PSB VisionSound Series VS400/VS300 Surround Speaker System Page 2

And it includes inspired audio/video treats as well. An early scene, inside the alien ship, provides all sorts of eerie sounds for your speakers to chomp on. And the tumult of the last 15 minutes is loaded with sci-fi action, chases, deep crunching bass, the zapping of disintegration rays, a "big voice" sequence that reverberates through all of the speakers, and the bizarre addition of pop music that sounds absurd on paper but provides some of the funniest gags in the movie. The PSBs sailed through all of this with ease, clarity, and confidence.

The second animated feature, Happy Feet, is wildly different, turning into the sort of heavy-handed "message" picture Hollywood loves these days (it won an Oscar for it). But I can't fault its brilliant animation, picture quality, or sound. It's loaded with songs, and while all of them are beautifully recorded, it's weird to hear them sung by penguins with a passion for music! The PSBs handle all of this superbly, and kept pace step-for-step with several dynamic action sequences as well, including chases by vicious seals and killer whales, an icebreaker that will rattle your teacups, and a crunching helicopter flyover.

Musing on Music
Turning to 2-channel music playback, the VisionSound 400s and SubSeries subwoofer sounded quite forward at first, with excessive presence and constricted depth. Soloists, in particular, were projected well in front of the plane of the speakers. Worse, this was accompanied by an emphasis in the midrange-low treble region that added a hard edge to the sound. I often found myself listening to the VS400s at a lower level than I prefer. I also tried the VisionSound VS300s in front on stands, and they sounded essentially the same as the VS400s.

But I had been listening to the speakers with the grilles removed. Most speakers I have reviewed sound better this way, so I hardly gave it a second thought. But at that point I took a close look at the measurements, which had just been completed, to see if anything there would explain the problems I heard. Sure enough, without the grilles the frequency response had a broad rise from about 2kHz to 6kHz (see the measurements section, below). It was only about 1.5-2dB. This might not sound like much, but it falls in region of the human ear's maximum sensitivity. With the grille in place, our measurements showed that this hump in the response was substantially reduced.

Putting the grilles back in place not only improved the measurements, but made a huge difference in subsequent listening tests as well. The excess forwardness and glare were gone. Now all of the positive characteristics of the VS400s were evident. And there were plenty of them.

Given the size of the enclosures and the tall and thin cabinets, I expected to hear serious, box-like colorations. I did not. No nasality on vocals. No midbass resonances. No metallic aftertaste. The aluminum enclosures appear to be well damped.

The top end was also very sweet sounding. There was no fizziness, no excessive sibilance, and no hint of metal-dome tweeter-itis. I prefer a little more air and openness in the treble than the VS400s provided, but a little softness at the top end is far preferable to hyped-up highs.

At first, the SubSeries 5i subwoofer sounded sloppy on bass transients, and while I had noted the same limitation with film playback, it was more obvious and more distracting on two-channel music. But when I repositioned it slightly it tightened up dramatically. I kept it against the wall, but moved it out from the corner by a few feet down the long dimension of the room. It was still was no world-beater in output capability, and its response remains AWOL below 35Hz. But in the new location it was now downright impressive for a small, $549 sub. Nothing magic here, but if your room and setup are right it will provide satisfying performance on both music and films.

The VS400s also imaged beautifully. My first reaction was to check to make sure that the center channel was not on. It wasn't. The lateral positioning of voices and instruments was as precise as I've heard in this room from other high quality speakers. Centered vocalists were firmly anchored between the left and right channels. Before I added the grilles the sound lacked depth, but with the grilles in place the soundstage opened up in all dimensions. Have I heard better? Yes. Did I feel I was missing something important in the PSB's soundstaging? No. And my concerns about the cabinet's affect on soundstaging were laid to rest.

As with movie playback, I would have liked a little more air and openness on the top end with music. And the addition of the grilles did add a couple of narrow dips in the response between 7kHz and 10kHz—not serious enough to add any roughness to the response or obvious dulling, but enough to soften the sound a bit further. But I don't recommend using the + position of the contour switch to overcome this, at least not on music. It appeared to reintroduce some of the same problems that the addition of the grilles eliminated!

But the slight loss at the top end with the grilles in place was more than worth it. Not only in sound, but in looks as well. Without the grilles, the cabinets look, well, unfinished. With them, they're sleek.

It may seem odd that, without grilles, the PSB VisionSound system sounded fine on movie soundtracks but unpleasant with music. But there are several factors at work here. I sit slightly to the left with films but dead center for music. The room's contributions to the sound with several speaker channels operating are likely to be different than with just a two-channel pair. And there is a differences between phantom center images with two-channel music and the hard center used for movie soundtracks. Each of these factors, individually or in combination, could account for this perceived difference.

While the VisionSound system is a bit more expensive than you might expect to pay for conventional box speakers that provide equivalent performance, such tall, slender designs do fill a real need in the marketplace. Cosmetically, they disappear in to the room in a way that traditional designs cannot. Sonically, the PSB VisionSounds will disappear into your movies and music as well. They are fine performers. Just remember to keep those grilles on!

Big soundstage on multichannel soundtracks
Small and inexpensive subwoofer is surprisingly effective on most program material
Low midrange coloration and sweet top end

Lacks a bit of air and openness on the top end
Subwoofer's bass extension is limited
Off-axis coloration from the horizontal center channel speaker
Pricey (system as a whole) compared to conventional box speakers