NAD/PSB Alpha Home Theater System

      Date posted: October 24, 2001

PSB Alpha Tower Loudspeaker

NAD T761 Dolby Digital/DTS Receiver
Sugg. Retail: $1500 (CAN)

NAD T550 Progressive Scan DVD PLayer
Sugg. Retail: $1000 (CAN)

PSB Alpha T Tower
Size: 35 1/4″H x 6 1/2″W x 12″D
Sugg. Retail: $700 pr (CAN)

PSB Alpha C Centre Channel
Size: 6 1/2″H x 17 3/8″W x 9″D
Sugg. Retail: $250 (CAN)

PSB Alpha B
Size: 11 3/8″H x 6 1/2″ x 9 3/8″D
Sugg. Retail: $300 pr (CAN)

PSB Alpha SubSonic 5
Size: 16 1/2″H x 12 3/8″W x 14 1/4″D
Sugg. Retail: $500 (CAN)
Total Speaker System Retail: $1750 (CAN)

Manufacturer/Distributor: Lenbrook Industries
633 Granite Court, Pickering, Ontario, Canada
L1W 3K1 (905) 831-6555 FAX 831-837-6539

(Reprinted from the Fall 2001 Audio Ideas Guide)

      Here’s a system designed and assembled in Canada, though the origins of the components lie far to the east. Since being bought by Lenbrook Industries, NAD has done all product development at its international headquarters in Pickering, Ontario, while PSB loudspeakers are designed by founder Paul Barton and his team in the same facility. But manufacturing, as with so many products these days, is done in Taiwan and China, respectively, though more expensive PSB speakers are made here, the flagship Stratus series hand-built in Pickering.

NAD T761 Receiver

      So what we have here is a Sino-Canadian HT system that inhabits, shall we say, the lower spectrum of the high end, designed with functionality rather than features in mind. The T761 offers 80 watts rms by 5 (all channels driven), and claims up to 45 amps of peak current, with switchable Soft Clipping, the latter a longtime NAD feature. It does Dolby Digital and DTS, using Crystal Sigma-Delta ADCs and DACs, all 96/24, and also provides a 5.1 (or, more properly 6) channel input for DVD-Audio players or other multichannel devices. There are also pre-outs for all channels to provide a power amp upgrade path or to serve a second room.

     In terms of video there are 5 inputs, including one component, with S and composite for all the others. There are 5 digital inputs, 3 RCA S/PDIF, 2 Toslink. The T761 has no DSP audio modes (Hooray!), but in addition to DD and DTS, there is a music matrix mode called Enhanced Ambience Recovery system (EARS…how clever!).

      The tuner has 30 presets, and provides RDS display. Other features include a learning universal remote control, NAD-Link for controlling additional NAD components such as tape decks and CD players.

     An interesting further capability of the T761 is its amplifier’s Impedance Sensing Circuitry (ISC). According to a fact sheet, “The ISC topology allows the T761 to deliver maximum performance under virtually any circumstance, independent of the loudspeakers it is driving. The circuit automatically recognises the impedance characteristics of the loudspeaker and will then adjust its power supply settings to best cope with that specific load.” They don’t, however, reveal what the ISC system will do when encountering a dead short; hopefully, the amplifier is protected in case you cross a speaker wire or two.

     Bullet-proof or not, this receiver is very simple to operate, and foolproof in its ability to sense the digital source and automatically switch DD, DTS, or Pro Logic on, the EARS mode user engaged.

     The T550 DVD player is similarly spartan, and offers composite, S, and component outputs. It also provides stereo and 5.1 analog outputs, therefore having Dolby Digital and DTS decoding built in.NAD T550 DVD Player
This might be an attractive feature for someone wanting to have a simple 5-channel preamp and amp system. Having been available for close to two years, the T550 lacks some of the more recent features of competing models, such as progressive scan output. It is, however, very simple to operate, and matches well in its user-friendliness with the T761.

     Both come with their own almost identical remote controls, each of which features a multitude of identical black buttons on the typical NAD gunmetal background. The best thing to do with these is store them, since also included in the package is a much better designed universal remote, the HTR-1. Backlit-at-the-touch white buttons are found here on gunmetal grey, varying in size and logical in arrangement, many serving more than one purpose. Even the shape of the remote is designed to fit the hand, its vaguely female waist and rounded shape making for easy gruipping. It will both learn remote code sequences and individual commands, and has device buttons for VCR/Amp, TV/Tuner, Cable/CD, and DVD/Custom at top flanking the Power button. Using Amp and DVD buttons I was able to control the pair of NAD components in a much quicker and effective manner.

PSB Alpha B

     The PSB Alpha speaker system as reviewed is just one of several ways these boxes can be configured. You could go with Ts all around with the C, or, for a small room, with 4 Bs (sounds like an amplifier) and the C. I’d even consider using an Alpha B as centre channel, especially after measuring the C’s off-axis response. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

     Let’s go back to the sources, as it were, starting with the T761’s tuner. I’ve never encountered a poor, or even mediocre tuner in an NAD receiver, and didn’t here. It brought in 41 stations, most in clean stereo, including difficult WNED at 94.5 and CFMX at 103.1. There was virtually no multipath distortion and the tuner was extremely selective, as well as being sensitive, so close together stations did not overlap.

     Checking out the RDS display, I found only one of the four CBC stations using it, CJBC, but among commercial stations discovered ENERGY, EZ ROCK, EDGE, WYRK, and Q107 displayed. However, there were no weather bulletins or other messages offered on any of these stations, suggesting RDS use is restricted to call letters or station name.

