I must admit to a certain amount of bias in preparing for this review. I’m one of the few reviewers who can remember visiting Harry Pearson at Sea Cliff during the earlier days of The Absolute Sound and hearing him demonstrate the legendary Infinity Reference Standard (IRS), which had been designed and built under the leadership of Arnie Nudell. Each IRS consisted of a massive column of woofers coupled with a six-foot-tall line array of planar-magnetic midrange and tweeter drivers (of Nudell’s own design).
I’d sold high-end audio equipment when I was in college and thought I knew what a true reference speaker should sound like. In practice, the Infinity IRS made a massive contrast to my experience with the other reference speakers of the day, as well as to my personal investments in a series of then contemporary Quads, AR-3s, and Magneplanars. The IRS were anything but easy for an amplifier to drive, but they were worth the trouble. They were a revelation compared to the other reference speaker systems of that era, and one I would have loved to have been able to afford.
Time did move on, and rivals did emerge—some coming from the company founded by another voice from TAS’ early days, Dave Wilson. But Arnie Nudell remained one of the great innovators in the history of the high end, and I had the opportunity to review some of Arnie’s newer work when he formed a speaker company called Genesis with PS Audio co-founder Paul McGowan. I never got to review their top-of-the-line Genesis I, which sold for $70,000 back in 1995, when that was real money. However, I did get to hear the Genesis I at length, and it too became a product that I would have loved to have had the money to own.
I should be careful to note here that I’ve heard—and sometimes bought—a number of great speakers from other manufacturers over the years. And yet, I never forgot either the precedent set by IRS and Genesis speakers. As a result, PS Audio got my attention the moment that its CEO, Paul McGowan, who had partnered with Arnie Nudell, started talking about going back into the speaker business.
I got even more interested as I saw various descriptions of his design mature into what we now know as the PS Audio Aspen FR30, which is the subject of this review, and particularly when I saw that its estimated price might be affordable by high-end standards. It also became clear that the final design would come in the form of one relatively compact floorstanding speaker per channel, rather than one giant midrange-to treble speaker and a second, massive, separate subwoofer with a six-foot stack of servo-driven woofers.
Equally importantly, it became clear that the final version of the FR30 was going to be far more visually attractive than some of PS Audio’s earlier prototypes. Visual impact matters to me. I use my reference system to try to persuade my friends and visitors to get involved in the high end. While the final version of the FR30 is scarcely compact, a pair can easily fit into a large living room without dominating it and without alienating a non-audiophile wife, husband, or partner. In fact, as the photos in this review show, the final version of the FR30’s design by Studio 63 might now qualify the speaker as a sculpture that could be displayed at the Museum of Modern Art.
At the same time, it was clear that form was still intended to be subordinate to function. Paul McGowan and Chris Brunhaver, PS Audio’s lead speaker designer, described the primary goals behind their design as follows: “For a reference loudspeaker, our technical goals with the FR30 were centered around creating a system with a full-range response, large dynamic range (to try to capture the dynamics of live music without stress or strain), broad and stable imaging, and something tonally balanced and natural sounding (not fatiguing or etched).”
The final version of the FR30 is clearly designed to provide musical as well as physical beauty. The FR30 may appear to be of moderate size by high-end reference-speaker standards, but it is heavy (230 pounds) and bigger than it looks (not counting the base, it measures 10″ x 60.5″ x 25.75″). Its cabinet finish may have had some 20 coats of hand-rubbed lacquer, but its main body is a solid mix of MDF, supported by MDF bracing. Its front is also formed out of sculpted, dense, rigid, and well-damped thermoset fiberglass resin, which provides integrated, high-frequency acoustic waveguides.
The FR30 is also surprisingly practical for home use. One of its design goals is to ensure that it can be mated with virtually any good stereo or mono power amplifier, although it takes at least 100 watts per channel to exploit its dynamic range (more if you want to get its full ability to reproduce even the loudest peaks). Unlike the Infinity IRS and Genesis I, the FR30 does not use servo-driven woofers or present a complex or demanding load.
