SoundStage AV Synchrony Two B

February 1, 2008

PSB Synchrony Two B Loudspeakers

I wasn't supposed to review the PSB Synchrony Two B. I was only going to receive them from PSB in order to take them to Canada's National Research Council (NRC) to be measured. After that, my plan was to drop them off at the home of Philip Beaudette, the SoundStage! Network writer who'd been scheduled to review them for our GoodSound! publication, which focuses on affordable high-performance audio.

But when I helped unpack the Two Bs at the NRC, I couldn't help noticing the high quality of their construction and the fine cosmetic details. Furthermore, I knew they were the work of Paul Barton, one of the world's most respected speaker designers, whose earlier designs I know very well. By then, my interest fully piqued, I figured I should hear them, too, at least to know what they were all about. I delayed taking them to Philip's place while I listened to them in my home system. And that's when I knew I wanted to write about them as well.

Description

PSB's new, upscale Synchrony line includes two bookshelf speakers, the Two B and One B, respectively priced at $1500 and $2000 USD (all speaker prices per pair except as noted). There are also two floorstanding models, the Two ($3000) and One ($4500). The Two B is thus the least expensive way to enter the Synchrony line. There are also two center-channel models, the One C ($2000 each) and Two C ($1300 each), as well as a surround speaker, the S ($2000), to make up a full Synchrony surround system. For this review, I used one pair of Two Bs in a two-channel setup.

All Synchrony models share a high quality of parts and build. In fact, what PSB has done in the Synchronys' cabinet design is so impressive, in terms of both the way they look and the way they're constructed, as to make regular rectangular speakers made from glued boards look archaic.

Synchrony Two B LoudspeakersEach Two B measures about 13.5"H x 7.5"W x 10.75?D and weighs 16 pounds. In the middle of the front baffle of double-layered aluminum is an elastomeric layer that works with the aluminum to damp vibrations. The rear panel is also of aluminum. However, the side, top, and bottom panels are made of layered MDF, veneered and finished in black or cherry. I prefer the cherry finish's striking contrast with the black aluminum front and rear panels.

These materials are fitted together in ways quite elegant. If you look at the exploded view on PSB's website or in their brochures, you'll see that the aluminum front and rear pieces basically "grab" the wood panels to lock everything in place. The result is a strong, dense-feeling enclosure -- precisely what you'd want and expect in a topflight speaker. Furthermore, this technique eliminates the need for unsightly bolts or screws.

The speaker's curved rear reads "Synchrony Two B" in fairly large letters, alongside two sets of robust binding posts that are not only aligned vertically, but inset and on an angle, which is attractive and convenient. This positioning means that the posts don't protrude from the Two B's rear -- you can connect your speaker cables and still get the speakers very close to the wall if need be. Below the posts is the mid-woofer's flared port.

The Two B's mid-woofer is placed above its tweeter, which has become a hallmark of Paul Barton's upscale bookshelf designs -- his Platinum M2 had the same arrangement, as did the Stratus Mini before it. The tweeter is the same 1" titanium dome that's used in all Synchrony models, with a shallow waveguide to help control directivity for a better acoustic blend with the mid-woofer through the crossover region. The 5.25" mid-woofer is made from fine-weave fiberglass and compressed-felt fibers and has a rubber surround. The tweeter hands off to the mid-woofer at 2.2kHz with a fourth-order slope. PSB specifies a -10dB point of 40Hz in the bass; in the highs, they say there's no rolloff on the tweeter axis until 23kHz. Paul Barton told me he'd worked on the Synchrony drivers for years, trying to achieve tremendous linearity along with high output and very low distortion, and feels that they're the best that PSB has ever made.

There are a few other specs to take note of. The Two B's sensitivity is said to be 86dB/W/m, or about average for a speaker of this size and configuration. But the nominal impedance is 4 ohms, which is lower than the 8 ohms most speakers are specified at. That lowish impedance could give some gutless amplifiers that can't drive anything lower than 6 or 8 ohms a bit of a problem. However, given the Two B's moderately high price, I'd guess that it's likely to be partnered with a decent-quality amp that won't hack and cough into such a load. After all, 4 ohms isn't that low.

System

I used the Synchrony Two Bs with two other $1500 components I'm reviewing: Simaudio's new Moon i-1 50Wpc integrated amplifier (which drove the PSBs easily) and their CD-1 CD player, linked by Nirvana S-L interconnects. I sat the Two Bs atop my 24"-high Foundation stands and connected them to the Moon i-1 with Nordost Red Dawn speaker cables.

