When there’s a car accident on a major road, traffic invariably slows to a crawl, even if the accident hasn’t blocked the road. This is born less of altruism than of deeply seated, morbid curiosity. I’m proud when I stay strong and breeze right by the mayhem without so much as a fleeting sidelong glance, but deep down, I want to look. When my gaze remains fixed straight ahead, I’m fighting nature.
Something similar happens when most of us, especially non-audiophiles, hear deep bass. The rest of the sound could be utter and complete garbage, but without fail, there will be those who find themselves entranced by the superfluous bass a speaker can produce.
Recently, I played my father the soundtrack score of The Dark Knight, by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer, through an epic pair of Vivid Audio’s Oval V1.5 two-way loudspeakers ($7500 USD per pair). I had his rapt attention for 30 seconds before his gaze returned to the obscure book he’d been perusing -- he’d realized that he wasn’t hearing properly deep bass. No matter that he probably hasn’t heard sound that good in his entire life -- he lost interest when he didn’t hear sounds in range that comprises a mere 0.0025% of the range of human hearing. Hmm.
The Alpha PS1
The Canadian company PSB has been making loudspeakers for 40 years. They have built quite a reputation for not only excellent sound, but for affordability as well. It’s a source of pride for founder Paul Barton to make an inexpensive speaker sound its best. Barton says that he uses his new Alpha PS1 powered speakers every day, for a good portion of each day. For a man whose flagship Synchrony One ($5500/pair) remains one of the bargain speakers of high-end audio, the fact that he listens to his least expensive product ($299/pair) day in and day out is significant.
The little PSBs arrived in a smaller box than I was expecting -- one that didn’t weigh very much at all. The Alpha PS1 measures 7.7”H x 4.4”W x 6.8”D, and the pair of them weigh only 8.4 pounds. They feel very solid in hand, being constructed of a glossy ABS plastic. The bass-reflex design makes use of an oblong vent at the top rear of each enclosure to maximize the low-frequency response. On the rear of the left speaker are: a volume control; RCA, stereo miniplug, and DC power inputs; outputs for a subwoofer, the right speaker, and USB power (no input here). The right speaker has only an input jack for the signal from its sibling. Everything that’s needed is included in the box.
The PS1 makes use of a 0.75” ferrofluid-cooled, aluminum-dome tweeter and a 3.5” midrange-woofer with a metalized-polypropylene cone, crossed over to each other at 2.1kHz. These drivers are designed and made by PSB and are exclusive to the Alpha PS1 -- they’re not models already used in PSB’s similarly configured Alpha LR1 bookshelf model. More significant, PSB tailored the drivers to play nicely with the PS1’s 20Wpc class-D internal amplifier. Paul Barton explained that an engineer must overdesign a passive speaker in order for it to work seamlessly with a wide range of amplifiers, which results in compromises in overall performance for the sake of such compatibility. In the PS1’s case, Barton was able to design the drivers and amp to work optimally with each other. The result is a complete loudspeaker design, with every manufactured unit leaving its factory in China sounding as Barton intended.
The PS1s are more flexible than at first meets the eye. Those wanting actual low bass can easily use the subwoofer output with PSB’s forthcoming matching powered sub, the SubSeries 100 (expected to cost $249 when released this fall); the company will also release a USB dongle featuring Bluetooth’s aptX audio codec. Unlike many Bluetooth audio solutions, aptX uses lossless compression (think a wireless version of Apple’s Lossless codec) to offer CD-quality sound without wires. Plugged into the PS1’s USB port, the dongle will allow the user to wirelessly connect the speakers to a computer or mobile device. And the PS1s put themselves to sleep when not being used, then wake up when they sense a signal. So what at first struck me as a pretty straightforward design turned out to be quite cleverly thought out.
It’s a fine line between the reasonably portable and the decidedly not. The Alpha PS1s are firmly in the former category. First, I used them on my desk for a month or two. They also wound up on top of a bureau, and on top of a bookshelf. Eventually, I realized I could easily toss them in a bag and bring them along when I traveled. So the little guys made appearances outside at a friend’s beach house, and on my parents’ kitchen table for a night or two. I once called Audioengine’s notably larger A5+ loudspeaker ($399/pair) an eminently “livable” design -- the PSBs take the concept a step further and, in some respects, do it better. Hook up a smartphone or a computer via the included miniplug cable and hit Play.
With many similarly sized powered speakers, such as Audioengine’s A2 ($199/pair), my first reaction on firing them up has been, “Wow, there’s some decent bass here!” Of course, such speakers don’t actually offer any deep bass -- their frequency response likely falls off of a cliff at 100Hz -- but what most designers do is jack up the midbass by quite a few dB to fool listeners into thinking it’s deep bass. In most instances, this works. The A2s sound as if they have reasonable bass.
The Alpha PS1s did not. Even though Paul Barton conceded that there’s a bump of about 1dB in the frequency response at around 100Hz, the PS1s sounded pretty bass-light in comparison with the Audioengine A2s. Those expecting exaggerated faux bass would do well to add the SubSeries 100 when that becomes available.
