Ultimate AV - VisionSound HT

April 1, 2007

 

PSB VisionSound Series VS400/VS300 Surround Speaker System

 

We haven't spent a lot of review time here at Ultimate AV on two major trends in speaker design. One of them is euphemistically referred to in the industry as "architectural speakers." That is, speakers designed to be mounted either in or on a wall. The other, an outgrowth of the on-wall category, is the tall, slender column speaker that takes up little floor space.

There are practical reasons for this omission. It's not that we haven't been paying attention to what's "in" these days. But what we know about the laws of physics, at least as they apply to speakers, has also kept us at arms length from radical new design concepts, particularly when they look more like a slice of an organ pipe than a "proper," traditional box loudspeaker.

You can't fool Mother Nature, but when well-established speaker companies devote time and resources designing and producing such speakers we need to find out, firsthand, if there's any "there" there. We recently covered the Infinity Cascades , and we're working on an upcoming review of the Tannoy Arena Highline 500's.

But it's the PSB VisionSound VS400 ($1,998/pair) and VS300 ($749 each) that are the topic of the day here, together with the PSB SubSeries 5i subwoofer ($549).

The Long and The Tall

The VS400 employs four 4.5" polypropylene-cone, butyl-rubber surround woofers and a 1" aluminum dome tweeter. The specified crossover is at 2.5kHz. The cast aluminum enclosure, available in either a titanium or black finish, is ported to the rear.

One of the woofers is positioned above the tweeter and three are below it. The tweeter is mounted flush with the front baffle and the woofers are set into a shallow recess surrounded by sharp corners–sharp not in any hazardous sense, but sharp in a way that may upset audiophiles who are into details such as the way abrupt cabinet edges can cause (or are believed to cause) image-compromising acoustic diffraction.

A single set of binding posts is provided (no bi-wiring here). There is also a three position Spectral Tilt control. The "+" and "–" positions tilt the entire audible spectrum up or down by a maximum of 2dB. The grille is held in place magnetically.

PSB VisionSound VS300 In Black

The smaller VS300 is actually the more complicated design. Its two (rather than four) woofers, single tweeter, terminals, crossover, and grille are the same as the VS400's. But because it can be wall-mounted, the VS300's port is located in front. Its various mounting options call for an assortment of accessories, some included, some not. A long bracket (included) serves to attach the speaker to the wall for on-wall applications. The speaker may be rotated on this bracket and locked down at the desired angle. The bracket may also serve to tilt the speaker up or down when it's used horizontally for a center channel. And for positioning the speaker on a stand, shelf, or TV as a center channel, rather than on-wall, small feet are also included. These fasten onto the mounting bracket. For vertical tabletop mounting an optional tabletop base ($149/pr) is available.

The VS300 does not have a contour switch. Instead, it has something called an On Wall correction switch. PSB designer engineer David Smith discovered during the speaker's development that when the VS300 is mounted on the wall, the sound bouncing off the wall behind it combines with the forward sound to create a dip in the response centered at about 500Hz. The "On Wall" position of this switch is designed to balance out this dip.

The SubSeries 5i subwoofer is relatively small as subwoofers go. It consists of a 10" driver and a 150W continuous (450W peak) class H amplifier in a ported, 1.01 cubic foot, 31-lb. cabinet. The sub includes both line- and speaker-level inputs. Also around back are a two-position phase switch (zero and 180 degrees), a Crossover Bypass switch, an On-Standby-Off switch, a Power switch, and an IEC power line input socket (with fuse). The Volume control and Crossover selection control (50-150Hz, bypassed when the Crossover Bypass switch is set to Active) are conveniently located on the front. The -10dB LF cutoff is specified at a modest 27Hz. The SubSeries is available in either a black ash or maple finish.

Setup

While I listened to the system for an extended period in my small listening room (an 1800 cubic ft. space), the critical listening reported on here was performed in my larger, 3200 cubic ft. main home theater room.

Setup was straightforward. The VS400s were positioned to the left and right and a couple of feet forward of my 78-inch wide projection screen, several feet out from the wall behind them, and 2-3 feet from the sidewalls. In other words, they were well out into the room. One advantage to a speaker as small as this one is that it may be easily moved back out of its ideal operating location and become relatively inconspicuous when not in use. The VS400's drivers are offset slightly on the front baffle and the left and right speakers are mirror-imaged. I set them up with the offset drivers positioned toward the center.

The center-channel-configured VS300 was located just below the screen and tilted up toward the main listening area. Two more VS300s were used for surrounds, set up vertically and mounted several feet behind the listening seats. The SubSeries 5i was tried in several locations, including the front right corner of the room where a resident Revel B15 subwoofer normally lives.

Behind the retractable projection screen is a 70" rear projection set currently under review. Its screen does form a relatively large reflecting surface, but when the main screen is retracted for music listening, two acoustically absorbent panels were placed in front of the RPTV. It was confirmed via my long-time reference Energy Veritas v2.8 speakers, operating as a two-channel system, that even with this large TV in place the setup is capable of superior imaging.

