They say that hi-fi reviewing is a lot like prostitution. You start out doing it because it's fun, then you do it because other people seem to enjoy it and you like making them happy. Before you know it, you're doing it for the money and it becomes a chore.
But if you're really lucky, you can avoid that sorry fate if you happen to run into products that remind you of the reason you started in the first place. You know, the good stuff -- products that elevate the art of hi-fi reproduction without requiring you to write a check that your banker mistakes for this year's IRA donation.
Too bad there aren't a lot more of 'em, but I reckon that's what makes 'em so special. Sometimes they run in packs, though, and it seems to me that an awfully large number of the ones in the speaker category have come out of the workshop of Paul Barton.
PSB Speakers is best known for its "quality for value" offerings -- loudspeakers that marry solid engineering to affordability. The Stratus Gold-i, for example, measured as well as (or better than) any $15,000 loudspeaker I've heard, and for a puritanical $2699.
What distinguishes PSB's Platinum series from the company's other lines is simply that it carries that same philosophy to a more ambitious level. You know -- better parts, more contempo styling, and higher prices. But -- and here's the part that truly is startling -- not all that much higher. The top-of-the-line T8 barely clocks in at $7k, and the T6, the next dearest and the subject of this review, costs $4999 USD per pair.
That ain't cheap, but some high-end loudspeaker manufacturers don't even offer entry-level speakers for that few ducats. Nothing against those companies, of course, but when you pay those dizzying prices, you ought to expect that they will make listening to music a transformative experience. I didn't anticipate that from a pair of $5000 floorstanders, but that's precisely what I got.
Oh yeah -- one thing extra: sound that made me question everything I thought I knew about how speakers ought to sound. PSB doesn't charge extra for that -- think of it as lagniappe.
Keep your ears open (seventh Rule of Acquisition)
The T6es are floorstanders with an unprepossessing profile -- at 10" W by 13" D by 45"H, they don't take up any more space than a pair of stand-mounted monitors. They come in black ash or cherry veneer -- both in a subdued matte finish -- and sport "platinum" gray grilles, a combination that looks less flashy than it sounds. Under the grille, the front baffle laminates an aluminum panel onto the cabinet, presumably for greater rigidity. Normally, I eschew speaker grilles, but the addition to the household of a kitten who views all furniture as equal parts target and jungle gym made the use of the grille a prudent measure. Fortunately, the grille really does seem to be as close to acoustically transparent as makes no difference.
The T6's cabinet is constructed from 1" MDF and is internally braced and shielded. There are cast-aluminum top and bottom "caps," and the bottom cap accepts four threaded spikes for leveling/mass-loading. The woofer compartment is reflex-loaded, with the flared front-facing port located at the bottom of the tower, just above the bottom cap.
The T6 employs six drivers: three 6 1/2" woofers with woven fiberglass cones, two 3 1/2" midrange drivers with woven fiberglass cones, and a 1" ferrofluid-cooled aluminum-dome tweeter, which is located between the two mids in what PSB describes as a "D'Appolito Array." All of the drivers are proprietary and made to PSB's specs.
I put that in quotes because the D'Appolito, as I understand it, specifies an odd-order crossover, and the T6 uses a fourth-order slope; on the other hand, Paul Barton is a speaker-design genius, and I'm the sort of guy who has to say "as I understand it" when talking about crossovers -- so you decide whom to trust. In one of those coincidences that make my life so much more interesting than it has any right to be, Paul Barton called me just as I completed typing the preceding sentence, so I asked him about it. "It's not a textbook fourth-order crossover," Barton explained. "I use an optimizer [computer program], and I choose my windows [crossover points] and let it calibrate the slope." After the computer does the heavy lifting, Barton irons out the phase abnormalities -- which is more art than science. Barton explained that he is extremely concerned with directivity and power handling, "because the in-room energy doesn't change, but where it goes does."
The crossover points, by the way, are 300Hz and 2kHz -- and, while we're doing the numbers, PSB claims the T6es deliver 30Hz to 30kHz, +/- 3dB.
Speaker connections are made via two pairs of heavy-duty, gold-plated, solid-metal five-way binding posts. These may appear "down market" to folks used to WBT's impressive audio jewelry, but I found them easier to use, and I was able to really cinch 'em down against my cables' spades with the help of a nut driver (which isn't possible with the WBTs).
Hear all, trust nothing (190th Rule of Acquisition)
I installed the Platinum T6es at the end of a system consisting of a McCormack UDP-1 universal A/V player, Mark Levinson No.320S or Blue Circle BC3 Galatea Mk II preamp, McCormack DNA-500 or darTZeel NHB-108 power amp, and my reference Shunyata Research Aries interconnects and Lyra speaker cables.
