One hesitates to deal in broad stereotypes, but there’s something undeniably Canadian about Ontario’s PSB. The company has spent the past five decades turning out high-achieving speakers of greater or lesser levels of excellence – and it’s spent an equal amount of time being inexplicably modest and self-effacing about it. If PSB was a (whisper it) American company, the world would be much more familiar with its name.
Can a single product change the ingrained attitude of an entire company? Maybe, maybe not… but if ever a product deserved to raise a company’s profile, the Alpha iQ is it.
There’s nothing revolutionary about the idea of a pair of powered stereo speakers with amplification, digital-to-analogue conversion, and a stack of physical and wireless connections on board. It’s not all that radical an idea to ensure the speakers in question are helpfully small as well as notably well made. No, the trick is all in the execution – and PSB has executed the Alpha iQ really well.
The physical dimensions are small, but the list of features and functionality is lengthy – so we may as well just tick the boxes. The Alpha iQ features 19mm aluminium dome tweeters, 102mm polypropylene mid/bass drivers and rear-firing bass reflex ports. Physical inputs include Ethernet, USB-A, digital optical, moving-magnet phono stage, 3.5mm analogue and HDMI eARC, while wireless stuff is taken care of by wi-fi, Bluetooth (with aptX HD codec compatibility), Apple AirPlay, Spotify Connect and TIDAL Connect. Any digital-to-analogue conversion that’s required is looked after by native 24bit/192kHz circuitry. The crossover between tweeter and mid/bass driver is taken care of by active DSP-based crossovers. There’s a total of 180 watts of Class D amplification available, more than enough for the vast majority of music consumers.
Looks good on the page, doesn’t it? Believe you me, it sounds even better – even if it’s not what you could accurately describe as ‘perfect’.
How do you feel about the word ‘lively’? How about ‘upfront’? If they have positive connotations, read on – because the PSB Alpha iQ is all of this and more.
As far as tonality is concerned, the PSB is really well judged. Yes, it pushes the lower frequencies forward more than is absolutely faithful (and be aware that this trait is exacerbated if the speakers are too close to a rear surface) – but they’re properly controlled, decently speedy and don’t in any way drag at the momentum of a recording. And those low notes share a demonstrably common tonality with everything that’s going on above them - so the Alpha iQ sounds unified and coherent in all circumstances.
The midrange is effortlessly communicative and characterful – there’s copious detail retrieved and relayed, so singers are always eloquent no matter what their technique. The top of the frequency range, too, is generously detailed and has plenty of bite to go along with the substance. Even though the system defaults to an upfront presentation, the high frequency response never gets wearing, even at considerable volume.
Rhythmic expression, thanks to the low-end authority (and, let’s not be coy, presence) is good, and the PSB creates a decent sense of coherence throughout the frequency range that helps no end with timing. Punch and drive are available in spades, but there’s nothing too overbearing about the Alpha iQ’s presentation.
As far as dynamics are concerned, it’s a slightly more qualified success. The low-level stuff – the variations in intensity apparent when listening to a solo instrument, for instance – is represented well. But the broad ‘quiet/loud/LOUDER STILL’ instrumentation is a little curtailed, mostly because the PSB sounds quite loud even when it’s playing quietly. It musters an intensity of presentation in all circumstances, and doesn’t leave itself far to go when a recording requires even greater power as far as ‘intensity’ is concerned. I’m perfectly aware that this trait will find favour with any number of listeners, though …
At just 25 x 15 x 19cm (HxWxD) per loudspeaker, the PSB Alpha iQ is more than tidy enough to sit on a shelf or desktop just as readily as on a pair of dedicated speaker stands. Those rear-facing bass reflex ports mean it's not wild about being very close to a rear wall, but in every other respect this system is pretty accommodating about where you position it. And the connection between the two speakers (there’s a ‘primary’ that’s home to all physical and wireless connectivity, and a ‘secondary that ‘just’ has amplification and digital-to-analogue conversion on board) is wireless too, which further helps with positioning. Both speakers need to be plugged into the mains, though. Another plus point is that the ‘tweeter below mid/bass driver’ configuration is intended to help the Alpha iQ sound at its best even when positioned quite high up in your listening space.
If you do decide to put it up high, bear in mind you’ll be unlikely to be able to reach the touch-controls on top of the primary speaker. But all is not lost since the Alpha iQ is a BluOS product and can therefore be operated by the BluOS Controller app. This app is useful for integrating your favourite streaming services, setting up BluOS multi-room systems, accessing internet radio and so on – but it’s not without its foibles. For example, I have found it can sometimes arbitrarily change the selected input in the middle of listening.
There’s no finding fault with the way the product is built and finished, though. The MDF cabinet (which features aluminium at the surface of the rear baffle and MDF-covered aluminium at the front) is smoothly contoured, and the matte black finish of the review sample looks and even feels good. At the moment, it’s available in matte white too – but if what I saw at CES earlier this year is anything to go by, some livelier finishes will be along soon too.
Let’s go out in the same manner we came in: by saying the PSB Alpha iQ is not perfect. It’s very, very good, though and may well be perfect for many customers – and it’s plenty good enough to raise PSB’s profile and its certainly has more than enough going for it to give similarly priced wireless speakers a run for their money.
Floating Points Requiem for CS70 and Strings
Speed, tonal variation and out-and-out scale all get a proper examination here. Sam Shepherd (for it is he) paints on a broad canvas and leaves as much space as he fills, but the Alpha iQ is more than capable of making cohesive sense of it all.
The Four Tops Walk Away Renée
A typically splashy, crashy and top-heavy Motown recording that’s nicely evened out by the PSB system’s ability to unify the frequency range. It’s also a great platform for main vocalist Levi Stubbs to highlight both his impeccable technique and the sheer potency of his delivery.
Mogwai May Nothing But Happiness Come Through Your Door
‘Portentous’ is too mild a word for what this track is, and it allows the Alpha iQ to showcase its facility with detail retrieval, as well as low frequency attack and decay, in fine style. It also allows the PSB to demonstrate how intense it’s capable of sounding, even before the recording starts to build some intensity of its own.
You buy it because you want a lively, upfront sound from a small-but-flexible self-contained system that looks and feels almost as good as it sounds. And also because you like to tread the path less followed.