I was originally slated to review PBN Audio’s InnerChoice Lucy minimonitor, and was very much looking forward to it, given my relatively recent interest in higher-quality stand-mounted monitors. I was also looking forward to hearing the Lucys because they would give me a glimpse -- albeit a small one -- into the mind of Peter B. Noerbaek (hence PBN), who has designed some very highly regarded speakers and electronics. Did you know that PBN even offers turntables? Me neither, until I perused their website. In fact, Noerbaek e-mailed me a photo of a $100,000 ’table he’d just sent to a customer in New York. It was a stunner. Anyway, due to other production demands, it was going to take a while to get me a pair of Lucys, so PBN asked if I’d be interested in reviewing one of their latest design projects instead.
The Scan-Speak B741 is a fairly good-sized, three-way floorstander incorporating some very high-end components. Twist my arm -- an even bigger glimpse into the mind of PBN. Maybe we’ll see ya later, Lucy.
As the story goes, Peter Noerbaek took to the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show one of his own designs that incorporated some top-level Scan-Speak drivers. Apparently some folks from Scan-Speak stopped by, and so liked what they heard that they asked Noerbaek if he would design a kit incorporating their best drivers. Noerbaek obliged, and thus was born the Scan-Speak B741. You can buy the drivers and electronics from Madisound for $3500 to $4000/pair, depending on your choice of electronic parts. If you’re handy with a soldering iron and a hammer, you can assemble yourself a good-sized, near-full-range floorstander incorporating some of the best drivers extant for the price of, well, a higher-quality minimonitor. Sorry, Lucy -- size does matter. However, not so sure how many DIYers would spring for that kind of coin just for the components, Noerbaek decided to offer, on PBN’s website, fully assembled B741s for $8499 USD per pair.
If you opt for the fully assembled version, which I did, you get a fairly traditional yet handsome-looking speaker that stands 49.75"H x 10.5"W x 17.3"D and weighs a very un-Lucy-like 140 pounds. My wife, Mary Ellen’s, unsolicited assessment (they’re pretty much always of that variety) was that the B741 looks very “manly.” In a typically manly way, I responded, “So?” The B741s aren’t “pretty” speakers; I’m fairly sure that Lucy would have garnered a much warmer unsolicited appraisal. But I did mention that the B741 is bigger, right? I’m not above trading looks for additional performance (that does not apply to choosing a spouse, just in case mine happens to read this). The cabinet itself is constructed of 1”-thick MDF except for the front baffle, which is 1.75” thick. It’s stuffed, as PBN stuffs all its speakers, with a combination of egg-crate foam and polyester. Knocking on the cabinetry results in a dull thunk -- not the most inert cabinet I’ve banged on, but not wimpy, either.
Two things jumped out at me at first glance. First, the B741’s front baffle has a pretty good backward rake that adds some visual interest to what is otherwise a fairly conservative face. Second, the painted finish was pretty flawless. Mine were finished in an attractive (and, apparently, manly) deep-blue metallic finish, but unless you view it in direct light or from very near, all you can see is that the finish is dark. Regardless, it seemed very well done -- maybe not quite up to the near-maniacal level of finish of the EgglestonWorks Fontaine Signatures I had here last year, but plenty good enough.
A nice touch were the magnetic grilles, which never failed to snap right back into place. That was convenient -- I always took them off for listening, and put them back on to fend off prying little fingers and claws (no, not my wife’s). A big reason for being vigilant in this regard is that each B741 has a 1” beryllium tweeter, a 4” midrange, and two 7” midrange-woofers from Scan-Speak’s Illuminator line -- the best and most expensive drivers they make. Suffice it to say you don’t want to have to replace any of these, if at all possible. Around back is a single pair of binding posts, and a 4”-wide port that never made its presence known in any way during the review period.
Another user-friendly feature was the adjustable spikes, whose big, manly looking tops made the B741 the easiest speaker to level I’ve ever used. The downside is that those tops are made of black plastic and their lockdowns are black wingnuts; nobody’s going to call them audio jewelry, and they’re a little downscale for the B741’s not-inconsiderable price -- but they’re very functional.
