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PS Audio Aims High With Its First-Ever Loudspeaker - The aspen FR30

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PS Audio FR30 Speakers

PS Audio FR30 Speakers

Summary

  • Product Name: aspen FR30 3-way floor-standing loudspeaker
  • Manufacturer: PS Audio
  • Review Date: January 31, 2022 01:05
  • MSRP: $28,500/pair
  • First Impression: Pretty Cool
  • Buy Now
  • Frequency Response: 28Hz-20kHz (-6dB)
  • Impedance: 4 ohm nominal, 3.2 ohm minimum
  • Sensitivity (2.83V @ 1M): 87dB
  • Dimensions (HxWxD): 60.5” x 16” x 25.75” with base (10” width not including base)
  • Weight: 230 lbs each

Executive Overview

Infinity IRS SpeakersMy friend Drew comes from a musical family. His mom was a professional opera singer. Drew plays piano, accordion, bass guitar, and pedal steel; he has shared the stage with Vince Gill, Sierra Hull, and many other great musicians. Most importantly — for me, anyway — Drew’s dad was the first audiophile I ever met. I met Drew and his folks in the mid 1990s. Drew’s dad had a pair of Vandersteen speakers, driven by 1980s-era PS Audio electronics. If I remember correctly, he had a PS Audio 4.6 preamplifier with its utilitarian knobs, and the hefty PS Audio 200C power amp. It’s no exaggeration to say that hearing Abbey Road on that system was a life-changing experience for me. I dreamed of having my own system like the one Drew’s dad had put together. But by the time Drew and I started high school in 1997, PS Audio had gone out of business. I later learned that its co-founder Paul McGowan, the “P” in PS Audio, had sold the company in 1990 to join his friend and mentor Arnie Nudell in starting a new loudspeaker company called Genesis Technologies. Nudell had risen to audio fame at Infinity, where he developed the servo-bass system and designed the legendary IRS loudspeakers. But shortly after PS Audio went out of business in the late 1990s, McGowan bought back the name and left Genesis to relaunch his company, with a dream of eventually making a soup-to-nuts audio system — from AC power conditioning and source components all the way to loudspeakers — under the PS Audio umbrella. Now, with the launch of the first-ever PS Audio loudspeakers, McGowan is mighty close to realizing that dream. PS Audio makes a digital transport, a DAC, a preamp, several power amplifiers, and now, a high-end tower loudspeaker called the aspen FR30 ($28,499/pair), which is expected to begin shipping during the first half of 2022. Although PS Audio makes a phono-stage, the company does not make a turntable, so analog-lovers can’t have an all-PS system. If you want subwoofers, McGowan will point you toward REL. And for cables, he recommends Audioquest. McGowan’s affinity for expensive cables, and his assertion that PS Audio products have a special synergy with Audioquest cables, have caused Chief Audioholic Gene DellaSala to raise a skeptical eyebrow more than once. But Gene knows an interesting-looking speaker when he sees one, and I remain a PS Audio fanboy, so I’m happy to take a closer look at the aspen FR30. 

The aspen FR30 is the culmination of years of painstaking development and many, many hours of listening and evaluation. Our design goal was to create a loudspeaker that fits easily and works optimally into the widest range of rooms and listening environments, and delivers reference-quality clarity, detail, and tonal accuracy, along with effortless dynamics and most of all, emotionally compelling musical reproduction.

