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TEAC AG-H380 and PSB Image B5 speakers -- small system, big sound

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In the audio world, sometimes it's the little things that deliver the biggest surprises — like tiny in-ear headphones with mind-bending sound, or a portable USB DAC that wrings fresh new details from long-familiar recordings. But all too often mini components can measure up a little short in the sound department. That's not to say there aren't any that sound good in smaller rooms like a den or bedroom. And I've even been surprised a time or two by small high-end components capable of shaking the rafters (along with most of the money out of your piggy bank!). But for the most part, someone looking for the big sound has had to deal with big components and big price tags.

So what's a space-challenged music lover on a budget to do?

That question was answered here recently when TEAC dropped by to show us their line of compact receivers and other assorted mini components. Our TEAC rep, Fred, is a knowledgeable guy with many years of experience in the audio biz, especially in high-end gear. So when he shows up on your doorstep with some cool new toys, you'd better pay attention because you know it's going to get interesting.

Fred started his presentation by pointing out TEAC's long-time standing in the professional music world, as well as its relationship with sister company Esoteric, the makers of mega-buck solid-state and vacuum tube audio gear revered by audiophiles. It turns out that TEAC is also the beneficiary of cutting-edge technology and know-how that trickles down from Esoteric's high-end engineering experience.

Of course that's all well and fine, but frankly I was still skeptical that these small components we were being shown could deliver. I needn't have been concerned — Fred knows what he's doing.

First Impressions:  Eye-popping performance in a big mean room

For the first demo, Fred paired up the TEAC AG-H380 receiver with the  PSB Image B5  speakers, a terrific little compact bookshelf design in their own right. Plugging a thumb drive loaded with music into the receiver's USB port (more on that later), he fired up the system.  

What came next caught me totally by surprise. This tiny dynamic duo was throwing out a huge wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling soundstage that positively dominated the room.  I can’t ever recall being as shocked by such a massive sound coming from such a small, modestly priced combo as this. Apparently, I wasn't alone. There was a lot of excited buzz among my been-there, heard-it-all colleagues that day.

What makes it all the more amazing was that this scene played out in Crutchfield's acoustically challenged product training room (a former 40' x 24'  car stereo install bay with 12' ceilings!).  I've seen full-sized components struggle to keep up in this over-sized man cave, and now I was witnessing a Lilliputian system blowing the roof off . I just knew I had to try out this setup in my much acoustically friendlier living room. And as luck would have it, I got my chance.

Second impressions: Arriving at home

After unpacking the receiver at home, the first thing that stood out was its exceptional build quality. The black-satin finished aluminum front panel felt solid and confidence inspiring. And the receiver was heavy for its size — always a good sign. There was no flex to the chassis or play in the smooth-turning volume and tuning knobs. The front-panel buttons were tight and precise, with just the right amount of snap when you pressed them to provide positive operation.

Around back, the speaker binding posts and other connectors were firmly planted on the panel without a trace of the wobbles. No doubt about it, this little gem of a receiver was nicely built.  Even the remote felt good, sporting a satin-finished aluminum top with a rubberized nonslip coating on the bottom. Honestly, I've seen multi-thousand dollar components with remotes that couldn't hold a candle to the TEAC's.

What about the speakers?

I've had a little more time to familiarize myself with the PSBs in the last year or two since Paul S. Barton (the P.S.B. in PSB speakers) visited Crutchfield to introduce us to the PSB line. I've auditioned a number of their models, coming away impressed every time by the sheer bang for the buck these speakers deliver.  Taut, tuneful bass. Sweet, detailed midrange.  Natural, extended highs without a trace of the metallic harshness and "fizz" that plague many other brands using metal dome tweeters — these are the hallmarks of the PSB speaker "sound." That and their surprisingly large soundstage (did I mention that before? It bears repeating.)

