Imagine T Review - Stereophile June edition
June 12, 2009
My first intimate experience with PSB loudspeakers was back in the mid-1990s, when I'd just began writing for Stereophile and found myself "between speakers." I'd sold off my Apogee Duettas and was not yet fully committed to something new. PSB designer Paul Barton graciously let me hang on to a pair of PSB Stratus Gold i speakers, which John Atkinson and Thomas J. Norton had reviewed in April 1997. With a smooth but somewhat recessed midrange, powerful and extended bass, but trebles that lacked sparkle, they sounded pleasant and full but didn't push my buttons, and ended up being only place-holders for me.
Since then, I've met and talked with Paul Barton about many things and have always found him knowledgeable, engaging, and eminently sensible sorta like the Stratus Gold i. All that was only amplified at a private demo of PSB's Synchrony line two years ago, and again last year, at the press demonstrations of PSB's new Imagine line. Barton was more animated and witty than ever, with a new sparkle probably inspired by the new speakers or, more likely, that sparkle itself had inspired the clearly innovative Imagines. JA had grabbed a pair of Synchrony Ones for review and still clings to them as one of his reference speakers. John Marks reported on the Imagine B in the February 2009 issue, and in April Sam Tellig, quicker on the draw than I, had his say about the Imagine T. Still, I had to have a pair of Ts.
Like PSB's Synchrony models, the Imagine T ($2000/pair) is built in China in a vertically integrated facility that can consistently turn out complex, high-quality designs. In contrast to earlier PSB models, and to most conventional box speakers, the Imagine cabinets comprise a curved body of multilayered MDF mated to a thick, sculpted front panel and top and bottom panels. These various components snap together rigidly and permanently. Even the suede-soft moldings used for the connections and ports are fundamental structural elements. Covering the cabinet is a beautiful real-wood veneer of Black Ash or Dark Cherry, the grain vertical on the main body, with a "cathedral" match to the top panel.
No mounting-screw heads or other paraphernalia mar the smooth surface of the Imagine T's heavy slab of front baffle to create diffraction. On the baffle's upper half, under a full-length front grille of cloth-covered metal, the three drivers are visible. Below a 1" titanium-dome tweeter are two 5.25" polypropylene-cone woofers, each with a metal phase plug mounted to its magnet pole-piece. While the two cones are identical, they are used somewhat differently. The upper one runs from the low bass up to 1800Hz, where a 24dB/octave Linkwitz-Riley network rolls it off to the tweeter. The lower cone also runs from the lower bass but rolls off at about 800Hz, to avoid the acoustical interference with its partner that would have resulted had their outputs overlapped in the midrange. Because of the curve of the cabinet and the seamless veneer, the terminals on the rear are arranged vertically, just below the lower bass port. To accommodate biwiring or biamping, four terminals are provided, as are jumpers for those who eschew such arrangements. A foot above this port is a second one, though the Imagine T arrives with this stopped with a rubber plug. To customize the Imagine T's bass response to the needs of the room, the purchaser can plug either, neither, or both ports (see sidebar, "Playing with Ports").
Although the Imagine T is somewhat smaller than most of the floorstanding speakers I've used, its shipping box is surprisingly large substantial blocks of Styrofoam and lots of space between the cabinet and the outer world protect the Imagine T from insult. Unpacking the pair was a breeze, and setup required only that I choose between inserting spikes or rubber feet with a little wrench (supplied). I wired them up and fiddled a little with placement until the soundstage snapped into focus. I defeated the Audyssey room-equalization software in my Integra DTC-9.8 preamplifier-processor because I was committed to listening to the Imagine Ts in stereo without a subwoofer, and because the center and surround speakers were still my Paradigm Studio/20 v3s.
At first listen, the Imagine Ts' sound seemed smaller and less forward than I'd expected. Over the next few weeks, as I broke in both the PSBs and my own perceptions, it gradually became apparent to me that I was hearing what was possibly the most balanced, neutral midrange performance I'd ever heard in this room. Voices, whether male or female, singing or speaking, solo or ensemble, had an honest and unspectacular presence, with consistency across the soundstage.
This is not to say that the vocal presentation lacked characterization or drama. Familiar voices such as Sara K.'s on "Stop Those Bells," from her Don't I Know You from Somewhere? Solo Live (CD, Stockfisch SFR 357.6055.2); or Thomas Hampson on his Ives: An American Journey, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (CD, RCA 63703-2) sounded as natural as I always knew they should. Even the choral settings on the Ives disc had the transparency of a group of individuals without sacrificing any of the ensemble's collective weight.
Recordings of solo violin, piano, and guitar similarly benefited. The Imagine T reproduced each instrument with that delicate harmonic balance that could trick me into thinking it was actually in the room. Piano was particularly satisfying; when I played the best recordings, the instrument's unique combination of percussive attack, vibrating strings, and cabinet resonance was readily apparent through the PSBs. I also noticed that, despite its sophisticated construction, the top and sides of the Imagine T's cabinet were "live" to the touch, even at moderate volume levels.
