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PSB Alpha T20 Loudspeaker

It’s hard to believe that Paul Barton, founder of PSB, launched his Alpha range speakers all the way back in 1991. Unpretentious in style but heavy on performance, Alphas have had a remarkable run—perennial crowd-pleasers for the budget-minded, and the blue-plate backbone of the company’s loudspeaker lines since their introduction. But thirty years is thirty years—advancements in speaker engineering, materials, and production made an update of the venerable Alpha too big a target to pass up. 

Rather than releasing a mere facelift, PSB embarked on a serious ground-up re-design. Here’s what the company’s been up to: New woofer cones are equipped with rubber surrounds made from a textured polypropylene compound for extended frequency response and minimal cone breakup; Alpha’s ferrofluid-cooled 0.75″ (19mm) tweeter is also new, equipped with a neodymium magnet for high sensitivity and greater power handling. The tweeter is mounted in a shallow waveguide to smooth the transition between the tweeter and mid/woofer at the crossover point. Of note, the tweeter is placed below the woofer on some models, which, in concert with the fourth-order Linkwitz-Riley crossover, yields a uniform soundfield that is very forgiving of listening position. 

The precision-machined cabinets have also been revamped with new combinations of wall thicknesses and bracing to better control resonances. The internal damping material employed is derived from more expensive PSB models and positioned for optimum effectiveness. Ultra-thin magnetically attached grilles have been designed to be more acoustically transparent. Threaded spikes are provided for the footers. Available in simulated black ash and walnut finishes, the range also includes five-way, gold-plated binding posts. 

The latest family of Alphas includes a pair of two-way compacts, the P3 and P5 ($219 and $399 the pair, respectively). For multichannel or home-theater aficionados there is also the C10 center-channel speaker ($349 each) More recently a pair of DSP-controlled powered subwoofers has also been introduced—the Alpha S10 ($549) and the Alpha S8 ($449), both bass-reflex designs. The sole floorstander and the subject of this review is the 32″-tall T20—a small footprint, two-way in a bass-reflex configuration priced at $649 per pair. The T20 incorporates a pair of the newly developed 5.25″ mid/bass drivers that are outfitted with dual-layer voice coils and neodymium magnets. The T20 tips the scale at about 26 pounds. 

Like its predecessors, the T20 targets musicality first and foremost. Everything else pretty much falls tunefully into place. Like nearly all PSB efforts I’ve heard, the T20 is a very approachable loudspeaker sonically. Like a golden retriever it’s hard not to like. Its overall character restates a familiar and welcome theme—classic PSB balance, meaning neutrality with warmer tonal currents that take listeners on a wide-ranging journey that always resolves back to the midrange. But don’t get the impression that T20 is somehow sedate. Its transient speed, dynamics, and output put that idea to rest in a hurry. Classical, chamber, jazz, or rock, the Alpha T20 has no preferences and reveals few weaknesses. Which reminds me, PSB notes that final voicing was done by Paul Barton himself—an avuncular gentleman to all who know him, but a stone-cold crack-shot when he takes aim at this segment.

Soundstaging is neither laid-back nor overly forward, although image dimensionality is a bit less impressive. Compared with its forebears, however, midrange integrity has improved, as have dynamic output and low-level detail. Driver coherence is excellent as per PSB tradition, the tweeter blending relatively smoothly with the mid/bass drivers. 

This coherence was underlined in my mind when I listened to recordings of piano and cello. Both instruments are wide-ranging and can reveal the changing character of transducers as they ascend and descend the octaves. The T20 was impressively consistent on this score. Upper frequency response was also very good and as extended as I’ve heard in this range of small two-way towers. At only 32″ tall, the T20 didn’t exhibit any serious sense of height restriction. 

 

Vocal naturalism and detail were the prime beneficiaries of the T20’s largely balanced behavior. Notwithstanding the fact that I enjoy listening to singers, vocalists with their broad multi-octave range provide a good tool for evaluating midrange and upper midrange performance and coherence. Ana Caram’s vocal on “Fly Me To the Moon” remained a lovely, breezy, bossa nova take on this classic tune. The throaty, torchy vocals of Holly Cole were equally expressive, and even low-level details like the handclaps during Cole’s version of “Jersey Girls” sounded fleshy and alive rather than like wood blocks struck together. At $649/pair for the entire speaker, one can’t help but wonder how expensive the tweeter could be; yet on a track like Harry Connick Jr’s “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” it just sounded expensive. Connick’s simple open arrangement of vocal, piano, acoustic bass, and sax was persuasively transparent, quick on transients, and nicely controlled overall.

