TAS - B1 Review

March 1, 2007

Start Me Up - The Absolute Sound March 2007

PSB Alpha B1 Loudspeaker
A Classic Updated

How high should our expectations be for a $270 speaker? Most of us would say, "Not very." However, when it's a ground-up redesign of the venerable PSB Alpha, one of the high-end's featherweight darlings, expectations run very high, indeed. As it turns out, the new Alpha B1 delivers. This is not exactly breaking news for a company with such consistently high standards. What is news is just how much this pipsqueak delivers - and for so little dough. In this respect, it reminds me of another Canadian gatecrasher of a few years ago, the Sound Dynamics RTS-3. Roughly similar in size and configuration, it once was a blue-plate fave of Harry Pearson. I owned a pair and enjoyed the hell out of them. Curiously, the RTS-3s had a list price of $280, and the B1 clocks in at $279. Hmm.

Any way you look at the new Alpha, there's confirmation of evolutionary nips and tucks. Outwardly, the enclosure has received "lifestyle" smoothing and contouring. Internally, volume has been increased by ten percent, while the port has been re-angled to minimize colorations and distortions. The .75" aluminum-dome tweeter has been refined for greater bandwidth and smoother dispersion, and the all-new 5.25" injection-molded metalized-polypropylene woofer sports a deeper basket and a more rigid damped-rubber surround. Both are said to reduce breakup modes.

Maybe I'm just not a very nice person, but when I get a really tiny speaker in for review my impulse is not to baby it. The first piece of music I cue up will definitely not be accordion polka favorites or the world's greatest pan flute encores. I look for material that will dynamically stress the li'l darlings and show up weaknesses. When Evgeny Kissin lays into "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle" from Pictures at an Exhibition [RCA], I expect lightening-bolt hammering on the keyboard, gently tempered with the most delicate trills. Unexpectedly, the B1 sailed through this gauntlet intact, with genuine sensitivity to the microdynamic gradations of Kissin's touch and only a hint of compression. Frankly, it's an odd sensation to hear Steve Winwood's The Finer Things [Island] played at such levels by such teeny speakers, and I was left pondering what it would take to blow these plucky nine-pounders off their Target stands. Fact is, I had thoroughly misjudged the breadth of the B1's dynamic envelope and PSL limit. And this without a subwoofer! (See subwoofer heading below)

Tonal neutrality is what one expects from PSB, and, even at this price point, the B1 had a predominantly honest voice that strikes a pleasant balance between articulation and extension. During Bruch's Violin Concerto No.1 [EMI], Itzhak Perlman's Strad possessed the saucy brio and transient spring off the bow that defines this flashy piece. And when the orchestra surges during the closing moments, the articulation of Perlman's warp-speed arpeggios sparkled through.

On female vocals, I noted a small dip in the presence range, which lit up the lower treble somewhat and slimmed down Dianne Reeves' full-figured vocal during "How High The Moon" from the Good Night, and Good Luck soundtrack [concord Jazz]. But the stand-up bass has genuine pitch and timbral energy - not just an indeterminate pulse. Ultimately, of course, the B1 can't move the volume of air of a larger design or articulate the lowest octave, but it does a surprisingly respectable job capturing the rich sonorities of baritone Thomas Hampson during "Brief Awakening" on Kerner Lieder [Warner Classics].

Oddly the representation of images on the soundstage was a bit amorphous - not unnatural mind you, but not transparently precise. However the impression of unshakable point-source coherence - a key attribute for any well-engineered small speaker - remains a strength of the B1.

I feel like a killjoy even criticizing the Alpha B1, but here goes. The tweeter is not the last word in silky, shimmering refinement, but it is quite smooth with little added texture. Under stress, there's a bit of ripeness in the upper bass and some thickening further down, which shades pitch definition, leading to the conclusion that he cabinet/port doesn't always completely disappear.

So, okay, it's not perfect. But frankly, I can't remember the last time that a speaker weighing just under 10 pounds dripping wet made me want to listen to so much music. At its humble price, the Alpha B1 is so much more than just a good little speaker - it's an achievement that borders on the surreal.

SubSeries 1 Subwoofer

The SubSeries 1 is a dead ringer for its cousin, the SubZero i, but boasts improvements in power and output. It has front-mounted adjustments for crossover frequencies and volume level. The rear panel is equipped with line-level and speaker-level inputs, a phase toggle, crossover bypass, and an on/standby/off switch.

For the record, I ran a simple series of LF signals that showed it to be a confident little sub that easily extended into the mid-30Hz range without drama. Noteworthy too was its stability on its feet - there was no crabbing across the floor and no scary mechanical noises from the enclosure. Proportionality is everything when pairing sats with subs. In my smallish room, the Alpha B1 already outputs smartly in the midbass, so I feathered the sub in around 60Hz and keep the volume low. The result is a subtly more grounded foundation - more substance to bass viols, rock drumming, and hip-hop pulses. On classical material the soundstage broadens and a greater impression of hall ambience envelopes the listening position. When it is pressed to the limit - like the Alpha B1 - the lowest frequencies grow thicker, a bit "slower". But even at smack-down levels the SubSeries 1 rarely gets rattled. Add another pair of B1s for the surrounds, and for well under a thousand bucks you'll be in multi-channel heaven. My only complaint: Where were you, PSB, when I was getting started in the high end a couple of decades ago?

Neil Gader
The Absolute Sound

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