DVD ETC-Image T45

January 31, 2005

Are you a music enthusiast eager to move from the world of “mid-fi” into a much more musically satisfying and engaging system but don’t have a lot of cash to do it? I remember how thrilling it was almost three decades ago when I shed the system I had purchased at Radio Shack and moved into the realm of what the British call “specialty audio.” Perhaps you get asked to help family members, friends, or acquaintances assemble a good sounding system that’s easy to use and doesn’t cost an “arm and a leg.” In the real world, $2K is still considered a lot to spend on a stereo system by many, even those who are professional musicians, and it seems most folks don’t want to have to fuss a lot with their systems. Or maybe you’ve wanted a decent second system for another room, the office, or, if you’re lucky, a vacation cottage but didn’t want to spend more than what your exotic, high-end phono cartridge cost? Having quality tunes in other parts of the house or at the office can make life more pleasurable. If any of these three profiles fits your situation, rest assured that help is on the way.

During the past two issues of AVguide Monthly, I have reviewed elements of a highly-cost effective “Super Starter System.” The NAD C 352 integrated amplifier and C 542 Compact Disc Player meet the system objectives of musicality, accessibility, and value. The last major piece of the system, the PSB Image T45 loudspeakers, also fits the bill. Whereas the choice of loudspeakers is highly dependent on one’s musical priorities and tastes, the T45s should please a wide range of music lovers. They are versatile, balanced performers with sonic attributes that are competitive with speakers costing far more.

Admittedly, I was somewhat surprised by my choice of the PSB T45s in the “Super Starter System.” Because the budget precluded a lot of the dipole speakers I prefer, I thought I’d end up recommending some mini-monitors and suggesting that one could eventually add a subwoofer, as funds allowed. This can be a great way to go. However, I wanted a “Super Starter System” that one could live with for a long time without feeling the pressing need to upgrade.

One of the greatest attributes of some of the small monitor speakers I’ve owned, like the original ProAc Tablettes, the Reference 3As, and the Wilson WATT Is and IIs, have been their uncanny abilities to disappear and float an image. As I listened to Brahms’ A German Requiem [London] with the T45s driven by my reference system, I thought I was listening to a mini-monitor, but one with a lot more bass. Voices and instruments floated “in space” between the speakers. On the Classic jazz reissue, Soul Train [Blue Note], none of the instruments of Hank Mobley’s quartet seemed like they were coming from the speakers. Listening to the reissue of Grieg’s Pier Gynt [Speakers Corner/Decca] with my analog front end, I was impressed by the PSB’s wide and precise lateral soundstage. Although there was some foreshortening of depth, I was pleased at the level of imaging performance in such a modestly priced floorstander. Let’s face it: Listening to speakers that seemingly “disappear” is a lot of fun!

The T45s are part of PSB’s Image Series of loudspeakers and reflect Paul Barton’s thirty years of design experience. Let me tell you, this experience pays off for consumers in several ways. First, the speakers are attractive, have a “fit-and-finish” one finds in far more costly speakers, and take up no more floor space than a pair of mini-monitors on stands. However, these narrow, floor-standing towers look a lot better than any combo of monitors and steel stands that I’ve seen. My review pair was in a lovely maple veneer with light gray grilles and had a soft, curved shape. Better still, these fine looks serve a real purpose as the narrow, rigid front baffle is a key to the T45’s imaging prowess and the speaker’s non-resonant enclosure reduces extraneous colorations.

Second, this 2-1/2-way, bass reflex design gives music a high level of coherence, with more bass extension and impact than you’re likely to find in other speaker systems of similar size. The PSB T45 uses proprietary drivers and skillfully mates a 1” aluminum dome tweeter with a pair of 5 ?” “metalized” polypropylene cone woofers, but the larger drivers have different crossover points. This enables one woofer to concentrate on bass extension while the other focuses on mating seamlessly with the tweeter. It’s a clever approach to the problem of trying to achieve solid bass in a relatively small enclosure while maintaining coherence.

Third, the T45s come with a lot of added touches that I appreciate. These include the solid packaging to protect the speakers during shipment, the extensive owner’s manual with a lot of set-up tips, the supplied spikes and rubberized feet that screw easily and securely into the bottom of the speakers, the dual five-way binding posts that allow bi-wiring or bi-amping, video shielding for use in home theater applications, and more. They even supply a small wrench to tighten the spikes! Several manufacturers producing far more costly speakers could learn some lessons from PSB on how to anticipate and satisfy customer needs.

Last but not least, many of the same parts are used throughout the PSB Image Series line of loudspeakers. This enables development and sourcing costs to be amortized over several products, lowering overall unit costs and making each speaker in the line more affordable. It’s a major reason the T45s are such an outstanding value. As an added bonus, the company says the use of common parts helps it maintain sonic consistently across the line, allowing mixing and matching of different Image Series speakers in multi-channel applications. This is good news for home theater enthusiasts.

Lovers of jazz are likely to be quite taken with the overall musicality of the T45s. On the Hank Mobley recording, Paul Chambers’ bass was solid, extended, and reproduced without bloat, Art Blakey’s cymbals had shimmer and his drums had transient snap, Wynton Kelly’s piano had an engaging clarity, balance, and immediacy, and Mobley’s tenor was surprisingly natural yet detailed. Most importantly, I was drawn into the performance. Of course, listening to a great recording can make all the difference in any system and this mono reissue is terrific, but the T45s certainly serve the music.

