PSB Alpha 5.1 System 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Speaker Systems
Written by Brian Kahn   
Friday, 01 March 2002

When I found out that PSB speakers were redesigning their most affordable line of speakers, I signed up for a review. It is easy to write glowing reviews of cost-no-object speakers (just see my review of the MartinLogan Ascent and Theater speakers), but more down-to-earth speakers offer greater challenges with greater rewards, considering that most of our readers can realistically afford the less pricey systems.

The system I reviewed consists of one pair of Alpha B’s ($249 per pair) for the left and right positions, an Alpha C ($229) in center, a pair of Alpha S ($399) for surrounds, and a SubSonic 5 ($449) performing in the .1 subwoofer position. The entire system is priced at a reasonable $1,326. The Alpha B’s reviewed were finished in a light cherry wood gran finish over an MDF cabinet. The front panel features a black metal grille and polymer baffle. The rear of the speaker sports five-way gold plated binding posts, a port opening, and both keyhole slots and threaded brass inserts to provide for a multitude of mounting options. The driver complement features a 5.25-inch woofer/midrange and a three-quarter-inch aluminum dome tweeter. This replaces the 6.5-inch woofer/midrange and one-half-inch polycarbonate dome tweeter of previous models. The smallish midrange limits the lower frequency range of this speaker to 65 Hz. The entire speaker measures a compact 11.25 inches tall, 6.5 inches wide and 9.25 inches deep, weighing 8.8 pounds, easily light enough to mount on a wall or ceiling. The overall appearance is fairly simple and modern. The front view of the speaker is about 95 percent black metal grille, with just a bit of black baffle at the bottom. There is a subtle PSB logo at the bottom of the grille on both the Alpha B and C. On the Alpha S, there is a small logo on the bottom of the panel separating the front and rear speaker arrays.

The Alpha C is basically an Alpha B with a second 5.25-inch midrange, in a horizontal, D’Appolito configuration to improve horizontal dispersion. The Alpha C, like the Alpha B, comes in either black or light cherry wood grain finish. The Alpha C measures 17.25 inches wide, 6.5 inches high and 9.25 inches deep, and weighs15.9 pounds. The larger cabinet size and dual woofer/midrange drivers extends the lower frequency response of the Alpha C to 65Hz as in the Alpha B. The Alpha S surrounds utilize a bipolar, non-ported configuration. This compact speaker measures 9.25 inches high, 6.75 inches wide and 4.75 inches deep, and weighing a light 4.9 pounds. The Alpha S comes in either a black or white textured finish and features key slots on the rear for easy wall mounting to the side or slightly behind the listening position.

Lastly, the SubSonic 5 provides the bottom end for this system. The SubSonic 5 is a compact 65 watt, 10-inch powered subwoofer system. The black ash finished cabinet measures 12-3/8 inches wide, 16.5 inches high and 14 inches deep, weighing 31 pounds. Removing the black grille exposes two two-inch ports above a front-firing 10-inch driver. The rear panel features line level inputs, high-level inputs and outputs, a power switch and continuously variable volume and crossover controls and phase switch. The SubSonic 5’s rear panel accoutrements should allow it to be easily integrated into any system.

I placed the PSB system in my home theater, replacing my MartinLogan M&K speakers. All of the PSB speakers, except the SubSonic 5, were placed on factory speaker stands. The Alpha S stands flanked the listening position with the rear-facing driver’s output bouncing off the rear wall for an even more diffuse sound field. I let the PSB’s break in for a few days with a variety of 5.1 material and various levels before I did any serious listening.

I placed the PSBs on stands, even though they are called "bookshelf speakers." I have found that stands allow for more flexibility in placement and control on boundary interactions than is possible with shelf mounting. I used black fixed-height stands provided by PSB ($99 pair). I also keep some Vantage Point stands handy as well. The Vantage Point stands come in a variety of sizes and finishes to meet most needs. The PSBs were powered by the recently reviewed Krell Theater Amplifier Standard, which was connected to a Krell Home Theater Standard 2, via Better Cables balanced Silver Serpent cables.

