T6 Loudspeaker Reviewers Choice
July 30, 2010
PSB Image T6 Loudspeakers
I bought my first pair of "high-end" loudspeakers while an undergraduate in university, almost a decade ago. I didn't know much about specialty audio, and as a student on a budget, all I wanted were speakers that offered the best value and performance I could afford. I ended up buying a pair of PSB Image 4Ts, along with a Yamaha surround-sound receiver and a Panasonic DVD player.
Since then I've focused my system purely on two-channel audio. I replaced the Yamaha and Panasonic components with first NAD and then Bryston electronics, and upgraded the Image 4Ts to PSB Platinum M2 stand-mounted speakers, which have served as my reference until this day.
But the Image 4Ts were the starting point on my hi-fi journey. They were my first pair of "real" speakers, and I've always been fond of them. Several weeks ago, when SoundStage! Network publisher Doug Schneider asked if I would write about the T6, the largest floorstander in the updated version of PSB's venerable Image line, I was curious to find out what, if anything, had changed in the last ten years. Later that same day, the Image T6s were delivered to my door, and the next chapter in my PSB experience began.
The history of PSB and the approach to speaker building taken by its founder and chief designer, Paul Barton, have been discussed on the SoundStage! Network before, so I won't delve too deeply into the details here. I will say that Paul Barton doesn't peddle snake oil. He relies on both measurements and listening to produce the best speakers possible; his approach has been developed through nearly 40 years of designing speakers, and he was an intrinsic part of the groundbreaking work done at Canada's National Research Council (NRC) and led by Dr. Floyd Toole. Barton still measures his speaker prototypes in the NRC's anechoic chamber, then evaluates them in double-blind listening tests, as he's done for more than 30 years. PSB has always prided itself on offering speakers that are faithful to the signal fed to them while still being affordable for the average consumer. Barton doesn't believe the two things are mutually exclusive, despite what some other companies charge for their flagship speakers.
When the Image series was launched over ten years ago, it embodied PSB's goal of offering exceptional value for the dollar. Every speaker in the line used the same 1" aluminum tweeter, and one or both of the same two woofers, a 5.25" and a 6.5" design. Using fewer parts of higher quality allowed PSB to minimize production costs while passing on the savings to their customers. The same practice was followed in the new Image series; this time, however, technology has been incorporated that's been trickled down directly from PSB's flagship speaker line, the Synchronys, as well as their stylish Imagine series. The result is a line of speakers that Barton describes as his "best achievement" yet in terms of performance for the price(s).
The Image T6 ($1199 USD per pair), available in Black Ash or Dark Cherry vinyl veneers, is the largest in the line, measuring 40.5"H x 7.75"W x 14.75"D and weighing 48.5 pounds. It's a three-way design with a 1" titanium-dome, ferrofluid-cooled tweeter, a 5.25" midrange cone, and two 6.5" woofers. The tweeter is crossed over at 2200Hz to the midrange, which in turn hands off to the woofers at 500Hz. The frequency response is a claimed 32Hz-23kHz, ±3dB, the in-room sensitivity 91dB. With a nominal impedance of 6 ohms dipping to a minimum of 4 ohms, the T6 presents a relatively easy load for an amplifier. PSB suggests that as few as 20W are needed to power the T6, which has a maximum power handling of 200W.
As in the Synchrony models, the new Images' 1" titanium tweeters work in conjunction with long-excursion, high-output woofers. Longer-excursion woofers make it possible to reproduce deep bass with cones of smaller diameter, which in turn require slimmer cabinets to accommodate them. Both the midrange driver and the woofers have injection-molded clay/ceramic-filled polypropylene cones that PSB claims are stiff, light, and have good internal damping. The woofer baskets are made from polycarbonate, which is stiff and magnetically neutral. A bullet-shaped phase plug, also taken from the Synchrony line, is said to improve linearity at higher frequencies.
Though not identical, the arrangement of drivers on the Image T6's front baffle is similar to that of the Synchrony One, PSB's flagship floorstanding speaker (reviewed by Doug Schneider in 2008). The T6's midrange driver is mounted above the tweeter so that cancellations between the drivers occur toward the floor, meaning that fewer cancellations are heard by the listener, whether seated or standing. Furthermore, the two woofers are so spaced as to reduce the "floor-bounce effect." This is caused by an early reflection that occurs when the off-axis signal from the woofer arrives at the listener's ears slightly later than the on-axis signal from the same driver. The floor is usually the first off-axis surface encountered by the signal from the driver, hence the name of this effect.
"For $1199, you can rest assured that you're buying an extremely well-thought-out pair of speakers."
The Image T6's cabinet is sturdily constructed, and includes a separate chamber for the midrange driver. Dividing the cabinet into two smaller chambers greatly reduces the chance of standing waves being generated inside the box.
