Home Theater M2 - Review

December 1, 2005

I’m probably more familiar with PSB speakers than those from any other company, and for one simple reason: the first speakers I owned were PSBs, a pair of Avanté IIs. That was back in 1981 when I was a teenager with a large record collection and a wad of cash that I was ready to lay down on a stereo system. I wanted something better to play my music on than what most people were using, so I ended up with the Avanté IIs, an NAD integrated amplifier, and a B&O turntable. That system served me faithfully for about seven years.

Since then I’ve taken note of almost every speaker produced under the creative eye of PSB designer Paul Barton, a revered figure in the Canadian loudspeaker industry who was promoting the idea of using separate main speakers and a subwoofer back when I bought my first system (yes, that long ago) and who seems to be able to squeak more performance for the dollar out of a speaker than almost anyone. Take his top bookshelf speaker, the Platinum M2, which I reviewed on SoundStage! about a year ago. It may be priced at $1999 per pair, making it Barton's most expensive bookshelf speaker yet, but despite the high price it can still be considered a good value because it's a benchmark for performance and can be compared to similarly configured designs at even double or triple its price.

And much the same can be said for the entire Platinum-based home-theater system I received for review. It includes the same M2 speakers as the mains, along with the matching C2 center-channel, S2 surrounds, and SubSeries 10 subwoofer. These speakers aren’t cheap -- the whole system clocks in at $8695 -- but they’re true high-end designs that I found to be worth every cent and can hold their own against speaker systems priced quite a bit higher.

The M2, C2, and S2 are all two-way designs using the same 6.5" woven-fiberglass woofer and 1" aluminum-dome tweeter. AndPSB Platinum M2 Loudspeakers seen here with the Platinum C4 Center Channel Speaker there are more similarities: all of the speakers are crossed over at about 2.2kHz; all are rated with the same sensitivity, 90dB for 2.83V input under anechoic conditions; and all are also said to have the same nominal impedance of 4 ohms. Barton more than likely did all of this to give each speaker the same "sonic flavor," which is precisely what you want in a multi-speaker array that’s intended to be a complete system.

However, there is one difference among the speakers: the M2 and C2 are vented designs, while the S2 is a sealed enclosure, which is not uncommon with surround speakers because they have different placement requirements than the other speakers. Front and center speakers are generally placed well away from the walls, while surround speakers are more than likely going to be butted up against the wall, or perhaps even attached right to it.

The S2 also has something interesting about it that I quite liked. PSB calls it Tri-Mode Surround. Basically, the S2 can be used in three different ways, configurable through the binding posts on the back and with special supplied jumpers. The S2 has three sides with, of course, one side that’s always intended to face the wall. The other two sides, though, each have a tweeter-woofer driver array. That means each S2 speaker has four drivers in total (two tweeters, two woofers). Depending on how you connect the back binding posts and which jumpers you use, you can configure the S2 as a bipolar design, where each S2 acts as one speaker and both driver sides operate in phase; a dipole design, where each S2 still acts as one speaker, but both driver sides operate out of phase, which tends to make a more spacious rear soundfield in comparison to configuring as a bipole; or, finally, as two different speakers altogether, where each "side" is fed a different signal from the amplifier. In the latter case, you can turn your home-theater system from a five-channel system into a seven-channel system without adding any extra speakers. This will be particularly attractive for those people who want seven channels but who don’t want the added expense, or to consume the extra space, that two more speakers would require. The S2 is a clever design.

Finally, there’s the SubSeries 10, which is an absolute beast -- meant to be taken in a good way. It weighs over 100 pounds, has an amplifier that’s said to deliver 500W of continuous power and 1500W "dynamic peaks," and has two 12" drivers, one mounted so that it’s visible from the outside and the other mounted internally. PSB claims that the SubSeries 10 is down 3dB at 27Hz, 10dB at 24Hz, and is capable of 114dB output at 100Hz. It’s a large subwoofer that's obviously designed for big rooms, and it is intended to complement the Platinum speakers visually and sonically.

I found all the speakers to be very well built and styled in an attractive manner. I particularly liked the color of the aluminum end caps that each speaker has -- they’re a dark gray, not black -- because they contrast nicely with the wood veneer. I also like that M2, S2, and SubSeries 10 have rounded tops, which makes the speakers look far less abrupt and blocky than flat-surfaced designs (the C2 is rounded on the sides). The silver grilles are also a nice touch.

