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Reviewer: Wayne Zufall
Digital Source: Canary CD-100
Preamp: Canary CA-903
Power Amp: Canary Reference Ones, Canary CA-160s and Dussun V8i [in for review]
Speakers: B&W Matrix 800
Cables: Analysis Plus Big Silver Oval ICs and speaker wire
Power Cords: Guerilla Audio
Sundry Accessories: Factory spikes on the B&Ws, Isolator pads under all components and speakers
Power Line Conditioning: Separate left and right dedicated lines, each with a 20 amp breaker, six hospital grade plugs per side and Analysis Plus Power Oval 10 wiring
Room Size: 40' wide by 38' long by 9' high
Review Component Retail: $17,995/pair

A monolith as described by the Oxford Dictionary is "a single block of stone, esp. shaped into a pillar or monument or a massive, immovable, or solidly uniform person or thing". The XPS can qualify for both of these descriptions. Although not made of stone, its well over 200 pound weight might suggest otherwise. Your first view of the speakers clearly reminds you of the large black monoliths in the opening scenes of 2001 Space Odyssey - and the memory of the music from The Planets by Gustav Holst playing somewhat ominously in the background.

Starting at the beginning, I received a call from Paul at Continental's air freight terminal, letting me know that the XPS had arrived. I let Paul know that I would be down in an hour to pick them up, to which he quickly responded, "you mean you are coming by yerself?" I said yes and he quickly advised to bring several friends, preferably large ones. Paul's words proved wise as upon my arrival at the terminal, I found two large crates weighing a total of 540 pounds. The crates were 67" tall, 22" wide and 22" deep and are made out of ½" composite surrounded by four sets of 1½" by 2½" wood supports. With Paul at the forklift, the two crates were easy to load into the truck. Paul's recommendation to have extra help came in very handy when we later had to man-handle them out of the truck.

After getting them off of the truck, it was easy to see that a refrigerator dolly with straps was the best way to move these beasts, especially if we were going down stairs, which we were. Once we had them in the music room, I took a quick look and found I needed a powered screw driver or
electric drill to remove the 42 screws per crate. With the side and upper screws all removed and having hopefully noticed the arrows and words noting which side was up, an hour later we were able to split open the wooden cocoons, finding the XPS nestled inside. The speakers were cradled in foam supports and a plethora of plastic and bubble wrap, showing that PBN Audio is very serious about protecting their speakers.

Once out of their plastic, I was first intrigued by the shape of the XPS. From the front, they indeed look like a monolith. Tall and stately, my initial impression was that despite the 4" chamfered section at the front, the sides looked straight. Actually, they taper and angle back inward to the rear section of the speaker, which is only 9" across. This results in a 22" front section that tapers back to a 9" rear section - or for those geometry students, an asymmetrical hexagon. Tapping on the side of the speakers will quickly tell you that they are like stone, inert. As compared to the same test on my B&W Matrix 800s, it is obvious that PBN has done their homework. Their cabinets were clearly more inert than my B&Ws.

Delving into PBN's technical literature on the cabinets provides us with some additional information and also makes clear why they weigh 200 pounds. The construction method provides no parallel surfaces within the cabinet to reduce the most profound internal standing waves. Inside the enclosures, you will find seven perimeter braces to stiffen the panels.

Since we are talking tech, let's jump into the specifications provided. The XPS is a four-way, seven driver speaker using a complement of two 10" woofers, two 7" mid-woofers, two 4" midranges and one 25mm tweeter. The crossover uses 24dB acoustical slopes said to be 100% phase correct and premium quality components. The crossover points are 80Hz, 375Hz and 3kHz. The nominal 4-ohm load is said to vary between 3 and 9 ohms. The efficiency is 92.5 dB @ 2.83 Volts at 1m. The claimed in-room frequency response is 25Hz to 22kHz +/- 1.5 dB. The speaker is 65" tall by 16" wide by 17.25" deep.

Patience and a proper screw driver are virtues

In the lower rear section are two pairs of gold-plated high quality binding posts. Those are a little on the small side if you use large spades, which may allow them to loosen up if you move the speakers or have pets or kids about that could come in contact with the speaker cables. You also have to look close to notice the small white and red rings identifying post polarity. The metal speaker base has four elongated fingers which house threaded holes to install adjustable spikes. Support pads are provided for wooden surfaces.

Peter added some details on each of the drivers that might be of interest. The 10" woofers use hand-coated paper cones with 2" voice coils wound on a black anodized aluminum former for high power handling. They are mounted in a 120 liter vented enclosure with an F3 of 26Hz. The 7" mid-woofers also employ hand-coated paper cones and utilize voice coils wound from lightweight copper-clad aluminum wire and are mounted in a separate 8-liter sealed enclosure. The 4" midranges use glass fiber cones with 1" voice coils and are mounted in separate enclosures with a combined volume of 3.5 liters. The special SEAS 25 mm lightweight tweeter has a one-piece fabric dome with 1" copper-clad aluminum voice coil wound on an aluminum former.