Two large ports in the front baffle help extend the T6's bass response. That baffle is made of 1 1/8"-thick MDF, to provide a very rigid mounting surface for the drivers. In another feature trickled down from the Synchronys, the mounting screws securing the drivers are invisible; each driver has a rubber molding that surrounds it and hides the mounting hardware. The result is a very clean appearance when the speaker grilles are removed (which was how I did all of my listening).
Overall, the Image T6's fit'n'finish is very good. The curved side panels lend the speaker a softer appearance, and the two pairs of high-quality, gold-plated binding posts (to permit biwiring or biamping) provided a nice, snug connection for the banana plugs I used. Although by most standards (especially those of non-audiophiles) the T6 is by no means small, it didn't feel too big in my room, but blended well with the décor. After they'd been set up a while, I didn't really notice them any longer.
For $1199, you can rest assured that you're buying an extremely well-thought-out pair of speakers. More than 35 years of Paul Barton's experience have gone into building the Image T6; one can imagine that a company not so long established might charge more for this level of expertise and incredible attention to detail. But design details don't amount to much if a speaker doesn't sound good.
System and sound
The Image T6s were powered by a Bryston B100 SST integrated amplifier, to which they were connected with AudioQuest Type 4 speaker cables terminated in banana plugs. An AMX Optimum AVC 31 coaxial cable linked the digital output of an NAD C542 CD player to the Bryston's onboard D/A converter. A Thorens TD-160HD turntable fitted with a modified Rega RB250 tonearm and Dynavector's DV-10X5 high-output moving-coil cartridge performed analog duties. All electronics were plugged into an ExactPower EP15A power conditioner.
"I prefer speakers with detailed sound, and in this regard I was extremely impressed with the Image T6."
I set up the Images so that the inside front corner of each speaker was 48" from the front wall and the tweeters were 64" apart. I sat 6' away and toed the speakers in slightly. These positions provided good center fill and well-defined placements of voices and instruments across the stage. In fact, one of the things I quickly discovered about the T6s was that they were able to produce a very deep soundstage, something not all speakers at this price do well. As I listened to "Crystalised," from XX's self-titled debut album (CD, Young Turks YT031), I was impressed by the depth I heard with the sound of the drumsticks, which seemed to originate from beyond the front wall of my room. Ditto for the finger snaps on "Infinity," which also sounded clear, and well behind the plane described by the speakers' front baffles.
A pair of T6s isn't enormous, but they're much bigger than the stand-mounted M2s I normally use. When I began listening to music, it soon became evident that the Images could easily fill the listening room while requiring not too much power to do so. On hearing them for the first time, I immediately turned the volume down from where I'd set it for the Amphion Argon3s, which the PSBs had just replaced. The Amphions, being less sensitive than the PSBs, need more power to play at the same level. PSB speakers have a reputation for being relatively easy to drive, and the T6s continued that tradition. A solid 50-100W from an amp comfortable with a 4-ohm load should be enough to drive them to all but bleeding-ear levels.
Soundstage depth aside, what struck me most about the tallest tower in the PSB's new Image series was its bass. It was abundant. In my review of the Amphion Argon3, I had been so impressed by its output down low that I'd wondered if I even needed a floorstanding speaker to get full-sounding bass. The T6 reminded me very quickly of the limitations of bookshelf speakers, even ones as good as the Argon3. As amazing as those Finnish speakers' low-end output was, they were no match for the sheer power of the T6s, which seemed to add two doses of oomph to the music.
As I listened to "Stars," from XX, it was easy to feel the thump of low frequencies in my chest. The bass didn't sound loose or fat unless the music on the recording itself did; rather, the T6 managed to dig deep while remaining quick and detailed, its excellent transparency allowing me to appreciate the quality of the bass as much as I did its quantity.
Although the T6s could move an impressive volume of air, it never once occurred to me that they were too big for my listening room. I love bass as much as the next person, but I have no use for speakers that sound overblown and belch out muffled, sloppy lows, as larger floorstanders often do. Prospective buyers of the T6 might want to consider the smaller Image T5 if their listening room isn't very big, but they might be surprised at how easily the T6 can be integrated into a home listening room, provided they're given some room to breathe.
As I put Sublime's self-titled final album (LP, Geffen B0011696-01) on the turntable and lowered the stylus into the run-in groove, "Garden Grove" reinforced another thing I've long known about PSB speakers: they can play loud. Once again, the bass was tight and tuneful while remaining clear and open as I turned up the volume, as if the speakers were thriving on the extra power they were being fed. The midrange sounded extremely clean, and Brad Nowell's voice had a presence that made it seem as if he were in the room. Even at volumes that might have annoyed my neighbors, the T6s never sounded strained or compressed. I'm not suggesting they won't distort if really pushed, but I never came remotely close to reaching that point.
