Stereophile reviews the Image B6

June 23, 2010

Readers frequently ask me how Stereophile's writers select equipment for review. More often than not, a writer comes up with a review candidate because he's heard it or heard about it, and then suggests it to editor John Atkinson for possible review. JA encourages this behavior—a writer excited about reviewing a component is more likely to produce an article that's interesting and informative. That said, occasionally a review candidate surfaces at Stereophile HQ; in such cases, JA assigns it to one of us.

Thrice in the past, JA has asked me to review loudspeakers from Canadian manufacturer PSB: the Image 4T (February 2001), the Alpha B (May 2002) and the Image B25 (December 2004). When he recently called to ask if I'd like to review PSB's new Image B6, I smiled from ear to ear. I'm always excited about reviewing a speaker designed by Paul Barton, the epitome of the designer of affordable loudspeakers. Every one of his products results from intelligent engineering and a sharp eye and ear for value for money. He has been obsessive about improving and revising all of his designs over time, as well as trickling down technology from his more expensive to his more affordable models.

"The PSB Image B6 loudspeaker... Yep. It's the Honda Accord of bookshelf speakers."

At press time, PSB's two-channel speaker models numbered 16 in five product lines, ranging from the Alpha B1, for $279/pair, to the flagship Platinum T8, for $6999/pair. (I chuckle as I note that Barton's flagship speaker costs less than a pair of some interconnects used by friends of mine.) The two-way, bass-reflex Image B6 is the most expensive bookshelf model in the Image series, which is one notch up from PSB's entry-level Alpha series. Still, it retails for only $495/pair.

In a recent phone conversation, I discussed with Barton the evolution of the Image series. He told me that the Image B6's ferrofluid-cooled, 1" titanium-dome tweeter with neodymium magnet was originally designed for PSB's more expensive Imagine series, and is now used throughout the Image line. Also for the Imagine series, Barton worked with a cone supplier to create a new clay/ceramic-filled polypropylene woofer cone with a rubber surround; a 6.5" version of that cone is used in the Image B6. According to Barton, over the years he's gotten better and better at "the recipe" of voicing and choosing drive-units. His standard for the minimum amount of distortion he'll tolerate in a driver is much higher than it was a few years back, resulting in a lower level of distortion that he'll accept. Describing to me his constant revising of his designs, he said that it "takes trickledown where it should be, and that's where the value is created, because you've frontloaded all of the design work."

The attractive but understated Image B6, designed using the facilities at Canada's National Research Council in Ottawa and manufactured in China, is available in a vinyl finish of Black Ash or Dark Cherry. Its slightly rounded cabinet was developed with tooling that PSB developed, then used in China for the first time with this iteration of the Image series.

The B6 is the first Image bookshelf model to be biwirable. I tested them on my Celestion Si stands, which are loaded with sand and lead shot, and preferred listening to the speakers sans grilles; that way, their sound had more detail, openness, and air.

A Listen

The Image B6's revealing and colorless midrange made it a seductively involving reproducer of classical, jazz, and pop vocals. John Surman's soprano sax on the Paul Bley Quintet's reading of "One in Four," from Paul Motian's Selected Recordings (CD, :rarumECM 8016), was silky, rich, and airy throughout the instrument's range with the PSB. Listening to George Gershwin's Three Preludes, from Yo-Yo Ma's Made in America (CD, Sony Classical SK 53126), I found myself listening not to the master cellist, but rather to—and reveling in—the bloom of pianist Jeffrey Kahane's lower-midrange passages while analyzing his technique during his rapid, delicate, and airy upper-register flights. I'd never heard Paul McCartney's voice sound so natural and mellifluous until I cued up "And I Love Her," from the 2009 remastering of A Hard Day's Night included in The Beatles in Mono (CD, Parlophone PMC 1230) through the PSBs, which let me precisely follow George Harrison's and John Lennon's acoustic-guitar (Gibson J160E?) articulations.

The Image B6's resolution of midrange detail let me easily follow individual instruments in densely packed rock recordings. On Mighty Sam McClain's Give It Up to Love (CD, AudioQuest CADQ1015), I found myself analyzing Bruce Katz's Hammond B3 phrasing, even in passages where he's way down in the mix. Similarly, even in the hairiest passages of "How Am I Different," from Aimee Mann's Bachelor No. 2 or The Last Remains of the Dodo (CD, SuperEgo SE002), I was able to clearly follow each contrapuntal guitar line separately.