Sometimes the only thing more dangerous than the question is an answer (208th Rule of Acquisition)
The Platinum T6es went into my system just after I had completed a review of the Aerial Acoustics 20T loudspeakers, which appeared on onhifi.com. I wasn't happy at bidding those $23,000 paragons farewell, so no one could have been more surprised than I was when I installed the T6es and gasped at what I heard.
That was "gasped," as in amazement, not whimpered in disappointment or moaned in distress. I flat-out couldn't believe how good the T6es sounded straight out of their boxes. Did they smoke the 20Ts? Well, no. Speakers as good as the Aerial 20Ts don't get "smoked," even if you happen to prefer the sound of another loudspeaker, but it was also obvious that speakers like the PSB Platinum T6es don't get "smoked" either, even by those that cost almost five times more.
Obviously, I was in for an interesting audition.
I said it before, but it bears repeating: Paul Barton is a speaker-design genius. What was obvious from note one was that the Platinum T6 is an extremely accurate loudspeaker. That first note, by the way, was the opening of "FA Swing" from John Jorgensen's Franco American Swing [JJ 7009], and I nearly hurt myself when I swung my neck around looking for the musicians who were so clearly in the room.
You'd think I'd be used to that, but the thing about magic is that it remains magic even when you're expecting it. And what was so entrancing from the get-go with the Platinum T6es was their relaxed and completely convincing portrayal of the musical overtones of Jorgensen's guitar and clarinet. Yes, the fundamentals were right, but the harmonic overtones were so relaxed and natural, it felt as though Jorgensen was right there with me. Have you had that happen so regularly that you've become jaded to it?
Usually, I like to let a new product cook-in. I try not to pay that much attention to it while I play a lot of music through it and, after I reckon the "new" has worn off, I start to drag out the tried-and-true demo material. The T6es sounded so remarkable right off the bat that I forgot all about patience and all that jazz and immediately pulled out the big guns.
Steve Swallow, in other words. Swallow's bass playing, to my way of thinking, is an essential test of the music-making abilities of any audio component, combining, as it does, punchiness with supple swagger. Fortunately, I'd just acquired L'histoire du Clochard [Palmetto PM 2103] by the Steve Swallow/Ohad Talmor Sextet, so I lost no time inserting it into the UDP-1 and cranking it up.
"Making Ends Meet" begins with Swallow's inimitable walking bass -- a saunter that immediately goes stratospherically into regions of the neck where mortal bass players fear to tread, followed by the sextet's unique sax/trumpet/trombone/violin/clarinet voicing. Swallow both pushes and pulls the ensemble along, running ahead of it rhythmically and then loping back to underpin it with his velvet whale song.
But...but...but...the T6es didn't sound quite right, somehow. I couldn't fault them for their timbre or for capturing the swing and sway of the ensemble -- that was for sure. But Swallow's deep musings lacked impact, I thought. His tone didn't have the rich roundness I relished and that had to be wrong -- didn't it? After all, I had just completed auditioning the Aerial 20Ts, loudspeakers that had "all the sock and wallop I could have asked for." If the 20Ts (which are also rated down to 30Hz) were right, the T6es had to be wrong, right?
I wasn't so sure. After all, I know Steve Swallow's sound, and the T6es were delivering his tone with precision. The other instruments were scarily present -- maybe I needed to play around with placement more. Maybe the speakers needed that burn-in I'd been so eager to skip.
Sh'yeah on both of those. I discovered that the Platinum towers did need to be pulled out into the room more than many other loudspeakers I've auditioned if I wanted them to develop as much bass impact as they were capable of -- in my room this was about 36" out, as opposed to the 26" I had started with. And yes the T6es, like all speakers I have auditioned, did open up down below once I gave their three woofers a thorough workout (about 100 hours into the audition, I'd estimate).
However, the bottom end on the Platinum T6es never got plumy or rich the way some audiophiles like it. They go deep and they deliver lots of power, but they don't have that soft purr that so many ported loudspeakers deliver. And that left me questioning what I was hearing for a long time. It drove me a bit nuts, in fact. I embarked upon a quest for perfect bass reproduction.
Eberhard Weber's "Solo for Bass" from Endless Days [ECM 013420] was punchy and full-bodied. The T6es not only captured Weber's woody tone and subterranean reach, they delivered the power and pop of his plucking without soft-pedaling the tenderness with which he coaxed string sustain out of his instrument. And when my bass obsession let me hear it, the T6es also painted Weber's orchestral colors with astonishing subtlety -- the T6 is the rare speaker that can let you forget that things like speakers exist.
D'oh! That was my problem -- I wasn't forgetting about hi-fi. I was fretting over it. Once I remembered that, things became much clearer. Hi-fi is like a sweater -- you start pulling at any single thread and the whole thing will unravel. I had to start listening to music rather than frequency ranges or I'd drive myself dotty.
