Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Some rooms in my house are best suited to speakers that don’t take up much floor space—e.g., in-wall or on-wall speakers. But in-wall speakers require cutting holes in drywall and running cables through walls from amplifier to speakers. Unless you’re handy with home repair, this is tough to do. It’s why I’m a big fan of on-wall speakers, which are easily installed and removed, without requiring in-wall wiring. The problem with many on-wall speakers is that they’re afterthoughts—a way of filling out a manufacturer’s speaker line.

PSB

PSB Speakers’ new line of Performance Wall Mount (PWM) speakers is no afterthought—they’re new designs, designed from scratch as on-wall speakers. The PWM line comprises three models (all prices USD, each): the PWM1 ($799), PWM2 ($1499), and PWM3 ($2499), respectively sized to match the height of a 55″, 70″, or 85″ flatscreen TV. PSB sent me a 5.1-channel surround array that included all three: a pair of PWM2s for the front left and right channels, a PWM3 for the center channel, a pair of PWM1s for the rear surround channels, and a CustomSound CSIR subwoofer ($1099) with CS 500W subwoofer amplifier ($1099). At a total price of $9293, this system is not inexpensive; I wondered if its sound would excel for both music and films.

Descriptions

Each PWM model has a slim profile just 6.5ʺW x 3.38″D. The cabinets are made of solid-feeling MDF painted Satin Black or Satin White—understated finishes with a classy, elegant look. At each end of the cabinet is a thin slot that acts as a port, to extend the bass response (the PWM1 has just one slot). The removable grille is fastened with magnets, and each speaker has a pair of high-quality binding posts. Included is a plate and hardware for mounting the speaker on a wall.

PSB

The PWM1 is 28″H and weighs 14 pounds. Its 1ʺ titanium-dome tweeter is ferrofluid-cooled and has a neodymium magnet, the latter two features to enable it to handle lots of power. The tweeter sits in a concave waveguide, and above and below it are two 4″ woofers with carbon-fiber cones and rubber surrounds. These woofers have four-layer voice-coils and powerful magnets, also for high power handling. The PWM1’s specified frequency response is 70Hz–23kHz, ±3dB, with a -10dB low-frequency cutoff at 50Hz. Its in-room sensitivity of 87dB indicates that a low-power receiver may not give you the loudness you’d want for watching movies. While I didn’t find the PWM system difficult to drive with my Anthem MRX 720 A/V receiver, I did have to set the Anthem’s volume control a bit higher than I had with the Theory Audio Design Sys5.2.2.8515 5.2.2-channel system ($12,300) I reviewed in February.

The PWM2 is 36″H and weighs 20 pounds. It has two 3″ carbon-fiber midrange drivers directly above and below the 1″ titanium-dome tweeter, and above and below those are two 4″ carbon-fiber woofers. The specified frequency response is the same as the PWM1’s—70Hz–23kHz, ±3dB—but with a -10dB LF cutoff of 40Hz and an in-room sensitivity of 89dB.

PSB

The PWM3 is 48″H and weighs 26.5 pounds. Its driver complement is the same as the PWM2’s, but with the addition of a second pair of 4″ carbon-fiber woofers, for a total of seven drivers. The PWM3’s frequency response is 60Hz–35kHz, ±3dB, with a -10dB LF cutoff of 35Hz and an in-room sensitivity of 90dB. These numbers are typical of a small tower speaker, but remarkable for an on-wall speaker.

PSB

The CustomSound CSIR is a low-profile, ultra-thin, acoustic-suspension subwoofer measuring 15.75″H by 15.75″W by only 4.75″D and weighing 24.8 pounds. It can be laid flat under a chair or couch, or mounted on the wall with the included bracket. I stood it upright on its included base (which adds 1.25ʺ of height), against a wall. The low-profile cabinet has a flat-looking 10″ woofer cone, made from a sandwich of glass fiber and polymethacrylimide (PMI) foam, with a double rubber surround.

