Imagine mini - The Little Big Man
February 21, 2012
Little Big Man
By Kirk Midtskog
The vast majority of new speakers the size of the PSB Imagine Mini are likely designed for a computer-desktop or a lifestyle A/V setup. PSB has gone one better; it has created a tiny speaker that can also serve as a truly enjoyable dedicated stereo speaker in a small room. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the Imagine Mini delivered genuinely engaging, musically valid performance, without veering into the tinny and fatiguing—or, contrarily, overly polite and dull—territory that most other very small speakers seem to own.
I shouldn’t have been all that surprised because I’d heard the Mini sound quite good at CES 2011. While I cannot claim the Mini redefines the price/performance equation, simply because I haven’t done a thorough survey of $700-to-$1000 speakers, I can say it appeals to me more than some considerably more expensive speakers I’ve heard. The Imagine Mini manages to convey the heart of the music so artfully that I stopped worrying about the elements the Mini can’t deliver and just marveled at how rewarding the darn thing is to listen to. You can guess what those non-delivered elements are: bass below about 55Hz, a large and enveloping sound, macro-dynamics that will startle you, and peer-into-the-recording-session resolution. No surprises here, as we are talking about small, sub-$800-per-pair loudspeakers. Even so, I found the Mini was able to play much “larger” and with greater punch than I thought possible from a six-and-a-half-pound loudspeaker you can hold in one outstretched hand.
"...the Mini has a well balanced (albeit bass-shy), engaging personality with a level of resolution—and without any upper midrange glare—that represents a new standard from a $760 loudspeaker, in my experience."
That artful performance springs from Paul Barton and his adherence to some ongoing psychoacoustic research at the National Research Council in Ottawa, Canada. According to Barton, many key elements of sound reproduction, which nearly all people—regardless of musical taste or background, age, gender, listening habits, or audio expertise—tend to regard as natural and accurate, have common characteristics. While not revealing all these characteristics, Barton did say that his speakers are made to sound good whether listeners are seated or standing, and that the individual drivers have similar sonic qualities in their crossover regions. Known as a value-oriented company, PSB focuses on delivering test-verified positive sonic attributes, thereby reducing the effort to improve factors that have been shown to be sonically less significant or even deleterious.
My listening preferences must fall right in line with the NRC results (even though it pains me to admit to being average and predictable), because I hear, in the Imagine Mini, an overall quality that I almost instinctively recognize as “right.” In broad strokes, the Mini has a well balanced (albeit bass-shy), engaging personality with a level of resolution—and without any upper midrange glare—that represents a new standard from a $760 loudspeaker, in my experience. It also delivers truly size-defying dynamics and overall impact when used in a system that provides sufficient clean power. While unable to render the ambient “air” of a venue the way much more expensive speakers, the Mini still does a commendable job of recreating 3-D space.
"I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the Imagine Mini delivered genuinely engaging, musically valid performance, without veering into the tinny and fatiguing—or, contrarily, overly polite and dull—territory that most other very small speakers seem to own."
Two small holes at the back of the cabinet, through which you have to route the speaker cables (bananas or bare wire) to binding posts recessed under the cabinet, will strike users as either clever or a hassle. The arrangement hides the hardware and is more attractive, but it also means you have to use cables small enough to pass through the holes, turn the cabinet over, wiggle the cables into place, and then tighten the lock nuts. I listened with the grilles off and used 25"-high Dynaudio stands.
Not surprisingly, the Mini’s sound-stage and dynamic envelope were smaller than those of a larger speaker, but they were still expansive enough to be proportionally credible. The soundstage was roughly three feet high, stretching just beyond the outer edges of the cabinets laterally for about seven-and-a-half feet, and extending about three feet behind the front baffles (recording permitting). The loudspeakers seemingly disappeared as sound sources, and the overall perspective was a bit farther back than mid-hall. You get a good impression of how instruments sound from the midbass on up with a bit more emphasis on the bigger picture than on individual players in massed stringed sections, for example. The Mini does not congeal whole sections of the orchestra into undifferentiated masses, however. Front-to-back layering and rendering of 3-D images were quite good, if also a bit foreshortened. This is true of nearly all speakers in this price range—and often also so of some costing much more. I could not place the Minis more than seven feet apart (tweeter-to-tweeter), or the back center of the soundstage would not fill in convincingly. Most people will probably be using the Mini in a small space, so seven feet should be plenty wide. The Mini is also a very good nearfield speaker. Moving them 3.5' apart, and sitting close proved to be quite instructive. Unless there was a musical element panned hard right or left in the mix, the Minis seemingly disappeared, with a proportionally smaller soundstage floating well behind the cabinets. No doubt, desktop, office, or den applications were significant goals in the Mini’s design brief, and it should perform admirably thus deployed.
"The Imagine Mini manages to convey the heart of the music so artfully that I stopped worrying about the elements the Mini can’t deliver and just marvelled at how rewarding the darn thing is to listen to."
I was cautious with the volume control at first because all other small speakers I have worked with couldn’t take much juice, becoming ragged when pushed. Not so with the Mini—to a point. The Mini needed to be kicked into action and seemed to come alive when I turned the volume higher than usual on the dial. This experience, and its 85dB in an anechoic chamber (87dB in a room) sensitivity rating, suggests the Mini is not exactly an easy drive. Fortunately, the Mini has a remarkable clay/ceramic-filled polypropylene cone unit, with a double-magnet arrangement, that gives it much more control, power handling, and excursion than a typical four-inch driver. I could turn up the volume to satisfying levels in my 12' x 17' room without inducing strain. The PSB manual recommends amplifiers of 10–80 watts. PSB has demonstrated with NAD amplifiers ranging from 125 to 150 watts, and I had fantastic results with the 200W Hegel H200 ($4400, Issue 212). The tweeter is a wave-guide titanium unit that takes the prize for being the smoothest, best integrated, most articulate, and sweetest-sounding titanium tweeter in a speaker under $1000 I have ever heard. I have also heard a pair of Minis mated with two small PSB subwoofers with good results.
"I like the Imagine Mini so much that I would choose it over some speakers that cost quite a bit more."
I tip my hat to Paul Barton and his team for the intelligent choices they have made in the Mini. I give it high marks for its sheer musicality and fidelity to the sound of live music within its size and price constraints. I like the Imagine Mini so much that I would choose it over some speakers that cost quite a bit more. It gets enough right to make me not sweat the audiophile stuff and just sit back and listen.
For a full version of this review (and more) on TAS presented by AVguide.com, click here.
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