Voice is a good test for speakers and the T45s do solo voice as well or better than any speaker under a grand that I’ve heard. Male voice can be particularly challenging and Bernd Weikl’s baritone solo on A German Requiem didn’t have the distorted chestiness and prominence at different parts of the range that you hear with a lot of box speakers. Sarah Vaughan’s voice on The Lonely Hours [Classic/Roulette] not only “floated,” but it had a seductive smoothness and naturalness that kept me listening late into the night. I have to admit that while listening to Maria Callas’ voice through the T45s on another spectacular mono reissue from Speakers Corner, Puccini: Operatic Arias [EMI], I was able to be “transported” by the music. I don’t know of another speaker around this price that can do this so well.

While the performance of the T45s belies their modest cost, they do have some limitations. When driven hard or on some large scale orchestral peaks, they can lose their composure and massed strings can sound somewhat strained. If you’re a head-banger or listen to a lot of Mahler at high levels, you may want to look elsewhere, but for the most part, this is not a problem. Also, while they provide quite a bit more bass extension than monitors and do justice to the low tones of the string bass, they don’t plumb the lowest depths. However, you’ll get deeper and more controlled bass if you use solid state amplification and make sure you use the supplied spikes or footers to couple the speakers to the floor. If you need more bass or dynamic “slam,” particularly if you’re in a large room, you might check out some of the T45s larger siblings in the Image Series line. Yes, there are certainly other nits one could pick, but the T45s deserve praise for being such competent performers across the board.

At a list price of $749 per pair, the PSB T45s provide one of the best price-to-performance ratios in high end audio. Indeed, their imaging capabilities are really quite special they virtually disappear yet they also produce bass. On other sonic attributes, their performance is competitive with speakers costing more. Although the T45s do well on a wide range of music, lovers of voice, jazz, guitar and fiddle, and other solo instruments should be particularly taken by these small floorstanders. If you look at what they do well for the price, the T45s are pretty darn amazing.

Listening to the “Super Starter System”

The reviews of the PSB T45s, and the NAD C 352 and C542 have focused on the individual merits of these components. While each has compelling strengths, their respective levels of performance seem to go up a notch in the context of the “Super Starter System.” These components really jelled together to produce an engaging and satisfying result that enabled me to kick back and just enjoy the music. You’ll notice throughout this set of reviews how many times I said I was “drawn into the music.” That’s what it really is about, isn’t it? This system has balance and synergy in spades, and I’ve heard far more expensive systems that aren’t as musically satisfying.

This is a system designed for music lovers who want to move closer to the sound they hear at a live performance. Instruments and voices sound surprisingly natural, without the high levels of sibilance, brightness, and distortion I hear on far too many mass-marketed systems. Simon and Garfunkle’s voices on their classic, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme [Columbia] were smooth and realistic. Just listen to the massed-string sound on Mozart’s Piano Concerto #25 [London] and you’ll notice it has none of the top-end “tizziness” characteristic of budget systems. The overall balance of the system is readily apparent when you listen to Ashkenazy’s piano. Unlike a lot of entry-level systems, no part of the keyboard jumps out at you and assaults your ears, nor is the lower range of the piano missing in action or ill-defined. On orchestral music like Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite [Sheffield lab], the system disappeared and sounded more like the real thing than any “mid-fi” system I’ve ever heard.

While the system is quite good on standard, Redbook CDs, it really shines when playing HDCD encoded discs! The HDCD release of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira shows off the detail, clarity, and musicality this modest system can produce. Jaco Pastorius’ masterful bass accompaniment is well-controlled and satisfying, the leading edges of the attacks on the guitars and drums are rendered nicely, and Joni Mitchell’s haunting voice seems to come out of nowhere. An even better recording is the Reference Recording HDCD orchestral sampler, Tutti. On a piece like Ravel’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Great Gate of Kiev,” the system demonstrated its surprising ability to reproduce the airiness of massed strings, the leading “ping” in the sound of the brass, and the dynamic impact of the tymani. Admittedly, it gave me some “goosebumps.” On other HDCD samplers like 100% Handmade Bluegrass [Acoustic Disc], I was impressed by the natural detail and transient speed on stringed instruments, like guitar and fiddle, and on the Special 20th Anniversary Celebration Disc [Opus 3] the sound of vocal ensembles, soprano sax, and percussion reminded me of systems costing a lot more.

I have focused on the sonic capabilities of this system, but let’s not forget how simple it is to set-up and use. I dare say that you can get this system up and running during the half time of an NFL game. However, you will be rewarded if you spend a bit more time on speaker placement. Additionally, anyone who can use a remote control will be able to operate this system. It let’s you focus on more satisfying things like listening to music.

The good news is that both the NAD electronics and the PSB speakers are likely to appear at the same dealers in the U.S. since they have the same distributor. I would urge you to listen to this “Super Starter System” before you buy any “mid-fi” system or purchase any audio system under $3K (maybe more). While the list price of $1847 isn’t “chump change,” and doesn’t include cables or taxes, it represents an outstanding sonic value. If you want the biggest bang for your audio buck, this is a great place to start. Better still, with a system as musically engaging and convenient as this, I suspect you won’t be itching to upgrade. It’s one system you can enjoy for a long time.

Jim Hannon

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