— Paul McGowan, PS Audio CEO

PS Audio’s first loudspeakers really did take years to design — I know because I’ve been following along throughout the process. Originally, the plan was for Arnie Nudell to design a whole line of loudspeakers for PS Audio, but sadly, Nudell passed away in 2017, when the project was still in its early R&D days. Some of Nudell’s audio DNA does remain in the final product, though. Like his most famous designs of yesteryear, early versions of the PS Audio speakers combined planar magnetic drivers for the mids and highs, with dynamic woofers for bass, and that formula has made it all the way to the finish line. PS Audio’s first speaker was originally going to be based on one that Nudell had built as a personal reference for himself. Like the famed Infinity IRS (and Infinity QRS, and Genesis 1), Nudell’s new “IRS-killer,” as McGowan called it, was a line source design. The speaker used 8 Genesis ribbon tweeters, a planar magnetic midrange section sourced from Bohlender Graebener, a powered 6.5-inch mid-bass driver, and a pair of side-firing 12-inch servo-driven woofers. After Nudell’s passing, PS Audio needed a new speaker designer, and former Bohlender Graebener engineer Chris Brunhaver got the job. I’ve never met Brunhaver but I have heard him talk about audio, and the guy is a walking encyclopedia of loudspeaker engineering. Together, Brunhaver and McGowan went through a tirelessly iterative design process, even going so far as to demonstrate early prototypes at audio shows before going back to the drawing board. As time passed, both the acoustic design and the aesthetic design of the speaker changed dramatically, several times. Finally, the aspen FR30 emerged as the final product.

We knew that, in order to make our product do what we wanted, we couldn’t just use off-the-shelf parts. We had to build this from the ground up. Everything — from the magnets, to the woofer, to the coils — every single bit had to be designed, and I don’t have the chops to do that. Chris Brunhaver has the chops; he has the passion, and he just fit right in.

— Paul McGowan, PS Audio CEO

PS Audio FR30 black with grill  PS Audio FR30 White

The aspen FR30 is a fairly slim 3-way floorstanding tower that stands just over 5 feet tall. Now an all-passive design, the speaker is no longer a line source, but instead combines a pair of planar magnetic tweeters (one front-facing, one rear-facing) with a planar magnetic midrange driver and four 8-inch dynamic woofers supplemented by four 10-inch side-mounted passive radiators. PS Audio says that creating a seamless, phase-correct output from a variety of driver technologies might be “the most difficult task in all of high-performance audio,” and that the result of all that hard work is a speaker that outperforms many 6-figure offerings from other manufacturers in terms of “grace, beauty, PRaT (pacing, rhythm, and timing), power, and musicality.” Wanting customers to achieve the best possible results, PS Audio equipped the FR30 with rear-panel adjustments, including a baffle-step switch and a level control for the rear-firing tweeter. The rear tweeter is designed to help the speaker create a realistic soundstage, and the baffle-step adjustment allows the user to tweak the perceived “weight” of the bass, to accommodate variations in the proximity to room boundaries. PS Audio does recommend giving the speakers some breathing room from the wall behind them, but the company claims that the FR30’s “unique rear-panel controls offer users greater flexibility of placement without sonic compromise,” allowing the speakers to “more easily fit into any living environment and perform at their best with a minimum of setup hassles and a maximum of options.” The speakers come with a step-by-step setup guide and a CD; together, these resources are intended to help customers make adjustments by ear.

We believe in giving customers a bit more adjustment capability for tailoring the tonality of their speakers with regards to the low frequency balance.

— Chris Brunhaver, PS Audio’s Head Loudspeaker Designer

Driver Tech

PS Audio FR30 base closeupAll of the FR30’s drivers were designed in-house, starting with the tweeter and midrange, which PS Audio says were the most difficult drivers to perfect. The company decided to stick with planar magnetic drivers, with the goal of combining “the speed of an electrostat with the dynamics of a cone.” According to the company, no off-the-shelf drivers could deliver both the ultra low-distortion and the high dynamic output required for the job. Brunhaver says that he turned to Igor Levitsky, the former vice president of engineering at Bohlender Graebener, for advice during the design process. The FR30’s tweeter is a 2.5-inch planar magnetic ribbon. (The rear-facing tweeter is identical to the front-facing one.) The midrange driver is a 10-inch planar magnetic design. Both use thin Teonex diaphragms. According to PS Audio, these drivers enjoy ultra-low distortion thanks to their symmetrical “push-pull” neodymium motor structures, with magnets placed both in front of, and behind, the directly-driven, ultra-low-mass diaphragms. This configuration reportedly offers inherent linearity, with “none of the cone or dome breakup, inductance modulation, or hysteresis distortion that plagues traditional drivers.” The bass is handled by four 8-inch, cast-frame, aluminum-cone woofers per speaker. These long-throw, high-excursion woofers feature massive 12-pound motor structures, yet they are nimble enough to “match the effortlessness and transparency of the planar magnetic drivers,” according to PS Audio. Like those planar drivers, the woofers are custom designs, employing a “unique split magnetic gap and a double faraday ring for low, linear inductance and wide bandwidth, coupled with a symmetrical double spider.” The four 10-inch side-mounted passive radiators were designed in-house as well, with the goal of lowering distortion and achieving both maximum linearity and truly deep bass extension, without the compression and distortion that can be introduced by the use of ports. PS Audio claims that the FR30 covers the frequency range of 28Hz to beyond 20kHz with “grace, dynamics, slam, and low distortion.” In a typical room, the speakers have usable output down to 20Hz (-6dB). 

