When my colleague Neil Gader reviewed PSB’s award-winning Alpha B1 mini-monitor in The Absolute Sound issue 70, he called the speaker “an achievement that borders on the surreal,” and he’s absolutely right. So it should come as no surprise that PSB’s Alpha Studio Theater system, a 5.1-channel system that is based on the Alpha B1, is likewise a sonic overachiever of the first rank, and a screamin’ good deal to boot.
Here’s what you get in the Alpha Studio Theater package: a pair of two-way Alpha B1 monitors (used as L/R main speakers), a two-way/ three-driver Alpha C1 center channel speaker, a pair of two-way Alpha LR1 monitors (used as surrounds), and a big, beefy SubSeries 5i subwoofer (the same sub PSB uses in some of its more expensive surround packages). And the price? A more than fair $1256 (assuming the U.S. dollar doesn’t sink further relative to its Canadian counterpart).
As you’ll see in a moment, the Studio Theater system is more of a brilliant all-rounder than it is a killer performer in any one area. But what impressed me from the start—and even more after prolonged listening sessions—is how amazingly competent this system is across all performance areas, and for so little money.
If you asked me to supply a oneword review of PSB’s Alpha Studio Theater system, that word would be “balanced,” with a capital “B.” More so than most systems in this class, the Studio Theater rig exhibits wellbalanced, neutral tonal response, a balanced combination of extended frequency response with strong dynamic capabilities from top to bottom, and a fine balance between detail and nuance on the one hand, and smoothness and freedom from edginess on the other. Are you getting the picture? This system rarely bowls you over with any one performance characteristic, but the longer you listen the more you may come to feel—as I did—that it simply “sounds right,” rarely if ever putting a sonic foot wrong.
I attribute the system’s many strengths to three things: first, the fundamental goodness of the Alpha B1 monitors, second, the expansive capabilities of the Alpha C1 center channel (which is surely one of the most capable center speakers in our survey), and third the proven power and punch of the SubSeries 5i subwoofer (which is hands down one of the best subs I’ve ever heard in a system this price). Interestingly, both the B1 and C1 speakers can go quite low on their own, and with real authority, which means the SubSeries 5i carries less of the overall workload than subs in some other systems do.
Put on almost any demanding movie soundtrack, such as the one that accompanies the famous car chase scene from Swordfish [Blu-ray], and you’ll immediately notice three things. First, the Alpha Studio Theater system manages to sound clear and unruffled, even when the action gets hot and heavy and the multilayered soundtrack becomes complex. For example, you can always hear the distinctive engine note of the TVR sports car, even as all manner of mayhem cuts loose around it. Second, you’ll notice that whopping big dynamic moments don’t phase this system at all. Even in large rooms, explosions, car crashes, gunshots, and the like are clearly and confidently reproduced—performance I attribute in part to the terrific C1 center channel. Third, the SubSeries 5i exhibits real grace under pressure, making many subwoofers in this price class sound a little flabby and/ or overtaxed by comparison.
On music, the system is a fine performer too, serving up full-bodied midrange and hearty but never loose or exaggerated bass. Highs are clear as well, although arguably a bit dry-sounding, so that the system just misses that elusive, Nth degree of treble airiness and openness that higher priced systems—as well as some in this class—can sometimes achieve. Even so, the PSB system affords a certain full-bodied richness and tonal rightness that works beautifully for a broad range of records. On Bettye LaVette’s “The Last Time” from The Scene of the Crime [Anti-Records], for example, the PSB system captures the raw, biting edge in LaVette’s voice, but also its underlying warmth, humor, and quintessential feistiness. And on the same track, the system does a great job with the dark, rich, swamp-inflected vibe of the backing instrumentals provided by the Drive-By Truckers. Though the PSB system can perhaps be outperformed on some material by its most transparentsounding competitors, few do as solid and consistent a job across all material, all the time. Without ever sounding artificially spectacular or self-aggrandizing, the PSB rig consistently puts meat on the bones of almost every type of music PSB’s Alpha Studio Theater is a beautifully balanced all-rounder, serving music and movie lovers at level I wouldn’t have though possible at this price. Needless to say, the system is a stone cold bargain.