Unlike with most subwoofers, the CSIR’s electronics are housed in a separate component, the CS 500W class-D subwoofer amplifier. The CS 500W measures 16.9″W x 1.75″H x 8.1″D and weighs 8.5 pounds, and it’s fairly powerful, specified to output 500W into 4 ohms. The CS 500W can power up to two subwoofers, and its RCA output jacks can be used to daisy-chain additional CS 500W amps to run as many subs as you like. There’s a front-panel LCD display, and a knob for adjusting the usual subwoofer controls: phase (0-315°), crossover frequency, volume level, and power on/off configuration. Regarding that last item, the CS 500W has 12V triggers in and out, so that it can be turned on automatically with your processor; it will also turn itself on when it receives a line-level signal. There’s a subwoofer profile setting that matches the amp to the passive subwoofer used (in this case the CSIR). There are also built-in Night, Music, and Movie equalization modes that boost the bass at different frequencies.

PSB

Setup

Setting up the PWM system was straightforward. For the main left and right channels, I placed the two PWM2s tight against the front wall to either side of my 92″ screen and about 12ʹ from my listening seat, atop the wooden stands PSB had sent along to save me from having to drill any holes in the wall. The single PWM3, used for the center channel, was 11ʹ from my seat, sitting on a low shelf below the screen. The PWM1s ended up directly to my left and right, each about 5ʹ from my seat. The smallness of the CSIR sub invited experimentation—I tried it next to the couch, under the coffee table, and against the front wall. I got the best sound with the CSIR near the room’s front right corner, standing upright against the sidewall, about 11ʹ from my listening seat.

I at first used the Anthem Room Correction (ARC) software built into my Anthem MRX 720 AVR to equalize the frequencies below 500Hz, to optimize the blend of outputs of sub and speakers. However, I found that the PWM system then sounded restrained, even though ARC had massaged the speakers’ outputs only below 500Hz. To my ears, ARC seemed to detract from the high performance the PWM system was capable of, so I left it off for the rest of my listening.

Listening to movies

Listening to film soundtracks through the PWM system, my biggest impression was of the seamlessness of the surround soundscape—all five speakers seemed to work as one. With the 4K BD edition of Bohemian Rhapsody, the PSB system transported me to the scene of Queen’s famous Live Aid concert. The sound of the band is in the front three channels only, but the audience noise gets the full surround treatment—so seamless was the sound through the PWMs that I felt I was in that huge crowd at Wembley Stadium. Lead singer Freddie Mercury’s voice was particularly well reproduced through the PWM3 center-channel, and Brian May’s electric guitar sounded warm through the PWM2 mains, without the harshness I sometimes hear from this instrument through other speakers.

PSB

Though the smallest speaker, the PWM1, lacks the midrange drivers of the PWM2 and PWM3, the two PWM1s serving as surround speakers tonally blended very well with those front-channel speakers. For example, in chapter 23 of the BD of Star Wars—Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) startles Rey (Daisy Ridley) by projecting his voice behind her. Even without rear-channel speakers, Ren’s voice was reproduced directly behind me. His voice then shifted to the center channel with no change in timbre—a noteworthy feat from an array of speakers of different driver complements. In fact, the PWM3 performed great with the dialog throughout The Rise of Skywalker, from Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) to Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher)—it was all easy to understand. One problem that sometimes happens with center-channel speakers, especially those with midrange-tweeter-midrange arrays, is off-axis lobing, in which the midrange driver interferes with the tweeter output: the highs sound duller than when you’re sitting directly in front of the center speaker. PSB spent a lot of time minimizing this problem, and it showed—when I sat more toward the sides of my room, the timbres of voices didn’t change at all.

The PWMs could play loud without strain—I heard no compression, distortion, or noises from them. If you tend to play your movies at Dolby Reference Level (I don’t), or have a large room, for best sound quality you’ll want an amp capable of high current. But with PSB’s CustomSound CSIR subwoofer, there was no such concern—I was surprised by how loud it could play, and it startled me during the opening “eye” scene from the BD of Blade Runner 2049. The crescendo of music hits its climax as Officer K awakes, and at that moment my walls shook—and I was even more impressed when I reminded myself that the CSIR’s cabinet is only 4.75″D. I could see its 10ʺ driver pumping in and out, but never heard it bottom out.

