HTS- Image Home Theater System

March 1, 2005

Paul Barton, founder and chief designer of PSB Speakers, has been designing speakers for more than 30 years. For many of those years he has been able to use the audio facilities at Canada’s National Research Council to help him hone his craft and provide listeners with great sound at reasonable prices. His inexpensive Alpha speakers have served as introductions to good sound for a great number of budding audiophiles, and his most expensive, Platinum-series speakers have made some people wonder why anyone would want to spend any more money for speakers than the Platinums’ asking prices. Though the Image speakers fall between the Alphas and Platinums in price, they deliver much more than their prices suggest.

Introducing the Image series
PSB’s Image speakers rely on a modular construction that results in a "family sound" that ensures that all channels in a multichannel system will sound similar. This modular construction also helps the consumer by reducing the price of the speakers; by using a limited number of components throughout the series, PSB is able to reduce production and manufacturing costs. All Image models use the same 5.25" or 6.5" metalized polypropylene-cone woofers with rubber surrounds and the same 1" aluminum-dome tweeter. They all have front-panel bass ports that allow them to be placed closer to walls than many rear-ported speakers. And every Image is magnetically shielded to permit placement on or near a television or computer monitor.

The Image system I was sent comprised two Image T65 floorstanders for the front channels ($1099/pair), an Image C60 center-channel ($449), two Image S50 surrounds ($749/pair), and a SubSonic 6i subwoofer ($699), for a total system cost of $2996 with subwoofer, $2297 without. When I agreed to take on this review, I hadn’t thought about how big the PSBs might be, and was a little surprised (in a good way) when they arrived -- the Images are substantial. Luckily, I had help in moving them down into my newly constructed basement home theater.

The T65 floorstander is a bass-reflex design with three 6.5" woofers, three 2" bass ports, and that 1" dome tweeter. It measures 38.5" tall by 8" wide and 20" deep and weighs 49 pounds. Each T65 has two sets of five-way, gold-plated binding posts on the rear to allow for biwiring or biamping. I used a single run of Kimber Kable 4PR speaker cable to connect each T65 to my Harmon Kardon AVR-100 receiver.

The T60 center-channel speaker has two 6.5" woofers, two bass ports, and the 1" dome tweeter. It measures 27.375" wide by 8.5" high by nearly 12" deep and weighs 25 pounds. The rear panel has a pair of five-way binding posts.

The S50 surround speaker is a bipole acoustic-suspension design with two of those 1" dome tweeters and two 5.25" woofers. Each S50 measures 13" high by 12.75" wide by 7.375" deep and weighs 18 pounds, and comes with five-way, gold-plated binding posts and wall-mounting clips. The S50 can also be placed on a stand if necessary. PSB sent a pair of dedicated stands for them, and while these were adequate to the job, they weren’t very attractive. Wall mounting would be aesthetically preferable, but on their stands the S50s delivered great sound.

The PSB SubSonic 6i powered subwoofer completed the system. The 6i’s class-H amplifier is rated to deliver 225W continuous with a dynamic peak rating of 600W. The sub’s 12" cone is made of polypropylene and has a rubber surround and a 53-ounce magnet. The 6i measures 20" high by 15" wide by 20" deep and weighs 46 pounds. One thing I like about this sub is its front-mounted volume and crossover controls (continuously variable from 50 to 150Hz), which made it much easier to adjust than by having to crawl behind it. On the rear panel are controls for setting phase, an On/Off/Standby switch, line-level RCA inputs and outputs, and speaker-level ins and outs.
Two finishes are available for the Image T65: maple and black-ash vinyl veneers. I was sent the latter, and while the finish was good, it wasn’t luxurious -- the flat black seemed rather dull. But in a home theater, no one is looking at your speakers anyway. I suspect the maple would be more attractive. The C60 center-channel and S50 surround comes in black, with white available for the latter to blend into light-colored walls; again, I was sent the black. They looked nice, and while too big to blend into the wall, shouldn’t be eyesores in any room. The SubSonic 6i subwoofer is available only in black ash. The speaker grilles are attached in such a way that they look as if they’re "floating" in front of the speaker, which is a nice touch. Overall, the Images aren’t the most beautiful speakers I’ve seen, but they’re attractive enough. PSB seems to have put its money into the sound.

