The PBN Audio Pennywise Loudspeaker
The PBN Audio Pennywise Loudspeaker
The Power to Move You!
Swimming with the Big Fish
I like action thriller novels. A personal favorite of mine—maybe yours too, is the James Bond series. Bond is the prototypical alpha male who can, against all odds, get the job done with his bare hands, a high-tech gizmo and a Walther PPK. Bond kills, nay, destroys bad guys whose seemingly endless power, access to resources and weaponry makes his triumphs all the more sensational. In this sense, Bond’s story is really just a modern day David and Goliath story.
In the land of high-end audio loudspeakers, there are also Goliaths: Thiel, Vandersteen, Magnepan, Wilson, YG Acoustics, MBL, JM Labs, Magico, I could go on and on. Products from these manufactures enjoy a lot of media attention, however at the other end of the spectrum are speakers that don’t get a lot of press but are just as deserving. One such speaker is the PennyWise (PW) loudspeaker from industry veteran Peter B. Noerbaek, of PBN Audio and Montana Loudspeaker. Montana Loudspeaker is well known for building heroic cabinets that have beautiful automotive finishes and exotic real wood veneers. The PWs fit somewhere between the Montana EPS2 and the Liberty loudspeakers. PBN Audio, for its part, builds high-performance audio preamps, amplifiers and the popular GrooveMaster Turntable.
I wanted to know more about the PW, so I met up with Peter Noerbaek at the 2011 Rocky Mountain Audio Festival. I asked Peter: “Who did you have on your radar when you set out to design the PW?” He replied: “Anyone that claims that speaker building is “Mystical” and that their speaker is the “World’s best speaker. And of course on the flip side anyone wanting to build a great speaker but needed a set of plans to go by.” Sounds like as good a reason as any to design a speaker.
The PW offers good value by foregoing the traditional dealer network, opting instead to let them be sold direct from PBN Audio. If they were sold through dealers, the PW would cost $12k—quite a value indeed. You can buy the PW in one of three configurations, two of which are meant for the DIYer with the last one being sold as a completely finished loudspeaker. The DIYer can purchase the “kit” from PBN Audio for $1,250 which includes drivers, unassembled crossover components and assembly instructions, you build your own cabinet. Finished cabinets go for $3000 and come in red or black. Finally, if you want a completely built PW, that’ll cost you $6,000. PBN Audio is able to offer excellent value by foregoing the traditional dealer network, opting instead to sell them direct. Peter say’s that selling them through the dealer, the PW would cost $12 making their $6k price tag a good value indeed.
Peter sent me a completed pair of PW’s dipped in a glossy black finish, which he say’s takes his guys about 35 hours to complete—more on this later. With the PW you get high-performance drivers from Dayton Audio’s reference line, high quality parts throughout and large film capacitors. They weigh in at a hefty 120 lbs with dimensions of 42”H x 12”W x 18”D. The PW isn’t a small speaker but it isn’t huge either. They fit nicely into our listening space which doubles as our living room and I got no complaints from my wife Jaime. Graciously she is very tolerant of my audiophile affliction.
Montana Loudspeakers and by extension the PW, are known for their Herculean enclosures, Peter would say “They’re built like a tank…” they are heavily braced and have a laminated front baffle. They are built from ¾” MDF with no less than five horizontal shelf braces. Built to this level the PW resists cabinet resonances thus reducing colorations which can have a negative effect on the sound. You’ll notice the top of the speaker is tilted back 38 degrees to ensure time alignment which helps preserve musical coherence. The 1” tweeter and 6” midrange are housed in their own sealed enclosures. Dual 8” woofers are housed in a separate 70 liter ported box, tuned in the mid 20’s. The crossover design, Peter would say is “complete.” True to form he uses a 24dB/Octave LR type crossover where the respective driver output is down about 6dB at the crossover point. By complete he means that he no expense was spared for the sake of it “simple,” for example, where the design calls for a zobel circuit, it’s there. The crossover points are 2250 Hz for the tweeters, 200 Hz for the mid-range, the woofer are allowed to roll off naturally. They are 4 ohms nominally, but get down to 2.2 ohms at some frequencies so bring a stout amplifier to the game. Peter say’s a 100 watts is enough to drive them to satisfying levels. The speaker is also electrically time aligned meaning the crossover is properly time aligned to the input signal.
