Marketing is a huge part of the audio/video industry. The SoundStage! Network is financially supported by the marketing efforts of manufacturers and resellers in the form of the online ads you see across all of our sites. Most A/V manufacturers take a multi-tiered approach to marketing: advertising online and in print; promotion through online forums, trade shows, and dealer shows; exposure on websites, blogs, and social-networking sites; etc. This marketing exists to shape the opinions of consumers and to influence their buying decisions -- no surprise there.
We all know that marketing can mislead by exaggerating and distorting the truth. But, as the old saying goes, perception is reality -- if the marketers do their jobs well. This mantra is alive and well in the A/V business, where sometimes products can be differentiated only by how they’re marketed. The information presented through such marketing campaigns exists strongly in the minds of audiophiles -- particularly those bent on spending large sums of money on loudspeakers. How does that apply to the subject of this review, PBN Audio’s Montana Sammy loudspeaker? Read on . . .
Peter B. Noerbaek and his company, PBN Audio, of which Montana Loudspeakers is a subsidiary, have never advertised with the SoundStage! Network. I’ve seen a few of Noerbaek’s print ads, but they were nothing memorable. I think it’s fair to say, at least from my experience, that PBN has a much lower profile than such speaker companies as Magico, Wilson Audio Specialties, Focal, and YG Acoustics. But PBN loudspeakers are clearly designed to compete with models from those brands, and a case in point is Noerbaek’s latest, the Montana Sammy ($29,500 USD per pair). On paper, it seemed to stack up pretty well against the competition just listed, which was enough to prompt me to ask to review the first pair. Could having a lower profile be a benefit in some way?
Before I first hear a loudspeaker, I’ve found it an interesting exercise to take a mental inventory of its parts and its overall design brief (usually found on the maker’s website), to figure out just what the sonic goals for the product are. Lots of drivers might mean the designer wants prodigious output capability. A single driver, conversely, would indicate a quest for extreme coherence. To my mind, the Sammy’s parts list and construction description seem pretty clearly to describe a dynamic-driver speaker that aspires to high performance while keeping to a moderate size (55"H x 16.5"W x 21"D, 215 pounds each). In fact, PBN states that the Sammy embodies their new Compact Reference Platform: state-of-the-art sound in a real-world package.
Starting at the top, the Sammy’s beryllium tweeter, made by Scan-Speak, doesn’t come into play until a high 3400Hz. Beryllium has been shown to be an exceptional substance for use in tweeters -- the metal’s first breakup mode doesn’t occur until past 40kHz. This behavior should equate to advantages within the realm of human hearing (20Hz-20kHz) because this form of distortion would occur well outside of what a listener could hear, and therefore doesn’t have to be suppressed by the crossover. Beryllium is simply more advanced in its use, and more expensive to manipulate, than other materials of which tweeters are commonly made, such as aluminum, titanium, ceramic, and silk. Score one for the Sammy.
Next up are the two midrange drivers, each a 4" Scan-Speak Illuminator with a neodymium magnet, and covering the range from 170 to 3400Hz. These are just about the best drivers Scan-Speak makes. These are top-shelf midrange drivers that easily best many of the other drivers available to speaker companies, like PBN, that don’t build their own. And they’re likely better than a lot of drivers made by companies that do build their own.
Last up are the two woofers, 10" natural-fiber units also from -- you guessed it -- Scan-Speak, but this time a Revelator model, S-S’s top line before the Illuminators came along. The outputs of the five drivers are governed by a crossover with slopes said to be fourth-order, 24dB/octave, and the drivers themselves are arrayed on the Sammy’s contoured front baffle in a D’Appolito-type array: woofer-mid-tweeter-mid-woofer. The Sammy has a rectangular bass-reflex port on its front face near the bottom of the speaker.
The cabinet is built of stacked pieces of MDF cut on a CNC machine. These form what PBN calls its system of Interior Sonic Reflection Suppression. The interior of the cabinet is formed by the inner edges of the slabs of MDF, each of which is cut with staggered, rounded protrusions designed to break up standing waves inside the box. Even the internal braces and separate compartments for the midranges and tweeter are made of these horizontally opposed slices of wood. This is above-average construction for sure, at least when compared to simple sheet stock glued together, and a noble attempt at designing a box with good sound in mind. Knocking it with a knuckle, however, didn’t reveal a box any more inert than some of the more conventional speaker cabinets I’ve rapped lately, from the likes of Dynaudio and EgglestonWorks.
