PSI Audio started making speakers before some of us were born. Alain Roux introduced his designs in 1975, while a student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. His company eventually became Relec SA. In 1991 Studer retained Alain and company to develop a line of OEM monitors. The acclaimed A1, A3, and A5 models resulted. When Studer stopped selling speakers in 1994, PSI Audio launched its own brand. Their speakers are still handmade, with a fit and finish surpassed only by sound quality.
The cabinets have substantial mass, with an appearance that is striking and unique. Promotional photos don’t capture the complexity of the deep ruby lacquer, which is enhanced by luminescent flecks that produce a slight sparkle (black or semi-gloss white finish are cost options at an additional $100 per unit). Even before hearing them, clients will know these are special.
Within the enclosures are several PSI Audio developed technologies – more than can be covered here. Recording engineers will appreciate a few: Adaptive output impedance assists the power amps more to accurately “instruct” the speakers to start and stop moving. Transients more accurately match source signals, so much that PSI Audio speakers can nearly reproduce a square wave. Compensated phase response resolves delays common in many crossover filters. Internal power amps are Class G. Without turning this into an article for the Linear Audio journal; this topology is a variation of Class B or Class A/B aimed at increasing efficiency while reducing power dissipation. Regardless of function, these designs are implemented entirely in the analog realm. No digital signal processing is used in the PSI Audio product line.
Externally, the tweeter waveguide immediately stands out. More literally, it stands in. Farther recessed than typically encountered, the PSI Audio implementation restricts dispersion to 90 degrees, making it a relative laser compared to other speakers. Elements such as clicks, vocal ticks, and sibilance are more easily perceived, most likely due to reduced high-frequency reflections from sidewalls, desk, and computer monitors.
For my review, I tested a pair of A17-Ms and an A125-M subwoofer. I was concerned this model would be too small, as I maintain that room volume dictates enclosure size. PSI Audio offers a consistent, if not identical voicing across their product line. Thus, one model is not better or worse, rather simply more suited for a given listening environment.
The sub shipped from a different location, arriving later than the mains. Being impatient, I connected the monitors without the sub, examined specifications, and got down to business. The two-way A17-Ms are about 12.5-inches tall, yet PSI Audio claims they reproduce a frequency range of 50 Hz to 20 kHz @ +/- 2.5 dB – I assumed those measurements were a misprint. Then I listened. By what method was I hearing so much low end content? Not 90 Hz, I’m talking 50 Hz. How? If anything, PSI Audio was conservative in their measurements, under-promising, and over-delivering. For confirmation, I invited a few other listeners. Even considering ported designs, my colleagues agreed they’d never heard anything like it without the assistance of a sub, internal radiator, or DSP. Within a week, I no longer cared that the sub was missing. I was satisfied.
Soon the A125-M subwoofer arrived. Instead of dark red, it was finished in semi-gloss white. I never thought I would write this, but I found the finish to more luxurious than antiseptic, and quite lovely overall. To be honest, I’m not a fan of subwoofers. Through the years I have had some awful sub experiences. I classify subwoofer problems into three categories: First are the correct crossover troublemakers. Many integrated filters are built to a price point, not a performance standard. Obtaining a smooth transition between the sub and mains becomes an exercise in accepting the least bad setting. Assuming you navigate the crossover gauntlet, the next station on this Catherine Wheel is the either/or subwoofer proposition. In the “either” corner are subs that provide tight, solid articulation – but lack extension, failing to provide the bass you required. In the opposite corner is the “or” camp, handily filling in the lowest octaves, with neither control nor pretense of linearity. The bass stumbles around the room like a drunk pachyderm at an office party. (Yes, there are good subwoofers out there, but those offerings are small in number, and big on price). I am happy to report I experienced none of these defects in my review system. Each PSI Audio subwoofer is designed to pair with any speaker in their product line, and with very little distress in crossover setting. As an either/or, the A125-M presented the good of both sides, remaining focused, even at its lowest reaches.
To provide some specifics on the sub-supported configuration, the marriage of kick and bass on Calexico’s [Tape Op #13] “Gypsy’s Curse” reaches the listener as a chest mover – round, bold, but never out of control. The 808 on Flo Rida’s “Low” assaults the floor without a hint of distortion. Balanced between those examples, the kick drum on White Reaper’s “Might Be Right” pops like the love child of a snare drum and a locomotive. Bass guitars are also well served. Colin Moulding’s bass line on XTC’s “King for a Day” pulls the listener through the track as it frolics in the basement.
As a system, the PSI Audio’s design is very neutral. Normally, that sentence is a polite way for reviewers to avoid calling something boring, uninspiring, or just meh. To my surprise playing a good recording sounded GOOOOD. Conversely, playing a cluster..., ahem, bad mix on the A17-Ms provides the listener with a front-row seat to every aspect of the sonic bedlam. Particularly remarkable is their ability to reveal the onset of over-compression – that overworked, dehydrated sound that is difficult to describe until your ears open to the phenomenon. The early warning is a godsend at the mixing and mastering stages. Though you may be disappointed by recordings you once classified as well-crafted, the upside comes as you better appreciate the skill and artistry of some of our fellow engineers.
Stereo image and localization is a dream. Here I appreciated the tweeter waveguide and adaptive output impedance’s value. The first minute of Fleetwood Mac’s “Second Hand News” reveals backing vocals you likely believed were keyboards. SMPTE code crosstalk is evident during the intro of Bad Books’ “It Never Stops.” On Taylor Swift’s folklore, “mirrorball’s” layered vocal parts each occupy a distinct harmonic real estate.
Of course, these are examples of well-engineered pieces. Inferior offerings are presented without mercy. It would be to no benefit to call out specific offenders, but if you have concerns about sibilance, harsh hi-hats, brittle guitar solos, mouth clicks, and even distortion (on national releases, no less) the A17-Ms will communicate these problems. These speakers are brittle if the source is brittle, otherwise, they’re smooth and precise. Granted there are other monitors at this price level that also provide spectacular performance, but looking inside their cabinets often reveals assistance through DSP.
I am an advocate for analog speaker designs. Optimizing the interplay among mechanical, electro, and acoustic elements requires experience and considerable investment; it’s not the easy way to make monitors. Here are my personal prejudices on this topic: DSP is fascinating, expands possibilities, and offers enhanced performance at lower price points. Each year the technology seems to improve. That said, I have reservations about DSP-augmented monitors, largely informed by the needs of a working engineer rather than from a technological perspective. We need uninterrupted productivity to support our clients and our finances. What happens should the DSP malfunction? Are the monitors easily repaired? Well, it depends. My mastering mains are ancient by contemporary standards. Their designer is now deceased, but they still function. No DSP involved. PSI Audio can service the same products they made 30 years ago. But considering their designs and build quality, I can’t imagine the warranty team has much of a workload.
As audio engineers, nothing is more important than our monitoring situation. Nothing. If we can’t hear what’s going on, the most expensive mic, console, or outboard gear in the world has little value. PSI Audio speakers are well designed, handcrafted, and field-proven. Numerous hands-on hours go into each loudspeaker. Rather than batch checks, each monitor receives testing and calibration by an experienced technician. Hand-signed frequency plots and quality assurance certificates accompany each unit. If the badge says PSI Audio, rest assured there are no computers, crossovers, preservatives, artificial flavors, or rubbish that doesn’t belong in a monitor speaker. Truthful advisors, I’ve rarely experienced such a blend of honesty with non-fatiguing sound. These ruby red marvels are an investment in my craft, and one I’m pleased to make. (red A17-M $2049 each MSRP, red A125-M $2950; psiaudio.swiss)