Back at home, I'd recently set up Polk Audio's RTi A3 loudspeakers ($399.95/pair), which, at 14.75" H by 8.58" W x 14" D, are by far the largest bookshelf models I've had in my listening room. Right out of the box, the RTi A3 impressed me with its fit and finish. In Polk's Damped Asymmetrical Hex Laminate Isolation (DAHLI) cabinet design, five layers of MDF are glued together to form a damping system, then topped by a real-wood veneer of black ash or, in the case of my review samples, an impeccable cherry. The gracefully curved cabinet narrows in width from 8.58" at the front to about 5" at the rear, and is said to create a stronger, more rigid, more acoustically inert enclosure. (Knocking on the speaker's side panels resulted in a hollow resonance.)
When a reviewer specializes in seeking out innovation and value in affordable loudspeakers, certain manufacturers warrant revisiting again and againcompanies that consistently deliver high-value products, but also steadily revamp their lines to trickle down design innovations to ever more affordable models.
I always enjoy reviewing affordable loudspeakers from Polk Audio, who trumpet high value for the dollar with their philosophy of "Incredible Sound/Affordable Price." They also update their broad and deep product lines more frequently than do most manufacturers. I've always been intrigued by how much Polk has been able to deliver at the bottom of the price range. In fact, the first Polk speaker I reviewed, the RT25i (September 2001, Vol.24 No.9), is the only affordable speaker I've reviewed for Stereophile that I ended up buying (for my computer-based musical-composition system). So, when approached by Polk to review a speaker from their affordable RTi A series, I was interested in the least expensive of that line's five models: the RTi A1 ($349.95/pair).
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.