For the record, however, the Platinum T6es are not bass deficient. In fact, I think they have less bass distortion than almost any other loudspeaker I've heard -- at least in a moderately sized room. If you have a big room, you might want to try the T8s.
And I don't want to imply that the T6es are less than exemplary anywhere else in their range of reproduction either. They simply get out of the way of the music they reproduce. Speakers? What speakers?
On Endless Days' "Concerto for Bass," for example, Rainer Brüninghaus's piano possesses the sort of clarity and presence that made me forget all about my mission to determine if Weber's bass sounded "right." (It did, all right?) Actually, even that makes my reaction sound more analytical than it was. I didn't think, oh, how accurate; I thought, oh my, how beautiful.
Isn't that what high-fidelity reproduction is supposed to do?
Anything worth doing is worth doing twice (12th Rule of Acquisition)
Having inserted the T6es into the rather large hole left in my system by the Aerial 20Ts ($23,000 per pair), I should probably address how they, ummm, measured up. Actually, I won't know how they really measured until approximately the same time you do -- what I mean is how they compared to the 20Ts.
I suppose I should start with that size issue. The Aerials are much more massive and they are the personification of audio jewelry, which is not meant as a put-down. Their fine woodwork and luxurious componentry are matched by an elegance that will make them seem at home in rooms filled with furniture by Stickley or Moser (or the Greene brothers, come to that). I don't mean to imply that the PSBs wouldn't be -- they are good-looking (especially when you consider that handsome is as handsome does). They simply lack the design splendor of their $20,000+ counterparts.
And, if you listen to them in the really large rooms that are the natural habitat of a speaker like the 20Ts, they might lack a bit of their audio splendor, too. The 20Ts can fill a large space with more bottom end, and their drivers don't really gel until you get about 10'-12' away front them.
In my room, however, the T6es were a better fit than the 20Ts, and, while I was seduced by the sparkle and sweetness of the 20Ts, I thought the T6es were more accurate.
Some of that came down to that bass issue again. Listening to Land of the Sun [Verve 288702] by Charlie Haden, I couldn't help but be aware of the size and impact of Haden's instrument with the 20Ts. However, while Haden has presence and heft, he's not a power player like some double bassists, and the T6es presented him as less the star of the group than one of its members -- which jibes perfectly with the sound I've experienced at Haden's concerts.
This sense of proportion was particularly apt, since the other members of the group -- which includes Joe Lovano, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and Ignacio Berroa -- aren't back-up players in any sense of the term. Did the 20Ts produce Lavano's beefy tenor sound in all its brassy glory? Well, so did the T6es -- and perhaps they even presented a bit more of the bite for which Lovano is so well known.
I love that ribbon tweeter on the Aerials, but I have to confess that the T6es made it seem to err on the sweet side of real.
And this is where we get into the tricky issue of preference. I liked what the Aerials did with music. I liked it a lot. However, I suspect that recordings sounded a little better through the 20Ts than they should have -- especially those that weren't quite perfect to begin with.
You see, I would hear things with the PSB T6es that I hadn't heard with the Aerials. Not low-level details or soundstaging spatial cues (both sets of speakers handled those quite nicely, thank you), but rather issues of balance and timbre. It began to occur to me that if I were mixing a recording, I'd trust the Aerials to tell me how good it sounded, but I'd trust the PSBs to tell me precisely what it sounded like -- which is not the same thing.
You might think that's a criticism of both sets of speakers, but it's not. You already knew that no two speakers sound exactly alike. You probably also suspect that living with a pair of $20,000 loudspeakers is a pretty attractive proposition -- and I'm here to testify that it is. The surprise -- at least it surprised me -- is how competitive a pair of $5000 loudspeakers could be to such exalted competition. And, in the long run, I stopped comparing the PSBs to the Aerial 20Ts -- or even my long-term references, the 2003 onhifi.com Product of the Year Amphion Xenons. I simply focused on the music.
Try it sometime -- if your loudspeakers let you.
Never spend more for an acquisition than you have to (third Rule of Acquisition)
If your main point of reference is other hi-fi components, the PSB Platinum T6es may sound a bit anemic. While I satisfied myself that they don't lack for bass extension or impact, they do lack a certain ripeness in their nether regions that some audiophiles may hanker for -- especially those used to listening to systems with midbass bloom. That's a matter of taste, however, and not accuracy.
In my room, playing the music I love, I couldn't fault the T6es on any level. If you value accuracy and timbral truth, these are speakers that will definitely set your heart a-flutter. They are most definitely this reviewer's choice and a Reviewers' Choice component if ever I have heard one.
Any consumer prepared to spend $5000 ought to demand a lot from a pair of loudspeakers. With the PSB Platinum T6es, you're going to get even more than you bargained for.
Call that lagniappe.
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