PSB Alpha loudspeaker
Let's talk about the price—200 Susan B. Anthonys. That's just about a week's pay at minimum wage in the US. Given the sound from the Alphas at the Winter CES and this very modest price, Bob Deutsch and I found them charming and clearly the best buy at the show (Vol.15 No.4). Our opinions were later seconded by Peter Mitchell (Vol.15 No.5). Now is my chance to tell you what all the fuss was about.
Packed inside each of these small vented-cabinet minimonitors is a ½" dome tweeter (ferrofluid-cooled for enhanced power handling, no less) and an impressive 6½" polypropylene-cone woofer with an EVA-treated foam suspension. The crossover point is 3kHz, and the crossover itself is a minimalist design with few parts. The box is of ½" particleboard. Oddly, the grille cloth is not removable; you won't be able to take it off for that high-tech, bare-driver look. The rear of the cabinet is removable (six screws) to provide access to the inner workings. Since PSB insists that their dealers stock replacement parts, having the speakers serviced will be easy.
To keep the price down, PSB has come up with a number of innovative build features in addition to the fastened grille cloths. The crossovers are force-fitted. There are no bolts, screws, or glues involved. Just as they are popped in when built, they can be popped out for servicing.
The two-piece tweeters are equally innovative. The first piece is a cuplike structure replacing the traditional faceplate. The cup is fastened to the front baffle and is not intended to be removed or replaced. The rest of the assembly, inserted from within the cabinet, is twisted and locked into place. Once again, there are no bolts, screws, or glues, and replacement is simple. The woofer is installed more traditionally, held in place by four traditional woodscrews. It too is mounted from the inside of the cabinet.
A close examination made it immediately obvious that the Alphas are indeed a low-cost product. For starters, they use the ubiquitous mid-fi push-in-and-lock speaker terminals. While these won't accommodate audiophile speaker wires, that's not what's likely to be used with the inexpensive Alphas. The speaker terminals will probably be the same as those used on the integrated amp or receiver likely to be driving the speakers. These practical (they can accept a double banana plug, for example) but inexpensive terminals were quite a pain with all of my large-gauge speaker wire.
A second area of obvious cost cutting was the material chosen for the port—it looks like the cardboard tube found inside a roll of toilet paper. A glance into the port shows the back of the tweeter as well as some pink fiber fill and reasonably heavy-looking speaker wire.
The temptation is to use the Alphas like any other minimonitor: place them on stands, use something to couple the speakers to the stands (eg, Blu-Tak), place spikes under the stands, and put the stand/speaker combination way out into the listening room to achieve that magical soundstaging minimonitors are famous for.
To do so would be a tragic mistake. Designer Paul Barton has rightly assumed that someone purchasing a $200 pair of loudspeakers is likely to place them on a shelf or near a wall, and the Alpha's tonal balance has been designed with this in mind. They should be placed on a shelf or near a wall. The narrow width, minimal front baffle area, flush-mounted tweeter, and frameless, beveled grille were all designed to provide first-rate soundstaging even in this atypical placement.
The lights dim...
Like many of today's speakers, the Alphas sounded rather rough right out of the box. To begin to do what they're capable of, they needed to be played loud and long. Don't be afraid to play them loud; they can indeed handle it.
Of course, I started right off violating one of the Alpha's key rules by mounting them on PSB Stratus Mini Stands well out into my listening room—as I do with most other speakers. In this position, away from both the rear and side walls, the speakers were very bass-shy. The sound was harmonically thin through the midrange. There was also a general hollowness and honk. I was able to somewhat reinforce the bass by moving the speakers around, but never to a satisfying level. The Alphas did, however, offer a very wide soundstage, although there was not a great deal of depth. The images were located behind the speakers, neither thrust out into the room nor held captive by the cabinets. Within the stage, there was little precision in the placement of performers.
Toeing-in the speakers did little to alter the soundstaging. What it did was alter the tonal balance adversely, making the sound a bit more edgy. For example, on The Rembrandts (ATCO A2 91412), the guitars were too hard and there was excessive sibilance on the Everly Brothers–wannabe vocals. With the Alphas aimed straight ahead, the edginess was still there but far less obvious and intrusive.
With the Alphas out in the room, the sound generally lacked the level of refinement expected from products costing hundreds or thousands more.
Things improved significantly when I sat farther away from the speakers than I normally do. In fact, I'm somewhat hesitant to suggest the Alphas for near-field listening. Farther away, the sound was less harsh and more natural in overall balance. When I moved closer to a room boundary, many aspects of the speaker's performance improved, including bass response. The most effective thing I was able to do to improve the sound of the Alphas surprised me. At low listening levels they were uninvolving. Pumped up to 85dB or more, they were much more satisfying, the mid- and upper bass in particular filling out. In any event, I was able to prove that PSB knew exactly what they were talking about. The Alphas indeed do not belong on stands well out into the listening room.
Jack gets smart
Finally, I put the Alphas where they'd been designed to be put—on a bookshelf (actually, record shelves). Bass performance was dramatically improved, with significantly more extension and authority. This resulted in a far more satisfying overall tonal balance. No, these aren't speakers for organ lovers. They simply didn't reach into the lower bass. With that single caveat, the tonal balance was much more realistic with the speakers properly positioned.
Soundstaging was essentially unchanged—a very wide stage with little depth. Images remained somewhat vague, though effectively located laterally. With the improved upper bass, the harmonic thinness was less of an issue. I still preferred the speakers aimed directly ahead. Excessive toe-in was invariably greeted with excessive edge and hardness.
