Violinist-turned-audio engineer Paul Barton has been the driving force behind PSB (Paul and Sue Barton) Speakers in Ontario, Canada since he founded the company in 1972 and to this day remains at the forefront as chief acoustics designer. Among his recent projects was the design and final voicing of the innovative PWM (Performance Wall Mount) series for which he acted as mentor to the growing design team.
The brief was to create a range of AV-inspired speakers that bridged the gap between traditional stand-alone designs and fully built-in, flush-fitting speakers while delivering a level of musical performance that could hold its own against audiophile floorstanders.
There are three full-range PWM models of different sizes on offer, each one more or less corresponding to the height of a 55, 75 or 85-inch TV screen, plus a matching subwoofer with 500W digital amp. In ascending order of size, the PWM1, 2 and 3 all share the same styling, width (165mm) and depth (85mm). They deliver a similar sound thanks to all using the same drivers (the larger models just include more of them), so it’s a simple matter to assemble anything from a stereo pair for pure music listening, right through to a seamlessly matched multi-channel surround system. Unusually, they are sold as single units rather than as a matching pair, so the option is there to choose any model as the centre channel speaker in an AV system depending on the size of your room and TV screen.
The one-inch, ferrofluid cooled, titanium dome tweeter is common to all three speakers in the range. Its neodymium magnet allows high sensitivity and power handling, while a wave guide on the front helps to match its response near the crossover point to the larger drivers for a smooth transition. The relatively compact PWM1 adds a pair of four-inch carbon fibre woofers with rubber surrounds, while the mid-range PWM2 supplements these with a pair of three-inch carbon fibre midrange units. The range-topping PWM3 adds a second pair of four-inch woofers, making a total of seven drivers in each cabinet. The sound of these three models has been designed to integrate seamlessly, so moving up the range is basically a case of getting more of the same with a bit more oomph, rather than a radically different presentation.
Okay, confession time. For the past 40 years I have been an archetypal hair-shirted, flat earth Linn/Naim owner with a penchant for bulky speakers connected to the amp by cables that looked like lengths of hosepipe. A recent move to a modern, open plan house meant there was no longer any floorspace suitable for wardrobe-sized speakers and prompted a rethink of the hi-fi system. Enter a pair of elegant, inconspicuous PMW2s followed by a Road to Damascus moment.
I can’t deny I was apprehensive at first. Despite packing five drive units behind the magnetic grill of each, the tall, thin MDF cabinets protrude a mere three inches into the room and bear more than a passing resemblance to sound bars – anathema to the preconceptions of any dyed-in-the-wool audiophile.
However, the performance was a revelation from the moment I loaded a remastered CD of The Blues Brothers movie soundtrack. The soundstage had a three-dimensional quality I had not experienced before with the rasping brass and plucking bass hanging precisely in mid-air and with acres of space around all the other individual instruments. Most enjoyable of all, Jake and Elwood were right there in the room, projected clear of the band and sounding like real people. Not only that, but the effect could be heard not just in one sweet spot but right across the listening area.
PSB is all about the quest to reproduce sounds in a way that they say is “real, alive and natural” and in this respect the PWM2s never fail to deliver. These speakers excel at reproducing the subtleties and nuance of vocals with seldom-noticed breathing and other ambient sounds clearly heard but still in proportion to the rest of the performance. This is particularly apparent with deceptively simple, close-miked acoustic recordings such as Ted Hawkins’ album Watch Your Step. In addition, such are the powerful dynamics these speakers can handle and the way they can go from silence to full volume in an instant and then back again, that the explosive opening line of the title track never failed to make me jump – even though I knew full well it was coming.
The expansive and stable soundstage combines with exceptional dynamics to deliver another big advantage – my listening room is a 4.5 metre square defined area at one end of the house but forms part of a larger open plan layout and the speakers were able to fill this space without ever sounding the least bit strained and without needing to turn up the volume. You can enjoy a realistic and effortless performance even when listening way off-axis.
