Imagine T Home theater Review

May 18, 2009

PSB Speakers Top Pick

When deciding whether or not to set product priority for evaluation, every reviewer (consciously or unconsciously) applies a filter based on his or her previous experience with that manufacturer. Of course, there are always breakthrough products that demand to be covered and new companies that deserve to be discovered. But given the options available in the speaker world—including the new and the fascinating but rarely the revolutionary—you look first to those that have proved that they can make a great product.

Canadian manufacturer PSB falls solidly into that category. Thirty-seven years ago, Paul Barton founded the company with his wife Sue (PSB is Paul and Sue Barton). There may be a smoldering pile or two of drivers and sawdust somewhere in PSB’s past, but if there is, they certainly never got past the R&D stage. The Imagine line is Barton’s new baby. It’s one step down from last year’s well-received and still current flagship, the Synchrony series. Like many of today’s speakers, the Imagines are manufactured in China. But PSB does the engineering, which makes extensive use of the testing facilities and anechoic chamber at Canada’s National Research Council.

Imagination

The Imagine line contains four models, three of which are included in this review system: the Imagine T, Imagine C, and Imagine S. As you can, um, imagine, the letters T, C, and S stand for tower, center, and surround.

There is no dedicated Imagine subwoofer, so PSB sent along its SubSeries 6i. It’s a rather conventional design in a plain-Jane, black-vinyl-finished cabinet. Inside, it has a single 12-inch driver with dual, front-mounted ports and a 225-watt (continuous) BASH amplifier. There’s also a line-level output with a fixed 80-hertz, 12-decibel-per-octave high-pass filter, an adjustable crossover that utilizes a 24-dB-per-octave, Linkwitz-Riley low-pass filter, and a 0- or 180-degree phase switch. The low-pass crossover (variable from 50 to 150 Hz) and level controls are conveniently located on the front of the cabinet. You can bypass the crossovers for use with the crossover in an A/V receiver or surround processor. The SubSeries 6i also provides speaker-level inputs and outputs.

The SubSeries 6i may be an aesthetic wallflower, but the Imagines are definitely not. The first thing that strikes you about them is their beautifully styled cabinetwork, which is finished in handsome wood veneer. But their looks are only half the story. All of the Imagines have solidly built enclosures, with heavy internal bracing and thick front baffles, smoothly rounded to minimize diffraction.

At the action end, all of the Imagines utilize one or two of PSB’s newly designed 5.25-inch woofer-midrange drivers. Their light, stiff, well-damped cones are fabricated from ceramic-filled polypropylene. The aluminum phase plug (visible at the center of the cone in place of the usual dust cap) is a technical design feature that the Imagine borrows from the Synchrony line. The company says it reduces distortion and increases linearity at higher frequencies. The entire Imagine line uses the same 1-inch titanium-dome tweeter with a neodymium magnet structure.

Imagine T Tower Loudspeaker - from PSB SpeakersThe passive crossovers are all (acoustical) fourth-order Linkwitz-Riley. The dual binding posts (which you may use strapped together or separated for biwiring or biamping) accept bare wire up to 10 gauge, spades, or banana plugs (single or dual). To use bananas, you can easily remove the Euro-nanny plastic plugs that are installed in the terminal holes. The plugs are there to keep clever but clueless continentals from blowing up their speakers by connecting them directly to European-style, 220-volt electrical outlets.

The Imagine T employs two of the Imagine line’s woofer midranges in a 2.5-way configuration. Both operate in the bass up to 800 Hz, and the uppermost driver alone continues up to the 1,800-Hz tweeter crossover. The Imagine C center is a straight two-way design. Its two woofers operate together up to the 1,800-Hz handoff to the tweeter.

Both the Imagine T and Imagine C are ported (the Imagine T has two ports, while the Imagine C has one). You can use the provided plugs to fine-tune the bass, to a degree, by stopping up the port on the Imagine C and/or either of the ports on the Imagine T. The optimum port-plug configuration will depend on your room, setup, and subwoofer.

The Imagine S surround uses two angled sets of drivers (a woofer and tweeter on each opposing baffle). You can wire it in a number of ways. In a conventional 5.1-channel system, you can drive it either as a bipole, with the two sets of drivers in phase, or a dipole, with them wired out of phase to produce a center null. For a 7.1-channel system, you can split the two sets of drivers. You can use one set for the side surrounds, while the other, reflecting off the back wall, acts as rear surrounds. You can even use three or four of them in additional ways—your PSB dealer won’t object. I used a single pair as dipoles.

Imagining Music

When I auditioned the left and right Imagine Ts in two channels, along with the SubSeries 6i crossed over at 80 Hz, the system sounded as impressive as it looks. Its third-octave measurements, taken at the center listening seat located about 11 feet from the speakers, indicated an unusually smooth in-room response. The output at 16 kilohertz was down about 10 dB from the output at 30 Hz, and the drop-off was gradual and extremely uniform from bottom to top. I conducted all of my auditions and measurements with the grilles removed.

Many experts recommend a down-sloping response at the listening position, depending on measurement technique. Some listeners might prefer a somewhat shallower tilt, but the Imagine T’s spectral balance (which will vary in different rooms) was in no way dull. Refined, yes, but plenty detailed. From the delicate sound of brushed cymbals to the snappy thwack of aggressively played guitar, the highs were all there. They were never over the top, aggressive, or “I am tweeter, hear me roar!” on program material of known high quality.