The woodwork, fit and seamless finish of the speakers is excellent. You can choose from the usual basic glossy black lacquer or select from a wide variety of real wood finishes, including certain exotic varieties. Special colors and finishes are also available for a surcharge. PBN will also build custom speakers for special or professional applications.

PBN Audio has eight US dealers located in California (San Diego, Tiburon and Fallbrook), Florida (Orlando), Illinois (Woodridge), Missouri (Kansas City), Oklahoma (Bartlesville) and West Virginia (South Charleston) plus eight dealers located around the globe.

Peter Noerback founded PBN Audio out of an interest in music and speakers, which started when he was ten years old. Peter's first introduction to speakers was through his grandfather while living in his native Denmark. Peter's grandfather was rebuilding a pair of Tandberg speakers that he had Peter help him with, piquing Peter's interest in speakers, their design and how they worked. Peter later moved to the US and with an electrical degree to his credit, found work as an electrical engineer on large ships. Peter's passion for
audio finally inspired him to give up the sea and return to California where he worked in the audio business, learning and honing his technical and business skills. Peter quickly determined that he wanted to build his own speaker, providing a product that was accurate, truthful and of quality built. PBN Audio was thus born in San Diego, California.


With the speakers uncrated, bubble pack, plastic and crates removed, it was time to hook up the monoliths. Following a brief warm up, I returned to have that first listen. My initial impression was that the tweeter was very brilliant and edgy and the bass was soft and lacking in any kind of presence or punch. The overall presentation seemed a little canned. Remembering that Peter said the speakers had only been played for 50 hours, I understood that they needed more break-in time. I moved them over to a pair of review amplifiers (Dussun V8i) that also needed break-in, added a CD player and started the process. During that time, I contacted Peter, asking him for tips on how the speakers liked to be positioned. Peter gave me several recommendations, which turned out to be extremely helpful.

The daily routine was to play the XPS and Dussuns for eight to ten hours a day, with the volume adjusted to normal listening levels. My wife, when home in the afternoon, would vary the musical selection to her tastes, which usually meant classical. Once the speakers accumulated another 50 hours, I would take a listen and see what progress was made. Suffice it to say that after 200 hours, the speakers were still not there. As many of us know from experience, breaking in speakers can be quick or long in coming. But before you click to the next review, this is a caterpillar-to-butterfly story so stick around for the metamorphosis.

Patience is its own reward and waiting for the XPS to finally break in -- they eventually do -- is well worth the wait. When the 300-hour mark had arrived with 350 just on the horizon, the XPS started to show some signs of what they could do. Talking to a few Montana owners with the same Seas tweeter has revealed that their tweeters are still breaking in after close to 500 hours. The XPS will probably still be playing for your great-grand kids with this kind of stamina. When the speakers hit 380 hours, they came alive. It was as if someone had left the plug wires off from two of eight cylinders and then magically one plug was added, leaving me anxious to see when the eighth would join in.

Remembering the tips that Peter had shared, I moved the XPS to within 6" to 8" of the rear wall, angling them in at about a 1.5" toe in and separated the speakers, measured from the insides, at 12' apart. The speakers in my room do not see any side walls as the front wall they are on is 40' long. It was time to do some real listening and out came Keb Mo's Slow Down [ED OKeh/500 Music BK69376]. I started with track three "Everything I Need". The opening bass and drum slam was solid and very detailed. The bass was not really huge in presence or slam but it had improved nearly 100% from the first listen. The guitars were crystal clear and the snap of the pick could be heard in the very best of detail, letting me hear them lightly click as they slipped off the strings. The character of Keb Mo's voice can be a little raspy at times and the XPS flat nailed it. Percussion instruments, which are prevalent throughout his music, had moved from soft and lacking in presence in the first listen to clear, detailed and finely placed within the soundstage. Wood blocks that were previously barely audible were now presented with authority from a specific location within the soundstage. Clearly the speakers were making headway but I had the sense that they'd benefit from even more time on them.

At Peter's

With the break-in clock now showing 450 hours, it was time to see how much the XPS had progressed and listening to more music was the fun way to find out. I selected Linda Ronstadt's For Sentimental Reasons and track number 9 "Straighten Up and Fly Right" [CD, Asylum, 60474-2]. The bass was dramatically improved, showing strong presence and control that was clearly not there at 380 hours. One of Peter's tips was to move the speaker in very close to the rear wall to add slam and presence to the bass. The mid bass was smooth, controlled, never bloated and blended in timing and accuracy with the now punched-up lower bass. The new bass presence and punch clearly helped to better balance the speaker. The previous lack of bass had allowed the tweeter to dominate and tip the speaker's balance in its direction.