All of these premium bits yield an impressive claimed frequency response of 25Hz-40kHz, +/-1dB, and a sensitivity of 92dB/2.83V/m. Before all you tube-o-philes start wetting yourselves, the impedance is a nominal 4 ohms that dips down to 3 ohms at 500Hz; I’d bet most tube amps would start wheezing before they reached cruising altitude. My 100Wpc solid-state amp had nary a problem driving the B741s to literal room-shaking levels. The crossover frequencies are 250Hz (the woofers are run in tandem) and 2500Hz, via a 24dB/octave slope. PBN says that the B741 is phase coherent, and that the baffle’s backtilt offers some degree of time alignment. Perfect time alignment is not possible with a fourth-order crossover network, but PBN maintains that first-order crossovers create other problems and/or compromises. I couldn’t argue with that.
When I asked if there were any placement restrictions or recommendations, PBN said that since the B741 has a rear port, it should sit about 2’ from the front wall. I found the B741s to be very forgiving of placement -- they sounded great from my usual distance of about 4’ from the wall to the speakers’ rear panels. The PBNs’ overall character didn’t change much by moving them closer to the wall, with one obvious exception: the bass was better reinforced. However, I found that such close placement wasn’t necessary -- not even close -- so I let the B741s breathe.
The B741s performed flawlessly throughout the review period, with no muss or fuss. If something does go awry, the speaker carries a three-year warranty on parts and labor, although Noerbaek said if you’re nice, he’s willing to work with you. I like stuff like that, especially as I think I’m a pretty nice guy (don’t we all?). Despite my review pair being, I think, brand spankin’ new, I didn’t notice much of a change in sound from the time of removing the B741s from their big wooden crates until serious-listening time. But I gave them a solid 150 hours of burn-in just in case.
The B741 takes off
With all engines warmed up, I manned the captain’s chair and cranked the throttle. My first impression was of a very linear sound: nothing stood out. Now, this can be a good thing or a bad thing. Not noticing anything can sometimes mean boring, and it can sometimes mean that the speaker’s doing most everything right, and you just need to put in some flight time to see what it can really do. So off we went.
For a while I felt I was headed a little in the direction of boring. Then I put on some classical music and finally got it. Suddenly, I was transported to a full-on live performance. I mean, what was before me not only sounded but felt like a live performance. Turns out I’d been so wrapped up in analyzing individual aspects of sound that I was missing the musical whole, and classical music finally got me to just relax and listen. What I heard was a combination of inky-black background silence and natural, lifelike imaging and spatial cues, consummate transients and timing, and realistic dynamics throughout the audioband. Suddenly, I realized that what I was hearing in my room exhibited many of the qualities I remember hearing in Jeff Fritz’s Music Vault at The World’s Best Audio System 2012, albeit not to anywhere near that level. What had struck me about TWBAS 2012 was the wholeness, the seamlessness, the utter believability of the sonic picture. But more than that -- and what was most astonishing to me in the Vault -- was that, despite the level of detail being thrown about, I had an overwhelming sense of ease and relaxation while listening, just as I do at a concert.
I’ve been relaxed while listening through lots of systems, but most of them help me achieve that state of relaxation through an overabundance of smoothness made possibly by the shaving-off of some details, mostly in the upper mids and above. But TWBAS 2012 achieved that ease and relaxation while still serving up all the little bits that make music real, exciting, and not boring -- and all in perfect balance. Real, relaxed excitement -- sounds like an oxymoron, I know, but it’s a constant of all the best systems I’ve heard. And until the B741s landed, I’d never experienced it to that level in my room.