I used the Platinum system with an NAD T163 surround-sound processor, NAD T973 seven-channel power amplifier, and Harman Kardon DVD 31 DVD player. All of these electronics complemented the Platinum system beautifully, with more than enough power and an excellent sense of refinement and detail.

Almost everything I said about the PSB M2 speakers in my SoundStage! review applies to this entire speaker system. The hallmarks of PSB's Platinum designs are neutrality (in other words, frequency-response linearity); the ability to unravel loads of recorded detail; a well-defined soundstage; and, with a high-quality subwoofer now added to the mix, subterranean bass that the M2s alone could only hint at, but the entire speaker system can fully explore. This is a speaker system that presents movie soundtracks as well as two-channel and multichannel music mixes with assurance.

David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. is a dazzling film with a knockout soundtrack that sounds even better on CD [Milan 35971] than it does on DVD. Lynch, rarely one for the ordinary, makes a sight-and-sound spectacular that dazzles the eyes with visuals and intrigues the ears with a mix of music and sound effects that’s not so much heard as experienced. In particular, I love the part in the movie where Rebekah Del Rio sings "Llorando," a Spanish-language version of "Crying" (track 11 on the CD).

The soundstage that the recording engineers create is enormous, with so much space that it’s close to being over the top. Still, despite the vastness of the soundfield, the voice is presented dead center. It’s here that the Platinum system shows what it’s about and why it doesn’t just excel with home-theater sound effects, but music, too. The speakers absolutely disappeared, creating an enormous soundstage that stretched beyond the speakers’ boundaries. The detail and refinement, too, were outstanding, which was no real surprise given the high performance that the M2s are capable of. What this system does is basically take the performance characteristics of the M2 and stretch them all the way around the room through the other speakers -- the C2 and S2s -- which are every bit the M2s' equal for their own task. This makes for a first-rate presentation, whether just through the front two channels or through all five channels (or seven channels, depending on how you configure the S2s), that’s difficult to fault.

The bass was extraordinary for its depth and clarity. It was not overblown or obtrusive. Oftentimes subwoofers are pumped up too high, or they have non-linearities in their performance that make them stand out. It would be impossible for me to know exactly how PSB SubSeries 10 Subwooferthe SubSeries 10 measures without an enormous anechoic environment and sophisticated measuring equipment, but what I can say is that in my room it stretched down into the lower reaches and got there with extraordinary control. As with the M2s, the level of detail was outstanding, and there was nothing adverse -- no rattles, no chuffing; nothing but deep, deep bass. I cranked it up, too, and the SubSeries 10 didn’t cry uncle. It just kept doing its thing until I couldn’t take it any longer.

There’s a great sound effect fairly close to the beginning of Mulholland Dr. that’s almost impossible to describe but absolutely awesome to experience. It’s a mix of deep bass, whirring sounds, and many other things that create a room-shaking multichannel experience that taxes speakers and subs, particularly if you have the volume up high. The Platinum system rendered it in spectacular fashion, no doubt because of the SubSeries 10’s ability to tackle the low end with authority and control.

But the SubSeries 10 isn’t the only part of the Platinum system that can put out. This whole system can play LOUD. I learned that in stereo, the M2s can play to astonishingly high levels and retain control. In fact, the M2 and Paradigm’s Signature S2 are the only two minimonitors that I know of that can play very loud and clean. Relieved of some of the bass with the SubSeries 10 in the mix, the M2s can go even louder -- louder than I ever need to listen. The C2 and the S2s, due to the similarities in their design, are easily able to follow suit. I have confidence that this system, the smallest in the PSB Platinum series, can handle any Hollywood-blockbuster soundtrack with ease, even if it’s played in a large room.

But lots of home-theater systems can play loud. As I pointed out, though, this one is refined, too, and this showed itself to its best advantage with multichannel music. I thoroughly enjoyed this system with Alicia Keys’ DVD-Audio release of Songs in A Minor [J-Records 56762]. This album wouldn’t be considered natural-sounding by audiophile standards because of the way it places singers and instruments in the front, behind, and seemingly everywhere between, but it’s a fun, effective mix that makes the already good music even more entertaining.

This disc helped show me how up to the task the S2s are in terms of frequency extension and refinement. Oftentimes surround speakers are small speakers, and they sound rather different from the front speakers when you try to play something demanding through them. On this disc, with a lot of energy panned to the rear, the sound was seamless, proving that the S2s are a good match for the M2s in terms of tonal balance and output capability.

