Listening to Music on the Hi-Fi

Walking to the office on this sloppy Monday morning, through April's cold rain, with a mind full of dreams and promises of warmer, brighter things, I got the feeling that it might as well be last Friday all over again. What the hell?

Listening to music on the hi-fi is what it is. Listening to music on the hi-fi is two treats in one. Listening to music on the hi-fi is:

1. Listening to music
2. On the hi-fi

And how great is that? Really. What else can we want from this life? Sure, a house in California, NJ, with windows that open out into a great, big, Peruvian backyard with pools of green jade and mountains covered in red lichen and your own personal PATH station with a three-minute commute right to your own comfy, perfectly-ergonomic office chair might be nice, too. But still. How much more can we really ask for?

I'm listening to the cheap-ass PSB Alpha B1 loudspeakers. I mean, I'm listening to 2005's self-titled album by Broken Social Scene through the cheap-ass PSB Alpha B1 loudspeakers. "Cheap-ass," in this case, equals $279/pair. In the couple of weeks that I've had them in the almighty system, I haven't taken the time to make any direct comparisons between the PSBs and their Canadian cousins, the delightful Totem Arros. However, I can easily say that some differences made themselves immediately apparent, right from the giggity get-go. And I would hope so, being that the PSBs cost about a grand less than the Totems. If they sounded the same, I'd write a letter to the editor, cancel my subscription, turn in my audiophile badge, ban myself from the forum, I don't know all what else. It's a damn good thing, then, that the Alpha B1s couldn't quite capture the straining urgency, with the same sort of flesh-and-blood warmth, in Nick Cave's voice when he sang:

Through the windswept coastal trees
Where the dead come rising from the sea
With a teddy-bear clamped between her knees
She says, where can my loverman be?

I say "it's a damn good thing," but you know I'm lying. In fact, it's kind of a crying shame. It's almost as though Nick Cave's got some other stuff on his mind. His woman needs him, and he knows she needs him, but, on this particular day, through these particular $279 speakers, Nick Cave just isn't really in the mood. His voice is a bit distant, gray-blue rather than red-orange. He can do better. I've heard him do better. For a thousand dollars more, Nick Cave is turning mirrors into walls and emptying out the peopled halls, he's nailing shut the windows and locking the doors, he's running his fingers through your red hair. It's wild and even a little bit naughty.

Getting back to Broken Social Scene, something else became clear to me as I tried to make sense of all the strings and samples and hollers and horns: Play these speakers loud, and they will distort. Which isn't a very big deal when you live in a 350-square foot apartment. Actually, your neighbors will probably appreciate the fact that you've decided to turn the volume down. Doing so, by the way, will draw your attention to how well these cheap-ass speakers can float an image. Despite the speakers' small size, and, even in my small room, instruments are convincingly drawn about a fairly wide, deep soundstage. The PSBs may not have the grip on my room that the $2000 DeVores had, but still, I'm able to enjoy the music and the magic.

Broken Social Scene, by the way, are chugging along, doing their thing. My season in audiophile hell has led me here, another album of early blog days. I'm tempted to call it a rock album. But it's as much hip-hop as it is rock, as much disco as it is hip-hop, as much jazz as it is disco, as much soul as it is jazz. No matter how you look at it, it's most certainly the devil's music. What's worse is that, listening to it, I get the sense that the engineers broke every purist rule in the book. It doesn't much sound like music at all. And, for that matter, it doesn't much music like sound.

But I'm loving it. It's a hell of a lot of fun to listen to on the hi-fi.

Monty's picture

Speakers always seem to have a sweet spot where loudness is concerned. The laid-back nature of the Arros seemed to like more current to make up for their lack of visceral impact. However, they won't let you go too far before that little driver bottoms out on its stop with a thud and a pop. The PSB just start losing composure. Images start blurring and the soundstage begins to fall into itself. I think it's a nice comparison of perspectives. PSB, with their somewhat warmish balance and Totem with their somewhat coolish balance. Chocolate vs Vanilla. Presence vs Distance. Where you might find the budget speakers outshining the Arros is in female vocal reproduction and harmonic fullness with the piano. As good as the Arros are, they are a bit too fleet of foot to get the inner structure of piano notes right and can be a bit too wispy with female vocals. PSB, on the other hand, can put vocalists front and center with loads of presence and come real close to nailing the ivory keys.

Christian's picture

Great post. I love the remark, "...just isn't in the mood" and "He can do better." Passing his energy and "life" through your speakers. I think it says alot about the way you use and listen to music. I think it conveys a real passion for what you listen to, not neccessarily how you listen to it. I am getting the sense however, that these two sides are converging and that there is a bit of conflict there. My other comment is that you are one of the great purveyors of Canadian music. I was going to say something a few days ago with the Fiest post, but I held on to it. I could no longer hold back when you brought up Broken Social Scene in this one. If you are looking for other Canadian acts there are some interesting tracks on the Besnard Lakes album. You should try to get up for NXNE, or Canadian Music Week one year.

Jim Tavegia's picture

Stephen,It is time to try and get your hands and ears on a pair of B&W 303's and get your impressions compared to your recent fare. It has been a while since I've seen a review of these $300/pair beauties. I would be interested in your thoughts.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Monty: Man, you were so right about the PSBs' way with the ivory keys. With the PSBs, there seemed to be more space between the notes, everything seemed a touch cleaner and clearer, which, I think, resulted in greater emotional impact. Really special stuff.Christian: Yes, it is true, I can't help but love everything I hear out of Canada. What's up with that? It's not even like I'm going out searching for Canadian bands. I just hear something I like, and later find out it's Canadian. And thanks so much for the Besnard Lakes recommendation. I spent all of yesterday listening to them. They remind me of the Beach Boys and My Morning Jacket at the same time, which I didn't know could be possible.Jim: B&Ws, huh? I think you're right. It would be nice to get my hands on a pair...

Christian's picture

Glad you like it. It is an interesting album, I started with just a couple of tracks, "Devastation" and "On Bedford and Grand". Last night I pulled down the rest of the album...there should be some good weekend listening.

Ward's picture

The Canadians are on fire these days, and trying to spread it to the rest of the world (witness Stars' order to "set yourself on fire"). Don't be too surprised that the PSBs image so well. Minimonitors do that, in my experience. Less surface area for the sound to bounce off of, I think (but I wouldn't swear by it). I've been consistently impressed by that aspect of my NHT SuperZeroes. Have you tried anything with a sub yet? I'd be interested to hear how taking some pressure off your speakers and filling in the bottom end affects your opinion of the PSBs.

Stephen Mejias's picture

>The Canadians are on fire these days, and trying to spread it to the rest of the world (witness Stars' order to "set yourself on fire"). I love that Stars album! I recently listened to it again for the first time in months, and I loved it just as much as I did when it was released. My review of the album appeared in our October 2005 issue. >Have you tried anything with a sub yet?No, I haven't. But it's very interesting that you ask because I've just been offered the matching sub to go along with the PSBs! I wasn't sure whether I'd want to add the sub, but the fact that you've asked is leading me towards accepting...