I think some of this can be attributed to the excellent foundation provided by those two 7” midrange-woofers. It wasn’t the boomy bass that impresses non-audiophiles, but true, powerfully deep bass that was in complete service to the music and seamlessly integrated with the rest of the sound. When I mentioned that, right out of the box, the B741s sounded linear, I was most impressed that, given that the speaker goes down almost flat to 25Hz, the bass in particular did not stick out. What first tipped me off to the B741’s bass capabilities was not music at all, but rather that objects in my listening room that have never before rattled began to do just that. I had to move stuff off shelves that had sat there for years untouched (and, I now realized, undusted). Be warned: the B741s may force you to redecorate. And no matter how hard I pushed -- and I did push them -- they never burped or hiccupped. They were nigh on unflappable.
The first time I noticed the B741’s bass abilities with music was while listening to “Stepping,” from Babatunde Olatunji’s Circle of Drums (CD, Chesky JD295). The drums were more dynamic and tonally present than I’d ever heard, by far. A byproduct of all this new information I was hearing was that lower-octave sounds were able to separate themselves and exist more concretely within their own space. This was accomplished without a hint of distortion or strain on the part of the speakers. You often hear that carefully incorporating high-quality subwoofers into a system does much more than enhance the bass, and that may have been the case here too. Things like reverb trails and an overall sense of space took on a more integrated and holistic feel. Sometimes this is achieved by boosting the treble range, but a boosted treble, by definition, doesn’t sound integrated with the rest of the audioband -- it sticks out and calls attention to itself. With the B741, these aspects of sound just blended in perfectly.
Treble, too, plays a pivotal role here, and the B741s’ beryllium tweeters were willing and able partners. I’ve heard lots of tweeters that are clean and clear but lack “air.” I’ve heard lots of tweeters that provide an excellent sense of air and space but are too hot or distorted. I’ve heard soft, warm tweeters that sound like mush. The Scan-Speak tweeters seemed able to do it all, at least as PBN has incorporated them here. They have the ability to catch all the bite of a hi-hat and the sense of space of the largest venues, while not shortchanging the tonal aspects that bridge to the midrange. And as for distortion or hash, I could hear absolutely none.
Which brings me to the midrange. As with the upper ranges, clarity and cleanness ruled the day. In fact, performers like Anita Baker, Diana Krall, Patricia Barber, etc., whose huskier voices can very easily sound cloudy or muddy through many speakers, were absolutely crystal clear and linear as they descended into their troublesome (for many speakers) lower ranges. But if there was one area where I found the B741 to depart from other speakers I’ve heard in my room, it was here. Right from the get-go, I noticed a little less weight and heft in voices, wooden instruments, and acoustic pianos (which are mostly made of wood). Now that’s not to say that, on their own, the B741s sounded thin in this critical area -- they didn’t. I had no trouble telling a tenor from an alto sax, a violin from a viola. The difference was in the power area that comes from the lower mids and upper bass.
A good example is well-recorded larger pianos. With the B741s I heard the strings and hammers and a goodly amount of soundboard, but with other speakers I’ve had here I’ve heard a little more soundboard, and when the instrument is played aggressively, I can feel it pressurize my room more. The thing is, many speakers are known to boost precisely this area to make up for the lack of deep bass. It could very well be that the B741 was simply more accurate, and that other speakers are goosing the pleasure zone to make up for their inadequacies. I honestly don’t know, but I’d guess, given everything else I heard, that it was just the B741 being its linear self. But in the real world, this could be the make-or-break area for audiophiles who live and die for the midrange, and who may prefer something a little fuller, richer, or warmer.
Let me briefly get back to imaging. Yes, the B741s imaged extremely well, but what they did extraordinarily well was portray depth without making sounds coming from way back there sound thin and small. Woodblocks, triangles, flutes, and all manner of things kept their sonic traits intact and, most impressively, maintained a semblance of their natural dynamics. And it was possibly this last aspect, combined with its extremely capable bass, that allowed the B741s to convincingly float intense images within a silent black space. Lots of speakers can float images, but floating them without lightening or shortchanging them seems a bit more elusive, in my experience, and was one of the things that set the PBNs apart from the crowd. I also think this was a major factor in my feeling that I was attending a relaxing and effortless live performance versus a good reproduction of one.
