a distant pair of mikes, had a satisfying combination of "pat" and "purr."

There was a degree of blur, a lack of clarity, at the lower boundary of the midrange, revealed by listening to the half-step–spaced tonebursts on Editor's Choice (track 19). In general, these bursts "spoke" very cleanly—with some aberrant speakers, you hear a descending series of "wolf tones" overlaying the ascending tonebursts—but there was some cabinet liveliness apparent between 130Hz and 200Hz, as well as at an octave above middle C.

At the other end of the spectrum, even though there appeared to be plenty of high-frequency energy, such instruments as triangle and cymbals having the appropriate degree of sparkle, the Alpha's top end sounded slightly softened overall compared, for example, with the Stirling LS3/5a V2. As a result, the top end of such chromium-plated recordings as the JVC XRCD24 reissue of Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, with the composer conducting the English Chamber Orchestra in 1963 in London's Kingsway Hall (JVC 93692 0226-2), actually sounded sweet. This was not unpleasant, but neither was it strictly accurate. Paradoxically, however, there was also a slight emphasis of recorded sibilance and an occasional touch of brightness evident in the mid-treble.

Perhaps the only clue to the engineering compromises mandated by the Alpha B1's very affordable price—other than limited loudness capability and low-frequency extension and power handling, of course—was the rather veiled quality of its high frequencies. This wasn't due to a lack of energy in the top two octaves, but more a feeling that a faint veil was obscuring musical detail.

The midrange was where the Alpha B1 excelled. The tone colors of all the individual instruments on the Britten recording were reproduced accurately, and naturally recorded piano—for example, Robert Silverman performing Beethoven's Diabelli Variations (CD, Stereophile STPH017-2)—sounded very natural, other than for a reduction in the scale of the instrument, of course.

And singers sounded simply superb. A recent recommendation from Musical Fidelity's Antony Michaelson was Gundula Janowitz singing Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs with the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan (CD, Deutsche Grammophon 447 422-2). Some think that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, with the RSO-Berlin under George Szell (CD, EMI CDC 7 47276 2), is unbeatable in this work, but through the PSBs, Janowitz's smaller but silkier tones floated free of the dark-toned, gloriously rich orchestral accompaniment—again provided I didn't play the music too loud, when the presentation rapidly became congested in the lower mids. The 1965 EMI sound, however, is considerably more spacious, with a wider, deeper soundstage than DG's engineers managed almost a decade later, something that, again, the PSBs laid bare. And why couldn't the DG team have resisted the temptation to make the solo violin in the third song as big as the voice?

The stereo imaging produced by the Alpha B1s was stable, with reasonably good soundstage depth. But lateral precision was not in the same class as the Harbeths' or Stirlings', individual images being broader. And on the Gundula Janowitz CD, her voice was presented above the plane of the speakers, generally a sign that some upper-midrange response anomaly is being misinterpreted by the ear/brain as height information.

I think the thing that most surprised me about the Alpha B1 is how much orchestral music I ended up playing while the speakers were in my system. I have long been a believer in the idea that the loudspeaker you choose dictates what music you listen to. Whether consciously or subconsciously, you choose recordings that benefit from a speaker's strengths and don't shine too much of a light on its shortcomings. As I write these words, I am working my way through Kurt Sanderling's 1972 traversal of the four Brahms symphonies with the Dresden Staatskapelle (CD, BMG Classics 69220-2), which has been a favorite of mine since I bought it on LP in the late 1970s, again on the recommendation of Antony Michaelson. Via the unassuming Alphas, all of Brahms' characteristic touches were readily apparent: the "big" tunes, such as in the Beethovenian fourth movement of Symphony 1 and the first movement of Symphony 2; the hushed mystery of the slow movements; the sweet mix of pathos and Viennese sugar of the scherzos in Symphonies 1–3; the bombastic scherzo of Symphony 4; the declarative opening of Symphony 3. It's as if Richard Wagner had never been born!

But if you are a classical-music lover with a small room and an equally small budget, a pair of PSB's Alpha B1s is just what you need.

Summing up
It might seem craziness to use a $279/pair of speakers in a system costing more than 200 times as much. In my defense, I flick through my well-thumbed copy of J. Gordon Holt's Really Reliable Rules for Rookie Reviewers, to p.634, where it states: "The reviewer shall not change more than one variable at a time in his system." By using the Alpha B1s in a context where everything else was intimately familiar, I would be able to unambiguously describe what I heard the speakers doing. But more significant, the little PSB didn't disgrace itself in such exalted company, doing (within its dynamic limits) much of what I need from a speaker at any price.

I very much enjoyed my time with this unassuming but attractive-looking little speaker. Considering its price, the PSB Alpha B1 is quite extraordinary in its way. Even if not in the market for a cheap mini, audiophiles should buy them for their Bose-owning friends and family, to give those unfortunates more than a taste of what a true high-end loudspeaker is capable of.

COMPANY INFO
PSB Speakers International
633 Granite Court
Pickering, Ontario L1W 3K1
Canada
(905) 831-6555
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COMMENTS
rowland's picture

Would the PSB Alpha B1 loudspeaker be a good match for my rotel RA-1520 amp.

Right now I am leaning towards the B&W 685 (as I have listened to this setup with my amp) but am hesitant due to the cost of the 685.

I am currently running Boston Accoustics T-1030 that I bought new in the mid 1990's (I think it was like $1,200 Canadian at the time for the pair) and had recently refoamed. But they take up too much space in the office.

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