Phase Technology PC80 loudspeaker Lonnie Brownell December 1995

Lonnie Brownell reviewed the PC80 Mk.II in December 1995 (Vol.18 No.12):

Phase Technology PC80 Mk.II Compact Monitor: That's quite a mouthful (and a lot of keystrokes), so I'll refer to this as the PC80 II. RH reviewed the previous incarnation of this speaker, the PC80, in Vol.14 No.1, p.214. The tweeter is new, with a lower-mass dome material, and is mounted flush with the baffle; the crossover now features 24dB/octave slopes; the woofer magnet is 50% larger; the woofer's flat diaphragm is constructed on a Kevlar cone rather than a paper one; and the woofer now features a butyl-rubber surround rather than foam.

The PC80 II has its port up toward the top on its backside, along with a pair of recessed, angled, gold-plated five-way binding posts. 'Round front you'll find Phase Technology's proprietary RPF (Rigid Polymer Foam) flat piston driver for the 6.5" mid/woofer. To get an idea of what this flat-piston driver is like, imagine a regular cone driver laid on its back, with the cone pointing toward the sky. Now start pouring blackened resin into the cone until it fills up to the surround. Let it dry, and you've got something that would look kinda like the RPF driver, but probably wouldn't work nearly as well. Must be more to it, especially since Phase Technology has a patent for the RPF-driver manufacturing process. Furthermore, they encapsulate the RPF driver in Kevlar; when they say this driver is bulletproof, they mean it!

The cabinet itself is solidly built (thunks when rapped), with a black oak (ie, oak stained very black) veneer; also available are dark oak and walnut. The woodwork quality is first-rate; it's a good-looking speaker. The front right and left edges are radiused, as are those on the grille, for a layered look. Removing the grille reveals that flat-piston woofer/mid driver I was talking about—as well as the 1" soft-dome tweeter (Phase Technology invented the soft-dome tweeter), which sits in a raised island made of their proprietary Unicell acoustic treatment and molded in the shape of home plate. This Unicell stuff is a moderately squishy, rubbery material whose purpose is to control diffraction by absorbing sound waves that would be reflected off a hard baffle. This raised island snugs up against the grille, and Phase Technology recommends strongly that you listen with the grilles in place (which I did). This arrangement would seem to put the tweeter out in front of the woofer, a definite no-no with the time-alignment crowd; however, the tweeter is set back a bit, and because the radiating surface of the woofer is flat rather than conical, this tweeter-ahead-of-the-woofer difference isn't as great as it first seems.

But I haven't gotten to what's special about this tweeter yet. Now it shall be told.

It moves.

Yes, I know, all tweeters move; that's how they make sound. No, I mean you, the user, can move this one. You can tilt the little fella up to 30° in any direction, the idea being that you could put a pair up on top of your 6'-tall bookshelves, for example, and point the tweeters down toward your listening seat. Or, if you're one of those Metropolitan Home subscribers who's noticed that they never show loudspeakers in any of their photo layouts, and have been busy putting your speakers in far-off, hidden locations, then maybe this feature will help you get some better sound out of your truly demented setup. That's the tricky aspect to these tweeters. I'll tell you what I thought of it in the next section. Speaking of which...

I auditioned these guys using primarily the following eight recordings: "Mississippi Summer" from Freedom and Rain (LP, Cooking Vinyl Cook 031) by June Tabor and the Oyster Band; "Ballad of the Sun and the Moon" and "Try, Try, Try" from Alejandro Escovedo's Thirteen Years (Watermelon WMCD-1017); "Ever Since the World Ended," from Mose Allison's album of the same name (CD, Blue Note CDP 7 48015 2); Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata in g, Op.19 (CD, Bainbridge BCD6272) with cellist Stephen Kates; "Falling Elevators" from MC 900 Ft Jesus' Welcome to My Dream (CD, I.R.S. X21S-13114); "One for my Baby (And One More for the Road)" from Billie Holiday's Songs for Distingué Lovers (Classic/Verve LP MG VS-6021); and "Invitation to the Blues" from the Holly Cole Trio's Temptation (Metro Blue CD CDP 8 31653 2).

I don't have any strange placement problems in my listening room—I can place speakers in optimal positions, unfettered by decor constraints. Furthermore, I wasn't really crazy about trying to find crummy locations for these speakers; I just wanted to see what pointing their tweeters off in different directions would do. I did play with the moveable tweeters for a while: pointing the speakers straight ahead while toeing-in the tweeters; toeing-in the speakers while pointing the tweeters straight ahead; speakers straight ahead, tweeters to the outside; tweeters up, tweeters down, tweeters all around.

