Review by Jamie Gillies
PSB Passif 50 Loudspeakers: Paul Barton’s Statement In Speaker Design Where Vintage Meets Modern
There are a lot of audiophile words to describe the sound of speakers. We are in an era of terminology that reflects the philosophy of speaker designers and companies but some of those words are overused to the point of irrelevance. When I read that a speaker offers clarity or detail or realism, or is said to be neutral or exciting or musical or warm, it always makes me pause to think what those words actually mean. Theoretically, every speaker could have those characteristics with the right amplification, source, cable or what you listen to through it. But over time, I have developed a clearer understanding of what those terms tend to indicate and as a result, I have learned what kind of speakers I prefer. The PSB Passif 50 speakers, one of the last designs by Canadian speaker godfather Paul Barton before his retirement, has, to me, a unique but also easy to understand sound and aesthetic. Before I go into details, my impression of this speaker, the 50th anniversary edition released in 2022 to celebrate PSB’s remarkable half century of speaker design, is simple: if you want detail in a small speaker that shines for spinning records, this is one the best sounding speakers I have heard in the $2500-5000 range.
The Passif 50s are encased in a walnut veneer enclosure and feature 1 inch titanium dome tweeters with ferrofluid damping and neodymium magnets. They also have a 6.5 inch woofer and 8 inch passive radiator with cast aluminum baskets, paper cones, and rubber surrounds. The speakers are mirror-imaged pairs with the tweeters on the inside. The felt padding around each tweeter, designed to minimize edge diffraction, is the thickest I have ever seen so one wonders why such felt dampening was needed in this design. My guess is that these tweeters, with solid state amplification, would be overly detailed without the felt padding. I listened to them with the cool retro woven cloth grilles on the speakers. I recommend leaving the covers on when listening as I did not find it affected the sound much on or off, and more to the point, the grilles are an integral part of the aesthetic.
The PSB Passif 50 required some positioning to get the soundstage to my liking. I tried them in multiple positions about 7 feet apart, slightly toed-in at first and then settled on an off-axis (straight on to the listener) positioning about 9 feet from my listening position. They sounded best without toe-in. I bi-wired them to my NAD C275BEE power amp in combination with the matching NAD C165BEE preamp and let them play softly for a few hours.
I was going to start my critical listening after a few days of break-in, figuring that 50 hours or so would be good to get them where they needed to take off. Not so. The sound, which initially was quite laid back, even with what I thought were rolled off highs, became much sharper and more detailed in the treble, to the point of it not quite fitting the aesthetic of the speaker itself. The speakers look like vintage speakers so my thought was they would also sound like vintage speakers. While PSB and Paul Barton suggest speakers need minimal break-in time, I found these speakers were very much changing in the first 200 or so hours, perhaps as a result of the PSB-patented (and National Research Council developed and tested) tweeter. After the first week, I simply put them on at a fairly high volume and left the room for another week.
When I returned to them for some critical listening, the sound had mellowed a bit and the overall sonic signature, slightly recessed and laid back (perhaps not as much when I first plugged them in), seemed to be locked in.
As a result of their design, these speakers are very much directional 2 ways and really should have the listener in a low to the floor chair or sofa. Perhaps because of the way in which they sit on the stands that are included, with a slight tilt upwards, I found that if your ears get above the tweeter, the soundstage became much less present. Sitting off to the side or standing, the sound was not as focused. I found that in the critical listening position, they offered the best sound.
With all of the music I listened to, the PSB Passif 50s offered a very nice layering of instruments. Because of their size and the way they throw sound, there was less delineation between instruments and vocals than bigger speakers I have heard. There was more of a blend, so that makes them more ‘musical’ and less ‘analytical.’ For instrumental music, jazz, classical small ensemble, and film scores, they sounded excellent. With my favourite late 50s jazz albums, whether digital or vinyl, the PSB Passif 50s threw a focused albeit small-ish soundstage that had me tapping my toes and being drawn in to non-vocal soundscapes. Digital sources sounded as good as some of my very best LPs. My impression was that I immediately started listening to the music and not to my system. That was very much a pleasant change in acoustics.
With rock, pop and jazz vocals, particularly female vocalists, the sound was not as warm as I was expecting. From the aesthetic of a vintage 1970s big bookshelf, one would have surmised that the treble would be a bit more lush and sweeter, maybe even rolled off, and certainly relaxed. There was much more clarity and detail than I expected, in keeping with many modern loudspeaker designs with metal tweeters. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just a bit of a surprise.
