PSB Stratus Gold i.
Source: Manufacturer loan
Reviewer: Joseph M. Cierniak
Why wait until the last paragraph or so of this review? I'll say right up front that the Stratus Gold i speakers by PSB are among the finest speakers I've had the privilege to review and listen to. (Note to the editor: don't worry, Karl. There are two groups of readers when it comes to reviews: those who read the whole review and those who read only the last paragraph or two. Neither group is going to change reading habits and I want to pleasantly surprise rite former group!).
No, the PSB Stratus Gold is aren't "perfect sound forever," but "superb sound for the forehearable(!) future" is an apt description. Kudos is due (check the dictionary, "kudos" is singular) for another of the Canadian speaker manufacturers who consistently seem to be able to combine stellar performance with sensible pricing, achieving a performance/price ratio not often matched by American speaker manufacturers. And unlike some of the more tweaky American manufacturers, PSB makes no sensational claims, but rather has taken a solid, no-nonsense design (the original Stratus Gold, which goes back to 1991) and made changes that are evolutionary, not revolutionary.
If a product is good it's good right out of the box. This was the case with the PSBs. No need for any agonizing tweak-ritualized nonsense of breaking in the speakers for 32 weeks, or placing them on titanium spikes, or finding the right (and expensive) cables to maximize the synergistic effect of cable and speaker, or finding the right (and expensive) amplifier for maximizing the synergistic effect between speakers and amplifier, and all those other stupid and silly tweak practices. These speakers would sound good just out of the shipping boxes, sitting directly on the floor, utilizing any proper size (gauge) cable purchased from your local hardware store, and being driven by any appropriately powered amplifier (my choice would be one of solid state design but if you enjoy self-flagellation, be my guest and go the tube route).
Another indication of solid speaker design is the ability of a speaker to accurately play the gamut of different sounds and sound intensities that exist in the world of music. I tire very quickly of reading about the "specialized" speakers that are supposedly only at their best when playing rock music, or symphonic, or jazz, or vocal, or banjo, or whatever, ad nauseam. As you'll see, the PSB's do it all without any strain. Loud, soft, one instrument, many instruments, one voice, many voices, the PSB Stratus Gold is reproduce the music accurately, and at realistic levels. No dilettante nonsensical mystique here about magnificent sound but temperamental as to source material.
Getting the PSBs out of the boxes was a struggle, especially when doing it without any help. Why, oh why, don't more speaker manufacturers take a page out of NHT's book and use shipping containers that open from the side rather than the top? At 12.25" W, 43.25" H, 16.75" D, and 90 pounds each, the job of removing and setting up these speakers is a chore. Of course I could have waited for help, but who can wait when you've just received a set of speakers and want to hear them immediately, if not sooner?
Being a proponent of "first things first," the first thing I did after removing the speakers from the boxes was to install the aptly described, "Threaded Rubber Isolation Bumpers," or simply, feet. I then threw the optional "spiked feet" back into the box. (If anyone can reference controlled tests that have shown the advantages of spikes please contact me at email@example.com. Until then I categorize spikes with green ink on CDs and other assorted cult beliefs).
The full-length grille is removable. Its removal reveals a three-way speaker system made up of modestly-sized drivers (particularly the woofer) that belie this speaker's ability to play clean and loud. A 6.5" midrange is mounted at the top of the front baffle, a 1" tweeter mounts just below the midrange, a 10" woofer is mounted slightly below center, and a 4" port at the bottom complete the tour of the front baffle. The crossover points are at 250 Hz and 2,200 Hz. The port and the woofer make up a bass reflex configuration; the spec sheet notes that the port is wider than before, and is radiused both internally and externally to prevent audible "chuffing" under extended high-volume and low-frequency stress. As a practitioner of low and loud listening sessions I can vouch for the fact that there is no audible "chuffing."
The spec sheet shows the weights of the midrange and woofer magnets as 20 oz and 40 oz respectively. This is somewhat more than usual for drivers this size and is probably one of the reasons the PSBs are capable of such robust (loud!) sound from a modest-looking array of drivers.
The enclosure passed with flying colors my "rap it with a rubber hammer" test. Not even a hint of what I refer to as an "empty barrel sound." (Not wanting to mar the beautiful dark cherry finish, I placed a protective sheet of paper between the enclosure and the head of the hammer). As a further check of possible cabinet resonances I used a test CD (CBS CD-1 Test Disc) containing a sine wave signal that sweeps across the audio spectrum -- no extraneous cabinet resonances to report.
In addition to the standard dark cherry veneer finish, the PSBs are also available in black ash veneer (both options with solid wood tops). There's a third option, a high gloss black finish, but that's an additional $300. (No offense to PSB, but unless you're really into high gloss black I would recommend using the $300 to buy additional CDs).
There are two sets of gold binding posts per enclosure, allowing for bi-wiring or passive bi-amping. Although I could have gone the bi-wire or bi-amp route my feeling is that I want to duplicate (as closely as possible) what most audiophiles will do in the real world. And the real world is one stereo amplifier utilizing the passive crossover network that comes with the speaker.