Bolted to the bottom of each PW is a large, 2”H x 12”W x 18”D heavy metal stabilizer plate to which the largest spikes I’ve seen on a loudspeaker are fitted. You dial in the height of the speaker by turning each of the four knurled black knobs attached to heavy duty ¾ thick spikes which give you about 1 ¼“ of adjustment to play with. Wing nuts lock the spikes in place so they don’t move during heavy musical passages. A word of caution; lest you want to get bitten, fit the spikes after you’ve found the best location—the spikes are sharp. You’ve been warned. On the back of the PW is a single set of heavy duty, metal speaker terminals attached to a recessed plate. The speaker terminals accept bananas, spades, and bare wire up to 10 gauge. The PW also comes with removable black grills that are pressed on with the force of God. I was concerned the tabs would break while taking them off and on during gatherings. Luckily for me, I’ve put taken them off and put them back on many, many times and they’ve held up well. Just remember to take care your when removing them.
Every aspect of the PW is built to a higher standard than I’ve seen with some “high end” speakers. PBN Audio uses an extensive finishing process; assembled cabinets are prepped, then primed with an industrial primer, then sanded, then primed again, then sanded again and then either an industrial conversion varnish or a base coat/clear coat automotive finish. This is allowed to cure then sanded with 600 Grit sandpaper then 1200 Grit sandpaper, then buffed to a mirror finish with a polishing compound. After all that finish work it would be a sin to ship the PW’s in cardboard containers so PBN Audio ships them in wooden crates instead. The PW’s are wrapped in heavy, thick foam. You will need a friend to help you unpack them.
I used my trusty Aragon 4004 mkII to drive the PW. The 4004 mkII puts out 400 wpc into the PW’s 4 ohms. A Benchmark DAC1 HDR was used as a preamplifier. It also acted as the D/A converter for a Squeezebox Touch which served up 16/44.1, 24/96, 24/192 kHz FLAC, AIFF, and WAV files. Cables are from MIT, Signal Power and DH Labs. All electronics are mechanically isolated using homebrew dual isolation platforms. Speakers are Ohm Walsh 5’s which retailed for more than $5000.
A word about the Ohm Walsh 5’s—the Ohm Walsh 5’s are Omni-directional speakers that use a CLS (Coherent Line Source) driver. The 12” CLS driver is an evolution of the original Lincoln Walsh driver with better efficiency, power handling and improved sound quality. The CLS driver is time aligned, phase coherent and radiates sound in a 360° pattern (Omni directional) which produces a realistic, natural and large sound stage. It is almost a 1-way speaker with the CLS driver handling 100% of the sound you hear from 25 Hz to 10 kHz. A dome tweeter handles frequencies from 10 kHz to 20 kHz. This avoids crossover artifacts within the critical midrange (approximately 150Hz-4500Hz) where we are the most sensitive to sound.
Critical listening is done on my living room sofa. Sometimes I take notes while listening casually and I frequently heard things in music I’ve never heard before, all while not sitting in the “sweet spot.”
The Break In
The PW needed more than 500 hours before I felt they were “loose” enough to begin critical listening. At first listen they sounded ok. I could hear through the speakers a bit, but they sounded dry, lacked transparency and bass impact I’ve come to expect from a speaker of this caliber. I could hear sparks of magic in them, but it wasn’t fully formed yet. They needed more time to break-in, so out came the nature CD which has ocean and seaside sounds perfect for massaging stiff driver suspensions. I let that play for another month or two at relatively high levels before I came back to listen.
After I logged another 500 hours on the speakers I began critical listening. The first test I did was the “LIAR – Listening In Another Room” test. For this test I put on a well recorded track with good vocals, and then I go into another room and do something other than listen to music, i.e. read a book, wash dishes, do some writing, study, etc. After awhile, I ask myself several questions: Does it sound like there could be people singing and playing musical instruments in the next room, or does it sound artificial? Does the music distract you, making it difficult to concentrate on other things? (Hint: It should distract you!) Would you want to be in the room where the music is playing? (Hint: Yes) The goal of this listening test is to allow audiophile concerns like the precise imaging, accuracy and soundstage to become irrelevant; focusing instead on the overall Gestalt of music. Does it move you? Does it sound real? Credit is given to Robert Deutsch, from whom I got this test. I should mention that I do not make any quality judgments about a speaker without also listening it in the same room as well. The PW’s passed the LIAR test with flying colors; they conveyed music convincingly and naturally.
