War of the (Little) Worlds

Four speaker systems. One verdict. Five hungry editors.

Two Californians, a Canadian, and an Israeli walk into a bar. No, wait. It was an apothecary. Two Californians, a Canadian, and an Israeli walk into an apothecary. They say, "Ow." No. They order a drink. No. They make speakers. Yes. That's it, they make speakers, and we've gathered their sub/sat systems together here: the PSB Alpha B from the great white north, the Morel Spiro from the other side of the planet, and NHT and M&K systems from what many people consider to be a different planet. They range in price from just under $1,400 to just over $1,900. To make things interesting in this land of reality TV shows, we will ceremoniously eat the loser of this Face Off. Next on Fox: When Hungry Editors Attack. Intrigued? So am I, and I already know how it ends.

Judge, Jury, and Courtroom
I rounded up a few reviewers for a day of toiling over legal pads and computer printouts. Copy editor Claire Lloyd is a Southern California native, while audio editor Chris Lewis hails from the fine pseudo-Canadian state of Alaska. Executive editor Adrienne Maxwell waves the single-star flag of her home state of Texas. To prove that we're open and accepting of other magazines, we also invited Stereophile Guide to Home Theater's editorial assistant Hilary Lynch, from the tiny snow-covered town of Durango, Colorado. I've heard it's named after an SUV. Much like Captain Miller's squad, we have a pool going to guess where editor Maureen Jenson is from. Yours truly did the man-behind-the-curtain act so that the others could approach these speakers blind. In case you're interested (I know you're not), I'm an expatriate of Boston, Massachusetts.

Our new listening room acted as the battlefield for our little war. After all, not only is Grover's Mill too far away, but it's in New Jersey. I hung acoustically transparent black cloth in front of the speakers to hide their identity. For decoding and power, I used the Lexicon MC-12 pre/pro and LX-7 amp. While these electronics are certainly way above the speakers' price range, they're very neutral and sound excellent. For sources, I used the Onkyo DV-SP800 for CDs and DVDs, while the Lexicon RT-10 ran SACDs. The Onkyo can also play SACDs, but, for ease of switching, I used two players. No one knew which speakers they were listening to. At the end of the listening portion of the Face Off, I asked the reviewers to rate the speakers in terms of performance. Then I showed them all of the speakers so that they could pick the best looking. After that, I told them which system was which, along with the prices. I compiled info on their favorite performer, favorite looker, and favorite overall pick.

Levels are the most important thing in any Face Off, as reviewers can perceive even the slightest change in volume as different—and usually better. My first step was to set the levels for the PSBs, our first system by random choice. After I used the MC-12's internal test tones to set each speaker's level to 75 decibels, I took a reading of the voltage at the center-channel speaker using a Fluke 70III multimeter and a 1-kilohertz test tone off of Stereophile's Test Disc #3. This reading became my reference number, and I set the other systems so that they measured as close as possible to that number. Thanks to the Lexicon's fine volume steps, I achieved less than a 0.1-dB difference between the center channels. When it was time to switch to the next system, I set its levels and matched its volume to the center channel. Confused? Don't worry about it. Just take my word that the levels were as closely matched as possible. I crammed everyone into the listening room and began the tests. The epic battle for king of the sub/sat systems had begun.