Firing 'em Up for Films

Carrying the typical load of audiophile baggage into this review, I expected to be underwhelmed. With its tiny (in high-end audio terms) woofers, metal enclosures less than a cubic foot in volume each (at most), and small, budget-priced subwoofer, how could this system bring home the same sort of movie sound you can get from much larger, more expensive systems?

It came surprisingly close. Not that it doesn't have limitations. There were some subtle colorations from the center channel, noticeable primarily on dialog. This was definitely setup dependent, however (more on that below), and given that the dialog on many films is inherently colored in one-way or another (much of it is, after all, recorded and processed in post-production), I didn't find it distracting.

But you'll hear increasing coloration from the horizontal center channel VS300 as you move off-axis. The sound becomes less articulate as the distance from the center seat increases. You don't have to move far to hear this; if your sofa is positioned directly opposite the screen, you'll notice it from an end seat. But the loss is not severe at this angle. Most listeners will not notice it until they get even further off to the side.

I was also prepared for disappointment from the SubSeries 5i subwoofer. It had performed well enough in my small room, but how could its modest 10" driver and 150W amp pump out enough bass to fill a space nearly twice as large? True, it didn't go all that low—its output is pretty much gone below 35Hz. And while extremely deep bass isn't all that common on program material, it can be missed. At the very beginning of Reign of Fire, as the young Quinn crawls into the void at the excavation site, there's an ominous underpinning of very low bass. It adds considerably to the effectiveness of the scene, but is completely missing on the SubSeries 5i.

And if you play back powerful bass transients at a high level on the 5i they can turn muddled and smeared, with the transient "WHUMP" turning into "whummm"–possibly due to the sub's protection circuit cutting in to protect against overloading the driver. But those limitations were neither annoying nor pervasive. On most soundtracks it was easy to forget about the Subonic 5i's small size and modest cost.

Put apart from those limits, the system as a whole produced a remarkably cinematic sound. Buyers who can't stretch beyond this will not feel deprived (not that a $4,794 system won't be a stretch for many!), and buyers moving up from a home-theater-in-a-box system will be blown away.

The VisionSound system produces a huge soundstage. And while it can turn congested well short of the levels attainable by more upscale systems (including PSB's own larger and more expensive systems), it will play louder more cleanly than most listeners will ever want to go. The VS300s, used as surrounds, also blend in smoothly with the rest of the system, and they may, of course, be wall-mounted using their supplied brackets (though I did not audition them that way).

The SubSeries 5i easily kept up its part of the bargain. Located in the front corner of my home theater where subwoofers normally sit, its bass was powerful and deep (within the limits described above). It blended seamlessly with the main speakers and did what a good sub is supposed to do–make the main channels sound larger and more powerful than they are without calling undue attention to it as a separate speaker.

PSB VisionSound VS300 In Black

The effectiveness of any sub will always depend as much on the setup and room as on the sub itself, and a sub of this size will always have limitations. The job of the small-sub designer is to hope for the best on the user's end while building a sub that minimizes the inherent limits of a small driver, small box, and less than gargantuan amplifier. The SubSeries 5i met all of these requirements and performed well beyond my expectations.

But the solid overall performance I ultimately extracted from the VisionSound/SubSeries package didn't come on my first try. At first I found it a bit underwhelming in its output capability, and a little lean and edgy in the bargain. Dialog from the center channel also sounded a little bloated.

That all changed when I made a few setup adjustments. Raising the center channel an additional 10" removed most of the bloat. Switching its position switch to On Wall removed most of the edginess and resulted in a more natural balance (I know it isn't supposed to, since this switch is designed for on-wall mounting, but nothing ventured, nothing gained). While these tweaks won't necessarily be best for every system and room, they worked for me. And if I wasn't overwhelmed by the sound of the VisionSound/SubSeries 5i system on films, it's only because I've been listening to a system that costs nearly three times as much. But I will say I was definitely impressed.

Two recent animated titles have been spending a lot of time in my Blu-ray player of late. Both are similar only in that they have plot twists that you don't expect. Chicken Little came from Disney when Disney was close to a split with Pixar and anticipated having to rely on its own in-house computer animation team. It's a far better, funnier, and cleverer film than it has been given credit for. And when it takes a turn into ID4-, War of the Worlds-style sci-fi with comedy overtones, a turn most critics trashed, it becomes inspired.

And it includes inspired audio/video treats as well. An early scene, inside the alien ship, provides all sorts of eerie sounds for your speakers to chomp on. And the tumult of the last 15 minutes is loaded with sci-fi action, chases, deep crunching bass, the zapping of disintegration rays, a "big voice" sequence that reverberates through all of the speakers, and the bizarre addition of pop music that sounds absurd on paper but provides some of the funniest gags in the movie. The PSBs sailed through all of this with ease, clarity, and confidence.