The FR30’s base is designed so it can move on sliders that come with the speaker. As I’ll explain shortly, a true reference speaker requires a lot of experimentation to get the best placement and sonic results. I don’t claim sliding a 230-pound speaker around to find that ideal location is fun, but some of my experiments with setup included the unilateral efforts of a relatively slight female friend, who has her own decided views on speaker adjustment. The base also has brass spikes with removable tips and integrated plastic feet for hard surfaces (and to aid in speaker placement).
As for the price, it did reach $28,500, but this is scarcely the pound of flesh that most competing reference speaker’s now cost, and PS Audio is planning significantly less expensive smaller versions in the future.
A Sophisticated Challenge to the State of the Art
The clean design lines of the FR30’s cabinet also conceal a lot of new technology and driver capability. The speaker’s exposed planar and woofer drivers may look somewhat conventional at first sight, but they are the products of a wide range of new approaches to speaker design. If you are wondering about the FR30’s ability to perform so well without a separate subwoofer column, the speaker does come in two distinct parts—a large woofer cabinet at the bottom and a midrange and treble cabinet that mounts above it. These two cabinets snap together easily, and they are mounted on a metal platform that has adjustable feet that use their spikes to precisely align the speaker and the angle of radiation from their midrange and treble drivers.
I suppose it is also worth mentioning in passing that the FR30 can be biwired and biamped, although PS Audio does not recommend this. I found no sonic reason to do it and ended up using a single power amp. It is not only easy to drive, but its technology includes an extremely flat impedance curve at all audible frequencies. This helps makes its nominal 87dB sensitivity sound surprisingly efficient and does so with far less trouble in the deep bass or the upper midrange than I’ve encountered in some other super-speakers. Adding a separate pair of speaker cables for the woofer and the midrange/tweeter cabinets certainly did not help the sound, and using two different types of power amps proved to be little more than an awkward way to “color” it.
I’d personally go for a higher-powered amplifier to get the best musical dynamics out of peak music passages—particularly those with organ, bass drum, bass guitar, and synthesizer. In practice, however, my listening efforts for this review make me confident you’ll find that any amplifier which can deliver 100 watts per channel into the deepest bass will be enough for many users. Moreover, the ability to use amps with up to 600 watts per channel to handle the most demanding peaks has its risks. The FR30 is efficient enough so that any prolonged use of such power may do more to damage your hearing than enhance your music.
The driver technology is highly innovative and designed from scratch for the FR30. The sealed upper cabinet uses a midrange with a 10″ planar-magnetic driver with Teonex diaphragm, and two 2.5″ planar-magnetic Teonex tweeters. As you might expect in a speaker of this quality, the crossover uses custom film capacitors and high-quality air-core inductors. The cabinet also has a rear tweeter with its own level control, and a separate baffle-step adjustment to help tailor the response to the placement in a given listening room. These adjustments are well worth experimenting with, and their limited range of adjustment is well chosen to help in setup without risking an adjustment that will degrade the FR30’s performance.
It is the planar drivers, however, that make the sound of the FR30 so exceptional. PS Audio describes these planar-magnetics as “a technology that has the speed of an electrostat with the dynamics of a cone…These ultra-low distortion drivers are equally driven with front and rear magnetic structures that offer inherent linearity through symmetrical ‘push-pull’ neodymium motor structures and directly driven ultra-low mass diaphragms with none of the cone or dome breakup, inductance modulation, or hysteresis distortion that plagues traditional drivers.”
My own listening tests found that the FR30 did live up to this prose. I was steadily more impressed by the sound of the FR30’s two planar drivers—particularly the midrange one—as I continued to listen to my own reference recordings and a wide range of streamed music, including many high-resolution recordings. I’ve heard an incredible range of different approaches to midrange drivers and tweeters over the years. They have involved everything from diamond-diaphragm tweeters and exotic metal cones to plasma transducers that seem better suited to sci-fi shows involving interstellar combat. By and large, I have preferred ribbons or planars, but even the best of these have audible limits.
The planar drivers in the FR30 proved to be consistently more revealing and more musically natural with great recordings than any of the competition I’ve heard to date, and there may be technical reasons why this is so. In a recent article, the FR30’s main designer, Chris Brunhaver, makes a point of how much progress has been made in planar design since the time of the Infinity IRS. He stresses advances in areas like target response, dispersion, and motor design. He also states that “when I look at a modern-day planar-magnetic driver compared to what was used in the old Infinity EMIMs and EMITs, we now have driver units that require less than one-tenth the power for a given output and offer far lower distortion.” Ah well, requiescet in pace, IRS and Genesis.