What did I think of all this? First off, it made me nervous. If you're a cautious wimp like me, there's nothing that'll give you a case of the icy sweats like poking your big fingers up against the side of a tweeter to move it. Your finger could slip and soften that soft dome before you could say "fourth-order crossover." Furthermore, it's hard to judge how far you've moved a given tweeter (in the rare event that you actually have a symmetrical setup—as I did—and you want to try to get them to match). But how did it affect the sound? HF response and imaging changed subtly with each new position, but never (to my way of thinking) for the better. Certainly, it leaves open the possibility for endless experimentation, but my time was limited, so I decided to do most of my listening to the PC80 II in the way I assume most audiophiles would: with the tweeter and the woofer pointing in the same direction. I gave 'em some moderate toe-in (I could see some of the inside side of each speaker), which gave the best combination of tonal balance and imaging.

The PC80 IIs did well with lateral placement within the soundstage, and with the precision of images. On "Ballad of the Sun and Moon," there are lots of tinkly percussive effects, each of which was firmly in its place like a star in the desert sky. However, that sky was kinda flat—I didn't seem to get much depth, with a notable and bizarre exception on the MC 900 Ft Jesus track. It opened with a sinewy synthesizer bass track (which had good power, but was imprecise pitch-wise), and then other instruments came in...or maybe I should say, out. Way out. Everything except that synth line hung on the sides, and I do mean the sides—as in outside the speaker positions, as if the band members were lining the walls of the listening room! Some were slightly behind the speaker position, and some a'fore. Snare to the left, rimshots on the right—even MC 900 Ft Jesus himself was off to the right. After a while, stuff started to migrate from the walls to the middle and across—all of which you could follow precisely.

I grabbed the CD jacket to see if there were any special-effects tricks, nothing shown. That MC-Nine-Oh-Oh is just one tricky MC! And the PC80 IIs were handy at conjuring up his tricks here at home, too.

Another special spatial moment was offered in the Billie Holiday cut. The way the trumpet sound dies away really did an outstanding job of telling me just where the walls were. The fade was smooth and continuous as it rolled around the room; I've heard similar effects seem to jump from one point to another with other speakers. Still, the room didn't seem quite as deep as it had in the past.

In "Invitation to the Blues" by the Holly Cole Trio (footnote 1), the opening acoustic bass line was —my jaw dropped. However, again, as with the bass synth opening for "Falling Elevators," it was like one big note—but what a note! As David Piltch moved down the finger board (and up the scale), the sound became less thickened and pitch differences became clear.

There seemed to be a little upper-mid emphasis with the PC80 IIs, such that voices like Mose Allison's, and the sax on Mose's cut, took on a bit of a "shouty," forward quality; a similar effect was heard on the Billie Holiday cut with her voice and the trumpet. Gotta keep this in perspective, however: this was a small emphasis; some would call it a forward presentation; and while it wasn't offensive, neither was it neutral. On the Rachmaninoff sonata, that upper-mid emphasis would just make itself felt as Kates worked his way up into the cello's middle range; also, it made the piano just a little clangy. But the wood-and-string sound of the cello, especially in its lower-mid registers, was heavenly!

Highs were clean and clear, without undue emphasis. Cymbals sounded like metal and not like electronic hash. The PC80 II sounded good at low and moderate volume levels, but as the volume got into the loud territory, it felt as if the tweeter kept playing louder, but the woofer wouldn't, which resulted in a somewhat hard, aggressive sound. Hey, it's a small box; it can only go so loud. Keep it in the safe listening range and it works well. (Your ears will last longer, too).

Lonnie wraps up
If speakers were wines, the Phase Technology PC80 II Compact Monitor would be a good midpriced Cabernet Sauvignon: smooth, with some subtle flaws but no fatal ones. The PC80 II is a refined, neutral speaker (except for its low- to midbass, which is surprisingly powerful but not as well defined). There is that slight emphasis in the upper mids, which may prove problematic with certain equipment combinations and rooms, but which may also mate well with other, less forward systems. Definitely worth a listen if a small monitor is in your future. And a magnetically shielded version is available for Home Theater fanatics.—Lonnie Brownell

Footnote 1: An album consisting entirely of Tom Waits songs, which is an idea that someone (other than Tom Waits, who does 'em all the time) should've had long ago.—Lonnie Brownell