Image T6 Loudspeaker reviewed -TAS
January 14, 2010
In years gone by, audio people used to refer to speaker design and manufacture as a Black Art. And they had a point. Not so long ago, hand-doped drivers and special responsecontouring in crossovers to (try to) fix driver errors were the rule.
But times change. New materials have made drivers better behaved and more consistent in manufacture. And advances in test procedures and test facilities have made the evaluation of designs easier—PSB’s new T6 reviewed here was designed with the help of the Canadian National Research Council (NRC) acoustic testing lab. In effect, speaker design has been considerably rationalized. This all ought to add up to good speakers being less expensive to design and build. And in this respect the PSB Image T6 is a very much a case in point. It is rationally designed, and it does indeed offer remarkable musical performance at its price. And yet, the art has not gone out of the whole process. Designer Paul Barton told me that, while the general outlines of his design follow theory, much of what he does is a matter of intuition as far as the fine details are concerned. And, of course, the fine details matter a great deal. Well, one can only admire how superbly his intuition works and be glad for his mastery of the aspects of the process that remain in effect an art.
A quick tour of the sound, from the bottom up: The T6 has real bass, –3dB at 35Hz, a little “bloom” but good pitch definition, and realistic warmth and fullness. No miniaturization here! Its double-port and double-woofer design give really smooth bass— lower, middle, and upper—in the actual listening room through correct treatment of the floor-loading issue, unfortunately a rarity in floorstander designs but very much a feature here. The midrange is very clean and quite neutral sounding. And the treble is extended and again very clean sounding.
Resolution of detail is excellent. One gets a real taste of high-end presentation of detail at this semi-budget price. These speakers are extraordinarily transparent. If you wanted to write down every note of every part of a multi-layered piece of music just by listening, this would be a good speaker to use. The drivers seem well-behaved, indeed, and the sound very clean and clear. Perceived distortion levels are very low. (So are the measured levels, from the manufacturer’s measurements.) It is an audiophile tradition to say that no dynamic-driver speaker can approach electrostatic low levels of distortion, but the T6 sounds quite close to that low level of distortion. The midrange is really clean and pure.
Imaging is also excellent—the speakers have minimized diffraction and they vanish into the soundfield most satisfyingly. Interestingly, the out-of-phase sound on test tracks for speaker phasing is more perfectly directionless and the in-phase more tightly focused than usual. I shall have a few sonic nits to pick later—after all, this is a TAS review—but this is high-end sound in all directions, never mind the low price.
The speakers look elegant. The dark cherry finish of the review samples has the warm glow of fine furniture, and the curved surfaces give a special gracefulness. After a listen in our audio room, Paige approved enough not only of the sound but also of the looks to suggest moving the T6s up into the living room. They made the cut in both sound and appearance.
The design goal of the PSB T6 as I understand it was to make a speaker with flat response, wide and uniform radiation pattern, and (as Paul Barton described to me) not only smooth off-axis frontal behavior but smooth directivity, smooth “power response.” The power response was intended to be free of glitches and to droop smoothly with increasing frequency in the top end, smoothly sloped down with increasing frequency in “room response.” This might be called a textbook ideal, but it is far from easy to pull off!
Incidentally, I am really indebted to designer Paul Barton for his detailed answers to my technical questions and for sharing a great deal of information on the measured performance of the T6s. But for people who worry about such things, I listened long and wrote this review except for very minor revisions before seeing any measurements at all—not even my own, as my measurement system was temporarily down. My comments on frequency response were based on listening and experimenting with what small EQ changes improved the sound to my ears, not on any preconceived ideas from measurements. Interestingly, my observations fit essentially line by line with the measurement information supplied later by Paul Barton from the Canadian NRC facility.
A bit technical there in the description, all that about power response and so on—but it all adds up to things that are musically important. The well-balanced sound comes out into the room with real naturalness and no sense of the listener being restricted to a tiny sweet spot, nor of the sweet-spot sound being erratically different from the overall “room sound.”
Now there are alternative approaches to making a speaker work in a room involving much narrower radiation patterns, and it is no secret to TAS readers that I have a soft spot for the narrow-pattern approach. But truly, the most crucial point is not so much wideness-versus-narrowness as such, but rather smooth variation of the pattern with frequency, and this the T6s do very well. This speaker really sounds like music at some deep level and very much not like a speaker, in a way hard to put into words in detail but very easy to hear.
