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PSB Alpha VS21 VisionSound review: Big base price for small sound base

The PSB Alpha VS21's skimpy features lineup and so-so movie sound quality don't live up to expectations considering its hefty price.

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Ty Pendlebury
Steve Guttenberg
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Ty Pendlebury

Editor

Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.

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Steve Guttenberg

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.

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6 min read

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While squat, rectangular sound bases have existed for just as long as long, rectangular sound bars, bases have taken a lot longer to gain popularity. Yet in the last 12 months we've seen the category expand significantly, with established speaker brands like PSB now getting into the act.

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6.8

PSB Alpha VS21 VisionSound

The Good

The PSB Alpha VS21 is an unusually compact sound base speaker with stereo 1-inch dome tweeters, 2-inch midranges, and 4-inch woofers; there's a dedicated RCA subwoofer output; the stereo analog, optical digital and Bluetooth connectivity options should satisfy most buyers.

The Bad

The PSB Alpha VS21 lacks bass or treble controls, the sound is on the overly warm side of neutral. The unit could transfer bass energy (vibration) to your TV, if it fits on top in the first place. No controls on the unit itself and the display isn't fully decipherable without the manual.

The Bottom Line

The PSB Alpha VS21's skimpy feature lineup and so-so movie sound quality don't live up to expectations considering its hefty $600 list price.

The PSB VS21 is a handsome sound base that has the single aim of making your TV sound better. It certainly does -- making TVs sound better isn't difficult for any decent external speaker -- and it's certainly well-made.

However, there there are two main issues with this speaker: cost and size. The PSB is outperformed by models half its price, and the unit's small size means it can't be paired with expensive TVs. The Pioneer SP-SB03 and Yamaha SRT-1000 , for example, cost hundreds less, offer better performance, and are able to hold much larger televisions.

Design

The PSB VS21 is part of a new breed of TV speaker that goes a step beyond the "dinky" plastic speakers of old and veers into "proper" hi-fi territory. The PSB looks similar to the well-established Pioneer SP-SB03 , which is also made of MDF and covered with a black-ash wrap.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Unlike most of the models available at the price, or less, the PSB is unusually small at only 21.5 inches across, 3.5 inches tall and 13 inches deep. PSB initially said the speaker would support TVs with screen sizes up to 60 inches, but the company has now changed its recommendation to "up to 88 pounds."

We tried four different TVs of different sizes, and even the 40-inch Samsung UN40F5000 poked out over the sides (bad). If you have a Vizio of recent vintage -- such as the E550i we tried -- you're on safer ground but definitely measure your stand first: you want at least an inch around each edge of the base.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The front of the unit boasts a large glossy display, but despite the massive amount of real estate, it sports only a series of colored LEDs whose color schemes might require a look at the manual to decipher. No informative alpha-numeric characters here!

Sarah Tew/CNET

Unusually and frustratingly, the PSB offers no controls of any kind -- not even a power switch. If you lose the remote control, you are out of luck. The remote itself is basic though attractive. You may need to check the manual to work out how to use some of its functions -- for instance, the Setup button doesn't work unless you hold it down for five seconds. Why? Who knows?

Features

The PSB V21 is a stereo sound base that offers a three-way speaker configuration: 1-inch soft dome tweeters, 2-inch midrange drivers and 4-inch bass units mounted underneath. The company claims it's capable of a 55Hz to 23kHz response, and if you want more bass than that, it offers a subwoofer output.


Sarah Tew/CNET

The PSB comes with a number of different modes such as Stereo (Normal), Dialogue (Enhanced Dialogue Clarity), WideSound (Expanded Soundstage), and WideSound Plus. There's also no tone controls to speak of. Some equalization is involved with the sound modes -- especially with the crisper-sounding wide modes -- but the unit does have an on/off switch for the subwoofer output.

The VS21 offers connection via coaxial optical, digital and analog sources in addition to Bluetooth with AptX. The unit can decode Dolby Digital though not DTS.

Setup

Alpha VS21 installation is simply a matter of hooking up your analog RCA or Toslink optical digital cables; there are no speaker or subwoofer levels to calibrate or adjust.

