Good-Better-Best Speakers

November 28, 2005

What can you expect from PSB speakers at different price levels? What are the real performance differences between speaker systems as you go up the line from the Alpha Series Speakers to the Synchrony Series Speakers ? And what, if anything, do the differences mean to you? We think the place to start answering those questions is with a look at:

What All PSB Speakers Share

We start out with the conviction that the absolute minimum we (or anyone) should offer in a speaker is clean, faithful, musical sound that has both enough weight and enough definition to do music justice. When it comes to full-range speakers (we will be covering the specialized ones like subwoofers and center-channel speakers in our segment on Home Theater), there are three performance characteristics that sum up what we think define the basic sonic character of speakers:

Range: How wide a frequency and dynamic range they reproduce accurately. Our requirement of freqency coverage for all our speakers is from a bottom end that at minimum gives a decent sense of the weight of big orchestral music to a top that clearly presents the upper harmonics where the characteristic timbre of instruments — their sonic stamp — lies. And even our least expensive Alpha has a dynamic range sufficient to take a listener from the very quietest musical passages to the very loudest climaxes in music with convinving realism.

Tonal Balance: How smooth and transparent they sound from octave to octave across the range of musical sound. If you care, as we do, about satisfying listeners at home rather than just getting their attention in a showroom, you look for an absolute maximum of realistic balance — sonic neutrality. No peaking of the mid-range to immediately zing the ears in a showroom, and no depressing the so-called "psychoacoustic" octave around 1,200 Hz to make everything sound a little richer/darker than it really is. The former gets annoying really quickly in a living room; the latter takes longer to wear on you, but after you realize one day that just about every female singer is sounding smoky-voiced, it can get old fast.

Imaging: How accurately they reproduce in stereo the real-life placement of instruments and performers across a soundstage. This depends on good top-end response, a smooth transition between drivers, and a good match from speaker to speaker off the production line. And it's substantially diminished in those systems that use exaggerated spatial effects to get attention.

In addition to these three basics, there is another combination of qualities that has an important effect on the sound of a speaker:

Efficiency and Power Handling: Every speaker should have an elecro-acoustic efficiency (sensitivity) that fits the kind of equipment you would think of using with it, and power-handling that will fill a normal living room with high-volume sound without danger to the speaker's component parts. It is frustrating, and unacceptable to our way of thinking, to buy a speaker whose sound you can obtain only with a receiver or amplifier far out of its price class, or to come home with a speaker that won't fill an average room without putting itself in harm's way. (More and more power handling and sound output, however, especially at low frequencies, is one combination of qualities that costs more and more to produce and buy in a speaker, as outlined in a moment.)

 

Every full-range PSB speaker does an excellent job of providing a really satisfying amount of all of the above qualities. Yes there are differences as you spend more, but every speaker we make is a faithful, unpeaked reproducer that does justice to music.

Now for the differences. Here are the performance steps that our series of speakers offers:

Good

What you should expect in a good speaker — and can definitely expect in our Alpha Series Speakers — are :

  • the same neutral tonal balance you find in the best speakers of any price,
  • imaging that can be embarrassingly close to the best available,
  • a frequency range that goes both low enough to handle bass drums and double-basses convincingly and high enough to define musical instruments unmistakably.
  • excellent dynamic range, with appropriate efficiency and power handling.

Two things make our Alphas such an amazing definition of "Good": PSB Alpha Home Theater

They go after excellence and achieve it at low cost in compact, easy-to-place enclosures. It is not an exaggeration to say that the overall sonic character of Alphas generally comes at no less than twice the cost, and what puts the icing on the cake is their ability to produce both good bass and a satisfying amount of total sound output — enough to produce lots of undistorted sound in an average-sized listening room.

They produce that level of performance and sound output with moderately-powered receivers as well as higher-powered amplifiers. To our way of thinking, having low-priced speaker like the Alphas sound so good is no more useful than a dog walking across a room on its front legs if they can't do it with the kind of moderately-priced, moderately-powered equipment that the average user of low-priced speakers would want to use. So in balancing the design of the Alpha and calculating their efficiency in producing sound-per-watt (expressed as sensitivity in our specs), Paul Barton struck a beautiful balance between ultimate bass cut-off and the efficiency needed for good sound output with modest electronics.

Good as we've expressed it in the Alphas is (to our way of thinking) the point at which 80 per cent or so of serious listeners — not just people who buy sound equipment, but those who really use and listen expectantly to it — will be satisfied.

So what do you get as you go up the line from there?

