PSB Stratus Gold loudspeaker John Atkinson 1997 part 2

Annie Lennox's 1995 Medusa CD (Arista 25717-2), for example, features some superb arrangements, but the engineer and producer definitely had too heavy a hand with the treble seasoning. While it was possible to get off on this album at moderate playback levels—the PSB's neutral midrange helping to bring out Lennox's winsome way with words—the slightly cold treble was not sympathetic to the recorded balance at high spls. Note that this high-frequency "coldness" was not a serious flaw, only that it was noticeable in the context of the superbly clean midrange. Tom Norton discovered a similar character in the original Gold, where he wrote about the low treble being somewhat forward, in contrast to the midrange, which he described as having "genuinely appealing palpability and warmth." He did say, though, that "it was just enough to contribute to the loudspeaker's sense of presence and immediacy without calling undue attention to itself." When a vocal recording was itself neutral, as with the Chesky cut featuring Sara K. on Stereophile's Test CD 3, the Gold i suitably served the music.

The Stratus Gold i also scored bigtime in the low frequencies. Where a recording had true bass information, the speaker reproduced it in full measure. The 1/3-octave bands on Test CD 3 sang out at full level down to 32Hz, with the 20Hz band still audible. Well-recorded classical orchestral music had an appealing richness, but without the characters of the bass instruments being smeared by boom. In fact, while low-frequency instruments had excellent weight, they also had a superb sense of pace. My traditional test for this aspect of a speaker's performance is Pat Metheny's "Last Train Home," from Still Life (Talking) (Geffen GEFD 24145-2). Metheny's electric sitar is underpinned by a repeated-eighth-note line on the bass. With many speakers, these repeated notes tend to run into one another, blurring the track's sense of urgency. With the PSBs, you could almost hear the starts and stops of each bass note. Despite its size and its genuine bass extension, this is not a slow-sounding speaker. Rather, it is fleet of foot and light in touch, as you might expect a minimonitor to be if its response could be extended down to the low-bass region.

Since the advent of CD, I believe, speaker designers have generally gone for less-well-damped woofer alignments. While the digital medium's generally tighter low frequencies has allowed them to get away with this, with a typical LP player this can lead to a soggy boom instead of the well-defined lows that can be produced from vinyl. This is particularly true of reflex-designs, where the fact that the woofer is effectively unloaded below resonance can result in alarming excursions on record warps.

This was most definitely not the case with the Stratus Gold i. Its combination of bass weight and definition worked well with LPs. Digging out my original LP copy of Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, I put on "Gypsy Eyes," which starts with a high-level four-in-the-bar kickdrum, flanged in stereo. (Switch to mono and you hear deep comb filtering; in stereo, while you can still hear slight combing, the main effect is for the drum to wander across and outside the soundstage.) The power of the drum came through in spades, and again the music was reproduced with an excellent sense of pace.

I also could play this Hendrix cut at high levels without the sound becoming grainy or breaking up. Dynamics are another strong suit in the Stratus Gold's hand. However, it did play rather quietly compared with my usual B&W Silver Signature, implying that a goodly powerful amplifier would be best suited to driving the speaker.

Listening to dual-mono recordings revealed the Golds to have well-defined stereo imaging. The central image hanging between the speaker positions was very narrow, stable with frequency, and didn't "splash" to the sides. Despite the excellent lateral imaging, the Gold is threw a somewhat restricted image depth compared with the best spacemeisters, like the tiny JMlab Micron Carat I reviewed a year or so back. (Vol.20 No.6, June '96).

At the end of the review period, I started listening to the recordings I had made of Santa Fe's 1997 Chamber Music Festival. As usual, I had used two pairs of microphones: a near-coincident ORTF pair of B&K cardioids and two quite widely spaced B&K omnis. Before I start editing, I align the two mike pairs in time on my hard-disk editing system and experiment with different mixes to try to preserve the precision of the ORTF pair's soundstage while adding the low-frequency bloom that the omnis confer. Every time I made a change in the mix, it was easily audible through the Gold is. Their excellent imaging made slight differences in the recorded soundstage very noticeable.

Finally, I took the 1997 Festival tapes over to Wes Phillips' room, to audition them on the EgglestonWorks Andras. I have to admit that, as good as I feel the Stratus Gold is to be, I did prefer the sheer ease to the sound of the $14,000/pair Egglestons, and their huge dynamic range. As WP found, the Andra is one of the most musically involving loudspeakers around. But the Law of Diminishing Returns is working with a vengeance! And the expensive speakers were more colored than the $2400/pair PSBs.

Summing up
You don't have to be an extraordinarily skilled engineer to design a halfway-decent pair of loudspeakers intended to sell for $10,000/pair or more. But the real test of a designer's talent is to produce a musically satisfying, neutrally balanced pair of speakers to sell at a price more in line with what regular-Joe and -Josephine audiophiles can afford. With his Stratus Gold i, PSB's Paul Barton has risen magnificently to that challenge. At a whisker under $2400/pair, the Gold i is going to put a serious crimp in the sales of its more expensive competitors. Enthusiastically recommended.—John Atkinson