Job #1 of a speaker is to make it through the front door. If someone doesn’t want this thing in their home, they’re not going to get to hear how beautiful it is.

— Chris Brunhaver

Modernized Look to Match Flagship Performance?

Throughout the speaker’s lengthy development process, its physical design went through just as many radical changes as its acoustic design. Arnie Nudell’s original prototype had a curvy, molded cabinet with an overall shape similar to that of the Vivid Audio Kaya 90. After that came at least two versions with a more traditional shape and wooden side panels. (Note the concentric midrange/tweeter arrangement in that last photo.) McGowan’s wife and kids all agreed that the more traditional designs looked like “old man speakers,” so the next version had an unusual mid-century modern look that stood out from the crowd. Some people loved it, but just as many hated it, and it was scrapped. In the end, PS Audio decided to shell out some major coin to hire an industrial design firm called Studio 63, which created the “floating sculpture” aesthetic of the final version, with its 20 coats of hand-rubbed black or white piano gloss lacquer. The rounded bottom edge of the speaker attaches to a sturdy, 30-pound aluminum base with milled brass spikes. I think it succeeds in looking more elegant and refined than a typical 230-pound loudspeaker. Beneath its fair facade, the FR30’s MDF enclosure is extensively braced to minimize vibrations that could color the sound. The sculpted front baffle is made of a “thermoset fiberglass resin composite material” chosen for its density, rigidity, and damping properties. The baffle features integrated high-frequency acoustic waveguides.

PS Audio driversAs impressive as the FR30 looks, even a fan like me has to remember that this is PS Audio’s first-ever speaker. McGowan and company don’t yet have a proven track-record in this product category. Chris Brunhaver definitely seems to know his stuff, but he’s not well-known, like Richard Vandersteen, Andrew Jones, Dan Roemer, or the late Dave Wilson. Launching a speaker in this price-range inevitably invites comparisons to tried-and-true loudspeaker brands with loyal followings; in the USA alone, the FR30 will face fierce competition from Wilson, Magico, YG, Rockport, Vandersteen, Revel, Legacy Audio, McIntosh, Magnepan, RBH Sound, and others. As we know from the nearly instantaneous success of Perlisten Audio, it is possible to explode through the gates out of nowhere with a 5-star, 5-figure loudspeaker, but it’s not easy. That said, PS Audio does have its own loyal customer base, albeit in electronics, rather than speakers. Regarding the competition, the PS Audio team spent time comparing the FR30 to two of the most popular speakers in this price range: the Wilson Audio Sasha DAW ($37,900/pair) and the KEF Blade ($32,000/pair), and felt confident that the FR30 compared favorably. For those hoping to hear the FR30 for themselves, this is where things get complicated. In 2019, PS Audio switched from an in-store retail model to a direct-sales model, severing ties with all of its US-based brick-and-mortar retailers (and making a few enemies in the process). If you want to hear a PS Audio product, you now have to shell out the cash and buy it. You then have 30 days to audition it at home. If you decide to return it, PS Audio pays for the return shipping. This system might work just fine for a DAC or a Class D amp, but it’s hardly ideal when the product in question is a pair of speakers weighing 230 pounds each. In normal times, you’d have a good chance of hearing a PS Audio system at a major US-based audio show, like Axpona or Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. But PS Audio has (understandably) stepped back from audio shows since the Covid-19 pandemic began, not wanting to endanger its employees. And audio shows in general face an uncertain future. Despite its popularity, RMAF has been permanently canceled, owing to the economic and logistical challenges of the pandemic. Right now, the only way to hear the aspen FR30 without shelling out close to $30k requires a trip to PS Audio’s Colorado headquarters. Maybe I’ll make it there some day. The good news for folks like me — folks who can’t afford the FR30 even if it does prove to outperform its many competitors — is that the FR30 is just the first in a whole series of PS Audio loudspeakers.

