Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviewers' ChoicePSB Speakers is one of Canada’s most trusted makers of loudspeakers. Known for innovative designs refined at the world-renowned speaker-testing facility of Canada’s National Research Council, in Ottawa, PSB has pumped out award-winning speakers year after year. When I see the PSB logo, two things pop to mind, and the first is value -- many of their speakers have punched far above their price classes. The second thing is a person: legendary speaker designer Paul Barton, who oversees the design of all PSB speakers.

The Alpha models have been PSB’s least-expensive line for over 30 years, and now include five all-new designs: the T20 tower ($649/pair, all prices USD), the P3 ($219/pair) and P5 ($399/pair) minimonitors, and the C10 center ($349 each). There are also two new Alpha subwoofers: the S10 ($549) and S8 ($449). PSB sent me a 5.1-channel speaker system comprising T20 towers, a C10 center, P3 minimonitors as surrounds, and an S10 subwoofer. I was eager to hear if, at a total system price of $1766, this surround array of new Alpha models would live up to the high standard set by its forebears.

Description

The drivers used in the Alpha series are a brand-new, 0.75” aluminum-dome tweeter and woofers with cones of textured polypropylene. The ferrofluid-cooled tweeter has a neodymium magnet, and is recessed in a waveguide for controlled dispersion. The woofer cones feel like cloth, with a woven pattern similar to those of Kevlar woofers. According to Paul Barton, these cones are stiffer than previous versions of Alpha cones, with no increase in mass. Their rubber surrounds are more flexible than before, and this, along with their dual voice-coils and powerful magnets, make possible high output levels with low distortion.

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The Alpha T20 is a small, ported tower speaker 32.5”H x 6.75”W x 9.375”D and weighing 26 pounds. It shouldn’t be hard to find space for a pair of them in any room. The drivers are mounted on a baffle that covers the top half of the front panel, and protrudes from it by about an inch. The grille is attached to the baffle with very strong magnets. The tweeter is at the top, and below it are two 5.25” midrange-woofers, crossed over to the tweeter at 2500Hz. Near the bottom of the rear panel are two pairs of binding posts, for biwiring or biamping. Above these is a 2.25”-diameter port, to enhance the bass response. The T20’s rounded feet can be fitted with spikes, if your room is carpeted.

The Alpha T20’s specifications include on-axis frequency responses of 36Hz-21kHz, ±3dB, and 54Hz-20kHz, ±1.5dB; an in-room sensitivity of 90dB/W/m; and a nominal impedance of 8 ohms -- it should be a fairly easy load for an amplifier to drive. Through computer optimization, Barton was able to keep the T20’s efficiency high enough that it can be paired with a 15Wpc amplifier. I was able to drive it with a 30Wpc integrated amplifier to loud levels in my room. No decent audio/video receiver should have any problem driving this speaker to loud volume levels.

The Alpha C10 center-channel speaker is fairly compact at 17.75”W x 6.75”H x 9.375”D and 17 pounds. Its single 0.75” tweeter sits between two 5.25” midrange-woofers, handing off to them at 2500Hz. Around back is a single pair of binding posts, above them a 2.5”-diameter port. Specs include on-axis frequency responses of 55Hz-21kHz, ±3dB, and 65Hz-20kHz, ±1.5dB; and an in-room sensitivity of 90dB/W/m.

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The very small Alpha P3 -- a true minimonitor -- measures only 8.625”H x 5.175”W x 6.875”D and weighs just 4.9 pounds. Unlike the other Alpha models reviewed here, the P3’s 0.75” aluminum-dome tweeter is complemented by only a single 4” midrange-woofer, to which it hands off at 3000Hz -- and that mid-woof cone is above the tweeter, as in the Alpha P5 bookshelf speaker. Above the P3’s single pair of binding posts is a 1.375”-diameter port. Specs include on-axis frequency responses of 57Hz-21kHz, ±3dB, and 67Hz-20kHz, ±1.5dB; an in-room sensitivity of 87dB/W/m; and a nominal impedance of 8 ohms.

