Most of us now keep their music libraries on a computer. Often, the computer is just a waystation for our music's ultimate destination: some kind of portable device. But a lot of people also listen to music while sitting at their computer.
Speaker companies are aware of this trend; and many now offer desktop speaker systems of very high quality. Canada's PSB entered this market in late 2012 with the introduction of its Alpha PS1 powered speaker system; and in late 2012, it added the matching SubSeries 100 powered subwoofer. In Canada, the PS1 package retails for $400, and the subwoofer for $329.
This is a very attractive system, visually and sonically. The PS1 employs a 3.5" metalized polypropylene cone woofer and .75" aluminum dome tweeter in a ported gloss-black enclosure that tapers tastefully to the back. There is no grille covering the drivers; but the tweeter is protected by a waveguide in front of the dome, which improves dispersion and smoothens off-axis response.
The left speaker houses a 2x20-watt amplifier that powers the system. On the back are RCA and 3.5mm analog inputs for connection to your computer (or output of an external DAC), a rotary volume control, USB port for charging a portable device, power connector for the supplied wall-wart power supply, output jack for the right speaker, and output for an optional subwoofer. Typically, you'll set the volume control to your preferred maximum level, and then dial back the sound on your computer's music player software to suit the situation.
The SubSeries 100 employs a 5.25" woofer and 50-watt (continuous) digital amplifier, housed in a sealed gloss-black enclosure measuring approximately 6.5x6.5x8". The woofer fires outward, and is protected by a wire mesh grille. On the back are a line-level input, phase switch, and rotary adjustments for volume and crossover frequency. Following PSB's recommendation, I set crossover frequency at 100Hz, volume at the mid-point, and phase at zero. I found these suggested settings on PSB's Website, not in the getting-started leaflet in the box, which is where they should be.
I tested the system in a typical usage scenario, with the PS1 system connected to the audio output of an Apple iMac desktop computer running iTunes. The iTunes library contains several hundred albums in both compressed (mostly AAC at 320 kilobits) and lossless formats. As the picture below shows, the speakers were arrayed on either side of my wife's iMac at ear level; the sub was on the floor roughly centred between the two satellites.
After breaking the system in for several hours, I sat down to do some listening, right at the computer, but also leaning back to really bask in the music when I heard something I really liked.
Right off the bat, a few things struck me. First, this is a very accurate system, with excellent midrange neutrality; voices and acoustic instruments both sounded very natural. Second, this system can play quite loud, without distress. It had no problem filling my wife's second-floor office with sound. Third, it images very well, combining spaciousness and precision. Occasionally, I could localize bass sounds from the subwoofer, but that didn't happen often. This is to be expected given the crossover frequency recommended by PSB for this application.
I started with some classical piano music. Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, played by Canadian Louis Lortie, sounded wonderfully articulate. On this piece, the system seemed to lack the last bit of sparkle up top; otherwise instrumental timbre was perfect. And the instrument was beautifully presented on a broad soundfield that filled the space between the two speakers.
I was even more impressed with this system's performance on Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, played by Evgeny Kissin. It handled the bass-heavy left-hand passages on "Oxen" with aplomb. The sense of authority this compact system provided on this dramatic passage was remarkable, as was the seamless integration with the sub.
Sometimes the inevitable compromises in bass performance were audible. In the drowsy opening to "Summer" on Vivaldi's Four Seasons, played by the Drottingholm Baroque Ensemble conducted by Nils-Erik Sparf, I could localize the lower notes of the continuo organ; moreover, the bass notes on the organ sounded a little tubby, as did the cellos in the lower register. Otherwise, this joyful reading was a delight. The antique violins had just the right amount of resiny bite, without ever sounding strident.
On "The Panther" from Jennifer Warnes' 2001 album The Well, Warnes' strong soprano sounded utterly natural, and the beautifully recorded guitar and percussion had great sparkle and snap. However, the slow walking bass in "You Don't Know Me" sounded a little bit wooly.
The quirky Klezmer-like instrumentation in "Who Walks in When I Walk Out?" from Hazmat Modine's album Bahamut oozed personality and energy. Wade Schuman's growly baritone and wailing harmonica were both very convincing.
"Faster Still," the rollicking third movement to The Upside Down Violin from Michael Nyman Live, was great fun. Not surprisingly, this little system didn't separate the strands in this complex and infectious piece as well as the big hi-fi system (Arcam A38, KEF LS50s) upstairs, and it was a bit more congested, and also less refined, less controlled and less dynamic. That's not at all surprising, as my hi-fi system is an order of magnitude more expensive than this compact PSB system.
Not for a minute did I feel I was settling while listening to the Alpha PS1 and SubSeries 100; quite the opposite. As my wife and I both observed, this compact system sounded far closer to my main hi-fi system than it did to the inexpensive three-piece Logitech system she's been using for several years. When the loan period for the PSB system is up, I doubt very much whether she'll countenance its return.
The bottom line: this compact system is enthusiastically recommended for anyone who wants high-fidelity music playback while they're sitting at their computer.