Home Theater Sound -VS300

June 1, 2006

As a Canadian, I take quiet pride in our few achievements that stand out on a global scale, and one area of which I’m particularly proud is Canadian speaker design. Groundbreaking research into psychoacoustics in the 1970s gave rise to many of the fine speakers that you see today. Names such as Paradigm, Axiom, Energy, and Mirage would not exist had it not been for the work these companies’ founders put in at Canada’s National Research Council (NRC).

One designer who was there at the beginning of the Canadian speaker industry is Paul Barton. Based on his research at the NRC, Barton founded PSB Speakers in Ontario in 1972. Although the company has since been sold to the Lenbrook Group (which also owns NAD Electronics), Barton remains the chief designer.

 



VisionSound by PSB

PSB Speakers has a huge range of speakers to meet consumer expectations in almost all market segments. Their VisionSound line falls into the "lifestyle" category -- speakers designed for a maximum range of décors and speaker placements. This line has two main speakers: the VS400 and the shorter VS300. The system reviewed here comprised five VS300s ($749 each) and a SubSeries 5i subwoofer ($499) and retails for a total of $4244.

The VisionSound VS300 system is well-finished and visually quite elegant. The VS300 itself is wider (6.3") and deeper (5.3") than other lifestyle speakers I’ve auditioned. Its height of 26.3" is somewhere between that of a bookshelf speaker and a tower speaker, and would nicely match a 42" or larger flat-panel TV (or other display device). The enclosure, made of aluminum with plastic endcaps, has a flat front that tapers to a rounded back. It was solid; when I rapped on it, there was no hollowness or ringing. The front grille is attached with magnets, which permits easy removal without the fear of breaking off plastic tabs -- a problem with other speakers. The VS300 comes with a bracket for mounting on a wall.

The VS300’s 1" aluminum-dome tweeter is mounted flush to the front baffle. A 4.5" polypropylene woofer is recessed on each side of the tweeter. This VS300 features two things I haven’t seen in other lifestyle speakers -- a front port and, on the back, an EQ switch for toggling between Normal and On-Wall modes. All speakers produce sound that radiates forward as well as back, but because an on-wall speaker is so close to the wall behind it, its sound is greatly affected by the delayed sound produced by soundwaves bounced off that wall. According to PSB, on-wall speakers have a frequency-response deficiency at 500Hz. The EQ switch provides a different crossover setting that compensates for this dip in its frequency response, to give a flatter response at the listening seat.

PSB provides feet for horizontal mounting, which come in handy if you want to use one VS300 as a center-channel speaker. For this review, they also provided the optional base mounts for allowing the VS300 to be mounted on short stands or a desktop. Installing the first base took me 20 minutes, but by then I’d gotten the hang of it; the rest took me about five minutes each to install.

The SubSeries 5i subwoofer is small: 16.5"H x 12.375"W x 14.875"D. Its front-mounted 10" polypropylene woofer has a 1.5" voice coil and a 28oz magnet driven by a class-H BASH amplifier rated at 150W continuous (450W peak). The amp is efficient enough that it doesn’t need massive heatsinks. The volume and crossover controls share the front panel with two ports, and around back are the SubSeries 5i’s speaker-level and line-level inputs, to accommodate a variety of home-theater systems. There are also a phase switch and a crossover-bypass switch.

Listening

I set up the VisionSound VS300 system in my main listening room, a rectangular space of 3000 cubic feet. The three front speakers were each 9’ from my listening seat, the surrounds 5’ to either side and slightly behind. The center-channel VS300 was on a lower stand under my front-projection screen.

A caution: Leave each speaker’s crossover switch set to Normal rather than to On-wall unless the speakers are mounted on the wall. I made the mistake of switching the center-channel to On-Wall, and the highs were rolled off enough to make dialogue difficult to understand. With the center-channel’s switch set to Normal, the dialogue was very clear -- when I watched The Incredibles, I didn’t have to strain or turn up the volume to follow it. Listening to the VS300s off-axis, I heard no change in response from listening to them on-axis. High frequencies were presented convincingly. Chapter 4 of The Incredibles contains the sound of shattering glass in the center channel -- through the VS300s, it sounded so real that I thought a window in my house had been broken. There was a hint of chestiness in male voices; this is unusual in my experience of lifestyle speakers, which normally sound a bit thin.