The second animated feature, Happy Feet, is wildly different, turning into the sort of heavy-handed "message" picture Hollywood loves these days (it won an Oscar for it). But I can't fault its brilliant animation, picture quality, or sound. It's loaded with songs, and while all of them are beautifully recorded, it's weird to hear them sung by penguins with a passion for music! The PSBs handle all of this superbly, and kept pace step-for-step with several dynamic action sequences as well, including chases by vicious seals and killer whales, an icebreaker that will rattle your teacups, and a crunching helicopter flyover.

Musing on Music

Turning to 2-channel music playback, the VisionSound 400s and SubSeries subwoofer sounded quite forward at first, with excessive presence and constricted depth. Soloists, in particular, were projected well in front of the plane of the speakers. Worse, this was accompanied by an emphasis in the midrange-low treble region that added a hard edge to the sound. I often found myself listening to the VS400s at a lower level than I prefer. I also tried the VisionSound VS300s in front on stands, and they sounded essentially the same as the VS400s.

But I had been listening to the speakers with the grilles removed. Most speakers I have reviewed sound better this way, so I hardly gave it a second thought. But at that point I took a close look at the measurements, which had just been completed, to see if anything there would explain the problems I heard. Sure enough, without the grilles the frequency response had a broad rise from about 2kHz to 6kHz. It was only about 1.5-2dB. This might not sound like much, but it falls in region of the human ear's maximum sensitivity. With the grille in place, our measurements showed that this hump in the response was substantially reduced.

Putting the grilles back in place not only improved the measurements, but made a huge difference in subsequent listening tests as well. The excess forwardness and glare were gone. Now all of the positive characteristics of the VS400s were evident. And there were plenty of them.

Given the size of the enclosures and the tall and thin cabinets, I expected to hear serious, box-like colorations. I did not. No nasality on vocals. No midbass resonances. No metallic aftertaste. The aluminum enclosures appear to be well damped.

The top end was also very sweet sounding. There was no fizziness, no excessive sibilance, and no hint of metal-dome tweeter-itis. I prefer a little more air and openness in the treble than the VS400s provided, but a little softness at the top end is far preferable to hyped-up highs.

At first, the SubSeries 5i subwoofer sounded sloppy on bass transients, and while I had noted the same limitation with film playback, it was more obvious and more distracting on two-channel music. But when I repositioned it slightly it tightened up dramatically. I kept it against the wall, but moved it out from the corner by a few feet down the long dimension of the room. It was still was no world-beater in output capability, and its response remains AWOL below 35Hz. But in the new location it was now downright impressive for a small, $549 sub. Nothing magic here, but if your room and setup are right it will provide satisfying performance on both music and films.

The VS400s also imaged beautifully. My first reaction was to check to make sure that the center channel was not on. It wasn't. The lateral positioning of voices and instruments was as precise as I've heard in this room from other high quality speakers. Centered vocalists were firmly anchored between the left and right channels. Before I added the grilles the sound lacked depth, but with the grilles in place the soundstage opened up in all dimensions. Have I heard better? Yes. Did I feel I was missing something important in the PSB's soundstaging? No. And my concerns about the cabinet's affect on soundstaging were laid to rest.

As with movie playback, I would have liked a little more air and openness on the top end with music. And the addition of the grilles did add a couple of narrow dips in the response between 7kHz and 10kHz–not serious enough to add any roughness to the response or obvious dulling, but enough to soften the sound a bit further. But I don't recommend using the + position of the contour switch to overcome this, at least not on music. It appeared to reintroduce some of the same problems that the addition of the grilles eliminated!

"The lateral positioning of voices and instruments was as precise as I've heard in this room from other high quality speakers"

But the slight loss at the top end with the grilles in place was more than worth it. Not only in sound, but in looks as well. Without the grilles, the cabinets look, well, unfinished. With them, they're sleek.

It may seem odd that, without grilles, the PSB VisionSound system sounded fine on movie soundtracks but unpleasant with music. But there are several factors at work here. I sit slightly to the left with films but dead center for music. The room's contributions to the sound with several speaker channels operating are likely to be different than with just a two-channel pair. And there is a differences between phantom center images with two-channel music and the hard center used for movie soundtracks. Each of these factors, individually or in combination, could account for this perceived difference.

Conclusions

While the VisionSound system is a bit more expensive than you might expect to pay for conventional box speakers that provide equivalent performance, such tall, slender designs do fill a real need in the marketplace. Cosmetically, they disappear in to the room in a way that traditional designs cannot. Sonically, the PSB VisionSounds will disappear into your movies and music as well. They are fine performers. Just remember to keep those grilles on!

Highs

  • Big soundstage on multichannel soundtracks
  • Small and inexpensive subwoofer is surprisingly effective on most program material
  • Low midrange coloration and sweet top end

 

Lows

  • Lacks a bit of air and openness on the top end
  • Subwoofer's bass extension is limited
  • Off-axis coloration from the horizontal center channel speaker
  • Pricey (system as a whole) compared to conventional box speakers

Thomas J. Norton
Ultimate AV

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