PS Audio aspen FR20 Loudspeaker

hfnoutstandingLess than a year after PS Audio launched its inaugural loudspeaker, this flagship floorstander has already inspired a trickledown sibling. Will the FR20 unseat the FR30?

The advice given by Apple's Steve Jobs to 'Start small, think big' is pretty sensible, going hand in hand with that old saw about not trying to run before you can walk. That recommendation seems to have eluded Colorado-based company PS Audio, which launched its speaker line last year with the big aspen FR30 [HFN Jun '22], arriving in the UK with a price tag now running at £30,000, and clearly aiming high straight out of the box.

Not only that, but it also threw away much of the high-end speaker rulebook, debuting a tall, slender column apparently 'floating' on an integral stand, and with an unconventional drive unit complement. The FR30 mixes planar magnetic mid and treble drivers, a quartet of bass units backed up by four passive auxiliary bass radiators, two on each side of the cabinet, plus a rear-firing tweeter by way of HF 'ambience control'.

Now, with the arrival of the second aspen model, the £19,995 FR20, the company has started backfilling its lineup with a smaller, more room-friendly model and, as company boss Paul McGowan reveals, more to come in this range. But the FR20 isn't just a shrunken, simplified version of the original for, as we'll discover, while there are significant similarities, there are also changes to the technology to suit a design that's just a little less imposing.

Market Disruptor
As we'll also find out, this more compact design – albeit standing just over 1.28m tall and weighing a hefty 60.3kg – is every bit as spectacular an introduction as its larger stablemate, and likely to create just as significant a stir in its market sector. Our FR30 review suggested it was looking like a real high-end hi-fi bargain, despite its size and price, but the FR20 is even more so, and brings the range closer to McGowan's stated intent of bringing exceptional sound 'to people with real incomes and homes'.

OK, so PS Audio is hardly a hi-fi start-up... Marking its 50th anniversary this year, it's long been making high-quality audio electronics, from digital components to amplification, and says that the aspen speaker concept has been bubbling away in the background for most of that time. Indeed, the development of the speaker line has been well-documented through the daily blog written by CEO McGowan, which is part of a policy of outreach (or, if you're cynical, marketing) also taking in newsletters, its own digital magazine, the Octave record label and no shortage of 'how to' information, such as the 165-page The Audiophile's Guide – The Loudspeaker set-up book. It's supplied with the aspens along with an audio disc to aid the process.


he FR20 is supported on the same alloy 'short stand' but the cabinet houses a combination of two 200mm carbon-fibre/Rohacell sandwich coned bass drivers and one 255mm ABR on each side

The FR20, while obviously a different design from the range-topping model, shares much of its elegance. Retained from the FR30 are the 2.5in/63mm treble unit and the 10in/25cm midrange mounted above it, each using flat-panel diaphragms made from ultra-light Teonex, and driven front and back via neodymium 'motors' in a planar magnetic configuration. The crossover points are taken from the FR30, with the midrange working from 400Hz up to 2.5kHz where the tweeter takes over. However, in-house driver production has improved tolerances, enabling some subtle re-voicing of the crossover circuit.

The shorter enclosure here brings the tweeter down to around 91cm from the floor, a level better suited to smaller rooms and placing less pressure on the need for a relatively upright listening posture. So these are speakers before which you can slouch while you listen, rather than having to sit up and take notice!

And the removal of that rear-facing 'space' tweeter? PS Audio is frank that its absence, and the deletion of its crossover shelving control and associated settings on the rear panel was 'a means to simplify and streamline the design and lower the cost'. And when listening to the FR20s, one is reminded of the Gilbert & Sullivan line from The Mikado that 'They'll none of 'em be missed', so open and spacious do these speakers sound.

So far then, the same but smaller, but it's in the bass section of the FR20s that the most changes are apparent. For a start there are just two bass drivers in each speaker, partnered with a pair of flat-surface ABRs, but while these side-radiating bass tuning devices are the same size as those on the FR30 model – and just as hollow-sounding when you tap them – the drivers themselves are not just fewer, but of a different design.

Whereas the flagship FR30 features aluminium cones, the FR20's woofers use a composite design with carbon-fibre skins enclosing a Rohacell foam core, this lightweight material also being used by a number of other speaker manufacturers.

Chris Brunhaver, PS Audio's Senior Loudspeaker Design Engineer, explains that this enables 'a lower mass cone… as light as thin pressed paper cones but with added stiffness'. He adds that 'we moved to a single spider of the same profile, lowering its mass and softening the suspension to keep the same low resonance frequency'. Also, while the near-5.5kg magnet and cast chassis structures have been carried over, 'we switched to an aluminium coil (versus copper in the FR30 woofers) for lower mass and motor force. Aluminium has higher resistance, so the coil has fewer turns, and an 8ohm coil fits nicely in the gap we had for the 4ohm copper coil of the FR30'.


Planar magnetic 250mm mid and 64mm tweeter both feature Teonex diaphragms, the former mounted on a baffle behind the thermoplastic 'fascia'. Pearl White and Sable Black finishes are offered with matching grilles

Sibling Rivalry
The upshot of all this is a claimed gain of about 2-2.5dB in woofer output, pushing up the quoted sensitivity of the new speaker to within 1dB of its bigger brother at 87dB/1W/1m. As important a design target, the FR20 is also claimed to deliver the same bass response and (flat) impedance characteristics as the FR30.

The industrial design is by Canadian-based Studio 63, which also penned the FR30. In this case the main enclosure is a one-piece design, with none of the adjustability of the two-piece FR30, and is built from heavily-braced MDF finished with 20 coats of hand-rubbed piano-grade lacquer. There's a choice of Pearl White or Sable Black finishes, incidentally. The planar magnetic tweeter is attached to the rear of the thermoset resin front baffle, the latter with a shaped waveguide to control the dispersion of the midrange driver mounted, like the woofers, to the main structure.

Separate magnetically-attached grilles are provided for the top and bottom portions of the cabinet, as illustrated in our pictures, while the substantial alloy base comes with a set of adjustable milled brass feet. These include detachable spike tips and plastic inserts for use on hard surfaces, plus a set of sliders for ease of movement while the speakers are being set up. PS Audio provides a set of nifty Allen keys for adjustment in addition to a set of jumpers for single-wiring the bi-wire terminals on the rear of the speakers.

sqnote Dial-In For Detail

Even without the extra speaker set-up book, the basic instruction manual is both informative and comprehensive, so you'll find it easy to get the FR20s installed and dialled-in. That said, your dealer should be fully prepared as the speakers come out of the box upside-down, and it's definitely a two-person job to get them turned over and placed. The manual suggests they 'should be toed-in a little, aimed at a point in space about 3ft/1m behind the listening position'.

PS Audio
Boulder, Colorado
Supplied by: Signature Audio Systems
07738 007776