My room is huge -- 19' wide by about 35' long -- although I use only about half of it for my audio system. Still, even half that volume is quite large, and that leaves a lot of space behind me that speakers fire into. I placed the Two Bs about 8' from the front wall and about 7' apart. That left about 6' to each sidewall. For some small speakers, having almost no wall reinforcement and being forced to play into such a large space might spell trouble -- they just can't generate the necessary output.

Sound

Right from the start, the Synchrony Two B impressed me with its outstanding clarity, exceptional detail, gutsier-than-expected bass, and way-more-than-expected output. It sounded clean, full, and powerful. What's more, it gave me the urge to play music that I seldom listen to through speakers of this size. For about a week, I went on a hard-rock kick, pulling out the likes of Gun N' Roses, The Cult, Nazareth, and Ted Nugent -- music with which I don't normally review loudspeakers, particularly small ones, which often can't play loudly enough without distorting badly. But the Two B, despite its modest size and 5.25" woofer, had a punchy, gutsy, visceral quality that was topped off with an ability to play louder and louder without ever wanting to give up. It was only when I pushed it to listening levels much louder than normal -- far beyond what any two-way should be expected to produce -- that it got unruly, with shouty mids and a hard top end. But when that happened, the music was really loud. Few small speakers are this robust.

The Two B's bass didn't go all that deep -- only down to 50 or 60Hz, below which it went MIA. (For truly deep bass, you'll want to get bigger Synchronys or supplement the Two Bs with a subwoofer.) However, what bass there was was tight, punchy, and well defined. In fact, the Two B seemed to go just a bit deeper than the Paradigm Signature S1 v.2, which I reviewed, very favorably, on SoundStage! last December, and which also sells for $1500. The Two B also seemed a bit gutsier than the S1 v.2. I suspect that the Two Bs would sound quite rich if placed nearer the walls in a smaller room, and for those who don't need to hear ultradeep bass, these speakers could live happily without a sub.

However, the Two B didn't only play loud and excel at reproducing stadium rock music. As I said, one of the first things I liked about its sound was its extreme clarity across the audioband. This meant that the Two B also excelled with recordings of simpler, less raucous music, particularly those with well-recorded vocals, such as Marta Gómez's Entre Cada Palabra [CD, Chesky JD301]. Through the Two Bs, Gómez's voice had such purity and presence that, had I not known better, I could have easily assumed I was hearing a speaker that sold for $3000 or even $4500. The Two B's midband was spot on and difficult to fault. That's the real beauty of a small speaker such as this -- although it can't go really deep in the bass, if the designer gets everything else right, the performance in those areas can rival that of more expensive, full-range speakers selling for many times as much. When it comes to value for dollar, bookshelf speakers often rule.

The Two Bs did a great job of getting the sound "out of the box" -- no awkward, boxy colorations or strange anomalies drew my attention to the speakers themselves and away from the stereo soundstage they cast. The Two Bs were remarkably open and transparent, able to project a soundstage that defied their size. They sounded so spacious that I suspect that, in a blind test, most people would think they were listening to small floorstanders instead of to a pint-size stand-mounted speaker.

The Two Bs' imaging was not the most precise I've heard -- that would be the YG Acoustics Anat Reference Main Module, which images like a laser but costs about 30 times as much. Still, the Synchronys had good specificity, with a more than credible illusion of depth. When I played the Cowboy Junkies' The Trinity Session [CD, RCA 8568-2-R], which was recorded in a church, I heard that vast, room-defying sense of space that I'm accustomed to hearing from the best speakers. No speaker at or near $1500 does any better, and plenty do worse. Voices and instruments were placed distinctly in the stage, and the delineation from front to rear of the stage was easy to discern.

The only downside to a speaker that sounds so clear and detailed is that less-than-perfect recordings sound, well, less than perfect. But this is nothing new from Paul Barton's best designs -- he likes to make speakers that are neutral and revealing. I've recently rediscovered Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel of Love [CD, Columbia CK 40999], a 1987 recording that contains some of my favorite Springsteen tunes but that, like so many of his albums, wasn't all that well recorded. This all-digital recording sounds forward and brash, which means that the Boss's voice sounds coarser than usual, with an edge to it that I attribute more to the engineers than to Springsteen's being out late the night before. In addition, the sound lacks resolution; there's little ambience or air, and all the fine details get lost.

The Two B didn't pretty up that album in the ways I've heard some "caramelized" speakers do. The Synchrony was extremely revealing in a studio-monitor kind of way, readily pointing out this disc's many defects. Springsteen's voice sounds coarse on this recording, and it sounded just as coarse through the Two Bs. As for Tunnel of Love's lack of resolution, the Two Bs couldn't make up what wasn't on the master tape, but were revealing enough that I could hear where all the details that were there started -- and then stopped, leaving me wishing the engineers might have done more -- or, more likely, less. The Synchrony Two B might seem too precise to those who like speakers with forgiving colorations; for me, though, the Two B's honest, revealing sound is one mark of a great little loudspeaker.

