Active speakers are getting under our skin at HiFi Starters. Last up was the Acoustic Energy AE1 Active (here), which rather wowed us. This time it’s PSB’s Alpha iQ, a somewhat different beast.
With the AE1 it’s ‘just’ speakers & power amplifiers, add your own source. Not so the Alpha iQ, everything is built in; streamer, DAC, pre-amp, MM phono stage, kitchen sink. All powered by the BluOS networking platform (from Bluesound, PSB’s sister company). All you need is a network connection.
The all-in-one approach makes the choices for you. That doesn’t stop you upgrading when the bug bites though, the pre-amp has inputs for external devices. It just means parking the Alpha iQ’s own streamer & DAC (with the commensurate financial hit).
The other big difference is a small one; the AE1 Active positively dwarfs the PSB speaker. When I unboxed the Alpha iQ cognitive dissonance struck. No way should something that small cost £1,299 / US$1,499 / €1,499. No way can those miniscule drivers sound any good. As a buyer I’d be wondering if I’d been mugged. Thankfully the Alpha iQ is easy to set up, it didn’t take long to find out.
What do you get?
So, two speakers, each with two Class D power amplifiers (60W for mid/bass, 30W for treble). One speaker also has a pre-amp and the streaming smarts. Both need plugging into the mains, the master needs an Ethernet cable. Unless you run them wirelessly, which I tried; it worked well. As always the recommendation is to go wired if you can. Cleverly, the master communicates with the slave wirelessly, there’s no cable between them. The setup proved handy, and the link was rock steady.
The speakers are rear-ported, BluOS’s EQ helping mitigate any positioning challenges this presents (more below). The mid/bass driver is a small 10cm unit, the tweeter a 1.9cm aluminium dome with ferrofluid neodymium magnet, fronted by a guard to protect from prying fingers. Unusually, the tweeter sits below the mid/bass driver on the speaker baffle, which PSB says improves sound quality. Finally a touch sensitive bar across the top of the master speaker allows for volume control & play/pause. Handy for occasional use I found.
Connections on the master speaker comprise RJ45 for the network, two RCA sockets for the MM phono input (with ground) and a 3.5mm analogue input. Plus a subwoofer output on an RCA socket – more on that below. On digital there’s an SPDIF optical input plus two-way e-ARC HDMI, the latter opening up direct connection to your TV. Rounding up the physical connections is a USB-A socket for playing thumb drives or external USB drives (but not computers).
On networked connectivity, aptX Bluetooth (the higher quality) version is present but Airplay and Chromecast aren’t. BluOS’s UPNP capability allows access to share files on your network. And the Alpha iQ is Roon Ready should you prefer that to BlueOS (I used both).
Build & looks
Dinky-cute is probably not quite the phrase PSB was aiming for. Apologies, it’s meant as a compliment. Other than that the Matte Black review pair were fairly anonymous in looks. Again, a compliment, I prefer HiFi to be heard and not seen. If you want more of a statement consider the svelte Matte White option.
Build quality is good, everything screwed together well, with a nice solid feel about the speakers. No grills are supplied for the Alpha iQ, a consideration for those with young children / inquisitive cats. Overall the Alpha iQ happily meets expectations on both looks and build quality.
The BluOS streaming platform underpins products across the Lenbrook Group (NAD, Bluesound, PSB) as well as being licensed externally (Monitor Audio, Cyrus etc). All BluOS products work interchangeably, the resulting multiroom system being very Sonos-like in nature, just better sounding (according to Bluesound, I haven’t compared them). The platform is very broad in nature, worthy of a complete review in itself. The key points relating to the Alpha iQ are: –
- Multi-platform support: iOS, Android, Windows, MacOS & Kindle.
- Numerous music services are supported, including Amazon Music HD, Tidal, Qobuz & Spotify as well as niche ones
- Data rates up to PCM 24bit/192kHz can be handled.
- Bass & treble can be EQ’d by +/-6dB, in steps of 0.5dB.
- A defeatable subwoofer filter sends bass to the subwoofer, the rest of the sound to the main speakers. You set the crossover point (40-200Hz). Together these make it easier to set up a subwoofer.
I hadn’t used BluOS before. In practice it was very stable (not always a given with music software). And it was very nice to use, getting out of the way of the music (not yet an audio cliche when applied to software!)
