While TVs were never really known for delivering great audio, when they started getting increasingly thinner and with bezels measuring in millimeters, it’s really no surprise that audio began to really take a backseat, and TV sound quality was even further compromised. Of course, a dedicated surround system is the preferred solution for true audio enjoyment, but sometimes going 5.1 just isn’t in either the design or budget cards.
This definitely gave rise to the soundbar market, and now we’re seeing high-performance bars from the very best speaker manufacturers. But what about when a soundbar isn’t the right choice? Say, a TV in a cabinet or on a stand, where a bar either won’t fit or would block the display? Whether you call it a sound base, pedestal, or platform, this product category could be the perfect solution and may be something you are missing out on.
I originally saw the PSB Alpha VS21 coupled with the SubSeries 150 at the company’s Venetian suite at this past CES, and the duo created such impressive sound that I arranged to bring it in for review.
Unboxing the speaker, it was surprisingly svelte but reassuringly solid. The top has a black ash veneer and the front and sides are wrapped in black grille cloth. Since a TV will likely be sitting atop it–and weighing up to 80 pounds–the speaker is made to disappear and does a nice job of it. However, with a 21 3/8 x 13- inch footprint, larger TVs might find their bases awkwardly hanging off the sides, so keep that in mind. The front panel has a simple display with an LED that glows orange when in standby and blue when on, along with indicators displaying the currently selected input, and whether lip sync, late night, sub out, or audio modes are enabled.
The back panel features analog, optical, and coaxial digital inputs, as well as an RCA output to feed a sub. Unfortunately, there is no builtin support for a wireless subwoofer. PSB kindly included Bluetooth apt-X support for music listening, and pairing/playing from my iPhone 6 went without a hitch.
The VS21 comes with a simple, eight-button remote and while there are discreet power commands, there aren’t any direct commands for things like input selection, Dolby night mode, listening mode, or lip sync. Obviously this would be preferred from an integration standpoint, but probably isn’t a big deal for a typical purchaser. You can, however, “teach” the VS21 commands from any IR remote, letting you use a TV or cable remote to adjust volume, change inputs, toggle listening modes, etc.
If the VS21 is small, then the SubSeries 150 is downright diminutive. This speaker features a gloss black finish with smooth, rounded edges, and at 3 3/8-inches thick, is thin enough to slide under furniture or a chair. The speaker can also stand vertically, hugging a wall or even be wallmounted. It features both LFE and stereo RCA inputs and outputs, so you could add additional subs as needed. In a smart design move, PSB placed the sub’s controls on the top, making them easy to access.
Installation was fast and simple, as I placed the VS21 on a Salamander equipment rack and connected coaxial audio from a Kaleidescape and optical from a DirecTV receiver, both inputs capable of Dolby Digital decoding. The Sub 150 stood unobtrusively next to a wall, and after a bit of volume adjustment, was dialed in and ready for action.
The VS21 arrived several weeks before the sub, giving me ample opportunity to judge it on its own merit. I was honestly surprised how full the sound was, considering the driver size. I also found out pretty quickly that the four-inch, bottom-mounted woofers would rattle anything left sitting atop the cabinet. There are four “listening modes” described as Stereo, Dialogue, WideSound, and WideSound Plus. I did virtually all of my listening in WideSound Plus, which creates an expanded soundstage and adds a slight bump to enhance dialog.
The VS21 is capable of producing surprisingly loud volumes, easily filling a medium-sized listening room to cinematic levels. And with WideSound engaged, it produced a surprising amount of width and ambience. Watching Ron Howard’s Rush, chronicling the rivalry between Formula One drivers Hunt and Lauda, the VS21 did an admirable job placing passing cars, squealing tires, and roaring engines well to the sides of me. It also captured the reverberant atmosphere of living underground in District 13 in The Hunger Games:Mockingjay Part 1. Switching back to stereo caused the soundstage to collapse, revealing just how much ambience the speaker was creating.
Even with music listening, I preferred WideSound mode, as “Stereo” was just a little too contained, narrow, and “boxy” sounding. The dialog bump is so subtle and didn’t seem to have any deleterious effect, so I just left it on.
The only operational hiccup I encountered was the VS21 occasionally losing audio when coming back from pausing a movie. Whether it was a bitstream change from the Kaleidescape or something else, I don’t know, but power cycling the VS21 fixed the issue.
Adding the SubSeries 150, however, took the experience to the next level. By adding those lowest octaves, the sub was like a system force multiplier, making both parts greater than their individual selves. Usually the subs included with soundbars are the weak link, offering thin, or bloatedand- boomy bass. Not here. The SubSeries 150 Surround delivered depth, weight, and volume with nary a complaint. There is a ton of serious low-end infrasonic sound in Edge of Tomorrow (aka “Live Die Repeat”) and the combo never made me feel like I was listening to a “small” system.
It’s not an exaggeration to say this is the finest, loudest, and deepest sounding two-piece audio system I’ve heard for around $1,000. Customers looking to add quality sound in a slender form factor should definitely give this pair an audition.
Great dialog reproduction; surprisingly convincing surround width; great, room-filling sound when paired with sub
Might have issues with pedestal/bases of some TVs; lack of discreet control; no wireless sub
► 2 x 4-inch woofer, 2 x 2-inch mid-range, 2 x 1-inch tweeter; six amplifiers with 100-watts RMS total power
► On axis frequency response +/- 3dB 55- 23,000Hz
► Dolby Digital decoder and Dolby Late Night audio compression
► Inputs: RCA analog, Toslink optical, coaxial digital; RCA subwoofer output
► Bluetooth apt-X streaming
► 6.5-inch woofer with 100-watts (continuous) 200-watts (dynamic peak) amplification
► On axis frequency response +/- 3dB 26- 150Hz
► Top mounted volume, crossover and variable phase controls
► RCA left/right analog inputs/outputs, LFE input/output