Equipment Reviews No. 3    November 2002

PSB Alpha B Speakers and Subzeroi Subwoofer
SRP: $249 pr. & $299 each

PSB Speakers
633 Granite Court
Pickering, Ontario, Canada L1W 3K1
1 888 772 0000
http://www.psbspeakers.com/s/newAlphaSeries.html
http://www.psbspeakers.com/s/Subwoofers2.html

Basic Description

Alpha’s: 2-way monitor with 3 1/4” Aluminum Dome tweeter, 5 1/4 ” Polypropylene Cone midrange in bass reflex enclosure and video- shielded. Nominal impedance 6 ohms, recommended power 10-90 Watts, sensitivity 89 dB, available in black or light cherry finish. Speakers include 5-way gold-plated binding posts, steel grill, 6.5” W x 11.25” H x 9.25” D, 8.8 lbs each, 5 year warranty.

SubZeroi: 100 Watt 8” Polypropylene cone powered subwoofer incorporating bass reflex design and video shielded. Low pass crossover is adjustable from 50-150 Hz, front mounted volume and crossover adjust, hard power on/off on back, speaker level inputs and outputs on gold plated binding posts, 1 pair of line level inputs, 0/180 degree phase adjust, crossover bypass switch, 9 5/8” W x 13 ” H x 14 ” D, 23 lbs, 1 year warranty.


Equipment

NAD Silver series S500 CD player, S100 Preamplifier, S200 Power Amplifier, Paradigm Titan v.3 ($239 with shielding), NHT SB-1 ($299 pr.), and Definitive Technology ProSub 80 ($349 ea.) speakers for comparison with Audioquest cabling throughout.


Setup

PSB has made speakers for many years and the Alpha series is their most basic line, although the Bs are not their smallest model in that series. Like other Canadian manufacturers, PSB uses the acoustical facilities of the National Research Council in Ottawa to aid in engineering their speakers.

I took the PSB speakers out of their box and set them up for a break-in period that lasted about 2 weeks. The speakers appear to be very well put together and attractive. The satellite speakers I was sent had the wood grain finish that to my eyes looks nicer than the basic black (pictured). I turned up the subwoofer louder than I normally would during regular listening and adjusted the crossover up high so that it would get a workout with a range of material. During this period, I listened to a lot of movies, television, and music. I rarely turned off the system and let the speakers run through the night.

After the break-in period, I set them up on stands and did some comparison listening (see Equipment for products used for comparison).


Listening I – Alpha B versus Paradigm Titan

Physically the Titan speaker is a bit larger than the Alpha B, but when the speaker is purchased with the shielding option it is within the same price class. The speakers are ported in the back and I positioned them well away from both the side and back walls.

I began the listening with track 2, “Packing Blankets,” from the Eels CD Daisies of the Galaxy. The PSB speaker had a breathy quality, good space, a slightly emphasized midrange, and a good amount of bass considering its size. In comparison with the Titan, the voice was bigger and more present in the mix. The overall sense of the acoustic seemed smaller though, and the added midrange will detract from the performance for some people. The Titan presented a larger space and sounded a tad more open. Voice was placed farther back into the soundstage, but because it didn’t have the extra richness the PSB added, it tended to sound cleaner and more natural. The fact that the speaker is larger no doubt contributed to the extra amount of deep bass. This would be of more concern if the speaker system were used without a subwoofer.

A recording with mediocre fidelity that I really enjoy is track 7, “It’s Too Late,” from a two-disc Carole King set A Natural Woman. The Titan had good depth with an easy, effortless quality to the sound. There was a lot of bass—almost too much. This recording sounds a little congested and distorted at times, but with the PSB it sounded a little veiled too—as if a light blanket was thrown over the speakers. There was a tendency of the Alpha to add extra warmth and take away some of the very top end. The lack of openness gave the sound a lazy, lethargic feeling with not enough attack or swing (in comparison to the Titan).

The sound from the PSB’s with track 3, “Blue In Green,” from Miles Davis' Kind of Blue was quite good. Nothing sounded amiss, although a slight toned-down quality was present as in the previous listening. With the Titan, the horn was more alive and there was a greater sense of resolution and detail. I did my best to compensate for level differences and not switch directly back and forth between the two models. I didn’t use pink noise to compare the tonal differences between the speakers, but this recording has a lot of hiss and it was immediately apparent that there was more high frequency output from the Titan when compared to the PSB.


Listening II – Alpha B versus NHT SB-1

The next comparison was with the NHT SB-1 that has a completely different look (a gloss black finish) and is a tad smaller. These speakers are also $50 more per pair, so that should be kept in mind while reading the comments.

For a little classical I put on EMI 724356774926, Holst’s The Planets, Op. 32 Part I: Mars, the Bringer of War. The bowing of the string instruments sounded richer through the Alphas and brought out the sound of these instruments in the mix. The sound was big, boisterous, and enjoyable. It was only in direct comparison with the NHTs that there seemed to be a limitation in the sense of space. In the beginning of the track, the NHTs presented more depth and more space.

