PSB celebrates its half century with a speaker that harks back to its early days. EdSelley finds the results thoroughly modern. Read our PSB PASSIF 50 Review.
Trading for half a century is no mean feat in any product category but in the world of hi-fi where some companies have the lifespan of a mayfly, it’s a notable achievement. Not only has PSB reached the 50-year mark, it has done so with owner and founder Paul Barton at the helm throughout. To celebrate, Barton has released the Passif 50; a speaker that borrows design thinking from the Seventies, but mixes it with many far more modern attributes.
|PSB Passif 50
|2-way standmount loudspeaker
|280 x660 x254mm
|• 25mm titanium dome tweeter • 165mm paper cone mid/bass driver • 203mm passive bass radiator • Quoted sensitivity: 89dB/1W/1m (6ohm)
|Sevenoaks Sound & Vision
|psbspeakers.com sevenoakssound andvision.co.uk
For accuracy or pedantry purposes, the Passif 50 is based on the Passif II, which did not appear until 1974 but is historically important as it represented the first collaboration between Barton and Floyd Toole of the National Research Council of Canada – a government body and thinktank that has helped the Canadian businesses. The Passif 50 copies the most important feature of the Passif II, which is the use of a passive radiator in place of a more conventional bass port.
This is 203mm across and the largest ‘driver’ on the front panel. It’s materially identical to the 165mm powered driver above it, being made of treated paper, and it has a cast aluminium basket and filleted rubber surround, but there is no voicecoil or magnet. The 165mm driver does have them, however, and is partnered with a 25mm titanium dome tweeter. This is now ‘handed’ so there are specific left and right speakers, which was not the case with the original model. Something else very modern is the handover for the speaker: a relatively low 1.8kHz.
The use of the radiator means that the cabinet is sealed, making it extremely placement-friendly in practise with little or no response to boundaries at all. The retro styling is helpful here too, because it allows the radiator to be of greater size than the powered drivers. This is in turn beneficial to the sensitivity, a fairly easy-going 89dB/W. This is a fairly large cabinet, but not an especially hard-hitting design, with the low frequency roll-off given as 50Hz, albeit at a very rigorous +/- 3dB. This means it faces a degree of competition from notionally smaller rivals.
At times the PSB feels behaviourally closer to a modern than a retro design
The cabinet itself makes use of all the tricks of the trade that PSB has learned in the ensuing 50 years. It follows the company’s contemporary methods in terms of materials and adhesives as well as internal bracing. The result feels extremely robust and usefully inert. The unusual dimensions – the 660mm height is stubby for a floorstander, but hefty for a standmount – means that PSB has taken the sensible decision of supplying the Passif 50 with short stands that not only raise the cabinet to a more conventional height, but lean it back slightly to help with time alignment.
The appearance of the Passif 50 is bound to divide opinion. The bulk of retro components we’ve seen over the last 18 months have been taking products that were released a little more recently as their starting point. The Passif 50 feels older – more Sixties than Seventies- but it grows on me during my time testing it. It’s a subtle design, but details like the vintage badging and the PSB logo pull tabs on the grilles all look and feel superb. The walnut veneer is unobtrusive, but attractive and I like the heavy fabric grilles too, although so do my cats who usually have no interest in going near speakers.
Connecting the PSB up to a Cyrus Classic AMP (HFC 496) and Chord Electronics Qutest (HFC 436) generates a slightly unexpected result that takes a little time to unpick and fully understand. The performance isn’t bad – far from it -but there’s a disconnect between how the Passif 50 looks and performs that takes a little time to come to terms with. This is mostly because you look at it and assume that it’ll sound similar to its appearance: big and spacious, but coloured and soft.
The reality is a little different, but then the original Passif II subvened expectations too. The work that PSB undertook with the NRC was extremely rigorous judged by the standards of the time and resulted in a speaker that put rather less of itself into its performance. Its descendent takes that idea and runs with it. The Passif 50 has next to no cabinet colouration. Listening to El Bueno Y El Malo by Hermanos Gutierrez reveals admirable transparency. There’s precious little perception of anything other than the drivers at work.
The cabinet uses all the tricks of the trade that PSB has learned over 50 years
And those drivers do work. Neither is terribly sophisticated in material terms, but the distinctive sounds of the title track are tonally believable and impressively vivid. The low crossover puts a significant demand on the tweeter, but it responds superbly to the challenge. The sonic fingerprint of two well-sorted drivers in a very inert cabinet means that the PSB at times feels behaviourally closer to something entirely modern than a retro design.
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What makes this effect a little sonically disorientating is that the shape of the cabinet has an effect on the performance. That relatively wide baffle means that, so long as a little toe-in is applied, it generates an exceptionally wide and vivid soundstage. The enormous Waking Up on M83’s Oblivion soundtrack feels utterly unconstrained while fine details in the mix are easy to perceive. The bass extension is not quite as deep or as potent as some
other floorstanders at a similar price, but the integration and control on offer is very impressive.
Where I sometimes struggle a little with the Passif 50 is that it isn’t always the most exciting-sounding speaker going. It is a thoroughly capable device to listen to, but there’s a lack of out-and-out punch and drive that I find a little disappointing. There are caveats to this, though, that are worth repeating. The first is that PSB’s position on ‘character’ is very clear: the speaker should be a window on the music and nothing more – so this is partly a very deliberate choice.
The second is that, away from big, ballistic pieces of electronica, the Passif 50 can be genuinely enjoyable because it puts very little of itself into the performance. The manner in which it delivers Outta Sight by The Sheepdogs – something from 2022 that also sounds like it came from 1972 – is tremendously enjoyable. The PSB is sweet and refined without being soft or muddied in any way, and the result is a speaker that is able to handle a wide selection of styles and – no less importantly – mastering qualities without being particularly unsettled by either.
All of this adds up to a speaker that is temperamentally different to most of the retro-themed designs currently hitting the market. The Passif 50 looks and feels like a refugee from the Seventies, but crucially doesn’t really sound like one. Instead, you’re treated to a transparent and self-effacing sound that is easy to access, thanks to its fundamentally benign placement needs. This is a perfect summary of PSB’s 50 years of design; unfussy, accurate and user-friendly. The result is both a fitting celebration and a very talented speaker in its own right •
The Passif 50 looks vintage, but the sound is thoroughly modem and will suit a wide variety of systems
- Open. spacious and transparent sound
- easy placement
- Not always the most exciting-sound ng speaker
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HOW IT COMPARES
The PSB is rather larger and £ more than the Neat Petite Classic (HFC 495), but once you take into account stands the price difference is closer. The Neat channels a later period of speaker design and while it’s fairly wide baffled, it can’t match the width and expansiveness of the PSB. What is more surprising is that the diminutive Neat gives away virtually nothing in bass response and has the same generally forgiving presentation and a rather more out-and-out sense of fun to it. Subjectively, I prefer this to the more measured output of the PSB, but there’s little arguing that the Passif 50 is the more accurate performer.