Maxi-sized Review for Imagine mini

November 1, 2011

PSB Imagine miniBeguiling Balance

Reviewed by Tom Martin on Playback (presented by AVguide.com)

The PSB Imagine mini is the latest addition to the firm’s Imagine loudspeaker line, which sits just below PSB’s flagship Synchrony series, and above the Image and Alpha lines. The two-way mini, which stands just a bit over nine inches tall, is the smallest model in the Imagine family, though it is slightly taller and about two inches deeper than the conceptually similar PSB Image B4, which I reviewed in Playback 37. The minis are priced at $760/pair (in dark cherry, walnut, or black ash veneers) or $830/pair (in white or high gloss black), which makes them reasonably priced, though still quite a bit more than some small speakers—including those from PSB. As was the case when we reviewed the Image B4s, PSB's head honcho Paul Barton recommended that we listen to the Imagine minis on their own, but then also try them with PSB's matching SubSeries 1 powered subwoofer ($450), which is fitted with an 8-inch woofer and a 110-watt amplifier.

Like all PSB speakers, the new Imagine mini benefits from research work the firm has done at the acoustical test facilities of Canada's National Research Council. PSB uses NRC to conduct fundamental studies of loudspeakers and room acoustics in its anechoic chamber as well as doing observational evaluations in its listening-studio facilities. PSB's research at the NRC included a development project for the firm’s critically acclaimed flagship Synchrony-series speakers, and insights from that project have, of course, had significant impact on the design of the Imagine Series. Paul also told us that the minis benefit from learnings gained during the design of other Imagine series models. Engineering, being based on tradeoffs, often allows for serious learning in the course of designing a full product line, so that the Imagine mini benefits from being the last Imagine model completed.

The mini incorporates custom-designed drivers and a special low crossover point. PSB's goal has been to create a smooth, natural sound with surprising bass for such a small speaker. Some very careful work went into the mini's enclosure design, which feature five-layer construction and has no visible seams whatsoever. The bottom section of the enclosure features a cleverly design plinth, which provides a recessed pocket for speaker binding posts and sleek, concealed attachment points for optional PSB wall-mount brackets or speaker stands. As you can see from the photos that accompany this review, the sidewalls of the mini cabinets are curved along the sides, top panel, and front baffle, for what designer Paul Barton often describes as an "organic" shape.

The SubSeries 1, in turn, is designed to offer significant output down to the deep bass range. PSB has created a driver and cabinet combination with a -3 dB point of 36 Hz, which is actually pretty low if your room will support it. The SubSeries 1 provides level, low pass filter cutoff and phase controls, and it can be driven by line level, LFE or high-level (speaker) connections.

A non-trivial point is that PSB's instruction manual for the SubSeries 1 is really well done. It offers many good suggestions for placement of the sub to get good results. This is critical because bass is very dependent on room dimensions and subwoofer location within the room, and having a systemic approach really helps even experienced users get optimal performance from the sub.

For obvious reasons, we admire PSB’s stated objectives and intentions for the Imagine mini, but we do these tests to characterize the real-world results that designs achieve. Is the Imagine mini an improvement over excellent products like the Image B4, and if so is the mini enough better to justify a price tag hundreds of dollars higher? We'll tackle those very questions in this review. 

SONIC CHARACTER

Truth to tell, I've often thought that some very large percentage of people would get more enjoyment out of mini-monitors than larger speakers. I say this because compact speakers like the Imagine mini are often easier to place in rooms and tend to give more consistent results than larger speakers do. In addition, well-designed small speakers often prioritize accurate mid-range, which is a long-term virtue that continues to satisfy well after the appeal of bigger speakers has faded. Of course, the Imagine minis (and other small monitors) tend not to look very impressive at least not in the eyes of those who equate the size and bulk of a loudspeaker with expectations for “good sound.” But if you listen with your ears and not your eyes, the Imagine minis can deliver a pretty "maxi"-sized sound.

...aspects of the Imagine mini that are really appealingly musical and that enable the minis to compete with some very good speakers at much higher prices.

As I've noted before, you have to be careful with really small speakers not to say they are "great", when what you really mean is that, "I was surprised how good they were for their size". In this case, there are aspects of the Imagine mini that are really appealingly musical and that enable the minis to compete with some very good speakers at much higher prices. On the other hand, there are some things the minis won't do that bigger and more expensive speaker can (which is, of course, precisely why PSB offers larger and more expensive Imagine and Synchrony-series speakers). Let's look at both parts of the Imagine mini equation.

My sense is that many listeners want speakers that offer neutral frequency balance as a first step toward natural, engaging, and non-annoying sound. If your speakers produce boomy bass or screechy highs, you’ll be distracted—not involved in the music, and that's bad. The minis deliver on this score, big time. By that I mean first that the bass, midrange and treble are present in the right overall amounts, and that there aren't obvious dips or peaks within any of those frequency ranges. Surprisingly for mini-monitors, I found the Imagine minis to have a pleasant degree of mid and upper bass warmth. As a result, the minis sound like bigger speakers and reveal good presence in cellos, guitars and vocals. In contrast, far too many small speakers offer weak lower range response and as a result sound threadbare.

