In the September 2001 Stereophile (Vol.24 No.9), I wrote very favorably about Polk's RT25i loudspeaker ($319.90/pair). That bookshelf model impressed me with its open, neutral midrange; its pristine, extended high-frequency response; and its low-level dynamics. On the minus side, the RT25i was fairly limited in low-bass extension and high-level dynamic slam. At the time, I was seeking a new speaker for my home computer music-composition system, and I bought the review samples—the only time I've done that since I began to write for Stereophile some 20 speaker reviews ago.
ProAc's Response D Two is a stand-mounted, two-way, ported loudspeaker with a a proprietary 1" silk-dome tweeter and woofer using a proprietary 6.5" cone of glass-fiber with a copper phase plug. At 17" high by 8" wide by 10.25" deep, the cabinet is taller and narrower than usual, owing to the fact that the port is centered below its mid/woofer.
The ProAc Response One S was one of the very first products I reviewed for Stereophile back in 1994 (Vol.17 No.9). That review was such an over-the-top rave that John Atkinson felt obliged to audition the speakers himself before running my report. I assume he liked 'em too—after all, my review did see the light of day.
I have a theory about "showing off" systems. I call it Zen and the Art of Keeping Your Yap Shut. Think about it: what's the first thing that pops into your head when someone tells you how great their system sounds? "Yeah, right!"
Of all the speakers I've heard through the years, the $3000 ProAc Response 2 (footnote 1) is definitely one of my all-time faves. One of the few high-end speakers at any price that sounds equally at home pumping out Prong as it does Puccini, the Response 2 blew me away with its incredible musicality and just plain "rightness." The Response 2 doesn't call strict attention to any one area of technical achievement, like so many Audiophile-Approved jobs, but just makes music so naturally and unforcedly that I hesitate, even considering its remarkable performance, to call it an "audiophile" loudspeaker. Yah, I dig the Response 2! So last year when ProAc introduced the Studio 100, a new affordable version of the Response 2, I got excited.
Small enough to fit in a shoebox, these little darlings from England almost manage to redefine the state of the art in very compact monitor design (footnote 1). Here's a speaker that isn't as neutral as the BBC LS3/5a compact monitor, but that does manage to equal or exceed that venerable design in most respects.
The original PSB Alpha was reviewed for Stereophile by Jack English in July 1992 (Vol.15 No.7). A modest-looking two-way priced at just $199/pair, it combined a reflex-loaded 6.5" woofer using a plastic-doped paper cone with a 0.5" plastic-dome tweeter. JE summed up the Alpha by saying it "is simply one of the best buys in audio, providing a musically satisfying sound...a sensational audio bargain." It went on to become one of the best-selling audiophile speakers ever, with over 50,000 pairs sold.
Paul Barton is a legend in the speaker business. For 25 years this musician and engineer has dedicated his life to providing speaker purchasers with higher levels of sonic realism at lower prices. Barton is a frugal perfectionist, and his obsession with psychoacoustics is evident in all his designs. I was mightily impressed with his midpriced Image 4T (Stereophile, February 2001), which was, like all Barton designs, designed with the assistance of the facilities of Canada's National Research Council.
When audiophiles speak of the "Golden Age" of audio components, they almost always are talking about amplifiers and preamplifiers, not loudspeakers. While a very few speaker models have stood the test of time—among them the BBC LS3/5a, the Vandersteen 2, the original Quad electrostatic and the Quad ESL-63, some of the Magnepans, and the Klipschorn—almost no one would disagree that, taken en masse, the speakers of today outperform not just those of the 1960s and 1970s but even those of the 1980s and 1990s. The advent of low-cost, computerized test equipment, high-quality, inexpensive measuring microphones, and persuasive research into what measured parameters matter most to listeners who are listening for a neutral-sounding, uncolored loudspeaker (footnote 1), has led to an almost across-the-board improvement in speaker sound quality (footnote 2).
As I said during the 1991 Stereophile writers' conference (Vol.14 No.12): "There's immense satisfaction in finding that next Audible Illusions or Vandersteen or Rotel." My oh my, am I satisfied! But before you start writing checks, hold onto those pens for a few moments. The PSB Alphas are not ProAc, Hales, Quad, or even Vandersteen killers. Goodness, what do you expect for $200?
Paul Barton, founder of PSB Speakers International, is an icon of the North American speaker industry. A talented designer who has for many years produced innovative and cost-effective designs at a range of prices, Barton does not let time stand still, constantly updating and revising his designs. But what makes him unique, in my view, is that, unlike the designers at most North American speaker companies, whose successful affordable designs are trickled down from their more expensive models, Barton, like the British designers, seems to get most of his excitement from his budget lines. His original PSB Alpha was, in its day, the most significant entry-level speaker made in North America since the original Advents of the 1970s.
Readers frequently ask me how Stereophile's writers select equipment for review. More often than not, a writer comes up with a review candidate because he's heard it or heard about it, and then suggests it to editor John Atkinson for possible review. JA encourages this behaviora writer excited about reviewing a component is more likely to produce an article that's interesting and informative. That said, occasionally a review candidate surfaces at Stereophile HQ; in such cases, JA assigns it to one of us.
I've been chipping away for some time at the task of trying to put together a music lover's stereo system for about half the money of my last such effort: $2500 to $3750 now, vs around $7500 back in 2005. My timing was good: CD and DVD receivers are a hot product category, with several attractive new entries at various prices.
The first loudspeaker I heard from the Canadian company PSB was the Stratus, an affordably priced ($1400/pair), two-way tower with a soft-dome tweeter and an 8" woofer. The Stratus had benefited from designer Paul Barton's being able to use the anechoic chamber at the Canadian government's National Research Center, in Ottawa. The Stratus was reviewed for Stereophile by J. Gordon Holt in our May 1988 issue; he described the speaker as "eminently listenable," though Gordon also felt that it was "a little lacking in guts and liveliness." I had sat in on some of his listening sessions and had been impressed by what I heard.
While large, floorstanding speakers appear to offer the most material for the buck, I feel that small stand-mounted speakers both offer the best value in sound quality, as well as standing the best chance of sounding good in moderate-sized listening rooms. In recent months Stereophile has reviewed a varied group of such speakers. In order of descending price, these include the Acoustic Energy AE2 Signature ($5495/pair, November '95); Dzurko Acoustics Jaguar ($4500/pair, reviewed elsewhere in this issue); Totem Mani-2 ($3995/pair, February '96); Platinum Audio Solo ($2498/pair, November '95); Coincident Speaker Technology Troubador ($1495/pair, January and February '96); Joseph Audio RM7si ($1299-$1499/pair, February '96); Acarian Alón Petite ($995-$1195/pair, January '96); Phase Technology PC80 II ($699/pair, December '95); and Spectrum 108cd ($399/pair, December '95).