Playback reviews Imagine home theater

May 12, 2009


If you were to look up the phrase "modest to a fault" in an imaginary Almanac of Popular Expressions, I'm fairly certain you'd find a photo of Paul Barton, founder of and chief designer for the Canadian firm PSB Speakers. It's not just in Paul's nature to brag, not even when showing off a family of speakers destined for critical acclaim. But over the years I've learned that he does sometimes show a heighted spark of enthusiasm when demonstrating a design he thinks is extra special. And so it was that Paul "telegraphed" the specialness of the Imagine speakers when he first revealed the pre-production prototypes at CES 2008. In fact, Paul positively beamed as he gave me a grin and said "Come on back to the demo room; I've got something I want to show you."

What greeted my eyes and ears was an affordable speaker system that combined sophisticated good looks and refined sound. Many speaker systems in this performance class are quite large, but the Imagines are surprisingly compact (even the Imagine T towers stand little more than 37 inches tall), meaning they can fit comfortably in smaller rooms while delivering a big, full-bodied sound that can easily fill larger spaces. Sporting sleek, curved-wall enclosures finished in beautiful "Cathedral-matched" wood veneers, the Imagines simply look and feel like far more expensive speakers (they're likely to impress even the most jaded of significant others).

The only question I my mind, then, was whether the production versions of the Imagines would retain the qualities I found so appealing in the prototypes. To find out, I put together a surround system consisting of two Imagine T towers (used as main speakers), and Imagine C center channel, two Imagine S surround speakers, and PSB's tried-and-true SubSeries 6i sub-woofer. The total price of this Imagine system is a very reasonable $4,749, and as you'll see in a moment it delivers impressive value for money.


  • To preserve common voicing throughout the lineup, all Imagine models share a core set of drive units: specifically, a 5.25-inch polypropylene mid-bass driver and a 1-inch ferrofluid-cooled titanium tweeter (whose design, PSB says, is influenced by the tweeter used in the firm's top-tier Synchrony speakers)
  • The Imagine T is a 2 ½ -way design featuring a dual-ported bass reflex enclosure, while the Imagine C is a 2-way, three-driver, single-ported reflex design.
  • Both the T and C models come with soft rubber port plus that can, at the owners' option, be used to block off reflex ports for a tighter though slightly less full bass sound (a welcome option when the speakers are installed in rooms that can add unwanted bass reinforcement).
  • The ingenious Imagine S surround speaker incorporates two sets of tweeters and mid-bass drivers, and offers three user-selectable configurations, allowing bipolar, dipolar, or dual-channel modes of operation.
  • Imagine speaker enclosures feature a lovely industrial design developed by David Farrage, with sidewalls and (for most models) top surfaces that incorporate subtle, compound curves. To build these exotic-looking enclosures at sensible prices, PSB uses a special manufacturing process said to combine "the precision of computer-controlled machining with the irreplaceable touch of hand craftsmanship."
  • Imagine speaker enclosures are essentially seamless and feature beefy 1.5-inch thick font baffle plates with heavy internal bracing. Front surfaces are gently (and precisely) radiused to minimize diffraction and to control dispersion. Interestingly, there are no visible fasteners for drive units, port vents, or binding post plates.
  • The SubSeries 6i provides a 225-watt BASH amplifier driving a 12-inch charcoal/polypropylene woofer, which is housed in a dual-ported bass-reflex enclosure. In a move we applaud, PSB puts the level and crossover frequency controls for the sub on the front of its enclosure.

Sonic Character

The Imagine system bears strong sonic resemblance to PSB's more costly Synchrony system, meaning that it offers well-balanced, natural voicing and robust dynamics, and can retrieve generous amounts of musical and cinematic detail (the Synchronies are better than Imagines in this department, in part because their treble response is more extended, though the performance gap is not as big as you might think). The Imagines are refreshingly free of upper mid-range/treble edginess or glare, so that one overriding impression is that the speakers are unfailingly smooth. In fact, those accustomed to bright speakers that overemphasize low-levels details might initially perceive the Imagines to sound subdued or reticent. And indeed the Imagines are somewhat more lightly balanced than the Synchrony-models are. But the longer you listen, the more the easygoing naturalness of the Imagine system will win you over.

The Imagines are particularly good at producing holographic, 3D images and soundstages. More so than many of their direct competitors, the Imagine speakers are able to set sound free from their own enclosures, meaning you'll enjoy the pleasurable illusion that sounds aren't emanating from the speakers, but rather from points in space where imaginary musicians or actors would stand. For multichannel music or movie soundtracks, this translates into surround sound imaging that is wonderfully convincing, so that you may at times feel as if you're seated at the center of the hemispheric "dome" of sound that surrounds you on all sides, and that arches up and over you, too.

