Canadian speaker manufacturers not only have a knack for producing great designs, they do some of their best work at the low end of the price spectrum. In the early '90s, PSB introduced one of the best of that elite range, the Alpha. All of the audiophile magazines went gaga over the humble-looking design, and now PSB has updated this classic, dubbing it the Alpha B--the B standing for bookshelf. This $249-per-pair model offers extraordinary clarity, razor-sharp imaging, and rich sound. OK, the original Alpha sounded sweet, but it was a blah-looking thing: just a plain box with a nonremovable cloth grille. The new speaker's level of fit 'n' finish creams the older model's, and you can get yours in either black or cherrywood-grain vinyl wrap.
We like the gently curved, perforated steel grille--it's a nice styling touch--and the speakers weigh a solid 8.8 pounds each, with measurements of 11.25 inches high, 6.5 inches wide, and 9.25 inches deep. The front and rear baffles are structural plastic while the cabinet itself is fabricated from 0.63-inch-thick medium-density fiberboard.The Alpha B has a two-way, woofer and tweeter design. A 5.25-inch polypropylene woofer is mated with a 0.75-inch aluminum dome tweeter. Power handling is specified at 10 to 90 watts, though we hammered the little guys with a 125-watt-per-channel amplifier for hours on end without any ill effects. Gold-plated binding posts will accommodate bare speaker wire leads, U-shaped spade connectors, or banana jacks.
Wall mounting is an option; you can use either the keyhole slot or the 1/4-20 brass inserts. Just be aware that the B is a rear-ported design, and wall mounting may affect the speaker's bass response. For the record, we almost always prefer the sound of speakers on floorstands, so check out PSB's dedicated stand for the Alpha B, the SP25i.
The Alpha B is just the beginning of the Alpha series line. There's also a center channel, the Alpha C ($229), essentially an enlarged Alpha B with two (instead of one) 5.25-inch woofers and the same 0.75-inch tweeter; the Alpha T ($549/pair), a tower with the same speaker array as the Alpha C; and the wedge-shaped Alpha S ($399/pair) surround speakers. The Alpha Intro LR and CLR round out the line.
To save some money, you'd use the Alpha Bs (instead of the more expensive Ts) as your front and rear speakers, as well as your surrounds, then add an Alpha C in the center along with PSB's matching SubZero i ($299) subwoofer. For a little more than $1,000, you'd have a superb home-theater speaker system.Some audiophiles are fixated on something they call "transparency." They go for components with minimal distortion; transparent sound is purer and cleaner than run-of-the-mill designs.
Indeed, a heightened sense of clarity is the first thing we noticed about the PSB Alpha Bs. When we compared them to our favorite budget speakers, the $300/pair NHT SB1s, the Alpha Bs were more detailed. We ran a demo of an audiophile DVD we had a hand in producing, Sara K's No Cover, and we heard more of the more subtle low-level ambience and atmosphere of the recording venue: an old church in Manhattan. The Alpha Bs' ability to convey soft-to-loud dynamic swings without distress made them sound like larger speakers. Also, their unusually low-distortion sound was wonderfully easy to listen to for hours at a time. The Alpha Bs' precise bass definition was superior to the SB1's. The guitars and Sara's voice were more vividly presented on the Alpha Bs. Still, the SB1's richer and warmer tonal balance might tilt the balance for some buyers. They're both excellent designs.
How'd they do with movies? Well, the little speakers were champs portraying the "wetness" of rain and the rumbling thunder on the Identity DVD. They handle the rattle and hum of home-theater fun as well as any speaker in their size and price class, and their musicality is in the top ranks. In very small rooms, say less than 150 square feet, you might be able to squeeze by sans a sub.
We did most of our Alpha B listening with the SubZero i, and the sub and sat are well matched. Their sound together is a bit lean; if you like your bass rich and full, the PSB combo won't satisfy. On the other hand, their bass is swift and tight, definition on finger plucked acoustic bass is exceptional. Instead of a thick, boomy sound, you actually hear the pitches of bass and other instruments.
On the aforementioned Sara K disc, the subwoofer so seamlessly added just the right amount of deep bass, we couldn't tell where the Bs' bass was handed over to the SubZero i. We weren't aware we were listening to a sub/sat system, and that's a good thing. The Alpha B is enthusiastically recommended for audiophile-oriented home-theater buyers on a modest budget.