One of the superb things the XPS do is throw a huge and layered soundstage. At the 300-hour mark as I listened to Linda Ronstadt and "Straighten Up and Fly Right", I found that the backup singer was audible but not the least bit defined within the soundstage. At 450 hours, I could not only clearly locate him to the left of Linda but his voice was now clearly defined, clear and not so blurred as before. The soundstage was now more layered and much more specific as to instrument placement. I could move the speakers closer together, which seemed to only slightly move the sweet spot from where I was sitting but I never lost the layering effect or the detailed placement of the instruments and voices. This suggests to me that these speakers will work very well in moderate to small-sized rooms without giving up any of their sonic attributes.

The XPS seemed to like tube amps as well as transistors, although I personally preferred them on my Canary tube amps. I used a small 60wpc Rotel, the Canary Reference Ones and the Canary CA-160s, with the XPS doing a grand job with any of the pairings. The XPS and the CA-160s were an excellent match even though the EL34 monos did not seem to elicit the same warm or lush tube sound they get from the B&Ws. The Reference Ones with their huge transformers seemed to be the best match. Bass that was strong and with a large presence over the CA-160s became powerful and in your face with the Ones. Detail, clarity and soundstage layering became even more palpable. The XPS are very well rounded speakers that will perform with nearly any amplifier; however higher-current tube or transistor amps seem to get the most from them.

I listened to my 8 test CDs on the XPS with three different amplifiers and found that the XPS excelled with all of the amps and all types of music. My wife's organ music with its low bass registers was no problem. The speakers remained controlled and without introducing bass bloat. One of my favorite piano test CDs is from Willie Nelson's Super Hits, track 8 titled "Always on My Mind" [Columbia CK 64184]. The XPS produced the piano notes with crystalline clarity and held onto the notes, keeping them detailed until they faded away. A piano can be quite a challenge for a speaker, especially in classical music when the music's volume levels can soften and the listener is trying to hear what is being played. The XPS handle soft passages with verve, letting one hear the detail of every note. While the XPS does a very good job of remaining dynamic at low levels, they also like to be pushed at high sound levels, where they do not lose their composure, clarity or detail - something I am sure your neighbors would be able to comment on with ease.

At this stage in the break-in process, the XPS had nearly 485 hours on them. I decided to listen to a few select CDs and see how they were sounding before it was time to slip them back into their cocoons for their return trip to San Diego. So next up was Keely Smith's Be My Love [Jasmine Records, JASCD 321] and track 11 "My Reverie". I played this particular track to see how Keely and the violins were presented. Keely's voice was clean, warm and lush, really giving me the feeling she was center stage. The XPS adds a level of transparency that was lightly noticeable at the 400 hour mark but now in full bloom, with increased dynamic attack and a better layered soundstage. It was apparent that the butterfly had finally emerged from within.

The midbass was a little tighter too, having progressed from lean to articulate. Keely's voice in prior sessions was never as warm or seductive as I knew she could be. Now her voice was passionate and clearly seductive. The violin passages were articulate, clear and seamless in their presentation. While the XPS do not totally disappear in my room, I would expect that in a different space, they just might. The speakers were very well balanced now. From the bass through the high frequencies, they did slip into a presentation that was, as Peter promised it would be, seamless. The XPS are not a speaker even on tubes that I would consider to be overly warm or lush. They are focused, revealing and exude authority with a transparency that is dynamic and coherent.

It is interesting that the XPS cost the same $18,000/pr as my B&W Matrix 800s did in their 1990 - 1995 time of manufacture. The B&Ws have four 12" woofers and do move more air than the XPS four 10-inchers. The B&W presentation is a little on the warm side as compared to the PBN Montanas. The XPS does have better detail in the tweeter, however. The B&Ws throw a somewhat larger soundstage and produce both more bass and a more layered presentation. The midrange between the two is very comparable. At the end of the day, the B&Ws make more bass and the XPS have a better tweeter. It would seem that $18,000 buys you a great speaker in any year.

Fresh out of their crates, my first impression of the XPS was that it would never be a speaker I'd enjoy. I literally could not imagine that the XPS could go from the lean, dry and banal presentation it started out with
to the superb loudspeaker it is today. Peter has fulfilled his promise to build a quality, accurate and coherent speaker. You only have to have the patience to uncrate them and wait for the caterpillar to complete its metamorphosis. Then these are speakers you will be enjoying over the long haul.
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