"This is what music really sounds like"
The T6s are not perfect—if they could be, what would the higher-priced PSB models be for? The tweeter, while very pure sounding, has to my ears a slightly different tonal color than the midrange driver, a little metal-dome sweetness—not unpleasant, just a bit of extra color, heard mostly on high massed strings. Also to my ears, the treble is slightly “hot” in the real top, in the context of overall flat response, and the sound a little bit “hard.” Paul Barton, as I understood him, is quite intent upon not having any of the British “politeness,” which was derived from a combination of a deliberate dip in the 2–6kHz range—the “BBC [or Gundry] dip”—and the directionality arising at the top of the operating range of large midrange drivers. Fair enough, to eschew this, an esthetic judgment call—but to my ears the T6s go a bit too far in the other direction with what seems to me a little excess around 4kHz. The T6s do not do much tempering of the wind to the shorn lamb as far as program material is concerned.
The exact perceived balance can be altered by changing seating height and by more or less toe-in. The speaker has a quite smooth variation of response with respect to such changes, so one can use them for adjustment to taste without introducing coloration.
The midrange does a fine job of the human voice, which sounds natural and naturally balanced. Most instruments are similarly well served. The T6s were not at their absolute best on solo piano recordings, on which the speaker exhibited a certain coloration of the specifics of piano tone. This is subtle, though, and might pass without notice unless you listen to a real piano in direct comparison. I think this came from a little bit of extra energy from the midrange driver, a little projection around 1.5kHz, since a little EQ down at that frequency largely eliminated it. (This little excess can make the midrange driver come out a bit at close range on material that is at all midrangeforward). But overall, the sound is quite uncolored.
The treble is so clean that its slight excess, if excess it be, is less disturbing than it could be, and for some types of music the little extra zip and presence may actually enhance the experience. I get some idea that the T6 is perhaps intended for young people and their livelier music, with the more expensive Synchrony line, which I gather has a slightly less “live” balance, intended for the older, presumably richer, but more sedate customers.
I experimented with pulling the treble/upper-mid down a little. Lenbrook Industries, parent company of PSB, also owns NAD, whose products feature tone controls, so I did not feel guilty experimenting with such adjustments, though I used the Z Systems rdp-1 digital EQ rather than a tone control in the usual sense. For things like classical orchestral music, this small adjustment, specifically pulling a dB or so out at 4kHz and as noted a tad out around 1–1.5kHz, gave what seemed to me a more natural balance. But the T6s as they are were by no means unsatisfactory. Indeed, they are very much in line with current practice in the high end where a dB or two of extra treble has seemingly become regarded as preferable to a dB or two too little. But a little less treble made things better to my ears.
The bass was much to my liking, warm, full, yet defined in pitch. The bass has, compared to, say, sealed boxes optimized for bass tightness, a little “bloom”—like a concert, arguably, but perhaps not ideal for some music where bass tightness is called for. For orchestral music, it was fine indeed. Overall, the sound was very smooth and natural. And orchestral sound was well balanced and exceptionally convincing.
As I mentioned, the T6s really dealt effectively with the floor-loading issue, a pet peeve of mine: It is all very well to say that rooms vary, and of course they do. But everyone has a floor. It is dismaying that most floorstanders do not do anything to accommodate the loading by the inevitable floor. This can be a huge effect, both in terms of measurement and, more importantly, musically.
Much to PSB’s credit, the T6s were deliberately designed to work correctly with a floor beneath them. The PSB Web site makes an explicit point of this, as well it should. The musical effect was profound and profoundly desirable. Round and about, one can find reviews commenting on how the PSB floorstanders are overly warm. Don’t you believe it! This is what music really sounds like, and invidious comparison to other floorstanders is just revealing the others’ floor dip. And floor dip is neither on the recordings nor a feature of real music. And if you are inclined to use DSP to make the bass in room even closer to perfect, you will find not much to correct and the correction easy, since the speaker lacks those cancellation dips that are so hard to deal with.
The T6s sounded remarkably like a real orchestra on the Telarc Bolero, with the spectacularly well recorded Carmen Suites in particular. The T6s also revealed clearly the striking tonal beauty of the Dvorak Legends recording by Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra [Philips]; they also revealed the microphone patterns and the differences among the tracks, which come in two sets, recorded at different times.
The result was truly like what HP calls the gestalt of a real orchestra, with minimal sense of sound from speakers as such. Smaller scaled music—Ulf Bastien’s Winterreise recording [Ars Musici], for example—was equally convincing. And the resolution of detail, the clarity, the intelligibility of words, the positioning of images precisely and convincingly were all most gratifying both in audiophile and in strictly musical terms.
It is a perennial topic among audiophiles, how far recorded music is from live, with the glass-half-full side commenting on the similarities, the half-empty side noting the differences. To an extent surprising in a relatively inexpensive speaker, the T6s make the argument for similarity to live sound very convincingly. These speakers can sound remarkably like the real thing. And you will never be able to go back to speakers with that floor dip between 100 and 300Hz again, that is for sure.
Perfect, not quite, but startlingly close at the price, yes, indeed.
Robert E. Greene
The Absolute Sound
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