As for the woofer section, the woofers may look conventional from the outside, but their technical innovation matches that of the midrange and treble driver. The cabinet is remarkably well braced and is made of an extremely vibration-resistant material. This allows the FR30 to deploy a major complement of drivers in a relatively small space. The woofer section uses four 8″ woofers on the front panel, and four newly designed 10″ passive radiators on the two sides of the cabinet. PS Audio states that each woofer “is capable of 115dB output (in half space) for a single speaker at the rated power handling and woofer excursion, and so large transients and impact are correctly resolved without strain.” It also describes the individual woofer drivers as follows: “For the low end, we crafted long-throw, high-excursion woofers with massive 12-pound motor structures that match the effortlessness and transparency of the planar-magnetic drivers. To lower distortion, we employed a unique split-magnetic gap and a double-faraday ring for low linear inductance and wide bandwidth, coupled with a symmetrical double spider. Lastly, to achieve maximum linearity and deep bass extension without the compression and distortion of ports, we designed our own high-compliance passive radiators.”
At the risk of getting a bit too technical by TAS standards, Chris Brunhaver responded to some of my follow-up questions by explaining that the FR30 used such woofers because “woofers are much better than planars at moving air down low, although there can be a discontinuity between a planar midrange and cone woofer section in hybrid systems.” Chris also stated that “we used a monopole (not open-baffle) design on the planar drivers to best match the directional characteristics of the woofer and give a seamless sound. The woofers were highly optimized for low distortion and wide bandwidth to match the resolution of the planar drivers. A split magnetic gap was used to give much more linear motor force versus excursion and to avoid a motor-force-induced compression and modulation that happens with traditional magnet structures (known as force-factor modulation). Multiple faraday rings (inside the magnet and in the magnetic gap) keep the flux field stable and lower midrange distortion, low-frequency dynamic offset, and flux modulation. Combining high excursion with symmetrical suspension reduced distortion in the deep bass. Altogether, this added a resolution and texture to the bass and low midrange that complements that of the planar drivers.”
As for the passive radiators, Chris states that “the two 10″ radiators per channel behave much like a bass-reflex system, which—when designed correctly—eliminates the port compression/chuffing, coloration from resonances (from midrange leakage and port pipe resonances and distortion). Like a port, the passive radiators create a cone minimum at the 24Hz tuning frequency that we use, and there is both additional sensitivity, extension, and output gained versus a sealed box, without some of the compromises of a port.”
Granted, any claims about progress in technology do have to be kept in a real-world perspective. Innovation is irrelevant if the result does not live up to the designer’s goals and the user’s expectations. In this case, the more I listened, the more the FR30 proved to be a true reference-quality speaker and the more its sonic advances did seem to clearly be a product of its claimed advances in technology. More than that, the more it made any effort on my part to compare its sound to my now distant memories of the Infinity IRS and the Genesis I totally irrelevant. It is one of the finest reference speakers now available, and certainly one that does help define the current state of the art.
Its sonic advantages became apparent almost immediately after Paul McGowan and Chris Brunhaver set up the review pair. I don’t do serious listening to any component when the manufacturers are present. Accordingly, I let them do their setup, explain the product, and play their demonstrations—and learned a great deal about design and setup in the process—but I avoided any instant feedback. In this case, however, I had a bit of trouble remaining quietly neutral about some aspects of the FR30’s performance from my first moments of listening onwards.
I’ve heard some excellent planar designs before, as well as some great mixes of ribbon, electrostatic, and other new tweeter designs. From the start, however, the FR30’s midrange and high-frequency sound quality was the best I’ve heard from any speaker to date.
There was more detail at every level of sound, but particularly on low-level passages that faded away into silence. There was no hardening of the midrange and treble at any listening level my ears were prepared to stand. The soundstage was as good as the source material permitted in terms of imaging, width, and depth. Moreover, placing the cabinet with the midrange and treble planers high up produced many of the advantages of a line source and a surprisingly wide listening position.