From the entry level to the top of the line, all PSB speakers alike are no-nonsense affairs purpose-built with heavy-duty hardware and cabinets. One rap on the side of any PSB speaker yields that highly desirable, acoustically dead thunk (think tapping on a cinder block) that tells you they're heavily braced and thick-walled (just like you want 'em). Going further up in the lines nets you a higher quality finish with real wood veneers and sexier curves, along with somewhat greater transparency and other sonic refinements. But for my money, the PSB Image B5's are bargains at $449.99.

The Setup

The AG-H380 is a surprisingly well-appointed receiver for its size and price. You get an input for a CD player, two auxiliary inputs (including one that features in and out for recording with a tape deck), and even a phono input for connecting a turntable. It also offers two switched AC outlets for powering your other components. This welcome convenience is something rarely found on receivers nowadays, even full-sized models! I also connected the included basic AM and FM antennas to test drive the tuner.

The connection that was of the greatest interest to me, however, was the 'H380's USB port (another item rarely found on stereo receivers). This useful feature allows one to plug in an iPod® or USB  thumb drive, and play its contents through the receiver's built-in digital-to-analog converter. Just as important, this particular USB connection bypasses the iPod's built-in DAC to extract a pure digital audio signal. This is huge because the made-for-earbuds audio circuitry in the iPod simply doesn't hold up too well when scrutinized through the lens of a full-size home audio system (or a small, high-quality one like this). Using the TEAC's built-in DAC should yield richer, fuller sound than the iPod alone. 

The receiver's dot-matrix, front panel display also shows album, artist, and song title info from the connected iPod or thumb drive, and its remote can be used to control playback of either device. There are playback controls on the front panel, as well. A "Direct Mode" setting lets you control playback directly from your iPod if you prefer, viewing album artwork and song info on its display instead of the receiver's.

Although I didn't test it, another cool feature of the USB connection is its ability to record audio from your turntable, CD player, radio, or other sources to a connected thumb drive. These files are stored as MP3s (TEAC doesn't specify what the bitrate is for these recordings, so I can't tell you what the quality of sound is like). This is a nice perk. There's even a timer record function to save radio broadcasts for later listening. Sweet!

I kept my listening tests simple and straight-forward. I placed the B5s on a pair of old stands I had. They wound up with the grills removed (I think most speakers sound better this way, but not all) about two feet off the floor, six feet apart, and 18" from the wall behind them. I positioned them facing straight forward with no toe-in. My listening position was roughly nine feet from the speakers in a heavily padded 14' x 18' x 8' living room. I connected the PSBs to the receiver using a spare set of Audioquest Type 4 speaker wires that I own (these cables may seem a bit of an extravagance on a system with components in this price range, but I don't think so). TEAC thoughtfully provides a subwoofer preamp output for those seeking even greater sound pressure levels and bass extension, but for my test, I figured this little combo would provide plenty of oomph on its own.  And as it turns out, it did.

So how does it sound in the living room?

In a word: WOW!

In my haste to listen, I plugged in my iPod and simply hit "play." By pure chance, the first tune up was the Beatles' "Come Together." The throbbing bass line and closely miked vocals on this old chestnut practically leaped from the speakers. The sound so inhabited the room, it felt as though all of the air was being sucked out and replaced by the long-ago, far-away atmosphere at Abbey Roads recording studio. (And this wasn't even the wonderful, newly remastered version of the song but rather one ripped to my iTunes library at 256 kbps from an old compilation CD).

In fact, the bass was so strong that I found myself pulling the speakers away from the wall a little to tone it down. (Who would have thought that such tiny speakers could produce so much bass?) This helped smooth out the low-end response and improve the overall presentation. 

I now had a big sweet spot with a strong central image, great image height, and a sound that seemed to extend well past the outside edges of the speakers. The soundstage was reasonably deep, too, not the best I've heard but far better than I would have ever expected from a compressed music file played back on a small, medium-priced system.

I figured as long as I was playing compressed music files, I should try one that would really challenge the abilities of the system to perform well with an even more compressed source. "Season of the Witch" is an old Donovan tune I downloaded from iTunes years ago at 128 kbps. I always thought it sounded pretty good, but the TEAC/PSB combo was resolving so much detail from this old 60's recording, it almost made me blush. The sound was warm, clear, and full. And that in turn made me question the controversy surrounding people's ability to reliably hear the effects of digital compression. Of course, some recordings are just inherently better sounding than others, even when you try to squeeze the life out of them. Impressive indeed.