Comparison

I can't continue this review without again mentioning the small, attractive, and very-good-sounding Paradigm Signature S1 v.2. It shares many similarities with the Synchrony Two B, and its price of $1500 makes it and the PSB direct competitors.

Both speakers are extremely attractive and exceptionally well built, but their designs have been executed differently. The S1 v.2's entire cabinet is of cast aluminum, whereas the Two B's is a combination of aluminum and layered MDF. There's no better or worse in this regard -- both are better built than any other like-priced speaker I've reviewed recently, and both more or less push the cabinet-construction envelope, thereby raising the level of what customers should expect for this money. Gone are the days when a company can make a $1500 bookshelf speaker in an ordinary MDF box.

Both are also quite small, though the S1 is the tinier -- about two-thirds the Two B's size, despite having a slightly larger woofer (6" vs. 5.25"). Their bass reach is similar -- both drastically roll off below 50 or 60Hz -- and therefore both models need the help of a sub for true full-range sound, or wall reinforcement if you want to squeeze from them as much bottom as you can. But while they sound similar, they don't sound identical. The Two B sounded as if it went a bit lower with more punch -- perhaps a byproduct of its larger cabinet and the contribution of its rear port (the S1 v.2 is a sealed box).

Both speakers could play amazingly loud and remain composed while doing so. Loudspeaker technology has really advanced in recent years, not only in the ways speakers are built but also in how well they perform. If you cranked a small speaker of ten years ago as high as I did these two, you'd probably smell smoke. The PSB Two B and Paradigm S1 v.2 are rather amazing that way.

Within their frequency limits (i.e., above the deep-bass region), both speakers sounded very neutral, exhibiting no ugly colorations across the audioband. But even those neutralities weren't exactly identical. In fact, this is where I heard the biggest sonic differences between them.

The S1 v.2 seemed a touch -- just a touch -- more relaxed through the midband; it will probably be the preferred choice for someone looking for the smoothest sound possible without the loss of detail. In fact, the Paradigm S1 v.2's presentation of the mids reminded me of an electrostatic speaker: highly detailed and inviting, but never getting in my face. The PSB Synchrony Two B, while sounding every bit as clean in the mids, also seemed to have more presence in this region, in ways similar to its reproduction of bass. For example, when I listened to "Society," from Eddie Vedder's music for Into the Wild [CD, RCA 715944], Vedder's voice sounded richer and fuller through the PSBs than through the Paradigms. The Synchrony Two Bs will probably be preferred by those looking for small speakers that sound a bit more robust.

In the top end, though, there are other things to consider. PSB's Synchrony tweeter sounds infinitely extended and exceptionally clean, far exceeding what many companies offer at this price or even more. But Paradigm's beryllium tweeter goes a step further, eclipsing almost everything else out there with its extended and effortless highs.

The Two B and S1 v.2 are both high-quality transducers -- two of the best at their price. Although there are differences between them, in this comparison I noted no deficiencies other than the lack, in both, of any true low bass. While I preferred the Two B's somewhat gutsier bass, I liked the S1 v.2's silkier highs. Otherwise, both speakers are exceptional performers that set new benchmarks for what consumers can expect in terms of appearance, build, and performance for $1500. But no reviewer can make such a decision for you -- anyone shopping at or near this price should listen to both before deciding.

Conclusions

I've been familiar with Paul Barton and his PSB speakers for a long, long time. The first speakers I owned, over 25 years ago, were the Avanté IIs, which Barton had developed at Canada's NRC, with which, at the time, he'd already been deeply involved for about eight years. I've seen and heard plenty of his designs since. What I heard from the PSB Synchrony Two B made it obvious to me that Barton still has some tricks up his sleeve.

Had the Synchrony Two B been just another me-too bookshelf speaker, I'd have passed it on to our scheduled reviewer without a second thought. But when I looked at the complexity of the design, I sensed there was something more to it. And when I listened to the pair of them, I knew that this speaker was so special that I, too, had to write about it. I love small two-way speakers, and this is a great one.

Few competitors can match the package that PSB offers in the Synchrony Two B: it's nicely styled, beautifully built, and sounds superb. In addition, I believe that its level of performance sets a new high for PSB. Unfortunately, I must immediately qualify that very high praise by saying that I haven't yet heard PSB's Synchrony One B. Is the One B better than the Two B? I don't know. But the One B costs $2000/pair -- for $500 less, I think you'd be hard-pressed to ask for anything more than the Synchrony Two B: an impressive small speaker that looks its price, and sounds it too.

Doug Schneider
SoundStage AV

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