How high should our expectations be for a $279 speaker? Most of us would say, “Not very.” However, when it’s a ground-up redesign of the venerable PSB Alpha, one of the high-end’s featherweight darlings, expectations run very high, indeed. As it turns out, the new Alpha B1 delivers. This is not exactly breaking news for a company with such consistently high standards. What is news is just how much this pipsqueak delivers—and for so little dough. In this respect, it reminds me of another Canadian gatecrasher of a few years ago, the Sound Dynamics RTS-3. Roughly similar in size and configuration, it once was a blue-plate fave of Harry Pearson. I owned a pair and enjoyed the hell out of them. Curiously, the RTS-3s had a list price of $280, and the B1 clocks in at $279. Hmm.
Any way you look at the new Alpha, there’s confirmation of evolutionary nips and tucks. Outwardly, the enclosure has received “lifestyle” smoothing and contouring. Internally, volume has been increased by ten percent, while the port has been re-angled to minimize colorations and distortions. The .75" aluminum-dome tweeter has been refined for greater bandwidth and smoother dispersion, and the all-new 5.25" injection-molded metalized-polypropylene woofer sports a deeper basket and a more rigid dampedrubber surround. Both are said to reduce breakup modes.
Maybe I’m just not a very nice person, but when I get a really tiny speaker in for review my impulse is not to baby it. The first piece of music I cue up will definitely not be accordion polka favorites or the world’s greatest pan flute encores. I look for material that will dynamically stress the li’l darlings and show up weaknesses. When Evgeny Kissin lays into “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” from Pictures at an Exhibition [RCA], I expect lightening-bolt hammering on the keyboard, gently tempered with the most delicate of trills. Unexpectedly, the B1 sailed through this gauntlet intact, with genuine sensitivity to the microdynamic gradations of Kissin’s touch and only a hint of compression. Frankly, it’s an odd sensation to hear Steve Winwood’s The Finer Things [Island] played at such levels by such teeny speakers, and I was left pondering what it would take to blow these plucky ninepounders off their Target stands. Fact is, I had thoroughly misjudged the breadth of the B1’s dynamic envelope and SPL limit. And this without a subwoofer! (See sidebar.)
Tonal neutrality is what one expects from PSB, and, even at this price point, the B1 has a predominantly honest voice that strikes a pleasant balance between articulation and extension. During Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 [EMI], Itzhak Perlman’s Strad possessed the saucy brio and transient spring off the bow that defines this flashy piece. And when the orchestra surges during the closing moments, the articulation of Perlman’s warp-speed arpeggios sparkled through.
On female vocals, I noted a small dip in the presence range, which lit up the lower treble somewhat and slimmed down Dianne Reeves’ full-figured vocal during “How High The Moon” from the Good Night, and Good Luck soundtrack [Concord Jazz]. But the stand-up bass had genuine pitch and timbral energy— not just an indeterminate pulse. Ultimately, of course, the B1 can’t move the volume of air of a larger design or articulate the lowest octave, but it does a surprisingly respectable job capturing the rich sonorities of baritone Thomas Hampson during “Brief Awakening” on Kerner Lieder [Warner Classics].
Oddly the representation of images on the soundstage was a bit amorphous—not unnatural mind you, but not transparently precise. However the impression of unshakable point-source coherence—a key attribute for any well-engineered small speaker—remains a strength of the B1.