When I then stretched the PSB with an even wider harmonic palette than the piano, it seemed a bit soft on top, but, unlike PSB's old Stratus Gold i (if my ancient memories can be trusted), the Imagine T could startle me with struck cymbals and the biting upper harmonics of orchestral brass. Moreover, it was greatly to the new speaker's credit that it did so with no abiding brightness to skew the upper midrange. The titanium-dome tweeter, only recently among the most exotic HF reproducers and used only in very expensive speakers, blended seamlessly with the top of the midrange driver and extended its neutrality well into the treble. Roy Hargrove's incisive trumpet commentaries in "Tin Tin Deo," from Oscar Peterson Meets Roy Hargrove (CD, Telarc CD-83399), gave evidence of how well the PSB could delineate that instrument.
One result of this smoothness and neutrality was that the Imagine Ts were capable of throwing a deep, detailed soundstage with no artificial highlighting or "audiophile air." Smaller ensembles, such as jazz or string quartets, seemed to sit just behind the plane described by the speakers' baffles, in a real space as capacious as my listening room. So well did they image that I often got up to make sure that my old center speaker was indeed unhooked, and not the actual source of the centered voices and instruments I was hearing. Unhooked it was.
The low end of the PSBs was a bit more difficult to define (see sidebar: "Playing with Ports"). With the successful tweaking of the ports and their plugs completed, the bass was now smoother. I appreciated this with recordings of individual instruments, and it was absolutely crucial with bigger forces. The Imagine T's bass now cleanly extended down to below 50Hz, and supported the nicely balanced midrange. Except at the very bottom, there was a lightness that served the music well in terms of detail and transparency. This lightness was most noticeable with individual instruments, such as bass drum or bass guitar, all of which could be clearly heard but seemed to lack the weight or gut impact that they can have through other speakers. Of course, I could switch in my Paradigm Servo-15 subwoofer and, with a crossover set around 50Hz, easily reassert that power in the bass but the Imagine T's overall balance was so seductive that I preferred listening to them without such help.
As I played recordings of larger and larger forces, however, my only serious criticism of the Imagine T began to take shape. Huge panoplies of voices and instruments were seamless in the lateral dimension and extended in depth. However, regardless of the volume levels or the recording, they never gave me a sense of the truly broad and massive. For example, I could thoroughly enjoy Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms (SACD/CD, Vertigo 9 87149 7), but Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (SACD/CD, EMI 5 82136 2) was less satisfying. I believe this had to do with the arrangement, which in the former is open and clear, and which the PSBs presented with sufficient weight. The mix of Dark Side of the Moon, however, relies on the overlaying of heavier and synthesized effects, particularly in the low bass, and there the Imagine Ts failed to convey the visceral impact this album should have.
A parallel comparison might be made using Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra's recording of Beethoven's Symphony 9 (SACD/CD, BIS 1616), and Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra's of Mahler's Symphony 2 (SACD/CD, Channel Classics CCS SA 23506). The Imagine T did the Beethoven stupendously well, including the chorus, timpani, and bass fiddles, but the Mahler demanded more. Reverting to the use of the subwoofer solved only part of the problem, as it wasn't purely an issue of bass or power handling. When relieved of the burden of reproducing the lowest frequencies, the Imagine T played really loud and clear, whether the source was Mahler or movies.
Still, I felt that the soundstage wasn't wide enough in either of my listening rooms. I admit a well-documented bias in this regard: I believe that multichannel reproduction is necessary for such large ensembles, and that two-channel stereo is hard-pressed to approach what surround sound can offer. Despite this, I listen to stereo most of the time for reasons of repertoire, but even with my abiding expectations regarding stereo, some speakers can throw a bigger soundstage than did the PSBs. An example would be my resident Paradigm Studio/60 v3s, which fall far short of the Imagine Ts in terms of midrange clarity and neutrality, and treble delicacy. With big stuff, the bigger Studios simply sounded...bigger. But with a jazz quintet, solo voices, and most music on a small scale, the PSBs sounded more honest and real.
I tried the Imagine Ts as the front left and right speakers of a 4.1-channel array. With the additional spatial cues of multichannel, the Imagine Ts were absolutely magnificent with all recordings, including every one mentioned above. All of my earlier concerns about the PSBs' ability to convey large-scale music were now erased by their impressive reproduction of anything I could throw at them all accomplished with the musical balance and transparency I'd consistently heard through the Imagine Ts alone.
The PSB Imagine T is a wonderful loudspeaker. Set a pair of them up right, feed them some good recordings, and they'll deliver a clarity and a balance worthy of any music. I thoroughly enjoyed them with jazz, pop, and most classical. If you love any or all of those musics, I can think of no speaker in the $2000/pair price range that I'd rate higher. And if, like me, you're a glutton for the truly massive, they could be the foundation of an outstanding multichannel system.
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