Bass response was steady with extension dipping into the forty-cycle range and perceivably a bit lower. And yes, pipe organ was actually welcome here. Bass was not always as sharply defined or as specific in pitch as it is through my reference system, but neither did it veer too far off the path. Port overhang was minimal—quite an achievement in itself given the output on hand. With the Lumin S-1 Music Player as my source, I listened on Tidal to the newly remastered MQA of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” and the bass guitar foundation had the requisite weight and grip that so nicely anchor the rhythm track. The T20 may not have the fastest response in the low end, but neither are the low frequencies so heavy that they disproportionately obscure midrange resolution. Fact is, whether listening to a stereo or attending a live event, low bass always masks mid and upper octave information to an extent. The question for audiophiles is to what extent does that masking remain a natural and legitimate part of the recording? From what I was hearing, the Alpha T20 was attaining a musical balance that rivaled anything I’ve experienced in or around this price segment.

A quick side note. When it comes to budgets and bass extension, it’s well worth considering your own musical tastes and biases. You may be a dyed-in-the-wool stand-mount advocate, who, above all else, relishes the resolution of a desktop monitor or compact, and is willing to sacrifice the foundation and reinforcement that the bottom two octaves provide. And that’s fine. You also probably don’t listen to Mahler, big band, pipe organ, or watch “Terminator” movies on a home theater, either. Not to sermonize, but if you’re dabbling in this price range and think your choices are limited to bass-restricted compacts, remember the T20.

In dynamic output, I showed the T20 little mercy during my evaluation, giving it doses of the Beatles 50th Anniversary version of “Come Together,” the Police’s “Murder By Numbers,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” and for good measure Aaron         Copland’s “Fanfare For The Common Man.” I subjected T20 to cone-popping, baffle-cracking output levels. Did the Alpha pack up its tent and go home? Did it cry uncle? Nope. The T20 was nothing short of faithful, whether reproducing kettle drum pitch, or rock rhythm-section timing, or random orchestral crescendos. And it managed these feats with image clarity and little compression. Certainly impressive for a loudspeaker whose largest transducer is barely over five inches in diameter.

At these humble price points you’d expect some “issues” to crop up, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. This isn’t a “grail” loudspeaker in the bespoke, hand-rubbed sense of loudspeakers with five- or six-figure price tags (you know the brands). So yes, the midbass was a little over-baked at times, perhaps a product of enthusiastic port-tuning or cabinet resonances. Soundstaging could be more definitive, and there was a hint of dryness in the upper mids and a slight lower treble uptick. However, imperfections aside, there’s no mistaking just how high PSB has aimed with the T20. While mass-market options tend to be all over the map sonically, the PSB (and to be fair, some other notables) adhere to high-end tradition. It’s the inherent naturalism of the absolute sound that binds the best speakers together—from the modest to the mega.

This is a remarkable time to be in the market for budget loudspeakers, a golden time actually. The Alpha T20 is among a select few leading the charge. It takes the concept of blue-plate, budget, modest, humble, and well, okay, cheap, and turns it on its ear. The performance and musicality it tenders will make you feel like a big spender when you gobsmack your more high-falutin’ “Big Rig” audio friends. Finally, regarding pricing, you can’t blame PSB for boasting that when adjusted for currency inflation the new Alpha actually retails for less than the original Alpha. I’ve got news for you, PSB. You could have charged more. A speaker that just flat-out picks up your spirits.

Specs & Pricing

Design: Two-way, bass-reflex
Drivers: 0.75″ aluminum dome tweeter, (2) 5.25″ polypropylene woofers
Nominal impedance: 8 ohms
Sensitivity: 90dB
Dimensions: 6.75*” x 32.5″ x 9.4″
Weight: 26 lbs.
Price: $649/pr.


PSB SPEAKERS
633 Granite Court
Pickering, Ontario L1W 3K1
Canada
(905) 831-6555
psbspeakers.com

By Neil Gader

Writer

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