The Power to Move You
I pressed on listening to music in the same room (LITSR) and I wasn’t disappointed. After the speakers broke in they excelled with music in the power range, that is 200-500hz. They had good transparency and bass impact while still taut had bloomed and gone was the dryness that was present before break-in.
An album in my heavy rotation is Adele’s blockbuster album 21[Columbia]. Track 10, “Lovesong,” features Adele singing solo, her voice silky and sultry. The speaker didn’t exhibit a discernible preference toward bass, midrange or treble, either from cabinet resonances or through electrical trickery. Some speakers have a bump in the frequency response to give the listener the illusion of greater bass response, midrange warmth, or airy treble. However these methods are artificial and can grate on your ears after a while giving you listening fatigue. The PW had no such artificiality and were tonally on the neutral side of things.
The PW had a great imaging and soundstage presence. Singers and musicians were placed on the soundstage better than with my Walsh 5’s. On Adele’s “Lovesong,” her voice was solidly placed on center stage between the two speakers with a good amount of air around the music. Not as much as my Walsh 5’s but then I wouldn’t expect them too, up against the Omni-directional radiation pattern of the Walsh 5’s which are famous for their ability to throw up a large soundstage. The question of whether you prefer laser like imaging or larger than life soundstage is a matter of personal preference.
Continuing to listen to the 21 album, I cued up track 5, “Set Fire to the Rain.” This track is dynamically challenging and showcases Adele’s ability to make a great dance song and a speaker’s ability to move you. The song is driving and has the gravity to make inanimate objects dance. It’s a great song; In fact I’m listening to it right now and my fingers can hardly keep up with my thoughts and enthusiasm……Anyhow, you will feel the music through the PW. Forget about specs, brand name, driver size, etc; a speaker is doing its job if it moves you and the PW moved me.
Moving onto another great album, I played The ArchAndroid [Atlantic] by artist Janelle Monáe. This album is loaded with a diverse selection of songs ranging from slow introspective songs to blues, soul and R&B songs. The album is well recorded and on the track 15 “Wondaland,” details come from all directions with great dynamic swings. While playing low level passages the PW fleshed out details with uncanny efficiency. The minutia of instrumental details, whispers, vocal and instrumental fade outs were all brought to fore through the PW. Through the Walsh 5’s these details were one order removed from palpability. The PW seemed to get just a bit closer to the music.
The Fast and Tautness
To test the bass performance of the PW I listened to all types of music from Coldplay to Kanye West to Portishead to James Blake, all which have varying degrees of bass. With each type of music the PW’s consistently had good impact with fast and satisfying bass. Striking to me was how much quicker they were compared to my Walsh 5’s which seemed to have a bit of a hangover in the low frequencies. The PW‘s tuneful bass lends itself well to different types of music and though its bass was extended, I wouldn’t call it earthshaking. Judging from the PW’s size, I was expecting more from them in this department. I have heard deeper, but not tighter bass from 8” drivers before. It’s a tradeoff you’ll have to work out. My Walsh 5’s for example are -3db down at 25Hz, but have deeper bass in my room, however aren’t exactly tonally accurate. To get the best bass performance out of the PW play with speaker location. Proper location will help you achieve the best compromise between bass, image and soundstage performance.
Like a good action thriller the PW had me wanting more. Their neutral tone made them a good fit with any type of music. They were engaging and a lot of fun to listen to. Break-in time was a little extensive, and deep bass performance could be improved, but both of these issues can be remedied simply; one with time, the other with placement and/or the addition of a subwoofer. The PW is solidly engineered and can be purchased in several configurations to fit your needs. They were transparent, highly resolving and moving speakers to hear. Nicely done Peter. Nicely done.
Price: $1250.00 Kit form, $3000 complete
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