PSB

Listening to music

As great as the PWM system sounded with film soundtracks, it also excelled with music. I popped in the BD of Where the Light Is: John Mayer Live in Los Angeles, and toggled between the Dolby TrueHD 5.1-channel and LPCM 2.0-channel soundtracks. Mayer’s acoustic guitar in “Free Fallin’” sounded warm and luscious in the surround track, but when I switched to 2.0, I had to check that the center-channel was indeed off—Mayer’s voice still sounded as if it was coming from precisely between the front left and right speakers. This showed me how outstanding the PWM2s’ imaging was. Nor did the timbre of his voice change, from surround to stereo and back to surround. The only difference I heard was that the crowd noise enveloped me when I listened to the Dolby surround soundtrack, and it didn’t with the two-channel track. I also noticed how detailed David LaBruyere’s bass guitar sounded in “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room.” I could track each note he played through the CSIR subwoofer.

My performance bar for listening to two-channel recordings of music through on-wall speakers is how close they sound to a pair of reference-quality bookshelf speakers. Most on-wall speakers lack bass, but not the PWM2s—they sounded as good as most high-performing bookshelf models. They easily immersed me in the music all on their own, their sound not lacking in any way. One of my favorite tracks for evaluating dynamics is “Code Cool,” from Patricia Barber’s Smash (24-bit/192kHz FLAC, Premonition/Blue Note/HDtracks). Midway, when the music suddenly goes from quiet to loud, the PWM2s admirably handled the shift, and Barber’s voice formed a solid image between the two speakers. The PWM2s’ sound leaned slightly to the warm side of neutral, in keeping with other PSB speakers I’ve heard.

PSB

The PWM2s also imaged very well. With “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” from Casey Abrams’s EP Uncovered (24/192 AIFF, Chesky), I could hear his voice at the center of the soundstage, with Mark Whitfield’s guitar in the far-left speaker and Jimmy Greene’s saxophone at far right and Abrams’s bass just right of center. The PWM2s produced a seamless front soundstage that stretched between the speakers’ outer side panels and filled all the space between.

But as good as the PWM2s were on their own, for the best reproduction of electronica or other bass-heavy music you’ll want to include the CSIR sub, and turn your 2.0-channel listening to 2.1. With “Within,” from Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (24/88.2 FLAC, Columbia/Qobuz), the CSIR splendidly filled in deep-bass notes. Although it didn’t go as deep or play as loud—or take up nearly as much floor space—as my Paradigm Servo-15 V2 sub ($2500, discontinued), the CSIR did justice to this track’s ample bass. Although multiple subs would be preferable for a home-theater application, a single CSIR should be enough for anyone who listens mostly to two-channel recordings.

PSB

I also compared the PWM1s and PWM2s used as stereo pairs. As described above, the PWM1 lacks the PWM2’s dedicated midrange drivers. The two models were tonally nearly identical. The PWM1s didn’t go as deep in the bass—with them, I’d definitely want a subwoofer, but I think I’d be happy 90% of the time with the PWM2s and no sub. But John Mayer’s voice in “Free Fallin’” had more presence and richness through the PWM2s. This could be somewhat alleviated with the PWM1s by setting the crossover to the subwoofer higher—I found that a setting of 100Hz restored some of the midrange smoothness that characterized the PWM2’s sound.

The final test was to listen for any differences between the PWM2 and PWM3. Since I had only a single PWM3, I tested the two models in mono by placing a PWM2 and a PWM3 next to each other along the center of my front wall, each set upright on one of PSB’s wooden stands. I cued up the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (DVD-A, Capitol 77937-9), which includes a 24/96 version of Brian Wilson’s original mono mix. I turned the balance all the way left, then right. The two models sounded identical, except for slightly more bass from the PWM3—no surprise, as it has two pairs of 4ʺ woofers to the PWM2’s single pair. The difference was easily audible with “I Know There’s an Answer,” which includes deeper bass than on most of the rest of this album.