Placing the PSBs in a room is straight-forward and requires a minimum amount of time and effort. Isn't that the way it should be? Again, a well designed, no-nonsense speaker not only produces good sound but is not temperamental when it comes to placement in a room. If you're looking for the review where the reviewer goes into excruciatingly painful and lengthy minutia about placement then I'm not your guy. Just follow the instructions provided with the speaker. The best positioning in my listening area was with the speakers 9 feet apart, slightly toed in (about 7-10 degrees), well away from the back and side walls, with the prime listening position half-way between the speakers and 9 feet back from the two speakers. Simple, huh?
Once I set up the PSBs, the ultimate compliment follows: during the time I used the PSBs as my reference speakers I found myself listening to the music and not the speakers. These speakers were so good that I had to make a conscious effort to concentrate on my reviewing responsibilities and not get lost in the music. How good were they? Let me list the ways.
The PSBs have wide dynamic range, capable of generating sound intensities that span the sound pressure level spectrum; from the quiet of Mozart's String Quartet No. 14 (Cleveland Quartet, Telarc CD-80297) to the marvelous snarling of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (Yoel Levi conducting the Atlanta Symphony, Telarc CD-80266). Containing both extremes in sound intensity within one composition is Hovhaness's Mount Saint Helens Symphony (Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony, Delos DE 3137), where the quiet of a summer day changes almost instantly to the symphonic equivalent of the fury of hell. For good measure throw in Sounds of Trains (Bainbridge BCD 6287) and the PSBs let you hear a bit of history as the steam engines of the past roar by, making their presence known with steel and steam working together, producing a loud and lovely clattering chorus of sounds. A Mozart string quartet to a steam train, talk about handling extremes in dynamic range! Okay, they can play pianissimo to fortissimo, but what about accuracy?
To me, accuracy is the ability of a speaker to reproduce the sound of anything that makes a sound so that the reproduced sound is as close as possible to the actual sound. One might make a case for accuracy being further divided into timbral and tonal accuracy, but I believe the two are interdependent and you can't talk about one without talking about the other. That can get involved (the sum of the parts may not equal the whole), so my choice is to go with accuracy, which I define as a combination of the tonal and timbral characteristics. How do I check accuracy?
Well, first I attend concerts on a regular basis, so I have a good reference as to how musical instruments sound solo and en masse. I'm not going to preach but if you don't attend the concerts you're just guessing. Using my concert listening experiences, I then check the accuracy of the speakers by playing a CD. And what CD do I play? Would you believe a Telarc recording (Andre Previn and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, CD-80126) of Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra? It's a natural, folks, and why more reviewers don't use this composition to check accuracy is beyond me.
In this neglected mini-jewel of a composition are 23 different solo instruments or groupings of related instruments, such as the flute and piccolo, or a grouping of the same instrument such as the violins. I can make a direct, uncluttered comparison of what I hear in the concert hall and what is coming from the speaker. And I am here to tell you that the PSBs are just a little closer to producing the actual concert hall sound of an instrument(s) than most speakers I've heard. As an example, they pass, with flying colors, the very difficult job of being able to accurately reproduce the (timbral and tonal differences) between the viola and the violin. There's no confusion as to which instrument one is listening to.
Accuracy really becomes critical when it comes to playing back the human voice. Playing vocals, either solo or collectively with accompaniment, or a capella, established this speaker as one of the best for reproducing the human voice. I have very seldom heard the voice reproduced quite as accurately as with these speakers. No boominess to the male voice or wall climbing shrillness to the female voice. Just the voice as close to the way you hear it at a live performance. No, it's not perfect, but it's as good as I've heard with a few very expensive exceptions, and one not-so-expensive exception, but this not-so-expensive exception is no longer manufactured.
My current reference CD for evaluating the voice is RCA/Marion Anderson/ Spirituals/RCA Living Stereo 09026-619602. It's absolutely captivating and makes one wish for more. While listening to this CD I forgot (again) that my original intention was to take notes for the review, but who's in the mood to take notes with this kind of voice emanating from such superb speakers. Perfect? No, but better is only a matter of degree, not a night and day difference.
Another area of evaluating the sound of a speaker is the soundstaging arena. Bear with me as I give what I consider the best description of soundstaging, taken from The Audio Glossary by J. Gordon Holt (The Audio Amateur Press): "The accuracy with which a reproducing system conveys audible information about the size, shape, and acoustical characteristics of the original recording space and the placement of the performers within it." The PSBs do more than their part in creating a soundstage that duplicates the sonic signature of the recording venue.
Fact: I have several Telarc recordings of the Baltimore Symphony, recorded in the Meyerhoff Hall in downtown Baltimore. Fact: I also happen to attend concerts at the Meyerhoff and know its unique and superb sonic signature. The conclusion is that I can compare a recording made at the Meyerhoff with my aural memory of what I heard when I have attended a concert at the Meyerhoff. Not a perfect comparison (attending a concert is with the hall full, CD sound is with the hall almost empty), but better than not knowing a hall's acoustic signature at all, and immeasurably better than comparing in the vacuum of never attending live concerts! The comparison speaks well for the PSBs. The resulting sound is the best recreation of a concert hall listening experience that I have heard from a single pair of box speakers!