I like a neutral speaker, and the T6 didn't infuse music with much of its own sound. Early in my listening I thought they sounded a bit forward; some of the vocal recordings I listened to seemed a bit closer than I'm used to hearing. However, that impression diminished, and after comparing the PSBs with a couple of other speakers I had on hand, I realized that the Images weren't forward at all. The T6s had very good "presence" -- they could create the illusion of a performance unfolding in front of me -- but they didn't imprint music with their own sonic stamp by making instruments and voices sound forward.
Take, for example, Angela Hewitt's recording of Chopin's Nocturnes (SACD/CD, Hyperion SACDA67371/2). The piano is situated well back of the speakers, the sound of its reverb conveying the sense that Hewitt is performing in a very large space. But while the perspective is somewhat distant, I found it easy to shut my eyes and imagine that she was playing in the same room I was sitting in. This is what I mean by conveying presence without doing so artificially; i.e., without giving the speaker a forward-sounding tonal balance. The T6 was pretty honest in its presentation of the recorded signal; with well-recorded performances, this resulted in music that was engaging and commanded my full attention.
While reviewing the T6s, I bought a copy of Massive Attack's newest album, Heligoland (CD, Virgin 5099960946621), and listened to it first through the PSBs. Massive Attack is amazingly good at creating dense, dark soundscapes, then punctuating them with beautiful singing that can at times sound surreal. With Heligoland, I think this British trip-hop outfit has another gem on its hands.
The Image T6s provided the perfect medium for exploring this CD. The sheer scale of the recording, combined with these speakers' incredible transparency, helped unravel what was going on in the music. On "Girl I Love You," Horace Andy's voice sounded clean and detailed, taking on an almost dreamlike quality as he sang over a tight bass line and a pair of drum kits that provided the rhythmic foundation of this dark yet gorgeous-sounding track. I was pulled into "Paradise Circus" by the expansiveness of the soundstage: handclaps emerged from behind the front wall of my room, while Hope Sandoval's voice was positioned with pinpoint precision dead center between and slightly above the tweeters. Talk about presence.
"The PSB Image T6 is a definite bargain and is highly recommended."
The more CDs and LPs I played through the T6s, the more I came to discover that while their designs may continue to evolve, PSB's goal of producing speakers of exceptional value is still being achieved. Although $1199 may seem like a lot of money for a pair of speakers, I consistently felt that the Image T6 is a steal at that price. I've heard speakers costing twice as much that didn't perform as well in certain areas. In fact, I'd love to take part in a blind listening test in which they're pitted against speakers costing three to four times their price. I have a sneaking suspicion the Image T6 might give a few of those designs a run for their money.
I compared the Image T6 with my current reference, PSB's own Platinum M2 (now discontinued). The M2 retailed for $1999/pair, and had been in production since 2004. When launched, the Platinum series represented the state of PSB's art, though some will argue that their Synchrony models now hold that distinction, despite being priced lower. But the M2 is still an excellent speaker, and has served me well for over four years. With the arrival of the Image T6, I was curious to hear how much of a gap there was between them.
In terms of the scale of sound conveyed, the Platinum M2 couldn't hold a candle to the Image T6. The T6 is a floorstanding speaker with two woofers, and physical laws dictate that, all else being equal, a bigger speaker that can move more air will play music with deeper bass and at greater volume. It was impossible for the M2s to energize my room the way the T6s could. Classical works, such as Philippe Herreweghe's recording of Mozart's Requiem (CD, Harmonia Mundi HMU 901620), sounded enormous through the T6s. The M2s are very capable speakers and did a fine job of handling this recording's large-scale dynamics, but the T6's ability to move more air resulted in a greater sense of space.
With regard to imaging, I felt that the two sets of speakers were pretty close, though I'd give the M2s the edge in this department. Bookshelf speakers are known for being able to image really well, and as good as the T6s were, they couldn't match the precision of the M2s' soundstage, which was better focused.
What most surprised me was that the Image T6 sounded more transparent than the M2 -- an impressive feat, given the $800 difference in price. The T6 not only dug deeper and played louder than the M2, it let me hear more easily into the music. The difference wasn't night-and-day, but given that I wasn't expecting it in the first place, it came as a surprise. As I listened to Elliott Smith sing "New Monkey," from his New Moon (CD, Kill Rock Stars KRS455), his voice and guitar sounded more open, creating an eerie realism when he took a breath. I don't know which aspect of the T6's design is responsible for this clarity -- most likely it's a combination of factors -- but whatever the reason, the effect was superb. I prefer speakers with detailed sound, and in this regard I was extremely impressed with the Image T6.
With the Image T6, PSB has come up with another in a long line of winners. The T6 performed extremely well in so many areas that, for its asking price of $1199/pair, it's very difficult to beat. There are other speakers I would consider over the T6, but all of them cost at least twice as much. The PSB Image T6 is a definite bargain and is highly recommended.
. . . Philip Beaudette
Full Review and MRC measurement can be found on Soundstage.com
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