One last thing that contributed significantly to my enjoyment of the B741s was their surprising ability remain invisible as the sources of the sound, despite their considerable size. It was more surprising to me because, at first glance, this is a fairly traditional-looking speaker with no curved or beveled surfaces on its baffle, in a cabinet built of fairly ordinary materials. How has PBN pulled this off? They maintain that a lot of the credit goes to how the drivers are positioned on the baffle, and how the cabinet is designed and stuffed. All I know is that the B741s “disappeared” from my room as well as any pair of minimonitors I’ve had here, even when I walked right up close to them.
Describing individual aspects of the B741s’ sound tells you only so much. What really got me was their effortless ability to re-create in my room an utterly honest, believable performance. It was like upgrading to a massive, megapower, mega-expensive amplifier that can provide the ultimate foundation and effortless ease, to allow you to just let go and be completely lost in a performance -- assuming the rest of your system can take full advantage of it. I don’t have one of those wonderful behemoths, but the B741s made me feel as if I did.
The speakers I’ve had here fairly recently that are most relevant for comparison with the PBN Scan-Speak B741s are the EgglestonWorks Fontaine Signatures ($8500/pair). This is another speaker that is very well executed, uses topnotch components, and that I found exemplary in many areas. All that still holds. However, I also said in my review that the Fontaines had some serious competition at their price level.
Enter the competition. In my review, I mentioned that it was at the extremes of the audioband where the EggWorks may leave themselves exposed, and that was the case here. The PBN B741 matched the refinement and clarity of the Fontaine Signature’s excellent treble, but added to that a sense of air and space that was a little subdued in the latter. At the other end, the EggWorks, though they do the most they can with what they’ve got, just can’t match the subterranean bass put forth by the larger, more heavily equipped PBNs. These are not insignificant advantages.
But where the Fontaine Signature may tip the scales the other way is in the all-important midrange. As I mentioned, the B741 seemed to sacrifice a little heft and fullness in the lower mids, possibly in the quest for ultimate linearity and accuracy. The EggWorks have that full, expressive, yet still seemingly uncolored midrange that many will cotton to, and, as I said above, this could well be the deciding factor for many.
But even given that, the B741’s additional firepower at the extremes gives it an ability to more fully immerse me in a performance that I found pretty remarkable. Two great American speakers. Two different approaches. We report, you decide.
PBN Audio’s Scan-Speak B741 is a seriously good loudspeaker. When I’d at last fully understood what it could do in the service of the music, it became my benchmark at this price point. With the minor caveat that it doesn’t enhance the lower mids, as many speakers seem to do, it’s been able to bring the critical aspects of live or studio recordings into my room more completely than any other speaker I’ve had here. Bringing in aspects of a performance is one thing -- lots of speakers can do that -- but weaving them together as a coherent whole from top to almost-true bottom, in a way so comprehensive and coherent as to cause one to suspend disbelief, enters more rarified territory. And letting me experience all of that with a level of effortlessness that also lets me completely relax into the performance . . . well, that’s stuff I’ve experienced only with some of the best systems I’ve heard anywhere, regardless of price.
But this ticket costs only 8499 clams. Not chump change by any means, but for the sonic neighborhood it moves you into, it has to be considered a bargain.
. . . Tim Shea
- Speakers -- Soliloquy 6.2, EgglestonWorks Fontaine Signature
- Amplifier -- McCormack DNA 0.5 Rev.A
- Preamplifier -- Bryston BP 6 C-Series
- Digital sources -- Oppo DV-970HD universal A/V player (used as transport), Electronic Visionary Systems Millennium DAC 1 D/A converter
- Interconnects -- Acoustic Zen Silver Reference I and II and Matrix Reference
- Speaker cables -- Acoustic Zen Satori and Satori Shotgun Biwire
- Digital cable -- Apogee Wyde-Eye
- Electrical -- 20A dedicated lines, Porter Port outlets
PBN Audio Scan-Speak B741 Loudspeakers
Price: $8499 USD per pair.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
380 Vernon Way, Suites I & J
El Cajon, CA 92020
Phone: (619) 440-8237