By the end of 2022, PS Audio expects to launch at least two smaller, less expensive “aspen series” speakers that carry over many of the same drivers and technologies found in the FR30. I wouldn’t hold my breath for a center-channel speaker; I’m fairly sure that home theater enthusiasts will have to look elsewhere. But as a 2-channel lover and a PS Audio fan, I’m definitely paying attention. Would you buy a high-end speaker from a company that’s never made one before if you like that company’s other offerings? Would you buy a whole system made by a single brand, or do you think that audio companies should just stick to the one thing they do best? Please share your thoughts in the forum thread below.

Unless otherwise indicated, this is a preview article for the featured product. A formal review may or may not follow in the future.

About the author:
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Jacob is a music-lover and audiophile who enjoys convincing his friends to buy audio gear that they can't afford. He's also a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.

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Recent Forum Posts:

FIqbal posts on February 08, 2022 18:04
Am_P, post: 1538198, member: 96697
I'll tell you what i'll do with 28k…. Hmmm, i might just start building an extension to my house…a dedicated sonically splendid music room….add some sq.footage in the process and make the value of my house go up. You know what you should do? Buy yourself a fancy “anti-resonant” box with 20 coats of clear from the likes of BS Audio/Bhilharmonic/Bilson Audio, etc for 28k and plop it down in a shite room (acoustically) like the rest of the audiophools. Like a good li'l audiophool, you'll fix it all up with Dirac indeed, lol. And then, do the audiophool wobble dance/tap your toes/toe dance, etc to that glowing anti-resonant 20 clear coat box with drivers from a 3rd party.

Hey are you always like this or just got up on the wrong side of the bed? You must be “loved” by neighbor, co-worker and friends. Here is a suggestion when you have the 28k to build the splendid music room do not go out and spare us from your presence. You are not good in trolling.
Hetfield posts on February 08, 2022 16:43
Am_P, post: 1538198, member: 96697
I'll tell you what i'll do with 28k…. Hmmm, i might just start building an extension to my house…a dedicated sonically splendid music room….add some sq.footage in the process and make the value of my house go up. You know what you should do? Buy yourself a fancy “anti-resonant” box with 20 coats of clear from the likes of BS Audio/Bhilharmonic/Bilson Audio, etc for 28k and plop it down in a shite room (acoustically) like the rest of the audiophools. Like a good li'l audiophool, you'll fix it all up with Dirac indeed, lol. And then, do the audiophool wobble dance/tap your toes/toe dance, etc to that glowing anti-resonant 20 clear coat box with drivers from a 3rd party.
Thanks for the advice. There really is something wrong with you. Seem professional help.

Sent from my Pixel 4 XL using Tapatalk
Am_P posts on February 08, 2022 15:45
Hetfield, post: 1538175, member: 80792
You are a fan of Danny from GR research and you call someone else an audiophool? Now that's the best one yet from you.