     This tuner is a good one for classical and jazz listeners, with its excellent sound quality, very quiet background, and consistently clean reception of smaller, lower-powered stations. For some telling comments on the rest of the FM band, read Aaron At Large.

PSB Alpha C

     What I really liked about this receiver overall was its unfussiness and ease of use. It automatically detected and selected surround modes for DVDs, and required no advanced decision making like some of the more complex models out there. In other words, there’s less to say about operational matters because the T761 goes about its business so efficiently.

     It also sets up easily, without the layers of menus of some other receivers, and that’s also true of the T550, though almost no configuration is required when feeding the receiver’s Crystal DACs. That provided higher quality sound, too, as I found out in comparisons with those of the player through the 5.1 inputs. There was greater sonic resolution and openness, especially with 96K sources like the Chesky and Classic music DVDs. The receiver’s DACs also seemed a little more dynamic on movie soundtracks.

     I also listened to DVD-Audio multichannel discs through the 5.1 inputs as played on the Panasonic DVD-RP91 (review forthcoming), and further confirmed the clean, open, and dynamic sound of this receiver in all channels.

     Video quality of the T550 was assessed on both the component and S outputs, and through the receiver. I also used the Panasonic to look at a progressive scan picture through the T761’s component ins and outs, and it had no picture degradation I could see on our new reference 64″ RPTV.

     In comparison, the component picture of the T550 was pretty good, but had a more noticeable line structure than a line-doubled progressive one. Colour was quite saturated on the test patterns on Video Essentials, a little rich for my tatse, but video noise was quite low, especially chroma noise, and detail excellent once the colour was toned down a bit. Blacks and grey scales were excellent. My only other criticism is the occasional motion artifacts and a generally softer picture than we’ve come to expect from today’s progressive scan players, which increase apparent detail and process motion jaggies for smoother motion.

     And once I got used to using the HTR-1 remote, the functions of both components became even more directly accessible. With frequently used receiver functions grouped at the top and those for DVD at bottom, there was a logical synergy to this remote control. And though I didn’t have time to explore it at great length, the perfect-bound multilingual manual supplies codes and instructions for virtually all brands, and can be programmed for them, which means you can make the HTR-1 able to run your VCR and other A/V components in the language of your choice.

PSB Alpha T Frequency Response

     The Alpha T, B, and C speakers and Alpha SubSonic 5 were an ideal match to the NAD components, with their close tonal match and smooth frequency responses. Looking to the Alpha T first, we can see it to be pretty much +1/-2 dB from 200 to 10,000 Hz, with a smooth rolloff at frequency extremes. Looking at the Pink Noise Sweep (PNS), we can see also that the SubSonic 5 takes up where the T rolls off in the bass, the highest setting of the sub’s crossover (150 Hz). Below are the sub responses at half (95 Hz) and minimum crossover settings (50 Hz). At the latter, the sub is a creditable +/-2 dB between 30 and 100 Hz, and when I set it that way with soundtracks, it integrated seamlessly and increased deep bass power. This is a very good subwoofer for 500 bucks, even more surprising in that it is the only part of the Alpha system made in Canada. Who says we aren’t competitive any more?.

     Beneath the PNS measurements are the quasi-anechoic curve, and the axial ones. These are also very smooth, the axial ones at 0, 15 and 30o closely grouped, indicating good dispersion and tonal balance around the room. These comments also apply to the curves for the Alpha B, which has a slightly greater slope in the treble, a good idea, since surround speakers are generally closer to the listener than the front ones.

     And let me note in passing that there are no Summed Axial Response curves here because the 20-curve library of the LMS system was filled by all the others, but the axial responses can be seen to add up to curves very closely tracking the PNS ones, a sign of excellent design. They may be made in China, but they’re definitely a product of the Canadian PSB engineering team.

PSB Alpha B frequency response

      At left are the Alpha B measurements are those for the C centre channel. Again facing the restriction on the number of curves to display at once, I did PNS ones at 0, 15, and 30o, and found out what we need to know, which is that at 30o off axis, the C has the typical D’Appolito dip in the midrange, this a result of lobing between the three drivers, the woofer/midranges flanking the tweeter. In other words, dialogue may not be quite so clear at the ends of the couch as it is at centre. I would call this a minor foible, and one common to many centre channel speakers.

     As an aside, having been forced to use a centre channel myself with the Newform R645 ribbons by the tyrrany of DVD-Audio (The new players force you to have one in order to hear vocals, and do not provide a phantom mode in setup), I’ve opted for a vertical 2-way speaker, and if I were to live longterm with the Alpha system I would personally prefer to use an additional Alpha B at centre.

PSB Alpha impedance

     The chart at right shows the various impedance and electrical phase measurements for the three different speakers. Those of the smaller-box B and C are a little higher, topping out at about 30 ohms, and the electrical phase measurements are all quite similar because the same drivers are used in all cases. This is another indication of almost perfect timbre matching in the Alpha system. The lowest impedance is in the mid bass on the Alpha T, and is just above 4 ohms between 200 and 300 Hz. These are loads that the T761 will have no trouble with, and that should also be the case with most of today’s HT receivers and amplifiers.

      Overall, this is a pretty impressive home theatre package for under $4000. It compared quite favourably with our reference system that costs well over $20,000, though it lacked the outright power, dynamics, and finesse of the Sunfire Signature/Newform Research combination. But what the NAD/PSB package provides is excellent picture and audio quality, with dynamic and punchy surround sound in Dolby Digital or DTS. And the Alpha T stands out as an exceptional budget tower speaker on its own, or with the SubSonic 5 (below left) in a straight stereo system.

Andrew Marshall

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