I found the high frequencies of the B6 to be fairly detailed, extended, and colorless for such an inexpensive speaker, regardless of musical genre. Thurston Moore's and Lee Ranaldo's shimmering just-intonation guitars in "The Diamond Sea," from Sonic Youth's Washing Machine (CD, Geffen DGCD-24825), were extended and bell-like without a trace of harshness. In the classical chamber vein, both David Shively's assorted percussion and Stephen Gosling's rapid-fire harpsichord passages in Orphée, from John Zorn's Mysterium (CD, Tzadik TZ8018), were reproduced with delicacy and no trace of smear. On the jazz front, Liam Sillery's trumpet in the title track of his Phenomenology (CD, OA2 Records 22061) had a round, vibrant tone, with a naturally bronzed bite and plenty of upper-harmonic extension. With most recordings, the Image B6's bass performance was quite natural, with fast transients and a good deal of weight. I did notice, in Antal Dorati's reading of Stravinsky's The Firebird with the London Symphony Orchestra (CD, Mercury Living Presence SR 90226), that the bass drum seemed to go lower in frequency through other similar-sized designs. This region sounded a touch warm with some recordings with significant midbass content in the bass guitar's range, most notably Jerome Harris's bass in "The Mooche," from his Rendezvous. (CD, Stereophile STPH013-2), and the bass guitars on the aforementioned Mighty Sam McClain and Aimee Mann recordings. I await JA's measurements, to see if the heft of the B6's bass was a result of actual bass extension or a craftily engineered midbass "bump."

"...performs at a level well beyond its price. From Paul Barton, what else could you expect?"

On headbanging rock tunes, the combination of apparently weighty bass and a good sense of high-level dynamic slam was able to make the PSBs boogie in the nether regions with no sense of strain or limitation. Even at high volumes, the rapid-fire bass-synth transients in Kraftwerk's Minimum/Maximum (CD, EMI ASW 60611) and Overcast Radio's Midnight Sun (LP, Surface Tension STNSN002) were fast, forceful, and uncolored. However, on full-throated orchestral recordings, such as Helmuth Rilling and the Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra and Choir's performance of Krzysztof Penderecki's Credo (CD, Hänssler CD 98.311), while the massed chorus was holographic and clearly defined, I did feel a sense of compression in the highest-level passages. In other words, through other speakers, the fortissimi were more . . . fortissimous. However, this particular recording really showcased the Image B6s' ability to "disappear" while throwing a wide, deep soundstage, as they did for the Group for Contemporary Music's recording of Donald Martino's Triple Concerto for Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, and Contrabass Clarinet, with soloists Les Thimming, Anand Devendra, Dennis Smylie, and conducted by Harvey Sollberger (LP, Nonesuch H 71372; available on CD as Albany 168). From my notes: "Immediacy! A window on the orchestra!"

The recording that put the Image B6 all together for me was of Tomiko Kohjiba's Transmigration of the Soul, from the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival's Festival (CD, Stereophile STPH007-2). Here, Carol Wincenc's flute (footnote 1) was airy and metallic, Nancy Allen's harp was tactile and immediate, and Tyler Mack's marimba had the requisite thunk. The music breathed with all the dynamics of the concert performance that it is, with no disturbing colorations, though I felt the timpani were a touch warm.

A Comparison

I compared the PSB Image B6 ($495) with the Epos ELS3 ($295), the Epos M5 ($695), and the Nola Mini ($600). (All prices per pair, as of when last offered.)

The Epos ELS3 shared with the PSB its silky, neutral, and detailed midrange, but I found the Epos's highs to be more delicate and refined. However, the ELS3's bass was much less extended, and the PSB was far better at high-level dynamic bloom in loud passages.

The Nola Mini shared its midrange characteristics with the two speakers mentioned above, but its bass seemed the deepest of the three, with much more effortless gut-slamming of high-level dynamics. However, compared with both the PSB and the Epos ELS3, the Nola had some high-frequency roughness in upper-register passages.

The Epos M5 shared the positive midrange attributes of the other three speakers, but with a bit more resolution of detail—the M5 made it much easier to follow individual voicings in solo-piano recordings, for example. The M5's highs were as refined as the Epos ELS3's, and therefore a bit more natural than the PSB Image B6's. Finally, I found the Epos M5's midbass to be cleaner than the PSB's but the Nola Mini was the best of the lot in terms of effortless, high-level dynamic bloom.

A Conclusion

After John Atkinson finished measuring the PSB Image B6, he sent me this e-mail: "No surprises, as well-engineered a design as is to be expected from Paul Barton." I responded: "Yep. It's the Honda Accord of bookshelf speakers."

That about sums up my reaction to the PSB Image B6. Like the Honda Accord, the Image B6 is well-engineered, incorporates lessons learned from the design of older, more expensive models, advances the state of the art, at least at this price level, satisfies predictably and reliably, and performs at a level well beyond its price. From Paul Barton, what else could you expect?

PSB Image B6 loudspeaker: Stereophile Measurements

Robert J. Reina

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