A single set of binding posts is inset into a small panel at the bottom of the speaker’s rounded rear, and an integral base attaches to outrigger feet: slabs of aluminum that accommodate the supplied spikes and permit easy leveling of the cabinet without having to tilt the whole speaker -- a handy touch. The wood veneer was as nice as I’ve seen lately, with a deep, attractive grain flawlessly applied. My review samples had a smooth matte finish, though I’m sure PBN could gloss it up for you for an additional cost. Many custom real-wood veneers are available, as well as automotive-grade paints.
One detail bothered me: The recess for the binding posts was simply painted black, exposing the edges of the MDF slabs that make up the cabinet proper; I’d like to have seen a more finished look. This is a small thing, granted, but I’m picky. The binding posts also seemed a bit chintzy, though they worked just fine.
The Sammy’s claimed frequency response is 24Hz-37kHz, +/-2dB; its efficiency is rated at 92dB, and its nominal impedance is 4 ohms. The recommended range of amplification is 25-500W.
All in all, the Montana Sammy, sitting unboxed in my room, looked more than competitive with most of the other designs I’ve seen at or near its price. It implements some expensive drivers in an ambitiously designed cabinet and is beautifully finished, albeit with a few small details that kept me from giving it a score of 100% -- at least before I did any listening.
I set up the PBN Montana Sammys in my Music Vault listening room, in the spots where I’ve found that D’Appolito-type designs sound best: closer to the front and side walls than other speakers, with less of a toe-in angle. I experimented with placement options and did some in-room measurements, but found that these locations yielded the most neutral sound.
The opening of Livingston Taylor’s rendition of Stevie Wonder’s "Isn’t She Lovely," from Ink (24/96 AIFF, Chesky/HDtracks), showcased the Sammy’s beryllium tweeter and its fine juxtaposition of strengths. The inner detail -- or, as some say, the microdetail -- within Taylor’s whistle was extraordinary. I got a completely focused, pointed rendition of the whistle, but I also clearly heard the air simultaneously moving through his lips; talk about an open window on the recording! At the same time, the sound was so smooth and relaxed that it banished any hint of listening fatigue. The integration of the tweeter and midrange outputs sounded perfect. The tweeter’s working range didn’t stand out at all from the other drivers’ ranges, as it can with lesser speakers. Taylor’s subtly textured vocals highlighted the transition from the highs into the midrange. The mids were crystal clear and tonally neutral, if perhaps a bit recessed overall in the soundstage. This more distant character gave the recording a sense of great depth and perspective, while doing nothing to diminish the clarity and intelligibility of Taylor’s singing.
I then listened to Dianna Krall’s Quiet Nights (24/96 AIFF, Verve/HDtracks). The audibility of the low-level detail remained excellent, as did the impressive depth of soundstage. But this time I also heard great specificity of images within the wall-to-wall borders of the soundstage. If you revel in mapping a soundstage, the Sammys should be on your shortlist to audition. They seemed to completely disappear from my room, leaving only Krall and her instrumental accompaniment on a large, virtual stage before me.
On David Chesky’s The Ultimate Demonstration Disc Volume 2 (24/96 AIFF, Chesky/HDtracks) there are several high-resolution tracks that will test your system’s transparency and frequency extension at both ends of the audioband. In "Angel of Harlem," the members of the a cappella group the Persuasions were spread from one side of my room to the other, the singers perfectly scaled and placed on the soundstage. I could hear deep into each voice and easily concentrate on each singer, or simply revel in the music they created together. The transparency, too, was first rate. The percussion and bass at the start of "Club Descarga," performed by Randy Brecker, Andy Gonzalez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Bob Mintzer, and David Chesky, was articulate, with good separation of notes -- no one-note bass here. The bass on Valerie Joyce’s cover of Jimi Hendrix’s "Little Wing" was, again, clean and articulate, and deep enough that there was no dropoff in output level or room-flexing power with the lowest notes. The Sammys could thrust large volumes of sound into my room with nary a hint of strain.