Better

The "better" speakers in the world, including our Image Speaker Series, or Imagine Speaker Series, generally exceed the good ones in sound output — critically at low frequencies — and in a few subtleties.

 

PSB Image Series Home TheaterTotal sound output is the important real-life criterion for many people. While good speakers like the Alphas will produce convincingly lifelike sound levels in an average listening room with up to a few listeners in it, they aren't meant to fill really large spaces with ultra-loud sound, especially when those spaces are full of sound-absorbing and sound-creating people.

For convincingly lifelike sound levels in any space, the bottom-line obligation is at low frequencies. Even in a small room, speakers have to move a great deal of air to produce really low frequencies — the kind you feel as well as hear. And as the room you want to fill gets larger, you up the ante considerably. All other things being equal, the route to lower bass at higher output levels in speakers themselves is some combination of bigger drivers, bigger magnets on the drivers, and bigger enclosure size. But the combinations can vary a great deal, and the further factor that a designer can vary for an overall result is the power of the electronics driving a speaker. You can, for instance, get deep bass at high sound levels in a smaller enclosure (classically and most drastically in an "acoustic-suspension" style speaker, but also in vented systems) by trading speaker efficiency for higher amplifier power. So if your idea of better demands good ultra-low bass at major sound levels, but you don't have room or desire (your own or a partner's) for large speaker enclosures in your listening room, you can have what you want at the expense of considerably greater amplifier power. (Our Image B25 is a perfect example; it stirs up lots of air at low frequencies from a compact enclosure, but the trade-off is that it requires more power than the larger Image T45.)

We at PSB take a back seat to no one in producing excellent low-frequency response at realistic levels. The PSB Performance Home Theatersteps between the various models in our Image Series in bass performance for spaces and listening-level habits of increasing size are small. But it's up to you to judge how small or big they are for you, and the point where you want to stop in the more-bass-at-higher-levels quest. As you go up the Image line, a bonus you might not have expected is that speaker efficiency tends to go up because of larger magnets and more driver surface from the two or three low-frequency drivers. But most people who are going to find it worthwhile to pay a premium for, say, the Image T55 over the Image B15 aren't usually about to skimp on the amplifier power they buy to help cover their investment. If you want the performance of an Image T55, you generally also want the reserve power of a good amplifier for the most open, unstrained sound. More on what you get out of this reserve power in a moment in the "Best" discussion.

The other incremental differences between speakers in the better class that distinguish them from the good are in subtleties like high-frequency definition and imaging. Even our "good" Alphas are amazing in these respects for their price, but you get improvements that are meaningful to audio enthusiasts as you invest in bigger, more expensive magnets and other amenities. We have no way of knowing, with this or the other refinements we design into our speakers going up the price scale, whether the difference will be important to you. What we do is supply what we know can be done and let people decide what matters to them.

Best

"Best" is about sonic subtleties that aren't subtle at all to the people who want the very best sound reproduction they can find. What you will find most often in descriptions of the best speakers are words like "open," "airy," and "unstrained." Those words are usually trying to define the sense of ease you get in the sound of a speaker — as in the performance of a car — when everything is being operated so well within its ultimate limits that the most extreme demands don't even begin to tax any part of the system.

The very best speakers, like our Synchrony Speaker Series lines just don't have any sonic shortcomings for the most critical ears. Their bass response will hold up under any demand in any listening room. Their musical definition is superb. Their ability to produce the nuances of spatial imaging that the fussiest audiophiles are listening for is incontestable.

While the importance of the qualities of the best speakers to you is open to question according to your commitment to audio and video, what produces them is not. They are always the product of a combination of superb design and expensive components parts. PSB Synchrony Series Home TheaterIn the latter regard, for instance, the magnetic in the woofer of the Platinum T8 weighs 40 ounces and costs us an arm and a leg. We'd argue, and listeners and critics would back us up, that the superb design aspect of the "ultimate" Platinum Series is also present — maybe more strikingly — in our less expensive speakers, but you definitely do get something when that level of design is combined with the best components.

If you check what we have to say about design elegance in the Performance and Value segment of this Web site, you will see that Paul Barton is preoccupied with avoiding overkill and wretched excess. What listeners get out of that in the Alphas at $249 (US) or so a pair is something they also get in the Platinum T8 at $6,999 a pair. Everything is present that should be; nothing is there that makes the listener pay a needless premium for non-performing considerations that never come into play under circumstances of real-life use. That's why the critics have been as quick to call the Synchrony line a great value as they have the Alpha. It will always be a part of our company's definition of "best."

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