The Imagines are so well balanced that they sound fine without any EQ system in play. That said, however, I found that, when I tried the Imagines with Audyssey's excellent MultEQ XT room/speaker EQ system, their sound became smoother still and "opened up" to a significant degree, to more faithfully reproduce subtle textural and transient detail. My point is that you can tap an extra level of performance potential by pairing the Imagines with electronics that incorporate the Audyssey EQ system.

Finally, let me mention that the SubSeries 6i subwoofer is an affordable gem, offering excellent bass extension and weight, a good measure of textural detail, and plenty of output. While PSB's compact HD-series subs perhaps offer a better visual match for the Imagine-series speakers, the SubSeries 6i gives you terrific bang for buck and time-proven performance.

Movie Performance

To appreciate how the Imagine system's natural sound and rich details can bring movie soundtracks alive, may I invite you to scare the living daylights out of yourselves by playing the terror/horror film The Strangers (reviewed elsewhere in this issue) through the Imagine system. Here's the deal: by design The Strangers uses only a few actors and contains very little dialog so that the film's action is often driven forward by an ultra-creepy soundtrack that, in essence, becomes a "character" in its own right (or at least it does through the Imagine system). Both tension and terror are expressed through the juxtaposition of natural household sounds (the chiming of a grandfather clock, the creak of planks as the victim-to-be walks across a hardwood floor, or the crackle of a fire in the fireplace) as compared with un-natural sounds (theloud, hypereverberant banging of a 4 a.m. knock on the front door, the sound of something - we're not quite sure what - rattling ominously against a glass windowpane, or the metallic sound of pipes or chains clanking and creaking in the yard outside. The Imagine system presents the differences between natural and unnatural sound so clearly and effortlessly that they immediately get under your skin. Add to this the film's off-kilter, minor key musical score and you've got the recipe for a sonic stew that will positively make your hair stand on end! As a test, I turned off the soundtrack for a few seconds and discovered that - with the Imagine system temporarily silenced the onscreen images suddenly seemed much less scary. Behold the power of a top-shelf surround sound system (when coupled with a well-crafted soundtrack, that is).

Music Performance

Part of the reason why people invest in systems like the Imagine rig reviewed here is to hear what favorite older recordings really sound like, and with this though tin mind I decided to test the system by playing the classic progressive/symphonic rock tract "Roundabout" from the multichannel DVD-Audio version of Yes's Fragile [Elektra/Rhino]. To my surprise, what the Imagines revealed was that the core sound quality of this early 1970's record was - in many though not all respects - equal if not superior to most of the rock releases coming out today! In fact, hearing the track through the Imagines proved to be a trip in a sonic "time machine" of sorts.

"On great material old and new, the Imagine system sounds very good on stereo recordings, but is even better when reproducing multichannel that lets the PSB's surround sound imaging prowess come into play."

The speaker system did a beautiful job of delineating the complex, interwoven elements that make up the track, capturing the opening, chime-like overtones of Steve Howe's guitar, the vibrant syncopated melody line carried by Chris Squire's deep yet articulate-sounding Rickenbacker bass, and the light-speed arpeggios deftly performed by Rick Wakeman on keyboards. While the Imagines let me hear the flaws in the nearly 40-year-old recording (the fact that Bill Bruford's cymbals sounded a bit compressed and therefore "splashy", for example), they didn't browbeat me with the shortcomings. Instead, they let the timbres of instruments (and of Jon Anderson's voice) shine through with pure, natural warmth that's all too rare these days. They also showed how expertly the spacious 2002 multichannel mix complemented the original feel and "vibe" of the material.

On great material old and new, the Imagine system sounds very good on stereo recordings, but is even better when reproducing multichannel that lets the PSB's surround sound imaging prowess come into play.

Bottom Line:

The PSB Imagine system brings listeners many (though of course not all) of the virtues of the firm's award-winning Synchrony system, but at a substantially lower price point. Like their more expensive siblings the Imagine offer a smooth, natural sound, good dynamics, and the kinds of subtle - never ostentatious - details that register on an almost subconscious level as simply sounding "right." Importantly, the Imagines offer holographic imaging - an area where this system excels. Because they are compact and "right-sized," the Imagines will fit in spaces where larger speaker systems would not. Exquisite fit, finish, and design give the Imagines a pleasingly upscale feel.

Playback Magazine

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