One other thing about the PSBs that is part of their non-temperamental makeup. If the PSBs have a sweet spot it's one of the largest I've ever encountered. You can move left/ right or up/down and there's very little difference in the sound compared to staying glued to one spot. I'm not the first to say this but listening to the PSBs is having all the advantages of headphones (such as freedom of movement) without any of the disadvantages (such as sweaty ears!).
I think you get the picture by now. Absolutely wonderful sound from non-fussy, medium-priced speakers. Any shortcomings? Yep. I would prefer that the bass go lower but then that's me. My rough measurements with music and a test CD indicate useful output down to 25 Hz. I don't think it is fair to be critical of speakers that go below 30 Hz. But with the proliferation of subwoofers out there, what was once considered outstanding bass (the PSBs would qualify) is now considered good bass response. Hey, let me put things in perspective. If need be I could live with the PSBs sans a subwoofer and be a happy camper.
This is not a shortcoming per se, but the PSBs seem to accent the treble a bit. Nothing wrong with that -- it's what gives a sense of realism to the recorded sound -- but in a room with a minimum of sound absorbing surroundings (rug, curtains, sofa, etc.), there might be a bit too much treble. Of course that's easy enough to take care of with a slight adjustment of the treble tone control.
I note that the PSBs have a listed sensitivity of 88 dB and a rated impedance of 4 ohms. The combination of a somewhat low sensitivity and low impedance is going to make demands on the current-supplying capability of the amplifier, particularly as you move the volume control up to hear the bass just a tad louder! The PSB literature recommends amplifiers in the 15-300 watt range. Uh, no offense intended, but 15 watts may give you nice sound -- but forget realistic. I would respectfully suggest an amplifier of at least 100 watts per channel, preferably solid state, and appropriate cable size. The instruction manual lists gauges of 18, 16, and 14 as appropriate (depending on the length of run between the amplifier and speakers) and recommends 12 gauge for runs over 30 m, or 100 ft. I never use anything less than 12 gauge (purchased from my local hardware store or, when I want to go upscale, purchased from Radio Shack!) with the cable lengths kept to a minimum. I am simply following the cardinal rule of keeping cable length to minimum and cable gauge to as large a size as is practical. (Cable of garden hose size is not necessary or practical).
So why such outstanding sound from what on the surface seem like nothing more than just another pair of box speakers? Pardon me why I make three observations as to why.
One, it's stated in the PSB literature that Paul Barton, the man behind these speakers, is an accomplished musician. That's being modest. I consider anyone who can play the violin -- particularly solo with symphony orchestras -- as higher up the skill ladder than "accomplished." It's as simple as he knows what the real thing sounds like. I admire Paul Barton for designing speakers that reproduce music as accurately as possible, and not according to what the "experts" say.
Two, Paul Barton has taken advantage of the superb facilities of the National Research Council (NRC) facilities in Ottawa, Canada. This world-renowned facility has taken much of the guesswork (but not the work!) out of speaker design and manufacturing. You don't have to go any further than the fact that the facility uses double-blind testing to determine what is imagined and what is actually being heard. No wonder the Canadians put us to shame when it comes to consistently designing superb speaker systems that are sanely priced. Harman-Kardon has finally realized this and hired away Floyd E. Toole from the NRC!
Three, Paul Barton deserves credit for being well versed in the discipline of speaker design and staying the course with speaker evolution rather than speaker revolution. Again, it's so simple. If you have a good design (as was the original Stratus Gold) then stay with it and make the various small adjustments that make an excellent speaker better. Oh, so simple, but only a few have the talent to do it and not be sucked into replacing competence and solid design with change for marketing's sake.
I can't leave this review without making a direct comparison between the PSB Gold is and the Paradigm Studio 100s that I spoke of in such glowing terms (and rightfully so) in Issue 63. The 100s go lower -- I measured a useful output at 20 Hz -- and are definitely a more plain, vanilla-looking type of speaker. The PSBs are more aesthetically pleasing in appearance and the sound is more accurate and refined overall than the Studio 100s. Let's make sure it's understood that "more accurate and refined" is a matter of degree, not a huge difference. Still, more accurate is whar the PSB Stratus Gold is are. At $1,800, the Paradigm Studio 100s are a bargain seldom seen in the audio world. At $2,549 the PSBs are $700+ more than the Studio 100s, but include refinements that place them in the top echelon of quality sound reproducers at a sensible price. Let the listener and purchaser decide!
As you've probably guessed by now my feeling about these speakers is such that I highly recommend them. If you're in the market for spending $2,500 on speakers, give these beauties a listen. They surpass most speakers in this price class and even speakers in a higher price class. Why spend (much) more when you don't have to? -- JMC