The speakers were at their best 60cm from the wall behind then, which is how critical listening was done. But, moving them to just 10cm from the wall and applying some equalisation (EQ) also worked well. With bass at -4dB and treble at +1.5dB the sound remained pretty taught low down as well as retaining air up top. As usual the soundstage reduced in depth quite a bit. The Alpha iQ still sounded impressively good though. Moving the speakers onto a coffee table also gave commendable results.
Note that the Alpha iQ is even more flexible than the AE1 Active thanks to its wider EQ range (+/-6dB vs +/-2dB) and finer steps (0.5dB vs 1dB). Put that together with the Alpha iQ’s small size and you have a significant differentiator. Hello real world, bye bye speakers dominating the lounge.
The BIG reveal
And so to proper listening. Nothing prepared me for the disconnect between the Alpha iQ’s size and the scale of its sound. ‘No way can those miniscule drivers sound any good’. Pah, wrong in the extreme. Every time I fired the Alpha iQ up I got the same rush of incredulity.
Take “What If” from India.Aria’s Worthy, a lovely big-boned R&B track. Spacious soundstage, fat bass line, creamy vocals. A substantive sound that hits you from the off; the Alpha iQ just punched it into my room. On Kei Keito’s beautifully recorded Bach: Famous Organ Works the vast sound was recreated with no allowance for the Alpha iQ’s size. Likewise the “Dies Irae” from Jaap Van Zweden’s Britten: War Requiem, whose big dynamic swings were conveyed well for such a small speaker.
All of which meant I had to recalibrate expectations, ignoring the Alpha iQ’s miniscule size. I never quite managed, smiling to the end of the review period (it’s a great party trick).
But what of the rest of the sound? As with the AE1 Active (fuller comparison below), the Alpha iQ put in a balanced performance. Nothing untoward, much to admire, with a large and believable soundstage a key characteristic. Palpability was good, Paul Simon’s Seven Psalms came across (deliberately) as very personal, as if it was just me and the singer in the room. That despite the army of musicians subtly accompanying him; this is a very intricate recording. The Alpha iQ dug out the detail impressively.
The sound isn’t remotely etched, the treble not over-egged or hot. Indeed bright recordings like Michael Jackson’s “Bad”, Quincy Jones’ “The Dude”, Weather Report’s “Birdland” etc were treated kindly, suggesting a hint of treble roll off.
Bass went much deeper than -3dB/64Hz would suggest. “Sista” from Rachelle Ferrell’s 2000 album Individuality – a regular bass test track for subwoofer specialists REL – has her sassy vocals driven along by a really fat and funky bass line. The Alpha iQ tracked it all the way, sounding really fruity.
Film soundtracks also fared really well, particularly those anchored on an atmospheric low end. Hans Zimmer’s Inception and Interstellar, James Horner’s Avatar, Daft Punk’s Tron and the like. Soundbars beware, the Alpha iQ’s HDMI connection puts you in its sights.
Overall the Alpha iQ put in a very composed performance irrespective of size. That such a full sound was delivered is really impressive, a slight softening of dynamics the only indication that it’s a small box.
How good is the DAC & streamer?
Against the digital output of a NAD CS1 (£350 with iFi power supply) it was horses for courses. The Alpha iQ was cleaner, the CS1 slightly more rounded. I’d call it for the Alpha iQ, you may not. The margin of difference made it academic.
Against the CS1’s analogue output the Alpha iQ was fresher, a little more crisp. The NAD sounded gentler in comparison, transients softened. Again the differences weren’t large, the NAD’s internal DAC sounding very nice.
A £2k streamer & DAC (Pro-ject Stream Box S2 Ultra / Mytek Liberty II) showed the Alpha iQ was capable of more when fed from a high quality source. Musicians were more tangible, the soundstage was just bigger, bass was tighter and more propulsive. All notably so. Hardly a realistic option though. Back in the real world you can rest easy hitching yourself to the Alpha iQ’s digital electronics. They’re good.
A £499 Pro-ject Debut Carbon EVO sounded lovely playing through the Alpha iQ. “Old Man Trouble” from Hans Theessink’s Slow Train showed up the natural ambience of the African-style backing vocals (the album was recorded without reverb). Theessink’s laid-back singing was also captured beautifully.