Next up, time for some high-test

Now that I'd established this system's ability to sound good with the typical compressed music found on most folk's iPods, I thought I would try some uncompressed WAV and AIFF files stored on mine to see if I could hear the difference.

Well, yes. There was a difference.

As I played a few well recorded tunes from the likes of Micky Hart, Dire Straits, Tom Waits, and The Decemberists, it became clear that I was experiencing greater transparency and low-level resolution, with even more ambiance and spaciousness. Everything sounded bigger and the soundstage became noticeably deeper. The TEAC was responding positively to the increase in information available on these uncompressed recordings  I guess there is a price to be paid for digitally compressing your music. The conclusion here is the better your playback system, the more you should notice the detrimental effects of compression. But at the same time, the TEAC treated the highly compressed stuff with such poise that not only was it listenable, it was downright enjoyable most of the time.

On the radio whoa oh oh

Although it has fallen out of favor to some extent these days, FM radio can still provide a decent listening experience provided you have a good station and a good tuner to receive it with. Fortunately Charlottesville has at least two good stations, so it was time to see what the TEAC could do. I connected the basic wire antenna provided in the box, and switched the input to FM. The C'ville stations came in like a champ (no big surprise here, they're all close by). They sounded great, with plenty of stereo separation and a dead-quiet background. This was as good as I can ever remember hearing them.

As I was tuning up and down the dial, I came across another good sounding station that I didn't recognize. It turned out to be a Harrisonburg (Virginia) station that I'd never received before. This small town is only about 40 miles away as the crow flies, but it's on the other side of the mountain which makes reception dicey at best. Nevertheless, it was coming in loud and clear with no static or drift.  For giggles and grins, I gave the AM tuner a try. It too received local stations loud and clear with very little background noise, but I wasn't able to pull in anything distant with the basic supplied loop antenna. Oh well. Still, this was an impressive showing and a bonus for those with decent radio stations around to enjoy.

Other stuff

The headphone output sounded pretty solid. I checked it out with several pairs of cans I had lying around the house, and it seemed to drive them all nicely with power to spare. Sadly, I didn't get a chance to hook up my turntable to see how the phono stage sounded. Nor did I hook up other components to the auxiliary inputs to test them. I suspect they will do just fine, if the USB and tuner performance are any indication.

Conclusion

In the short time that I had the TEAC AG-H380 system at home, my family and I came to truly love having it in the living room. Its small size, unobtrusive good looks, and surprising sound quality won my wife over immediately (I think after 25 years of dragging home mostly big black boxes, this one really caught her by surprise). My daughter happened by sometime early in the listening process, and was so taken by the sound that we sat together in the living room for almost an hour listening to tunes on her iPod. (This so impressed me that I secretly purchased the TEAC and PSBs as a surprise 21st birthday present for her apartment at school, where she now shows it off to the amazement of her friends.)

While I have no doubt that the AG-H380 could play well with other small, reasonably efficient speakers (and I know that the B5s sound fantastic with other receivers), the combination of these two together achieves such a synergy,  that it almost seems as if they were made to go together. Like I said from the beginning, Fred can really pick 'em. Highly recommended!

Pros:

  • solid, beautifully built components (both speakers and receiver)
  • IPod's DAC bypassed for better sound quality on a home system
  • charges iPod when connected
  • two switched AC convenience outlets on back for connecting additional components (lots of full size receivers lack these nowadays)
  • Phono input for your turntable
  • really decent tuner section
  • detachable power cord can be swapped out for an upgraded one (for those of us who believe in such things)

Cons:

  • USB connection on back (you have to move up higher in the line to get front-panel input)
  • speaker binding posts have plastic collars that preclude using spade connectors
  • front-panel display difficult to read from a distance without binoculars
  • navigating iPod menus using the remote and front-panel display a bit frustrating (may be an age and/or practice thing, however)
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