The most startling aspects of the little Alpha's performance were its ability to play surprisingly loud (one of Paul Barton's objectives) and to cover an ear-opening portion of the frequency spectrum when properly positioned near a reinforcing room boundary. While JA's measurements will provide a better picture of the latter aspect of the speaker's performance, I will say that they provided remarkable mid- and upper-bass impact when positioned on a bookshelf or near the rear wall.
The speaker's primary strengths were abundantly clear on virtually any rock recording. I opted for a combination of the Pixies, Nirvana, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to demonstrate the Alphas to a number of my gape-mouthed friends. To a person, they insisted on knowing where I'd hidden the subwoofer that they assumed must be part of the system. Had I been a dealer, I could have sold a dozen pairs in the first few weeks I had the Alphas home.
Of course, any modestly priced speaker will have significant sonic shortcomings. (See any of the inexpensive speakers in Tom Norton's Vol.14 No.7 and Vol.15 No.5 surveys for numerous examples.) The Alphas were no exception. In comparison with live music, or any number of far more expensive speakers, the Alphas lacked refinement. The sound tended to be coarse and grainy. With the wrong electronics, they quickly became excessively harsh and sharp-edged. Great care must be exercised to match the Alphas with a system soft at the top.
Comparison with the Dana Model 1
For some time now, the unquestioned price leader in "Recommended Components" has been the Dana Audio Model 1, originally reviewed by RH (Vol.13 No.9, with JA's updated measurements in Vol.14 No.10). Only available factory-direct, the Model 1 costs $179/pair. This raised the first issue in our comparison. Since the Model 1 is only sold direct, there is no distribution or dealer markup. As a result, you should expect more for the money on a direct purchase. As with virtually anything else in life, things are seldom as simple as they seem.
The Danas were designed to be placed on stands and located well out into the room. In practice, therefore, the price of speaker stands must be added to the $179 list price of the speakers. The PSBs are designed to be located near the rear wall, where they sound better. Since they can be used effectively on bookshelves, you may not need stands, making the total cost $200. If you use stands with the Alphas, the price differential is constant. If you can't place your speakers out into the listening room, the Alphas are the better choice; if you prefer them out in the room, the Model 1s are the better choice.
The Danas are slightly taller, shallower, and heavier than the Alphas. They include five-way binding posts, slightly thicker MDF, and removable grille covers. The PSBs have a wood-grained vinyl finish, the Danas a pebbled finish. With the Model 1s you get a 30-day money-back guarantee (you have to pay shipping both ways if you return the speakers). The Alphas can be auditioned at any PSB dealer, there's dealer support if anything goes awry, and there are no shipping charges (but you'll have to pay sales tax).
RH described the original Model 1s as having "a rather warm bass and a rather lifeless, depressed treble." Subsequent to that review, changes in the tweeter have improved the Danas' top-end performance. Unlike the Alphas, the Model 1s have been designed specifically to be placed out into the listening room, John Fish feeling this essential to achieve one of his design goals: realistic soundstaging. The obvious trade-off with such placement is lack of wall-boundary bass reinforcement.
With both speakers placed on stands well into the listening room, the Model 1s were clearly superior to the PSBs in two key regards. First, they had better bass performance, going deeper and sounding somewhat cleaner. An excellent illustration was the bass line from Bela Fleck's Flight of the Cosmic Hippo (Warner Bros. 26562-2). With either of these small speakers, some of the deepest notes were missing entirely or were dramatically low in relative level. However, the Danas got more of the bass and portrayed it more naturally. Individual notes were more clearly delineated in both pitch and transient character.
The second area where the Danas bested the PSBs when both were placed out into the room was soundstaging. While both created satisfying width, the Model 1s created a much larger stage, with more depth and greater focus. Dana had clearly achieved their stated objective of a very acceptable level of soundstaging from an extremely inexpensive pair of speakers. On naturally recorded works such as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra's splendid performances of Haydn's Symphonies 78 and 102 (DG 429 218-2), the Danas were clearly superior in recreating the requisite cues for a soundstaging illusion.
But it was only fair to compare the Alphas with the Danas when the latter were out in the room while the former sat, as intended, on bookshelves. With these two different placements, the Alphas compared much more favorably. For starters, their bass performance was improved significantly and surpassed that of the Model 1s in terms of extension and authority. However, the Model 1s' bass remained more articulate, if less extended and powerful. Second, by moving the Alphas back to the rear wall, the listening position was moved further from the speakers. This was advantageous, as explained earlier.
With the different placements, the Danas continued to surpass the Alphas in soundstaging, although the Alphas did not suffer from bookshelf placement. Since the PSBs were designed to be located in this manner, they continued to develop a wide stage with sounds emanating from between and behind the cabinets.
The Alphas (specified at 92dB) were more sensitive than the Model 1s (89dB), playing louder at the same volume setting. However, since both are relatively efficient, this was not a major concern. While the Model 1s didn't sound much different at higher volume levels, the Alphas improved appreciably at higher levels. If you do a lot of listening at lower levels, the Danas would be the better choice. If you listen mostly at higher levels, the Alphas would be better. Paul Barton has produced an inexpensive little speaker capable of producing a very big sound.
Both the Model 1s and Alphas are remarkable performers at their respective prices. The fact that you can have serious alternatives at such low prices is astounding. Both John Fish of Dana and Paul Barton deserve our praise for bringing such wonderfully satisfying speakers well within the reach of any audiophile.
The PSB Alphas are simply one of the greatest buys in audio, providing a musically satisfying sound for a paltry $200. No, they don't have the wonderfully natural refinement of speakers costing many times their price. What they do have is much more of the real thing than any of us could reasonably expect from such an inexpensive pair of speakers. For their price, the PSB Alphas are a sensational audio bargain. Now get out those checkbooks!