PBN Montana SP loudspeaker

Astute readers will note that although my name appears under the "hardware" heading of Stereophile's masthead, I have rarely written about specific products, and, apart from secondary comments or Follow-Ups, have never written a formal equipment report. For years I resisted reviewing because I was usually connected in some way to audio manufacturers and/or retailers, and felt very uncomfortable with the conflict of interest. The other reason I was disinclined to review is that the critical listening required of reviewers is work, and after a long day or week of working on, or with, audio equipment, the only thing I wanted to do when I came home was relax. But since I have hung up my soldering iron and oscilloscope probe for what I hope is the last time, and am cleaving instead to my word processor (or, as playwright David Ives dubbed it, my "verboblender"), you may see more of this—WP, JA, and God willing.

Systems, systems, systems
Inseparable from my personal soap opera, my little audio odyssey has taken some interesting and unexpected turns in the past two dozen months. I've gone from living with a pair of Legacy Ones powered by a PS Audio 200CX (can you spell deep, smooth, powerful bass?) in a big rambling house in an old patrician neighborhood in Atlanta, to a couple of months with Meridian's full-throttle surround system in a ramshackle A-frame moored in the chilly muck of the San Francisco Bay, to a RadioShack 3400/HeadRoom Supreme/JVC headset on my desk in a temporary rented room, to a pair of KEF 104s driven by Japanese mid-fi in a small apartment, to my present "summer house" in a small town a few miles north of San Francisco, with a music system consisting of a Randy Tomlinson-modified JVC XLZ-1010TN CD player, a Sony TA-E77ESD preamp, a George Kaye-modified Hafler XL280, and a pair of well-used but near-mint Dahlquist DQ-10s. (You read that right: playback is CD-only. I've abandoned the faith: dumped the LPs, the turntable, the cleaners, the brushes, unguents, roll-ons, cremes, powders, and refillable spray bottles of Hi-Fi Holy Water.)

Augmentation is minimal: a pair of Acoustic Solutions (footnote 1) bass traps, and a neatly rolled-up futon in the corner behind my equipment rack, help tame my room's wild'n'woolly bottom end. A pair of Shakti Stones lie atop the CD player, which sports an XLO power cord. All the electronics are plugged into a heavy-duty outlet strip whose cord is looped around a ferrite toroid for surge protection and noise suppression. Some RadioShack ferrite RF suppressors are snapped on various power cords and interconnects, which are usually a combination of XLO Type 1.1 and Nordost Flatline; speaker cable is a 10' pair of Kimber 8TC. (Of all the speaker cables that have come and gone in my system—and there have been many—the 8TC is one I always return to for its reliable neutrality.)

The Dahlquists serve well for both background and foreground music as long, as I'm not too particular about trying to extract a fifth-row-center listening perspective from them. In the mid-'70s, their imitation-Quad styling was as chic as bell-bottoms, wide lapels, and muttonchop sideburns, and though they're still enjoyable in terms of overall musicality, at best the DQ-10s cast a shallow, amorphous soundstage: "palpable presence" is not a descriptive phrase anyone would apply to an old pair of Dahlquists.

Image is everything
The real deal with modern hi-fi is imaging, a concept that was a wee bambino two decades ago, when the DQ-10s were first introduced. I got a rave report from a trusted, golden-eared friend and recent purchaser of a pair of PBN speakers that they were well worth hearing, so it was with enthusiastic curiosity that I responded to Peter Noerbaek's offer to try his Montana SP, the lowest-priced loudspeaker in his three-tiered product line. He had suggested that I audition a pair of XPs, the SP's 255-lb, $15,000 big brother, but I told him they'd have to wait for a bigger house with a bigger listening room and a ground-floor entrance. (Noerbaek, by the way, is a lifelong audiophile and a university-trained electronics engineer. The former national sales manager for Cary Audio built his first pair of loudspeakers when he was six years old.)

The Montanas arrived air-freight in rugged wooden crates ("Too much risk of damage with cardboard boxes," says Noerbaek), so factory-fresh the smell of lacquer knocked me back when I popped the lids. The cabinets are solidly constructed of dense Medite 80, internally braced by several crossmembers, and exhibited absolutely no "conga-drum effect" when rapped with the knuckles. They are rounded on all corners, including the 2" by 3" port, and are beautifully finished in a rock-hard, scratch-resistant piano-black lacquer. A small polished-brass nameplate adorns the front of each speaker. Two slim black fabric grilles cover the drivers; all my listening was done with them removed.

Occupying just under one square foot of floor space each, the loudspeakers rest on integral pedestals in a semi-gloss black hammered finish, fitted with threaded receptacles for the supplied spike feet. Four heavy-duty gold-plated binding posts with knurled knobs are recessed into the cabinet's upper rear. The posts are spaced 2" apart, obviating the use of double-banana plugs, but making easy the insertion of bare wires, spade lugs, single bananas, or pins.

Twin 6½" VIFA midrange/woofers are mounted above and below the ScanSpeak fabric-dome tweeter in a D'Appolito configuration, a design shared by all the products in the PBN line, and one which seems to be gaining popularity among high-end loudspeaker designers. (Peter Noerbaek says this configuration offers a smoother frequency response over a wider listening area than other designs, and after three months of listening to the SPs I agree: the "sweet spot" was more a wide zone. The audiophile's head-in-a-vise syndrome is largely eliminated with this design.) Two 6½" drivers have about one-third more radiating area than a single 8" driver, and allow for a sleeker, less visually imposing cabinet whose narrow front baffle aids its imaging ability. The tweeter's center is 35" above the floor, and can be varied within about an inch by adjusting the feet.

Footnote 1: Acoustic Solutions can be reached at (213) 665-6275.—Barry Willis
1015 La Mesa Avenue
Spring Valley, CA 91977
(619) 465-6450