Low bass is another matter, as the 4-inch mid-bass driver of the minis can only do so much. Because low frequencies are diminished in volume, you will notice that the sense of punch and drive on some cuts is lacking. On other material, however, you won't feel anything is missing at all.

...the Imagine minis can deliver a pretty "maxi-sized" sound.

Fortunately, you can easily remedy this lack of low bass with the addition of the SubSeries 1 woofer. I found the SubSeries 1 easy to balance (there is a volume knob on the front panel and one of its larger markings was quickly revealed as the “just right” level for the Playback listening room). With the crossover set to 60 Hz, the subwoofer added a nice foundation to the music, without mucking up the upper bass at all. With a single small subwoofer you won’t have the most powerful bass possible, especially in a large room, but in smaller environments the balance will be quite competitive with larger speakers. And as space and/or budgets allow, you can always add a second sub, which can help not only help increase low-frequency dynamic capabilities, but can also foster more evenly balanced in-room bass response.

At the other end of the spectrum, I found the smoothness and overall level of the mini’s treble was close to accurate, though perhaps a touch less extended than I’ve heard in vastly more expensive speakers. In any event, you certainly wouldn’t characterize the mini as sound overly “bright.” On the contrary, the minis reproduce upper frequency instruments with a sound that is well detailed, yet smooth, suggesting accurate treble balance with low distortion.

The blend between the midrange and treble is fine in terms of the relative balance of the midrange region to the treble region, though on some recordings I had the sense that the upper midrange output was slightly diminished. There are tradeoffs in how crossovers are engineered, and to me the mini uses a wise approach when compared with the slightly harsher or sharper sounding transition that many speakers aim for. The design of the mini keeps the focus on the music—not on pyrotechnic enhancements.

...the mini sounds like a high-end speaker that was magically reduced in size, but that retained most of the subtle qualities that made it worth the extra money in the first place.

The midrange itself is well executed. At times I thought the mini sounded a trifle congested, but at others it seemed to have amazingly good instrumental separation. Eventually, I found that placing the minis farther apart and a greater distance from the rear walls opened up the sound substantially, so that the minis came much closer to the theoretical ideal of always sounding coherent.

Dynamically, the mini is good but not great. Without a sub, it simply lacks the slam necessary to do power music full justice. And, as the volume picks up, the mini doesn’t sound strained, but it doesn’t sound completely comfortable either. Adding the sub helps, but the mini errs on the side of naturalness; achieving big impact on power music is not the speaker’s strong suit.

The final aspect of the Imagine mini that I need to emphasize is the sense of sonic refinement it conveys. Some small speakers just sound coarse, sloppy or lacking in control, but the mini isn’t like that at all. Instead, it sounds like a high-end speaker that was magically reduced in size, but that retained most of the subtle qualities that made it worth the extra money in the first place.

PSB Imagine mini

MUSICAL EXAMPLES

On Jack Johnson’s “Dreams Be Dreams” [On and On, UMVD], and listening to the Imagine minis without the sub, the opening bass line was nicely balanced, with good depth and some of the sense of moving air that it has when heard on top line gear. This bass line was, however, not quite as crisp as it might have been.

On the same album, the cut “Gone” showed off the good imaging and center fill of the Imagine mini pair, though the height of the presentation was reduced a bit. You need to make sure the stands you use place the tweeters at about ear level (which can mean a rather tall stand given the short stature of the minis). This same sense of good stage width, along with excellent stage depth, was shown on The Low Anthem’s “Charlie Darwin” from Goodbye Charlie Darwin [Nonesuch]

Switching to Nora Jones’ “Light As a Feather” [The Fall, Blue Note], you can hear that Nora’s voice sounds clear, but lacks some upper harmonics. This midrange dip is subtle and something that you might not notice without hearing this track on other systems (or even better, hearing Nora live).

The Shelby Lynne track “I Cry Every Day” from Suit Yourself [Capitol], demonstrated the benefit of adding the SubSeries 1. Without the sub, the song’s bass line sounded too light and the track’s rhythmic drive was just not there. But add the sub, and you’ll find the track starts to jump and seems more solid and real. This track, and many others like it, shows that while the minis are good, the minis + subwoofer combo is even better.

OVERVIEW

Consider this speaker/subwoofer system if:You’ve been looking for a balanced, open sounding, compact speaker system that gets the midrange and treble right, and that also can provide solid bass performance (especially if you’re willing to spend time dialing-in the speaker/subwoofer interface to tweak bass performance). Consider the Imagine mini, too, if you prize a speaker that does a good job of minimizing artificial-sounding “hi-fi” artifacts.

Look further if:You insist on a speaker system that offers maximum dynamic range, superb mid-bass articulation or that produces large soundstages—qualities that, in our experience, can generally only be provided by much larger speakers.

Ratings (compared to similarly-priced speakers)

  • Tonal Balance: 9.5
  • Frequency Extremes: 8.5/9.0 (with sub)
  • Clarity: 9.0
  • Dynamics: 8.0
  • Value: 9.0
"PSB's Imagine mini/SubSeries 1 delivers a natural, low distortion sound that is beguilingly balanced. This is a system capable of revealing subtleties with the big boys, though it is probably not the ideal answer for aficionados of power music."

 

For a full online version of Playback's Imagine mini review and more, please click here.

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