PSB Stratus Gold loudspeaker Thomas J. Norton 1997
Six years. Has it really been six years since I first reviewed the $2100/pair PSB Stratus Gold loudspeakers? More, actually—I completed my writeup of the Gold at the end of 1990, and the review appeared in the February 1991 Stereophile. Since that original review, Stereophile reviewers (myself included) have heard the Stratus Golds at trade shows and elsewhere—certainly enough to renew our confidence in the product and justify its continued recommendation. But we have not had samples to audition in our own systems since that first pair.
Now the Stratus Gold is scheduled for a redesign, due sometime in 1997. The changes planned are not extensive, but this seemed like a good time to have a final, in-depth listen to a remarkably stable resident of our "Recommended Components" listing.
Our new pair of Stratus Golds, sent to us early in 1997, were identical in appearance to the originals, except for the finish. The look, dimensions, and technical design remain the same. The 10" long-throw, reflex-loaded woofer crosses over to the 6.5" mineral-filled, polypropylene-coned midrange at 250Hz. At 2.2kHz a 1" aluminum-dome tweeter takes over. Crossover slopes are third-order (woofer to mid) and fourth-order (mid to tweeter). The tweeter is positioned below the midrange, which looks strange but which actually has vertical-dispersion advantages with the chosen drivers and crossover. The loudspeaker can be bi-wired.
My only ergonomic complaints are the angled, five-way binding posts (they slope downward—fine for banana plugs but awkward for spade lugs) and the lack of any provision for spikes. I used pointed cones from my orphaned cone/spike collection (audiophiles collect recordings, audiophile reviewers collect spikes) under the pedestal bases to provide a stable mounting.
The system used in the audition consisted of a Mark Levinson No.36S D/A converter, Levinson No.37 transport, Krell KRC-3 preamp, and Kinergetics KBA-280 power amplifier. Cables were Kimber AGDL for the transport/converter digital link, TARA Labs RSC Master Gen.2 interconnects from converter to preamp (unbalanced), and an older set of Cardas Hexlink interconnects (balanced) from preamp to power amp. The bi-wire loudspeaker cables consisted of Monster M1.5s on the bottom and M2.2s on top. Additional power amps employed were the Pass Aleph 3 and the Sonic Frontiers Power 2—the latter a tube design. (Unbalanced Cardas Hexlink interconnects were used with the unbalanced Aleph 3.)
The Stratus Golds were set up initially in the same location in my listening room which has proven effective with many other loudspeakers. I found no reason, during my auditions, to make any substantial position change. The loudspeakers were toed-in slightly toward the listening position. I preferred them with the grilles removed, though the grilles have less effect on the sound than is the case with many other loudspeakers.
My original review of the Stratus Golds was conducted in a completely different room—the Stereophile listening room—than the one I presently use. My current 18' by 26' by 11' room is considerably larger than the Stereophile room. And the rest of the system is, needless to say, also very different (though the vintage Cardas preamp-to-power-amp interconnects remain the same).
What I heard when I fired up the Stratus Golds was not really surprising, but food for thought. Here is a seven-year-old design (I'm estimating that the gestation of the design predated my original review by at least a year) that, since its introduction, has increased in price by only $100 (to $2100/pair; some finishes are slightly more expensive). And it's a loudspeaker that will still compete sonically with any new design of comparable price I know of. That statement does not presume that a given listener will necessarily prefer the PSB; different audiophile preferences will always be with us. But anyone who overlooks the Stratus Gold because it isn't a trendy, new design may well regret it.
The PSB builds on a solid foundation: a clean, uncolored, articulate midrange. Vocals were unfailingly natural—from the Fairfield Four to the Crash Test Dummies to the King's Singers and everything I sampled in between, including more distantly miked classical vocal recordings. There was a genuinely appealing palpability and warmth to the midrange. When I wrote my original review, I commented on some forwardness to the sound. While I occasionally noticed that here, more often than not it was just enough to contribute to the loudspeaker's sense of presence and immediacy without calling undue attention to itself.
On the down side, I observed a reduction in resolution in what I would guess to be the upper midrange/low treble; in combination with the slight warmth, this tempered somewhat the overall sense of sonic aliveness and inner clarity. But I wouldn't want to make too much of it. It was a minor fault, and far preferable to an etched, analytical quality—which was nowhere in the Gold's playlist.
Audiophiles who don't like metal-dome tweeters might be tempted to declare that they hear a trace of extra seasoning at the very top end of the Stratus Gold's treble, but those with no such preconceived notions will not hear anything like that. The Gold's overall sound lacked the spacious quality of, say, the Energy Veritas v2.8 (at nearly three times the price), and was not as sweet on top as the Sony SS-M9 (at almost twice the price). But the Gold's treble blended seamlessly with the rest of the range, only calling attention to itself when the program demanded it. I find it difficult to pin any sort of descriptive adjective on the top end of the Stratus Gold—which, I suppose, is the best thing you can say about a tweeter. It was not, however, unforgiving of bad ancillaries or program material—a quality it shares with all good loudspeakers.
The bass of the Stratus Gold was solid and extended. While the loudspeaker's slight warmth could work to reduce the overall clarity when the going got very complex, at its best the bass was remarkably tight and detailed. All the usual low-frequency suspects were trotted out, and none of them fazed the Gold—from the abrupt percussive whacks on the Patriot Games soundtrack (RCA 66051-2) to the organ flourishes on Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (Jean Guillou, Dorian DOR-90117). It wouldn't go as deep as a good subwoofer, but was extended enough to capture—powerfully—anything of musical interest short of the lowest organ-pedal notes. And at anything like a reasonable playback level, it refused to complain or distort in the bass. Some comparably priced minimonitors will go surprisingly deep, but it takes a larger loudspeaker to fill a large room with convincing low-frequency energy at realistic levels. The Stratus Gold was up to the challenge.
Finally, the Stratus Golds produced a stable, convincing soundstage, both in width and in depth. As always, you'll get a little more placement precision and openness from a good smaller loudspeaker—PSB's own New Stratus Minis come to mind here (very similar to the Golds, though lacking the 10" woofer). But you won't get the Gold's bottom-end extension in the bargain.
In short, you owe it to yourself to audition the Stratus Gold if you're shopping in this price range. Actually, you owe it to yourself to audition the Gold if your loudspeaker budget is $1500 and up. Especially up. The law of diminishing returns in loudspeakers starts somewhere around this price point. Yes, there are better loudspeakers available for a lot more money. But you can also spend a lot more than the price of the Stratus Gold and end up with far, far less. This was one of my favorite loudspeakers when I first reviewed it. A lot of other loudspeakers have come and gone since then. But the Stratus Gold is still here, and my high opinion of it is unchanged.—Thomas J. Norton