But I think the sub is unnecessary. I say that because the PS1 is the best compact powered speaker -- and, especially, the best computer speaker -- available today. That’s a bold claim, but hear me out. A 2.1-channel speaker system leaves you with a subwoofer that you have to inconveniently stow on the floor somewhere, with another few unsightly cables to snake around. And larger speakers, while producing more substantial bass, take up a hell of a lot more space on a desk. I found the PS1s hit the perfect sweet spot on the curve defined by size and performance. Tilted up by about 15° on PSB’s optional PTB-1 tilt bases ($29.99/pair), which screw into the speakers’ bottoms, the PS1s were solid desktop performers. Placing them right up against a wall, on the back of my desk, as I first did, the PS1s sounded merely good -- say, computer-plus performance. But to maximize the PS1’s performance, as with a traditional set of floorstanding speakers, bring them out as far as possible from the front wall and spread them way the hell apart. The resultant sound was pretty startling.
The PS1’s bespoke drivers are a steal at this price. Unlike the many small speakers that make voices sound noticeably thin and hollow, the PS1s were a delight. “All You Want,” from Dido’s No Angel (16-bit/44.1kHz ALAC, Arista), rang out through them with surprising fullness but also with fine delineation of midrange detail. At this price, it’s often a victory if merely some semblance of a coherent voice manifests between the left and right speakers. In this instance, however, I could clearly pick out the hugely creepy opening of this song, when the British singer breathes “I like to watch you sleep at night.” It did not sound at all threadbare, and had a mild shot of warmth, along with doses of delicacy and air. Impressive stuff for a $299/pair of speakers that work -- and that sounded great -- right out of the box.
More common fare for a computer speaker is something like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s “Can’t Hold Us,” from The Heist (256kbps MP3, Macklemore), or Kanye West’s “Hold My Liquor,” from his darkly indulgent new album, Yeezus (256kbps MP3, Roc-A-Fella). Even with both cuts being 256kbps MP3s, there was plenty to be enjoyed. Paucity of bass aside, the Alpha PS1s played both tunes plenty loudly -- and cleanly. Yes, outright detail and resolution were down with the compressed files, but not significantly. And the size of sound that the PS1s could throw out was laudable -- both songs sounded wide and deep. Nor did the speakers distort, even when I pushed them beyond their comfort zone. The PSBs demonstrated their limits with a gradual fattening of the lower frequencies and dull chuffing from their rear ports. But with only a pair of 3.5” midrange-woofers and a list price of just $299, there are obviously going to be some limitations.
Going the other direction, I challenged the PS1s’ resolving abilities with a high-quality binaural recording from David Chesky’s Dr. Chesky’s Sensational Fantastic and Absolutely Amazing Binaural Sound Show! (16/44.1 ALAC, Chesky). “Dancing Flute & Drum” is appropriately titled: a single drum is fixed at the right side of the soundstage, as a flutist meanders from left to center and back again. The drum is struck with considerable violence over the course of the track, but even at high volumes, the PS1s didn’t cry for mercy. It’s unlikely that, even by mistake, users will blow up these speakers. And the dancing flute illuminated the sheer size of the recording venue as it ventured to and from the mikes in the binaural Kunstkopf recording instrument. In all, the little PSBs did well at serving up compelling nearfield performances.
While all of this might invite thoughts of using an external digital-to-analog converter, such as AudioQuest’s DragonFly, I think that’s no more than a luxury option.
There’s not a lot of competition for the PS1. The Audioengine A2, a pair of which my mother makes frequent use of, costs $100 less. The PSBs offer deeper bass, a subwoofer output, and a USB port. The PS1s were noticeably more resolving than the A2s, without having quite the Audioengines’ midrange lushness. The larger A5+, for $100/pair more, offers more bass and can play louder than the PS1s. Moreover, their remote-controlled convenience makes them an anywhere-in-the-house product, whereas the PSBs were more at home on a desktop. But I maintain that the PS1 is the speaker to match with a computer.
PSB’s Alpha PS1 is the perfect desktop companion, and $299 is a paltry outlay for speakers with so much engineering tucked into them. Their evenhanded sound stands in contrast to those of many competing desktop speakers that portray themselves as being more full-bodied than they really are. Yet the PS1s never once sounded thin, clinical, or anemic. Their connectivity is flexible and forward thinking, while their Auto Off feature means that you can plug them in and never have to think about them again. They just worked, and quite well. And if they meet Paul Barton’s expectations daily, odds are they’re more than sufficient for everyone else. Kudos, PSB.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers -- Audioengine A2 and A5+
- Source -- Apple MacBook Pro running Songbird and iTunes
PSB Alpha PS1 Powered Loudspeakers
Price: $299 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor, speakers; one year, amplifier.
PSB Speakers International
633 Granite Court
Pickering, Ontario L1W 3K1
Phone: (888) 772-0000
Fax: (905) 837-6357