With solo electric bassist Jonas Hellborg’s The Silent Life (CD, Day Eight Music 26), the Sammy also displayed the ability to play deeply into the bass, with good separation between notes and the ability to sort out some intense playing of the bass guitar without ever becoming muddled or plodding. The Montana was equally adept at pressurizing my room with ultra-deep bass when reproducing the bass drums in "Norbu," from Bruno Coulais’s soundtrack for Himalaya (CD, Virgin 8 48478 2). I was surprised at how much bass power the Sammys’ four 10" drivers could produce, but then, each pair does have a fairly large cabinet volume to work with. And the PBN could get down into big-subwoofer territory with ease. It would take something of the proportions of JL Audio’s Gotham or Paradigm's Reference Signature Sub 2 to play significantly lower with more headroom. The Sammys solidly hit 20Hz in the Music Vault. That meets the definition of full range.
As to where the Sammy ranks in the crowded field of ultra-expensive, heavily marketed loudspeakers, here’s what I think: The Sammy played bigger than much of the competition. It played lower in the bass and louder overall than the EgglestonWorks Andra and YG Acoustics Kipod, and likely the Wilson Audio Sasha W/P and Magico V3 as well. I’m speculating about the latter two speakers, based on their sizes and driver complements -- though I’ve not had either in my room, I’d love to give them a shot and find out for myself. The pair of Sammys did fully pressurize my room, and could play extremely loud without breakup or any other distortion. Dual mids and two big woofers will help you do that.
The Sammys also threw a huge soundstage on a par with anything I’ve heard south of $40,000/pair. Images placed on that soundstage sounded a bit more distant than I'm used to, though, which won’t please the crowd that gravitates toward the vivid, upfront nature of some of the speakers popular today. On the other hand, the Sammy’s beryllium tweeter prevented it from sounding laid-back. The Rockport speakers, particularly the Mira, would sound somewhat subdued next to the Sammy, though not by much. Although the Sammy wasn’t as ultradetailed in the highs as is KEF’s Reference 205/2, which I recently heard, it had a pleasing tonal balance devoid of anything I would term a coloration.
In terms of build quality and cachet, PBN’s Montana Sammy won’t wow your friends with a Kharma speaker’s ultraslick paint job, or the swoopy lines and facets of a Rockport Technologies Ankaa, but it’s impressive in its own right if you know what to look and listen for. Behind its cones are some of the best magnet systems in the world -- a Scan-Speak specialty, and better than what you see in some other, equally expensive loudspeakers. The cabinet construction, though not obvious from the outside, is also quite complex, and I imagine that it’s time-consuming to produce. A few of the small details could be improved on, such as the recesses for the binding posts, the sort of deficiency you don’t see in any of the other speakers I’ve named above.
The PBN Audio Montana Sammy doesn’t wear all of its charms on its sleeve. In many ways it is unprepossessing; most of its ultra-high-end pedigree is hidden from the naked eye under a nice veneer. But when it starts making sound, the total package makes sense to the ears. The Sammy can fill a big room with big, extended sound -- something that can’t be said of many speakers in its price class, amazingly enough. And a pair of Sammys can cast a magnificent soundstage that is huge when needed, and small when the occasion calls.
The Sammy doesn’t scream Ferrari or Bugatti the way some speakers do. I admit that at times I like that supercar look, but it’s the Sammy’s sound that seems born of fine craftsmanship. That sound surprised me -- it was better than I’d expected it to be. Even if the Sammy lacks a marketing story that will wow you and induce speaker lust, there’s something greater at work here: sonic substance. I suggest you forget the marketing altogether, listen to the Montana Sammy, and let your ears tell you the story.
. . . Jeff Fritz
The World’s Best Audio System, October 2010
- Speakers -- Rockport Technologies Arrakis
- Amplifier -- Boulder Amplifiers 2060
- Preamplifier -- Boulder Amplifiers 1010
- Source -- Apple MacBook running iTunes and Amarra 2.0
- Cables and power conditioning -- All Shunyata Research: Aurora-IC interconnects, Aurora-SP speaker cables, Hydra V-Ray II power conditioner; Anaconda Helix Alpha/VX, Python Helix Alpha/VX, Taipan Helix Alpha/VX power cords
Manufacturer contact information
380 Vernon Way, Suites I & J
El Cajon, CA 92020
Telephone: (619) 440-8237
Fax: (619) 579-6451