The one area where I had issues proved to be more a matter of taste and setup than inherent sound quality Listening to Paul and Chris’ preferred placement position in an area in my listening room that I’d chosen more for social purposes and decor than for the ultimate in sound quality, I felt the result was just a touch bright or forward. I soon realized, however, that most of this effect came from the added level of detail and transparency in the midrange and treble. There were no areas where the sound hardened, where the midrange seemed colored or lacking resolution, or where performance altered from the lowest levels of dynamics and musical complexity to the highest. I could not hear any exaggeration or coloration on voice or musical instruments. As you might expect with a speaker with superior accuracy and resolution, close miking, the hardness of some older microphones, trace levels of upper-octave noise, manipulation of the recording by the producer, and the tendency to boost the upper-midrange level on some recordings were always apparent. But the added transparency that comes from improving any given component makes this inevitable.
The improved level of musical information with ordinary-to-good, and especially great, recordings more than compensates. This is particularly true when you are comparing different types of recording and the benefits of the best high-resolution streaming, SACDs, and DVDs. For example, this showed up clearly when I was listening to some recordings that used historical instruments. For example, try the La Petite Band recording of Vivaldi’s Le Quattro Stagioni on the SACD version from Accent 24/79.
Improvements in musical information also show up with “ordinary” CDs, which seem to sound better and better as DACs and transports improve. Here, the FR30s made a significant improvement in the overall level of musical realism in the sound of Hillary Hahn’s Brahms and Stravinsky Violin Concertos on a very ordinary but generally accurate Sony SACD (SS89649). Alternatively, if you have Qobuz, select one of the best high-resolution recordings you really admire and listen carefully to what the FR30 can do. In all these cases, the music opened up with more air and life and had a distinctly better soundstage and less coloration than I’ve heard to date from other speakers.
The FR30 could scarcely solve the problems inherent in the way any given recording was made, but time and again, it provided at least a bit more musical detail and realism. It eased the cases where some “difficult” instrument or voice seemed to be badly recorded, or some level of detail was missing. It also provided a mix of soundstage, musical realism, and imaging that let my ears focus on the recording rather than the size of the speakers, my exact listening position, and the mental (sorry, physical) health of my other components.
You don’t have to focus on the most advanced recording and streaming technology to hear such differences. If you have been an audiophile for any length of time, you probably are firmly convinced that you have already listened to the CD or LP version of Jazz at the Pawnshop (Proprius) at least one time more often than is necessary in any given lifetime. Well, I won’t tell you to be prepared for a shock, but do listen one more time to the percussion detail in Pawnshop played back through the FR30—particularly the realism of cymbals from first strike to total fade away. I think you may well feel you are hearing a better and cleaner recording.
The one caution I would give you about getting the best out of the FR30 is that it unless you have a truly large and neutral listening space, the FR30’s bass performance may outperform the component that is hardest for you to change—your listening room. I’ve deliberately avoided commenting on the FR30’s bass response so far. Not because the woofer and passive radiator technology I’ve described earlier did not produce some of the best integrated, most detailed, and deepest bass I’ve ever heard, but because most real-world listening rooms—including mine—limit the quality of that bass and the amount of low-frequency music you can hear.
This doesn’t mean the FR30 presents more set-up problems than other speakers with really good bass response. In fact, it will probably present fewer. Even if you don’t give the setup the attention the FR30 deserves, the technology of its bass drivers, passive radiators, cabinet, and crossover will probably still produce some of the smoothest, best integrated, and musically realistic bass you have heard. The fact remains, however, that below 200Hz, speaker placement really matters in almost all listening rooms. Below that frequency, the laws of physics dictate that the interactions between the room and the speaker increasingly begin to intervene, regardless of speaker make and design. I also find that the need for careful setup does increase steadily with the overall quality of the bass, particularly if you want the smoothest and most detailed bottom octaves, the most realistic dynamics, and a response that goes well below 35Hz.
A few of my friends have large, dedicated listening rooms where such problems seem minor, but in almost every case I know of getting the best bass response still requires a period of listening and adjustment.
Really expert efforts to modify or damp the room can help, at the cost of décor and the placement of the speaker and listening position, but can only do so much. There also is no simple home measurement or set of rules that I know of that either predicts or measures the best location. Short of using some form of DSP room correction, you will have to make trade-offs, and any form of room correction I’ve heard to date has some limits of its own. I’ve found that the Legacy Wavelet does a remarkably good job in most cases, and the quality of room correction is steadily improving. However, most room correction still involves its own tradeoffs in sound quality.