Comparisons

Also in-house were Theory Audio Design’s sb25 on-wall speakers ($850 each), part of the Theory Sys5.2.2.8515 system I reviewed last February. The sb25 is powered by the separate ALC-1809 amplifier-controller ($3500), which is designed to run surround-sound arrays of up to 5.2.2 channels—definite overkill for a 2.0-channel system. However, the sb25s need the ALC-1809 to work properly, so I used the PC software to set up a 2.0 system and uploaded it to the ALC-1809. I used the Anthem AVR’s Zone 2 output to the ALC-1809, which permitted quick A/B comparisons of the sb25s and PWM1s.

I’d thought these two speakers would make a good match—but the Theory sb25 output more bass. Indeed, the PSB PWM1 fell short of the Theory sb25 in bass output and midrange presence.

PSB

This comparison made a lot more sense when I replaced the PWM1s with the PWM2s. At first I had trouble distinguishing the PWM2s from the Theory sb25s—both put out top-notch bass for on-wall speakers—but over time, differences became clearer. I found the PWM2s slightly laid-back tonally in comparison to the sb25s. This was evident with “The Seductress,” from Wynton Marsalis’s Standard Time Volume 3: The Resolution of Romance (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia). Through the PWM2s, Marsalis’s trumpet lacked the bite I heard with the sb25s. However, in “A Sleepin’ Bee,” Ellis Marsalis’s piano sounded richer and fuller-bodied with the PWM2s.

Choosing between these speakers would come down to your room, associated electronics, and preference. The PWM2 was more forgiving of lively rooms and less-sophisticated electronics, which can sometimes sound harsh—the Theory sb25 would emphasize those characteristics. But if you like to play your music loud, the sb25’s much higher sensitivity (94dB/W/m) means it will play louder than the PWM2 for the same amplifier power. Comparing the two speakers based on their sensitivity alone is, admittedly, not a fair comparison—the Theory sb25 I reviewed was accompanied by the ALC-1809, which drives each speaker of a stereo pair with 300W, as compared to the Anthem’s 140W. With the sb25s and PWM2s in similar positions—against the front wall on stands—and driven by the Anthem AVR without the ALC-1809, the PSBs required a slightly higher volume setting for the same sound output.

Conclusion

My long audition of the Performance Wall Mount surround-sound speaker system proved to me that PSB spent much time and effort in considering real-world concerns in its design. The PWMs have an elegantly understated look and take up no floor space—an ideal system for a downtown condo. But their exceptional sound quality should also please the audiophile in the family. For so unobtrusive a speaker system, the PWM array exhibited almost no sonic compromises in comparison with conventional box speakers, and should be equally at home in rooms dedicated to music listening. PSB’s PWM system offers a high-end listening experience in a package that should blend in beautifully with any contemporary décor.

. . . Vince Hanada
vinceh@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • A/V receiver: Anthem MRX 720
  • Amplifiers: Integra DTA-70.1, NuPrime IDA-16
  • Speakers: Definitive Technology: BP8060ST mains, CS8060HD center, ProMonitor 1000 side surrounds and heights, Mythos Gem rear surrounds. Angstrom Ambienti in-ceiling height speakers. Theory Audio Design sb25.
  • Subwoofer: Paradigm Servo-15 V2
  • Sources: Oppo BDP-95 universal BD player, Sony UBP-X800M2 4K BD player
  • Cables: Analysis Plus Super Sub interconnects and Blue Oval speaker cables
  • Projector: Epson Home Cinema 3500
  • TV: TCL 65S533CA 4K TV

PSB Performance Wall Mount Home-Theater Speaker System
System Price: $9293 USD.
Warranty: Five years, speakers and subwoofer; three years, subwoofer amplifier.

PSB Speakers
633 Granite Court
Pickering, Ontario L1W 3K1
Canada
Phone: (905) 831-6555
Fax: (905) 831-6936

Website: www.psbspeakers.com