From those open highs on down, the performance remained strong. The Imagine’s small drivers produced a clear, uncolored midrange. Imaging was tightly defined, and depth, if present in the recording, was convincing.

This PSB system is sweet and clean with music, capable of surprisingly forceful impact and wide dynamic range with film

Apart from the lowest organ notes, the SubSeries 6i handled every musical challenge I threw at it. I haven’t reviewed many subs that cost less than $1,000, but if I hadn’t already known the SubSeries 6i’s price, I would not have guessed that it sells for considerably less than that. Its looks may be unassuming, but its performance is not. It has limitations to be sure, particularly at the extreme bottom end (more on this in the movie section, below). Your room and setup will definitely have more influence on the SubSeries 6i’s performance than the sub’s inherent limitations.

What limitations did I hear in the Imagine system with two-channel music? Massed orchestral crescendos at high levels sometimes sounded a bit congested, and some female vocals turned edgy at above-average volume. The recordings (and possibly my room) certainly played a part in both of these issues; I’ve heard them before in my room from other speakers (but not all). However, neither of them intruded at all, on multichannel Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio film soundtracks. The Imagine Ts by themselves did not provide satisfying deep bass in my room, even with music. This was at least partially due to the out-in-the-room position my screen setup demands. This setup provides little of the bass reinforcement you’ll get with placement closer to a rear wall. In any event, the small, 5.25-inch woofers in the Imagines, even in multiples, really demand a subwoofer for full home theater duties if your taste runs to dynamic action films. In all of my comments in this section and the next, the Imagines were working down to 80 Hz, with the SubSeries 6i taking over below that point.

Imagining Movies

The system’s extended and detailed response was as obvious on films as on music. But before I could fully appreciate it, I had to address one small issue. A subtle midbass emphasis reduced intelligibility and slightly obscured dialogue from the center-channel speaker. This appeared to be the result of the center-channel location I use (beneath a projection screen and about 18 inches off the floor). I reduced this emphasis with a –2-dB setting for the center-channel bass control in the receiver I used in this review (the Integra DTR-9.9, reviewed in the April 2009 issue). This was the only time I used tone control or equalization in this review. Not all receivers have a separate center-channel bass control, but if you can position the speaker higher off the floor and away from other boundaries (as many of you will), you’ll be less likely to experience midbass problems in the first place.

Imagine T Tower Loudspeaker - Tweeter - By PSB SpeakersOnce I got everything cranking, the PSB Imagines, with the SubSeries 6i subwoofer in tow, delivered. As with all horizontally configured two-way woofer-tweeter-woofer center speakers, you can expect off-axis response dips in the Imagine C center that become more problematic the further off axis you sit. But from the 15-degree or so off-center position I generally use for movie watching, this dip was not significant. It certainly did not keep the system from generating a broad, deep, unified sound space that was far bigger than the system’s modest size suggests.

The Imagines held everything together, even on the most challenging soundtracks played back at high levels in my relatively large (about 3,200 cubic feet) home theater room. The Bourne Supremacy (Blu-ray, DTS-HD Master Audio) is loaded with challenging material. It has pulse-pounding drums and soaring strings in the score, enough car chases and crunching crashes to put you off driving for a week, and dialogue in a wide range of environments. The bass (those drums in particular) rocked the room, the strings in the score sounded sweet and clean, and the car crashes were as explosive and, um, crunchy as anyone could want—or stand.

Transformers (Blu-ray, Dolby TrueHD) carries the action to an even higher level. The final scene never lets up, with enough clanging metal, roaring jets, throbbing helicopters, and firepower for any three action movies. The Imagines kept up with this mayhem every step of the way without straining. They also excelled on less explosive details like Steve Jablonsky’s enveloping, richly recorded score.

The SubSeries 6i subwoofer handled its part in all of this with ease. True, it doesn’t generate the room-shredding fear that pricier designs, with more subterranean bass extension, provide. When I first set up the Imagine speakers, I used them with my resident Revel B15 subwoofer. That unit has more bass weight and a more tightly defined low end than the SubSeries 6i. And its higher price ($3,000) gives it undeniable advantages, including a built-in, three-band parametric equalizer.

a subwoofer that is far more impressive than its price would suggest

What surprised me was just how little seemed to be missing when I switched to the SubSeries 6i. Of the soundtracks I auditioned, only Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (DVD, Dolby Digital and DTS) clearly revealed what the SubSeries 6i lacked on the extreme bottom end. And even then, it only showed in a near-direct comparison. The difference was evident primarily in the sequence where the alien craft smashes up from under the streets of Brooklyn. The Revel sub uncovered some extremely deep bass rumbling in these scenes that just wasn’t there with the PSB sub.

Even without this, the SubSeries 6i still cranked out enough low-frequency grunt on this film to send chills up my spine. It also delivered on my other current favorite bass test tracks as well, including the deep engine rumble of the tramp steamer in Stargate: Continuum (Blu-ray, DTS-HD Master Audio) and the powerful low end in almost any action scene in Transformers. I felt no urgency to finish up the auditions so I could pull out the PSB sub and put the Revel B15 back.

Conclusions

This PSB system is sweet and clean with music, capable of surprisingly forceful impact and wide dynamic range with film, and includes a subwoofer that is far more impressive than its price would suggest. The Imagines satisfied my audiophile itch and provided plenty of home theater thrills. There are a lot of fine surround speaker systems in this price range, but you’ll be missing out if you don’t put this one on your must-audition list.

Thomas J. Norton
Home Theater

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