Listening to Images
The setup routine for the Images was fairly standard, but I did have to build a stand for the C60 center speaker. (You can read about the stand in an upcoming "DIY Home Theater.") I placed the T65 front speakers on either side of my screen, which put them a little more than 9’ apart, about 18" from the front and side walls. The C60 center speaker ended up under the screen, directly between the fronts, and 18" from the front wall. PSB’s stands for the surrounds made placement easy: I positioned each S50 slightly behind the chairs on the sides, which put them about 13.5’ from the front speakers. After replacing my usual sub, an Axiom Audio EP175, with the SubSonic 6i, I was ready to go.

I received the Images just about the time Star Wars: Episode IV -- A New Hope was released on DVD, and it was one of the first movies I watched with them. The speakers were phenomenally good at transporting me right into George Lucas’s world. The SubSonic 6i provided tight and deep, deep bass that seemed to propel the spaceships right through my room. (Yes, I know, in space there would be no sound. That fact didn’t make them any less compelling.)

During a screening of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the surround speakers were able to give me a complete aural picture of being aboard the HMS Surprise. This film’s soundtrack uses the surrounds to good effect for the sounds of creaking wood and rope. The Images re-created a real physical place inside my room -- it was almost eerie how the six speakers "disappeared" to leave me aboard an 18th-century ship. This soundtrack illustrated the great care that PSB has taken in providing a series of speakers that can integrate the sound from six different speakers into a single convincing soundfield.

The C60 center speaker was no less impressive, delivering clear dialogue from multichannel soundtracks, but it also did a great job with 1.0 soundtracks, such as that of The Third Man. Having an entire soundtrack played through only a single speaker can, with lesser models, make things sound compressed and lacking in depth. The Image C60 didn’t have this problem. Music, sound effects, and voices were all distinct, and not riding on top of one another. In the case of The Third Man, the C60 was helped by the Criterion Collection’s usual care in remastering. The C60 proved a center speaker capable of excellent fidelity to whatever source it was fed.

The Image system also performed well with multichannel music, including the recent Elton John reissues on SACD. Ideally, for SACD playback you’d have five identical speakers, but that’s not feasible for most of us. While I’ve heard home-theater surround speakers that were not up to the challenge, the PSBs were. The multichannel mixes were not always to my liking, but the S50 surrounds were able to produce believable music, even if I wondered why the guitars were behind me. If you’re looking for a home-theater system that will also serve you well with multichannel music, you should audition the PSB Images.

Comparison
Compared with my Axiom Epic Grand Master system ($1625), the PSB Image array delivered a bigger, more realistic sound environment with better tonal balances. For example, the scenes from Master and Commander did not envelop me in the ship’s aural environment with quite the you-are-there realism provided by the Images. No longer a member of the crew, I was perhaps a fly on the wall.

The PSBs also displayed how the Axiom speakers could sound tizzy in comparison. The guitars in the multichannel mix of Elton John’s "Rocket Man," for example, sounded more grating; overall, the higher frequencies were more exaggerated. The PSBs didn’t have this flaw; through them, the music seemed to flow much more smoothly.
The SubSonic 6i also provided a much more house-shattering level of bass than either my Axiom EP175 ($530) or Woodard Audio Pro 12 Sport ($299) subwoofer. Early in the review process I found that the 6i was giving me too much bass, but adjusting the 6i’s level and position solved this problem. I’m not a bass freak, nor do I watch many action movies; it will take a lot to convince me that you need any more subwoofer than the PSB SubSonic 6i. Given any sub’s visual prominence in a room, I’d prefer a choice of finishes rather than only the black ash, but performance-wise, the 6i is the most capable subwoofer I’ve had in my house.

Conclusion
PSB’s Image series provides clarity, realism, and depth. Whatever I was enjoying -- music in two or many channels, films in monaural or surround -- I was impressed with what I heard. At a system price of $2996 including subwoofer, these speakers are worth every penny and then some. The potential buyer should take careful note of the speakers’ size and finish, in order to match room décor and proportions. The T65, for example, is very deep and will be prominent in all but the largest rooms. But don’t fret -- the smaller Images will fit most any environment just fine.

Eric Hetherington
Home Theater Sound

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