Sent from my Pixel 4 XL using Tapatalk
I'll tell you what i'll do with 28k…. Hmmm, i might just start building an extension to my house…a dedicated sonically splendid music room….add some sq.footage in the process and make the value of my house go up. You know what you should do? Buy yourself a fancy “anti-resonant” box with 20 coats of clear from the likes of BS Audio/Bhilharmonic/Bilson Audio, etc for 28k and plop it down in a shite room (acoustically) like the rest of the audiophools. Like a good li'l audiophool, you'll fix it all up with Dirac indeed, lol. And then, do the audiophool wobble dance/tap your toes/toe dance, etc to that glowing anti-resonant 20 clear coat box with drivers from a 3rd party.
Hetfield posts on February 08, 2022 14:25
Am_P, post: 1538173, member: 96697
So, I hear that you are the Philharmonic guy and i haven't had/heard any of your speakers yet. But, do you hear yourself? If a guy put “12 coats of clear” and made a pretty li'l box, i repeat, a freaking box, the price goes up to the equivalent of a car!!?? I suppose you know what goes into engineering a car. Does a box with a couple of drivers compare (even remotely)? If that's your stance, I guess you've got enough of a client base that doesn't understanding anything about value or economics. Last i heard, Wilson puts a couple of hundred dollar drivers from Focal into their flagship which retails for over 135k. I guess the Wilson snake oil peddler can't even engineer a driver of his own.

I'll tell you what i did recently. I just put together a DIY “open baffle” speaker kit and flatpacks from a fairly knowledgeable speaker designer for about 3000 bucks. He isn't all that popular around here because he seems to swear by a couple of cables he sells. But, i seem to like him when i think about the great sound and immense cost savings he granted me recently….Hmmmm, no thanks, you guys keep churning out the fancy boxes with whatever voodoo you worked to keep the “cabinet resonances” at bay (which isn't much at all from the looks of it) and to make it look all pretty. I'll just keep mine open baffle for now. I may add “12 coats of clear” later on in my garage/shop, lol, though it looks really pretty without it too. I guess i could even sell it to an audiophool for the price of a car then? Eitherway, sonically, i know what i've got.

Good luck to you and Paul McGowan.
You are a fan of Danny from GR research and you call someone else an audiophool? Now that's the best one yet from you.

Sent from my Pixel 4 XL using Tapatalk
Am_P posts on February 08, 2022 14:06
D Murphy, post: 1537573, member: 88657
They're built in China. That was my point. I know what the Chinese charge. It's way less than what it would cost to replicate in the U.S., but it ain't cheap if you're talking about genuinely upscale production, and particularly for cabinets as large as PS Audio is using. But none of this really matters. The PS Audio cabinets look great. They're free to charge any price they want as long as they aren't misrepresenting their product. It's strictly a matter of whether the sound justifies the price for any given buyer.

So, I hear that you are the Philharmonic guy and i haven't had/heard any of your speakers yet. But, do you hear yourself? If a guy put “12 coats of clear” and made a pretty li'l box, i repeat, a freaking box, the price goes up to the equivalent of a car!!?? I suppose you know what goes into engineering a car. Does a box with a couple of drivers compare (even remotely)? If that's your stance, I guess you've got enough of a client base that doesn't understanding anything about value or economics. Last i heard, Wilson puts a couple of hundred dollar drivers from Focal into their flagship which retails for over 135k. I guess the Wilson snake oil peddler can't even engineer a driver of his own.

I'll tell you what i did recently. I just put together a DIY “open baffle” speaker kit and flatpacks from a fairly knowledgeable speaker designer for about 3000 bucks. He isn't all that popular around here because he seems to swear by a couple of cables he sells. But, i seem to like him when i think about the great sound and immense cost savings he granted me recently….Hmmmm, no thanks, you guys keep churning out the fancy boxes with whatever voodoo you worked to keep the “cabinet resonances” at bay (which isn't much at all from the looks of it) and to make it look all pretty. I'll just keep mine open baffle for now. I may add “12 coats of clear” later on in my garage/shop, lol, though it looks really pretty without it too. I guess i could even sell it to an audiophool for the price of a car then? Eitherway, sonically, i know what i've got.

Good luck to you and Paul McGowan.
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