And when you play a far more natural-sounding multichannel mix or a stereo CD that’s been digitally manipulated into surround by, say, DTS’s Neo:6 or some other processing mode, you get a good idea of what the C2 can do, which is quite a lot. The C2, although not the largest center-channel speaker in the Platinum lineup (the C4 is), is a full-size center-channel, meaning that it has the kind of frequency extension and output capability of a front-left or -right speaker. As with the rear speakers, this is important because a lot of information is channeled through to all speakers these days. The C2 certainly keeps up with the rest of the system.

However, as I found with the C2 and almost every center-channel speaker out there, there’s a slight discontinuity when you compare identical signals going to it and to the left and right speakers. In short, the C2 doesn’t sound quite the same as the M2s, which is no great problem with most movie soundtracks, because they’re rarely pinnacles of audio fidelity, but something that critical ears will pick up on a refined music mix. It’s not a drastic tonal shift, as I hear with some lesser center-channel speakers, but it’s a subtle shift in perspective that I pick up when I play, for instance, vocals through the C2 versus through the M2s. This is likely due to the horizontal orientation of the center-channel speaker -- the fact that the designers have to try to compensate for that orientation as well as the effect a monitor's screen has. I sometimes defeat the center channel in the processor, whether it’s with this system or others, relying on only the left and right speakers for music listening. For movies, though, the center-channel is a must.

That’s my only real issue with this system -- and it's not a full-blown flaw. On the whole, this Platinum-based system performs in spectacular fashion and has levels of accuracy and resolution that are uncommon. Many speaker systems do movies well, while others do music best. This system does both with equal aptitude.

Compare and contrast
Some people will probably wonder how I can review two very different speaker systems in such a short period of time -- the Mirage Omnisat-based system for $2400 last month and the $8695 PSB Platinum system this month. How can I say good things about each, and be equally excited about both? Isn’t there a contradiction there? Not at all. They’re different speaker systems for different applications, and likely for different listeners, too.

The Mirage system offers high style and high value, but it is also quite compact and destined for a small or mid-sized room, which is more or less reflected in its price. For example, the little Mirage S10 subwoofer, as potent as it is, is still only $500 and not in the same league as the SubSeries 10, which is five times the prices and can hold its own with some of the best subs available. The Omnisat speakers, as much as I like their spacious sound, are not as room-filling and do not have the sheer output capability of the Platinum system.

The PSB system is likely headed for the home of someone who is searching for state-of-the-art home-theater and stereo sound, is willing to pay a reasonable amount of money to get it, and has the space to set it all up. The M2s are relatively compact, but the C2 is a fairly hefty speaker that’ll take up space above or below a monitor, and much the same can be said about the S2 surrounds, which weigh just over 30 pounds each. And the SubSeries S10 is close to being a monster sub, so you’ll need ample floor space to accommodate its bulk and the room volume to let it breathe and do its thing. In contrast, the Mirage system fits nicely in my modestly sized family room where TV watching is one thing that goes on, but many other things do, too. The speakers are light, small, and easy to move around.

If you're doing things on a grand scale, the PSB Platinum system is the one to consider. Although it’s possible to go further upscale in the Platinum series -- the floorstanding T6 and T8 retail for $4999 and $6999 per pair respectively, and there’s the C4 center-channel that’s priced at $1999 -- I don’t think everyone needs to. The output capability of the system I reviewed, even in my very large room, was sufficient, and its sound quality was simply outstanding. If PSB’s Platinum series interests you, my suggestion is to audition this system first if you want the best value, and then look at the bigger speakers if for some reason you feel that you need to move up.

Given PSB’s long history of producing high-value, reasonably priced loudspeakers, the topnotch performance from the M2/C2/S2/SubSeries 10 system didn’t surprise me. In fact, I would have been surprised if it delivered anything less than it does, particularly because there are fewer cost constraints for Platinum-series speakers than for other PSB lines. Basically, designer Paul Barton has quite a bit more leeway with this system, and he has certainly delivered a winner that's worth every bit of its asking price.

While upwards of $9000 hardly represents easy affordability, this speaker system sounds spectacular playing back movies or music -- justifying its price right there -- and it also has the build quality and styling to match its performance. The Platinum M2 is as good a minimonitor as I've heard, and much the same can be said about this entire Platinum-based multichannel speaker system built around such remarkable stand-mounted speakers. Obviously, then, if you’re shopping for an all-out multichannel speaker system, you’d better put PSB’s Platinum system on your list.

Doug Schneider
Home Theater & Sound

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