With identical speakers in all five positions, it was no surprise that the timbral match was perfect. In chapter 5 of The Incredibles, Dash runs around the kitchen table -- it was easy to follow his path with the VS300s. Because the VisionSounds are direct-radiating speakers, the two surrounds left a bit of a hole behind me -- I could hear sounds jump from left-side rear to right-side rear. This can easily be rectified by using one or two additional VS300s as surrounds directly behind the listener.

In another nice surround effect in The Incredibles, Violet sets up a force field to stop Dash -- through the VS300s, it felt as if Dash had hit the field right behind me. In terms of surround ambience, in chapter 7 of Matrix Reloaded Morpheus addresses a crowd in a large cave. The VS300s’ convincing representation of that large space, which seemed to fill my room, indicated excellent timbre matching and great off-axis response.

The SubSeries 5i subwoofer was a surprisingly good performer -- surprising not because PSB is incapable of making a good sub, but because I hadn’t expected such a small sub to play so cleanly. Usually, a small subwoofer will reach its limits with audible chuffing from its ports, or distortion from the woofer reaching its excursion limits. Not so with the SubSeries 5i. Chapter 5 of The Incredibles finds Frozone and Mr. Incredible in a burning building. The LFE channel really kicks in here, and the SubSeries 5i filled my room with satisfying bass that was loud and deep enough that it wasn’t easy to tell exactly where it was coming from. It didn’t have the visceral impact of larger, more powerful subs I’ve auditioned in my room, but for its size and price, it performed well above the norm.

Comparison

I had on hand a comparable lifestyle system, the Athena WS, comprising WS-100 main speakers, a WS-60 center-channel, WS-15 surrounds, and an AS-P4000 subwoofer. This system retails for only $1275, compared with the PSB VisionSound’s $4244. Although this is a huge price difference, these two systems serve the same market: thin, unobtrusive speakers designed to accompany modern flat-panel TVs.

When I listened to the VisionSound VS300 and Athena WS-100 systems in two-channel stereo, the differences immediately stood out. The VS300 had a fuller sound, particularly in the upper bass. I could hear this when listening to the piano solo in "Bye Bye Blackbird," from Patricia Barber’s Nightclub [SACD, Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2004]. It sounded much more natural through the VS300s, whereas the WS-100s sounded thinner. Both speakers produced bass comparable to that of a two-way bookshelf speaker, though the VS300s’ was a tad deeper. I was easily satisfied listening to either system in stereo without a subwoofer, which can’t be said for many other lifestyle speakers I’ve heard.

Although both speakers imaged well, the Athena WS-100s produced a larger soundstage, piano, bass, and drums imaging well outside the speaker boundaries when I listened to "Yesterdays," also from Barber’s Nightclub. The PSBs handled high sound-pressure levels better than the Athenas, however. When I cranked up "Just for a Thrill," the PSBs never lost their composure, but the Athenas’ cabinets rang at high volumes.

Moving on to home-theater duties: When I watched The Assassination of Richard Nixon, the center-channel Athena WS-60 lacked the chestiness of the center-channel VS300. This trait of the WS-60 made Sean Penn’s voice a bit clearer than through the VS300. The Athena WS-15s, however, were no match for the VS300s used as surrounds. The transition of sound from back to front and front to back, such as the missiles in chapter 17 of The Incredibles, was more seamless through the PSB system.

The subwoofers were close matches in terms of power, size, and woofer diameter. In terms of performance, they were equally at home in a room of small to medium size. The machine-gun fire in chapter 5 of Road to Perdition was reproduced convincingly through both the Athena AS-P4000 and the PSB SubSeries 5i, although not as forcefully as with larger, more expensive subwoofers.

Comparing the PSB VisionSound VS300 system to the Athena WS-100 system was interesting. Although these systems are worlds apart in price, each provides gratifying home-theater performance. The Athena would make a great secondary home theater in a small room. The PSB VisionSound VS300, however, is good enough for a primary system if space is at a premium.

Conclusion

The PSB VisionSound VS300 system makes few sonic compromises -- something that can’t be said for most lifestyle speaker systems. Its stereo performance was especially satisfying, with refinement comparable to more expensive minimonitors. If you’re after a home-theater speaker system that matches your flat-panel TV and makes great sound, PSB’s VisionSound VS300 may be your ticket to home-theater bliss. Add this system to the long list of Canadian speaker successes.

Vince Hanada
Home Theater & Sound

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