The vocal recordings all were more detailed than I was used to because my speakers, the Soliloquy 5.3s, are among the most recessed speakers I have ever heard. They have soft dome tweeters and are very laid back. While there is certainly clarity and more detail to vocals, the PSB Passif 50s are not necessarily more ‘refined’ in the treble. I was expecting that over time with listening to the PSB Passif 50s, vocals would hang in the middle of the soundstage. But they often blurred into it. I did not get that holographic sense of imaging here, typical of some more analytical speakers, but instead there was more of a blend. Quite often there was a bit more detail than I would have wanted and maybe lacking that extra refinement for that level of clarity.
I should note that to this point, I had just been listening to digital downloads, CDs and Tidal streaming. I switched over to vinyl and found that my quibbles about the detail and clarity were moot. The clarity and detail in the vocals suddenly were welcome with analog sources. The soundstage took on a new life here. With my system and my trusty Soliloquys, vinyl often sounds a little underwhelming as compared to digital sources. I actually prefer digital nine times out of ten. But with the PSB Passif 50s, the opposite was true.
I spent the rest of the review listening to records. Of course this is what the Passif 50s were likely designed for given the resurgence in vinyl listening. My Thorens turntable never sounded better. Fans of the revival in the British-style big bookshelf (Harbeth, KLH, Mission, Falcon, Graham, Spendor etc.) will appreciate this Canadian retro twist based on PSB’s earlier Passif and Passif II speakers from the 1970s.
This speaker actually aesthetically looks like the kind of music I love: late 50s/early 60s jazz, Chess blues, British Invasion deep cuts, California golden age pop, Dylan, Springsteen and Billy Joel, and of course those middle aged white guy audiophile standard bearers: James Taylor, Steely Dan, Dire Straits and Talking Heads. In other words, retro: shag carpeting, a sunken living room, and a good hi-fi system!
Abbey Road sounded fantastic. It was not as showy as my Soliloquy 5.3 speakers, where George Martin’s effects are accentuated but with the Passif 50s, the Fab Four sounded more like a band reading each other’s minds. There was a lovely blend of The Beatles. Oh Darling! was breathtaking. Feeling in a Swinging London mood, I then listened to the early Cat Stevens albums and The Animals.
Words I wrote down as I was listening: sublime, deep, that voice! With Eric Burdon, Dusty Springfield and Cat Stevens, three of the greatest singers out of that whole scene, I felt like their voices were in the room and yet somehow blended into the band and musicians. My ginger tabby cat even entered the room to stretch out and purr to listen to The First Cut Is The Deepest. I love that 1967 version and the PSBs did a great job separating the cool bass line from Big Jim Sullivan’s raggedy electric guitar, Cat’s acoustic strumming and Chris Hunt’s great drumming. I also spun Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, my original US pressing. Amazing. Eno’s production sparkled here unlike I had heard it before.
I inserted my vintage Marantz receiver as a preamp, and swapped out the NAD C165BEE. I felt this improved the digital recordings a little bit. But they still were a bit brighter and sharper than what I was used to. I then borrowed a friend’s very inexpensive tube preamp and put that in between the DAC and the power amp. Those digital recordings started to relax a little more. I also tried the mirror-image pair of PSBs with the tweeters on the outside to see if that could tame some of that digital sharpness but I felt the imaging and soundstage was not as present.
For retro-looking speakers designed for the audio aficionado who wants to listen to vinyl exclusively, I think these are fantastic value and offer incredible sound. If your budget is under $4000, this is a highly recommended speaker. I also think they are versatile speakers, whether you have tubes or solid state, if spinning records is your only source for listening.
If you listen to a mix of digital and analog, I would consider pairing them with a warmer sounding amp or a tube amp. I suspect that a well-designed tube preamp, like the Finale Audio Prelude Hybrid Tube Preamplifier I reviewed here, would make the PSB Passif 50s really sing.
For those who have NAD equipment, the synergy between PSB and NAD is legendary. I heard it on non-vocal recordings from the beginning, with some of the best sound I have achieved in my listening room.
Van Morrison once sang, “Meanwhile back in San Francisco, we’re trying hard to make this whole thing blend.” Those lyrics always appealed to me because they really do describe what we try to do with our audiophile systems. So meanwhile back in the Maritimes, the PSB Passif 50s made this whole thing blend. A lovely design that’s great for analog sources. These are very good value and a fitting swan song for Paul Barton.
MSRP: $3299 Cdn., $2499 USD
Review loaners courtesy of Stereo Untypical.
Disclosure: Wall of Sound Editor Noam Bronstein is a PSB dealer, in his shop Stereo Untypical.
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