Track 2, “Everybody Plays The Fool,” from Aaron Neville’s Warm Your Heart sounded better than anything so far. On the NHT the sound was good but seemed to be lacking some low end. There was more reverb and echo. The voice is farther back in the mix and doesn’t sound as immediate. With the PSB, the bass was more present, deep, and powerful. The midrange richness was evident, although it didn’t detract much from the presentation.


Listening III – Subzeroi versus Def Tech ProSub 80

PSB sent the Subzeroi to make up a 3-piece system with the Alphas, so rather than work on a completely separate review of the subwoofer, I did a little direct comparison with a similar sized woofer and used the Alphas as the satellite speaker set. To eliminate any chance of the testing being unfair towards the other subwoofer, in addition to listening with the Alphas, I turned the satellites off and listened solely to the subwoofers going back and forth at least a few times—reviewing is hard work!

I used Stereophile’s Test CD #3, track 13 (bass decade) to aid in the initial setup of the subs. I placed both subwoofers in the corner and used the same subwoofer cable from the preamplifier to switch back and forth between the woofers. I adjusted level, crossover, etc. to get the best match between both subwoofers and the PSB Alphas. In the listening room, the response of the Alphas dropped off between the 80 and 63 Hz tones on the disc. There was a slight warbling sound at 50 Hz although it was only discernible with the satellites off and by standing fairly close to the subwoofer. There was a lot of clean output at 40 Hz that caused pictures on the wall to rattle. There was some output at 31.5 Hz, but not much. There was little to no output at 25 and 20 Hz. The Definitive Tech sub also produced no output at 25 or 20 Hz. It produced less output than the PSB at 31.5 Hz and did not put out near as much bass as the PSB at 40 Hz. At the higher frequencies there was plenty of output although the bass didn’t seem as even/flat across the usable range.

I listened to track 8, “Dance With The Angels,” from Lisa Loeb’s Firecracker CD. The PSB put out more bass than the ProSub 80 although the bass was a little loose sounding. The quality of the Def Tech was okay, but there was not as much output. I turned up the bass levels on both subs to get more level, as I felt the settings from earlier might be a little low for actual music content.

From a compilation CD I made I tried Mary Mary’s “Shackles.” Both subs blended fairly well with the Alphas although at times I felt like I could hear their location. The crossover setting was around 70-75 Hz. The Def Tech produced a punchy bass while the PSB provided a “thuddier” bass. It seems that these subs will appeal to different types of listeners. With movies, the PSB will probably be more impressive due to its larger output capabilities and slightly deeper bass.

I put on track 10, “Disco Scene,” by Mirwais from the Snatch soundtrack. This cut has a huge amount of recurrent, throbbing bass. There was a tradeoff in the sound of these subs in terms of tightness and deepness of the bass (as mentioned). With this cut it was clear that the PSB had more output and could energize the room more completely with the bass. At louder volumes it seemed less strained. The Def Tech could shake the pictures on the wall, but it didn’t sound as powerful. When I turned it up it just seemed to be too much. Having both the level and subwoofer control on the front of the PSB made adjusting the sub much easier.

With the last cut, track 4, “Along Came Betty,” from Art Blakey’s album Moanin’, I turned off the front speakers and just listened to both subs try to reproduce the sound of Jymie Merritt’s string bass. Both subs did a nice job of articulating the bass sound as the notes went up and down the scale—no one-note bass from either of these subs. Both subs passed this test fairly well.


Conclusion

In their literature PSB claims: “In real-world listening rooms, loudspeakers from PSB Speakers deliver more genuinely accurate sound from music and cinema recordings—at a rational cost—than those of any other maker. Period.” These are bold words that some customers may slough off to claims made by the marketing department. I took these statements seriously and put the speakers through their paces.

Speaker choice can be very personal and subjective. No speaker (especially in this price range) is going to be without compromises and faults. The look and size of a speaker may be just as important or more important than the sound. Those are the kinds of decisions that will have to be made by the purchaser.

The Subzeroi is a nice subwoofer for the money. First of all, it matched well with the PSB Alphas used in this review and I have no doubt it would work well with other satellite speakers as well. Although it utilized an 8” woofer, it put out more usable deep bass than I would expect from a speaker of this size. At times it would sound a little loose, but most often it impressed me with its sound quality.

Normally one wouldn’t mix a set of electronics costing $5000 with a speaker system costing $249. Perhaps the PSB Alpha B speaker has been designed with cheaper electronics in mind that tend to have an elevated, lower-quality presentation in the treble. In that case, the fact that the speaker rolls off some of the high frequencies may very well be a benefit. Hoever, the emphasis in the midrange is a coloration to my ears. When level is increased, it becomes more obvious. Some people may prefer this. As always, the truth is in the listening. Go listen for yourself.

- Brian Bloom              big_brian_b@hotmail.com

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