Music and Movies
The first movie I played was "Dead Pool" (Warner Brothers) from the "Dirty Harry" boxed set. I was impressed with the system’s ability to accurately reproduce the actors’ voices. The center channel’s dispersion was fairly wide, with the tonal characteristics changing only slightly as I moved around to various seating positions. The changes were so minor as to be unnoticeable unless I was listening closely for them. The soundstage generally extended past the speakers laterally, depth-wise, generally seeming to be limited in depth, beginning behind the physical plane of the speakers.

Next I watched a sequence from the movie "Saving Private Ryan" (DreamWorks - DTS). Towards the end of the movie, there is a battle at a bridge. I watched the scene at a moderately loud volume. The Alpha S’s provided good, enveloping surround effects. The sonic cues from the surrounds indicated a large sound field, but also provided specific, localized cues as needed. As before, the Alpha system provided good tonal accuracy. I was able to distinguish between the myriad number of voices and weaponry, while the sound of an empty clip being expelled from one soldier’s M1 Garand was immediately identifiable. The subwoofer provided tight and detailed low-end information for the explosions. The low-end extension of the subwoofer, rated to 30 Hz, was not particularly low, but remained detailed and did not bottom out at moderately loud listening levels.

Music proved to be a good match for the PSB’s. The Alpha C performed admirably on both male and female vocals. Sheryl Crow’s DVD, "Rockin’ the Globe – Live" (DTS), immediately demonstrated the Alpha’s musical abilities. The track "Am I Getting Through" features Crow on vocals and bass, accompanied by her full band. Through the PSB system, she had a great deal of presence and her voice was accurately portrayed with no annoying sibilance. The bass was fairly extended and very well defined. Being impressed with the Alpha’s 5.1 ability I quickly put on some stereo tracks utilizing only the Alpha B’s. I listened to a variety of tracks and easily concluded that the Alpha B’s greatly benefit from having the SubSonic 5 in the system. The Alpha B’s and C match one another sonically, making for a good continuous soundstage in 5.1, but both, especially the B’s, are limited in the low end and greatly benefit from the extension of a subwoofer.

The Eagles’ "Hell Freezes Over" DVD (DTS) was used to check the Alpha’s out on male vocals. As with the female vocals, the Alpha’s performed well, accurately portraying the voices without any chestiness. The soundstage for "Hotel California" was enveloping and completely surrounded me. The famous drum track was detailed but missing some of the ooomph it has on a larger system.

The PSB’s hew to the traditional, laid-back Canadian sound, which is very smooth, never harsh or brittle. The newest Alpha’s have noticeably more high-end energy than their previous iteration and more life to them.

The Downside
The Alpha system reviewed is by far the smallest 5.1 system I have had in my house. It replaced a system 10 times its price and many times its size. The Alpha’s small size mandates certain choices. The designers can choose reduced extension and dynamics in favor of accuracy, or can forego attempts at accuracy and go for extension and dynamics. The Alpha's give up some range and dynamics in their quest for accuracy -- a good call, I think. The Alpha’s cannot play at extreme volumes, nor can they provide earthshaking bass, and they probably should not be used in larger rooms. Accordingly, I would not recommend this system to someone whose main goal is to watch action movies at loud volumes. The Alphas’ restrained character is much more suited to more moderate dynamics.

The PSB Alpha system is a great value in both dollars and space. Using either criteria as a basis for judgment, there is great performance given the costs. I cannot help but to compare the PSB system to the similarly priced Paradigm Phantom ($1,400 approx) system. The Paradigm system utilizes larger tower front speakers and plays much louder with more dynamic range and extension. The trade-off is a lack of accuracy. The Paradigm system is more boomy whereas the PSB is more resolute. Both share a polite Canadian sound.

The PSB Alpha's make for a great bedroom or apartment system where accuracy is favored over volume. The PSB’s are accurate, slightly laid back and provide outstanding performance for their size. As Snoop often says, "If you have your mind on your money and your money on your mind," you should take a trip to hear the PSB Alpha speakers. They are a value worthy of your attention.
Manufacturer PSB Speakers
Model Alpha 5.1 System
Reviewer Brian Kahn

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