In short, I’m scarcely suggesting that you should not get a reference quality speaker like the FR30 and should not seek to get the truly accurate and deep bass such a speaker can provide. (In practice, a couple of listening sessions and adjustments over a period of a few days allowed me to find several areas in my listening room where the FR30 had superb deep bass response. In the process, I soon found a location for both FR30s that was close to the position where it also seemed to have optimal treble and midrange overall performance.) What I am suggesting is that you should make a really serious effort to try different speaker and listening locations with any new high-performance speaker like the FR30 and do so even if you think you have found the right sweet spot for a different speaker in the past. I also suggest that you keep trying out the sound of any adjustments in location, toe-in, and spacing once you find a sweet spot that gives you something close to the best bass in a given room.
At the risk of being labeled an audio neo-Luddite, I’d rely on listening to music over relying on measurements of frequency sweeps, displays of pink noise, or similar technical tests, unless you have a very skilled friend with a technical background who really knows what he or she is doing. As for me, I’ve found that test discs that use bass warble tones to hear and measure loudness by raising or lowering the bass frequency by one Hertz at a time can help, but only if you listen carefully to your music to check the result rather than relying on such measurements exclusively, and only if you stay focused on the overall sonic quality of music you hear rather than trying to get the most bass energy at the lowest frequency possible. More broadly, Robert Harley has some very good speaker-placement recommendations that don’t require technical measurements in his book The Complete Guide to High-End Audio, and Paul McGowan has his own guide, and a matching test disc, in his Audiophile’s Guide to Stereo.
In short, I’m trying to explain one of the reasons why Dave Wilson once called high-end audio a “sport.” The FR30 can give you bass that is at least as good as any single integrated reference speaker I’ve ever heard. But going for any high-quality speaker means you do have to play the game. You also can’t turn this set-up effort over to your dealer or an audiophile friend. They can be of great help, but letting anyone else make your final decisions is not the answer. In fact, failing to play the audio game in speaker setup is a little like hiring a tennis or golf pro to play the game for you. Achieving reference quality is a sport in which you must participate.
If you are wondering about my emphasis at the start of this review on how impressed I was with IRS Reference and Genesis I in their day, let me stress that I’ve been reviewing for far too long to let hope or nostalgia substitute for real-world performance in a constantly evolving high end. If anything, I tend to be a bit hypercritical in evaluating anything I consider for purchase. The FR30, did more than live up to my hopes, however, and one way to sum up is to state that I’m buying my review pair as another set of reference speakers. The FR30 is truly outstanding, highly recommended, and well worth the set-up effort necessary to make it perform at its best!
Specs & Pricing
Type: Three-way hybrid dynamic/planar loudspeaker
Driver complement: 4x 8″ woofers, 4x 10″ side-firing passive radiators, 10″ planar-magnetic midrange, 2x 2.5″ planar-magnetic tweeters
Sensitivity: 88dB (2.83V, 1m)
Impedance: 4 ohms (3.6 ohms minimum)
Frequency response: 28Hz–20kHz (-6dB)
Dimensions: 16″ x 60.5″ x 25.75″
Weight: 230 lbs. each (net)
4865 Sterling Drive
Boulder, CO 80301
By Anthony Cordesman
I've been reviewing audio components since some long talks with HP back in the early 1980s. My first experiences with the high end came in the 1950s at the University of Chicago, where I earned part of my tuition selling gear for Allied Radio and a local high-end audio dealer, and worked on sound systems for local night clubs, the Court Theater, and the university radio station. My professional life has been in national security, but I've never lost touch with the high end and have lived as a student and diplomat in Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, NATO, Asia, Iran and the Middle East and Asia. I've been lucky enough to live in places where opera, orchestras, and live chamber and jazz performances were common and cheap, and to encounter a wide range of different venues, approaches to performing, and national variations in high-end audio gear. I currently hold the Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and my open source analyses are available at that web site. What I look for in reviewing is the ability to provide a musically real experience at a given price point in a real-world listening room, and the ability to reveal the overall balance of musical sound qualities that I know are on a given recording. Where possible, I try to listen on a variety of systems as well as my own reference system.More articles from this editor
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