Maintaining this series’ theme of smallness, the Alpha S10 ported subwoofer is squat and compact, with dimensions of 14.125”H x 14”W x 17.5”D (the weight is unspecified). Its 10” long-throw driver with polypropylene cone is powered by a built-in amplifier that can produce 150W RMS. The slot port in the bottom of the rear panel runs almost the entire width of that panel. Near the top of the rear panel are the volume and crossover knobs, a phase switch, a low-level input, an Auto On/Standby switch, and a USB port for connecting PSB’s optional RT100 wireless transmitter. The Alpha S10’s specified frequency response is 28-150Hz, ±3dB, with the ability to output all the way down to 22Hz.

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These Alpha models have well-braced cabinets of MDF finished in a matte Black Ash Woodgrain vinyl; Dark Walnut Woodgrain vinyl is also available. I prefer high-gloss black, but given the Alphas’ low prices, matte-black vinyl is an understandable choice. According to Barton, the cabinets are now built to tighter tolerances than before, thanks to automated CNC machining. They look handsome and understated, with no gaps in the joins.

Setup

I set up the PSB Alpha surround-sound speaker array in the usual spots in my room: C10 directly in front of me, 9’ away; left and right T20s 11’ from my listening seat, about 4.5’ to either side of the C10; P3 surrounds about 5.5’ directly to left and right of my listening position; and the S10 subwoofer in the front right corner of the room, some 12’ from my listening seat.

Although my Anthem MRX 720 AVR includes very effective room-correction software, I didn’t use it for this review. I set the crossovers manually: 80Hz for the T20 main speakers and C10, 100Hz for the P3 surrounds. The S10 sub’s low-pass crossover was set to 120Hz.

Listening

One of my first impressions of the PSB Alpha surround array was its effortlessly wide dynamic range. In Chapter 7 of the BD edition of Gemini Man, Henry Brogan (Will Smith) is in a gunfight with a younger clone of himself. Throughout the firefight, composer Lorne Balfe scores steady drumbeats to build up tension. The drums pounded through all of the speakers with force, which created impact in my room. The sound pressurized my listening room and pinned me back in my seat as I anticipated what might happen next. But even with the volume at a high level, I heard no distortion. Although some of the credit for these dynamics should be attributed to the S10 sub, the great bass response of the T20 main speakers also contributed immensely. The explosion of a grenade in Chapter 11 startled me -- the sound emerged from quietness to suddenly fill my room. This Alpha system could turn on a dime.

A center-channel speaker’s output should seamlessly match in timbre those of the main left and right speakers, while reproducing voices clearly enough that the viewer can effortlessly follow the dialog. The Alpha C10 gets good marks for excelling at both. Through it I had no trouble understanding the actors in Gemini Man, from Smith’s deep voice to the higher one of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who plays Danny Zakarweski. In the fight scene in Chapter 12, the punches and kicks moved seamlessly throughout the entire soundfield thrown by the Alphas, demonstrating PSB’s great timbral matching of all four models.

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The Alphas’ imaging was also excellent. In Chapter 11, Brogan tosses a handgun to the right. The sound of the impact of the gun hitting the floor imaged well to the right of the front right speaker itself. When the fight in Chapter 12 continues underwater, the Alphas made it sound as if I were completely submerged. In Chapter 13, the sound of an approaching private jet originated in the surrounds, then seamlessly swooshed frontward.

At first, the Alphas’ ability to create a continuous, seamless soundscape was hindered by the excellent imaging of the rear P3 speakers. I watched the film Midway (2019) on BD; at the beginning is a character’s speech, complete with a crowd chanting in the left and right surrounds. This sound effect would have been better served by the greater dispersion of dipole or bipole surround speakers, which would not have restricted it to the positions of the surround speakers themselves. There are a few ways to expand the surround effect with front-firing speakers: place the left and right surrounds in the rear corners of the room (instead of to the side, as I did); place them to fire more toward the sidewalls, to greater disperse their output; or add a second pair of speakers to use as left and right rear surrounds, to close the gap between the speakers. Because I didn’t have a second pair of P3s to use as rear surrounds, I turned them to fire more toward the sidewalls. That helped create better surround envelopment.