It's nice that the Alpha VS21 has a built-in Dolby processor, but no DTS, which is found on many more Blu-rays than Dolby, so when you first hook up the Alpha VS21 make sure your Blu-ray player, satellite, cable box, and so forth sends PCM, not Bitstream digital to the Alpha VS21. If you don't make that adjustment, the Alpha VS21 won't produce sound from DTS-encoded movies or any program material.

Performance

For a speaker as small as the Alpha VS21, it sure makes a big and weighty sound. There's lots of bass -- maybe too much at times -- and no easy way to reduce it. There was so much bass we were never tempted to hook up a separate subwoofer.

The stereo spread was fairly narrow, and activating the WideSound processing only opened up the soundstage a bit. The Alpha VS21 doesn't come close to producing the sort of room-filling sound we heard from Yamaha's SRT-1000 , for example.

Sarah Tew/CNET

We started auditions with Talking Heads' excellent "Stop Making Sense" concert Blu-ray. Tina Weymouth's bass and Chris Frantz' drum kit sounded powerful, though David Byrne's vocals and guitar were subdued and restrained. Switching over to the Yamaha SRT-1000 brought the entire band back to life; the difference in sound quality wasn't the least bit subtle. The Alpha VS21 has a softer presentation, bass is more prominent, and the soundstage is rather flat. The SRT-1000 separated each instrument more clearly in the mix, and the sound was more dynamic and exciting.

We credit some part of the SRT-1000's superiority to its onboard Dolby and DTS processing, and it definitely did a better job using the "Stop Making Sense" Blu-ray's DTS MA soundtrack. Yet even with both units using downmixed PCM, the SRT-1000 still sounded better than the Alpha VS21.

With the "Master and Commander" Blu-ray, we went straight to the naval battle scenes where volleys of cannon balls blast through the sides of wooden ships. The Alpha VS21 communicated the visceral force of the mayhem, but the SRT-1000 had greater impact, the stereo image spread was wider, and there was a good sense of depth to the soundstage. The Alpha VS21 sounded smaller and dimensionally flatter. Dialogue was full-bodied however, and the Alpha VS21's two dialogue-enhancement modes did provide modest improvement in intelligibility. The SRT-1000 has a brighter more immediate sound, dialogue sounded leaner, but very clear; the Alpha VS21 sounded muffled by comparison.

Our opinion of the Alpha VS21 improved when we started listening to classical music with pianist Joel Fan's "Dances for Piano and Orchestra" CD. The piano was big and rich, and the orchestra climaxes were thrilling. Few sound bars or bases distinguish themselves with classical music, but the Alpha VS21 did. We were also pleased with the sound with mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile's "Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1" CD. Thile's fleet-fingered renditions sounded clear and clean. The SRT-1000's sound was too bright and lean with classical music.

With electronica from Aphex Twin's "Syro" CD, the SRT-1000's more vibrant sound was preferred over the Alpha VS21's softer balance. Neither sound base was at its best with either rock or dance music; we'd have to give the nod to the SRT-1000 but only at low volumes. At louder volumes, and with "stereo" mode enabled, the VS21 wins out over the competition.

The Yamaha SRT-1000 was verging on nasty with Bluetooth music though -- whether it was singer-songwriter confessionals or brutal metal sludge, it had a steely edge to vocals which was unpleasant -- while the PSB's warmer, less-excitable nature suited the discrepancies of Bluetooth and made music actually listenable. While the PSB still produced too much bass, this is the speaker to buy if you ever want to stream Bluetooth--especially at party volumes.

One issue you may come across with sound bases as a category, as opposed to sound bars, is that by their nature they can transfer vibration to the television. While there are so many caveats here it's difficult to test consistently -- it depends on the material played and your own TV -- we did hear vibrations transferred to our Vizio TV. At the start of the Decemberists "Till The Water's All Gone" there is a brief bass pulse that sent the Vizio E550i into a shuddering frenzy that we couldn't replicate with the same song and the Pioneer SP-SB03.

Conclusion

The PSB Alpha VS21's rich sound will no doubt appeal to some buyers, but we craved more energy and excitement than this sound base can deliver. Couple this with its small size and relatively high cost, and rivals like Pioneer and Yamaha offer products that are much more enticing.

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6.8

PSB Alpha VS21 VisionSound

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Sound 7Value 7