PSB Stratus Gold loudspeaker John Atkinson 1997
The original PSB Stratus Gold has been a consistent presence in Stereophile's "Recommended Components" listing since Thomas J. Norton first reviewed it in February 1991 (Vol.14 No.2). Initially launched at a price of $2000/pair, the Gold had crept up to $2100/pair by the end of its seven-year life, which still made this three-way floorstanding design a sonic bargain. When Tom Norton recently did a "Follow-Up" on the original Stratus Gold (Vol.20 No.4, p.247) he concluded that "you can also spend a lot more than the price of the Stratus Gold and end up with far, far less."
The Gold i, introduced to the public at HI-FI '97 in May, uses the same three drive-units as the original Gold, but in a slimmer, deeper cabinet that visually echoes PSB's smaller high-end designs, the Stratus Silver and the New Stratus Mini. The polypropylene midrange is still placed above the metal-dome tweeter, and the bass is still handled by a beefy 10" pulp-coned unit. Other than the cabinet, the other obvious visual difference is the large, 4"-diameter reflex port on the front panel, radiused inside and out to eliminate turbulence. The position of the port has been carefully optimized to minimize internal resonance problems (see my interview with designer Paul Barton elsewhere in this issue).
Design-wise, the Gold i is not so much a three-way speaker as a two-way speaker with an integral subwoofer. In a traditional three-way design there is always the problem of where to cross over from the woofer to the midrange. Go higher than 250Hz or so, and the crossover, with its attendant integration and off-axis dispersion problems, falls in the region where voice and instruments have most of their power. By placing the lower crossover at 250Hz, the Gold i should benefit from most of the virtues of a minimonitor—good, well-defined imaging, good dispersion—coupled with the ability to produce low frequencies at high levels.
The Gold i's upper crossover is a 24dB/octave, Linkwitz-Riley type; the lower one is a symmetrical, 18dB/octave type. All the crossover inductors are air-cored types, to avoid the distorting effects of magnetic saturation. The internal wiring has been upgraded compared with the Gold, but it still features the twin pairs of inset metal binding posts that annoyed TJN. These have a shank that is too big for many spade lugs, but a central hole that is big enough to weaken the post's mechanical integrity.
But this is a minor quibble given how affordable the speaker is—the price of the Gold i starts at just $2399/pair.
I initially set the Stratus Gold is up in the Stereophile listening room. Even without careful setup, it was obvious that something good was going on: the midrange was clean and uncolored, the stereo imaging well defined and stable, and the bass generous without being boomy. Extreme highs were a little mellow, but this not a bad thing.
Encouraged, I moved the PSBs to my own listening room, which tends not to be as flattering as the magazine's room. While the balance changed slightly—the top octave now sounded more extended, though it still lacked a little air in absolute terms—what didn't change was my very positive opinion of the speaker's basic character. This is one fine design.
The midrange was one of the glories of the original Stratus Gold, and the i is also a leading contender in this region. Try as I might, there was no coloration that could be readily identified. The BBC's live orchestral recordings, available each month with BBC Music magazine—thank you Sam Tellig for telling me about their excellent Dvorák Symphony 7—were reproduced with the unhyped, delicately natural balances intact. And Keith Johnson's superb series of HDCD recordings of the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Eiji Oue had a natural sweep to the sound that literally took my breath away. The latest, Ports of Call (Reference Recordings RR-80CD), features popular "place-name" classical works like Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien and Sibelius' Finlandia, where the composers have dipped widely into their tone color palettes. With lesser speakers, diverse instruments tend to acquire a sameness about their sounds. By contrast, the Gold i preserved all the tiny tonal differences that distinguish, for example, the English Horn from the oboe, the viola from the violin, even when they are playing notes with the same pitches.
As I embarked upon this review, I was reacquainting myself with some of the works we might record at this year's Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. And with the natural, unforced presentation of the Stratus Golds, one recording kept leading to another. A delightful Hungarian recording of the Schubert Octet (Naxos 8.550389), for example, triggered me to buy Stephen Kovacevich's 1995 reading of Schubert's D.960 piano sonata (EMI Classics 5 55359 2). This is a wonderful performance, but the speakers didn't hide the recording's rather peculiar-sounding, clangorous textures, which I assume are caused by its "Sensaura" encoding. Again, the sometimes subtle differences between the sounds of different piano recordings were clearly perceived on the big PSBs without being unnaturally thrown into sharp relief.
The PSB's treble was clean and free from hash, but there was a small amount of character in this region, perhaps revealed by the contrast between the sheer neutrality of the speaker's midrange and its slight lack of top-octave air. While the Gold i wasn't in any way "bright," I consistently felt its mid-treble to sound on the "cold" side. This was barely noticeable with naturally balanced recordings, but with recordings that are themselves overcooked in the presence region, the speaker could be unforgiving.