For those building a trouser-flapping AV system there is the option of upgrading to the four-woofer per cabinet PWM3s but back in the world of music reproduction the PWM2s delivered all the deep notes I wanted – and they did this in a beautifully controlled way with clarity and expression. In ‘hi-fi speak’ it means you can sense the shape of the strings being plucked and feel the air being moved by the drums but actually it’s all about sounding natural. These speakers deliver a constantly effortless, yet incredibly detailed and emotional, presentation that you can listen to all day without tiring. Really and truly, there’s no need to add a subwoofer.
The PWM2s present a dilemma in the real world.
On the one hand they sound fantastic; they are immaculately finished and among the least visible high-performance speakers you will ever encounter, especially if you opt for the satin white finish in a white painted room; and they are very forgiving when it comes to placement. But, in order to get the best out of them, you need to be prepared for some pretty serious installation.
Conventional, often bulky, speakers get unpacked, placed on the floor, connected to the rest of the system, powered up and they’re ready to play. On the other hand, PWM2s take up no floor space and very little wall space. Unlike flush mounted, in-wall speakers they sit on the surface, held in place by robust, hidden metal brackets and protrude just over three inches into the room. This entails careful measurement and even more careful drilling to ensure they are in exactly the right spot, aligned and level, first time. It is fortunate that they deliver such a detailed image and sound so good with their backs flat to the wall because there is little opportunity to experiment with position and, once in place, no chance to move them.
And then there is the matter of hiding the cables. The wall mounting plates are provided with rubber spacers to hold the speakers just far enough off the wall to allow thin, flexible cable to pass behind them – but in this case it’s still going to be visible on the surface of the wall, spoiling the built-in effect. Furthermore, space behind the bi-wire binding posts is very tight, generally ruling out the use of 4mm banana plugs in favour of spade connectors or even bare wire. The answer is to bury the cables in the wall and to excavate an aperture behind the binding posts in order to accommodate banana plugs. This way the speakers sit flush on the wall and all the cables are hidden, giving an immaculate finish. In a modern house with stud partition walls this is not too hard and, in my case, it took about three hours from start to finish (most TV aerial fitters will be able to do a neat job of hiding the cable if you don’t fancy a DIY project yourself) but older houses with internal walls of brick or stone will be more of a challenge.
Also give a thought to what cable you use. My previous go-to Naim NAC A5 cable proved far too bulky and inflexible to feed behind the mounting brackets and through the wall so I opted for two 5m lengths of super-slim 3.2mm Chord Sarsen which did the trick perfectly.
In the right house, with the right décor, the PSB PWM2s are a no-brainer. Flanking a large screen TV, the satin black finish matches perfectly and in a minimalist room the satin white option means they all but disappear. You need to give some thought to installation but, honestly, it’s not hard to achieve a completely integrated, show house appearance and the musical performance is right up there with conventional speakers at the same price.
I’m not going to lie, as a die-hard audiophile until a few months ago I wouldn’t have given any lifestyle system the time of day but since the PWM2s came to stay, I am beginning to see the appeal of an AV system…
The Blues Brothers Music from the Soundtrack
John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd (aka Jake and Elwood Blues) romp their way through a history of classic R&B, rock and soul with a side order of country in the company of Memphis greats Steve Cropper, Donald Dunn and a score of others. Fab horns and simply a lot of fun.
Ted Hawkins Watch Your Step
From Biloxi, Mississippi, via a string of state penitentiary spells, street musician and Sam Cooke soundalike Hawkins was busking in Venice, California before being brought to the UK by DJ Andy Kershaw and deported four years later before dying from a stroke at 58. Incredibly emotional vocals informed by, but not necessarily resembling, traditional blues.
Jackson Browne Running on Empty
Concept album about life on the road recorded in 1977 on stage, on the tour bus and in hotel rooms, therefore with lots of ambient sounds and asides creeping in. Atypical of Browne’s other work (none of the songs had appeared on any previous studio album) with great fiddle appearances and, ahem, weird vocals by David Lindley
High performance speakers that are heard and not seen. Ultra-slim cabinets blend into the background while the dynamic, detailed, 3D soundstage projects out into the room. Architects, interior designers and, most importantly, audiophiles will all love them.