Comparisons

During my evaluation of the PSB system I had in house a number of minimonitors of similar size and price to the Alpha P3, but no comparable tower models. As for the latter, the nearest of recent memory was the SVS Prime Tower ($999.98/pair), which has a 1” aluminum-dome tweeter, a 4.5” midrange, and two 6.5” woofers.

I heard some lower-midrange emphasis from the Prime Towers that I hadn’t heard from the Alpha T20s. Listening to “Roll Jordan Roll,” from Standing in the Safety Zone, by the a cappella gospel group The Fairfield Four (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Warner Bros.), I heard none of the tubbiness in the voice of bass Isaac Freeman that I had with the SVS Primes. Being a bigger tower with two bigger woofers, the Prime Tower could play deeper and louder in the bass, but I found the Alpha T20 no slouch in either aspect of bass reproduction -- the pair of them played plenty loud and deep in my room. Besides, a home-theater system is more likely to include a subwoofer, which can take better care of the deepest bass than can most tower speakers.

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Another interesting comparison was between the Alpha P3 and MartinLogan’s Motion 4i surround speaker ($499.98/pair). Although each model has just a single 4” woofer, the Motion 4i costs more than twice as much as the Alpha P3 due to its more sophisticated cabinet, which includes a folded chamber for increased bass response, rather than the Alpha P3’s conventional port tube. Also, the Motion 4i’s tweeter is a rectangular Folded Motion Transducer (FMT) rather than the P3’s conventional dome. The Motion 4i produced extended highs that shone on tracks such as “September in the Rain,” from Emergence, by the Roy Hargrove Big Band (16/44.1 FLAC, Emarcy), and particularly on the leader’s trumpet. Although the PSB couldn’t match the ML’s extended highs, its midrange blended better with the Alpha S10 subwoofer. This was evident with Casey Abrams’s double-bass playing throughout “The Girl from Ipanema,” from his Jazz (24/192 FLAC, Chesky). I was better able to track Abrams’s notes through the Alpha P3-S10 combo than with the Motion 4i and Alpha S10. Clearly, the Alpha minimonitor and sub were designed to work together -- they created a seamless sound, which is not always easy to achieve with sub-sat combinations.

I was impressed with the Alpha S10’s high output and bass response. Physics dictates that the Alpha S10 will come up short in a comparison with my much larger Paradigm Servo-15 V2 sub ($2500, discontinued), and there were no surprises there. I was surprised at how close the PSB sub came to the Paradigm, at a fraction of the price. With movies, the Alpha S10 rattled my walls. If you have a big room, perhaps you’d do better with a bigger sub or two S10s -- but a single Alpha S10 should satisfy most listener-viewers whose systems occupy a small or midsize space.

Conclusion

In this Alpha surround-sound array, PSB’s Paul Barton has once again produced a speaker system of extraordinary value that should make most entry-level buyers very satisfied. With this latest iteration of the Alphas he’s raised the line another notch in refinement, in both sound and build quality. The system’s dynamics and imaging were standouts, and it easily filled my midsize room with wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling sound.

However, if I were to buy this system, I’d augment it with additional pairs of Alpha P3s, to serve as rear surround and Dolby Atmos height speakers -- and the total price would still be only $2204. But with or without four more P3s, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more refined home-theater speaker system in this price range.

. . . Vince Hanada
vinceh@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • A/V receiver -- Anthem MRX 720
  • Amplifier -- Integra DTA-70.1
  • Speakers -- Definitive Technology: BP8060ST mains, CS8060HD center, ProMonitor 1000 surrounds. MartinLogan Motion 4i
  • Subwoofer -- Paradigm Servo-15 V2
  • Sources -- Oppo BDP-95 universal BD player
  • Speaker cables -- Analysis Plus Blue Oval
  • Interconnects -- Analysis Plus Super Sub
  • Projector -- Epson Home Cinema 3500

PSB Alpha T20 / C10 / P3 / S10 Home-Theater Speaker System
System Price: $1766 USD.
Warranty: Five years, speakers, subwoofer driver; one year, subwoofer amplifier.

PSB Speakers International
633 Granite Court
Pickering, Ontario L1W 3K1
Canada
Phone: (905) 831-6555
Fax: (905) 837-6357

Website: www.psbspeakers.com