The digital version was better, but not by much. Tonally things were very different though, for once the stereotype of warmer analogue versus clearer digital holding true. I appreciated both, your preferences may differ.
The Alpha iQ’s phono stage was good enough to differentiate the turntable with and without a record weight (with it the sound gained a little stability). And the improvements when swapping out the Ortofon 2M Red cartridge for a 2M Blue were even more obvious. A more palpable sound, tighter bass, the soundstage wider and deeper.
Using a better phono stage – Pro-ject’s £220 Phono Box S2 Ultra – elevated things noticeably. The sound was bolder, more forward. It took on the best of the digital whilst retaining a smidge of warmth. I now preferred analogue over digital. The external phono box also had more gain than the internal one, playing louder.
Overall, the Alpha iQ’s internal phono stage is no slouch though, happy to play ball with very creditable turntables. Even if the speaker’s digital side does seem a little stronger, perhaps indicating the target market.
At £450 REL’s TZero III is price appropriate to the Alpha iQ. It’s also ridiculously small, so a kindred spirit. With the subwoofer crossover set to 80Hz I ploughed through a host of bass-centric music.
It turns out the Alpha iQ doesn’t actually need a subwoofer, its bass performance is very strong. The TZero II did add to the party though, bringing greater bass depth and an enlarged soundstage.
Alva Noto’s Kinder der Sonne – thanks for the suggestion Michael Lavorgna – is the soundtrack to the theatre play Komplizen. It’s atmospheric sci-fi inspired music, the sort a good subwoofer enhances. The TZero III didn’t disappoint, adding an extra level of rumbling menace in the opening “Intro” for example. The whole album is rather intoxicating, even more so with the subwoofer in play.
As is Anna Lapwood’s EP Midnight Sessions at the Royal Albert Hall, five organ transcriptions of well-known film music. Yawn-fest? Not in Lapwood’s hands, the soundscapes she conjures up are majestic (she did the transcriptions). There’s real power on display, something only heightened by the subwoofer. The RAH seemed to gain in size as well.
Overall using the Alpha iQ with the TZero III wasn’t step-change. The extra £450 was more than justified though; the combination gave a really powerful sound, only enhancing music’s impact.
Comparison: PSB Alpha iQ vs AE1 Active
Fed via the analogue output of the NAD CS1 streamer the AE1 Active sounded very similar to the Alpha iQ. The AE1’s extra size did make itself heard, courtesy of a bigger soundstage and increased dynamics. The sound was also slightly more open and transparent, with greater detail. Within the soundstage, performers were also more tangible and bass was marginally tighter (depth was the same).
Take Beady Belle’s “Skin-Deep” (from Closer), Scandi jazz of the quirky variety. Beate Lech’s subtle vocal intonations came through more clearly on the AE1. The fine detail of the arrangement was more apparent, the pulsing beat stronger. Your toes tapped more.
Changing tack, “Shadows Follow” from Metallica’s 72 Seasons was more dynamic through the AE1, the soundstage larger, the band more upfront. Third row not tenth row. But, whilst the Alpha iQ diminished things slightly the real shock – again – was just how big it managed to sound.
Overall the AE1 builds on the Alpha iQ’s strengths, producing a marginally better sound. Say, 5% better, a difference I wouldn’t stress about if the Alpha iQ’s extra functionality and small size are important to you.
I was enamoured with the Alpha iQ. The level of sound delivered from just two small boxes was a constant surprise. The simplicity of the setup was a breath of fresh air. And BluOS lived up to expectations, a delight to use.
Yes you can probably get equivalent or slightly better sound building your own system. The AE1 Active – half way to separates – remains a firm favourite of HiFi Starters for example. For the 90% of us whose without dedicated listening rooms though the Alpha iQ is a real-world alternative that delivers a startlingly big-boned sound. The 10% might want to consider it too, particularly those with smaller rooms.
PSB has a hit on its hands with the Alpha iQ. £1,300 is not inexpensive but is good value considering you get a complete system. The level of performance on offer makes it an obvious HiFi Starters Best Buy. We’re going to miss them when they go.
AE1 Active & Alpha iQ bookending the (next up for review) Triangle AIO Twin