TAS-Imagine T and B Review

March 4, 2009

Great Sound, Great Price

At first glance it's easy to mistake Imagine - PSB's newest midline collection of loudspeakers - for its more costly premium line, Synchrony. I did. After all, both are visually arresting - curvaceous and seamless. And they represent a fashion shift in design priorities for PSB, an extreme makeover that instantly dates PSB's current top-of-the-line offering, the severe, business-like Platinum. However, beyond the freely-flowing silhouette that Synchrony and Imagine share they are significantly different. From basic construction materials and assembly techniques to transducers nothing has been repurposed.

The Imagine lineup is made up of four models - a striking consolidation compared with Synchrony's seven models. All Imagine models - including the T, the 2-1⁄2-way floorstander reviewed here - share a common driver family, featuring an all-new, high-output 5.25" woofer that uses a unique injection- molded, clay ceramic-filled polypropylene diaphragm, combining stiffness, inherent internal damping, and low mass. The woofer also sports a bullet-shaped aluminum phase-plug to enhance linearity at higher frequencies and to lower distortion. The tweeter is a 1" titanium dome that employs a neodymium magnet design for high power- handling and to extend output at the frequency extremes. Like nearly every PSB design, the Imagine crossover uses fourth-order acoustic Linkwitz-Riley topology. A twin pair of heavy gold-plated five-way binding posts is also standard.

Whereas Synchrony relies on heavily laminated MDF and extruded aluminum front and back panels, Imagine begins with a novel method of cabinet construction that exploits in equal measure the precision and repeatability of computer-controlled machining, and the irreplaceable touch of hand craftsmanship. The result is a quartet of enclosures that rivals the Synchrony line for acoustical performance and whose smooth, seamless, unbroken surfaces present a simple, beautifully integrated visual form. Compound-curved on every vertical face and heavily braced internally, each Imagine enclosure is impressively solid and acoustically inert (resistant to vibration); flush, fastener-less driver mounts promote smooth, ripple-free high-frequency response and carefully calculated horizontal dispersion. All cabinets have baffles that are 1.5" thick with sides, tops, and bottoms constructed with seven layers of 3mm MDF laminated together along with strategically placed internally bracing. Taken together, Imagine's lack of exposed hardware and the tactile, organic warmth of its surfaces are suggestive of an entity that emerged fully formed and finished rather than a normal box-enclosure sawed, screwed, and glued together.

As the only floorstander in the Imagine line, the T has dual rear ports and is supplied with a port plug to aid in optimizing in-room bass response. This is not window dressing. Barton and his team understand that very few rooms accept a near-full range speaker without imposing some of their own character in the form of low-frequency "room gain." If repositioning the speakers doesn't sufficiently reduce the problem (even tiny shifts of a few inches can make large changes), then the port plug is a raw but effective means of ameliorating the issue. According to the PSB owner's manual the plug will result in a modest output reduction in the roughly 100Hz range. I confirmed this myself with before-and-after test tones and an SPL meter. In my room there was a reduction of approximately 2 -3dB in the 80-100Hz range - enough to reduce bass thickness without putting the squeeze on dynamic excitement.

Sonically, classic PSB family values prevail. In fact, Tom Petty might've been writing about the Imagine T when he sang, "Gonna stand my ground/and I won't back down." Simply stated, the T is all about forward momentum, an instant and engaging crowd pleaser that doesn't scrimp on output or dynamics. As an aside, I've been challenging the sheer, sheetrock-shredding output of speakers like the Imagine T and B more than ever, and shyness is just not in PSB's DNA. Believe me, the Imagine will back you off before it backs down. The midrange is keenly balanced, with a warm, cozy bass region and an outgoing spectral balance. The same holds for the upper mids and treble which have an appealing clarity and immediacy. Presence is another big factor that the T has going for it. During a Sinatra vocal like "Angel Eyes" [Capitol] nearly every bit of Sinatra's personality and technique is wrung out of this track - the late night ambience, the despair and resignation in his voice. The T doesn't provide the last degree of transparency and air, but it offers up a satisfying amount of delicacy and detail without veering into edginess or sibilance. Aggressive recordings and vocal peaks will bring out a slightly brittle and cooler character at times, but only rarely. The Imagine T also throws an elegant soundstage that reaches well beyond the outer edges of the baffle. It's naturalistic, with a good if not stunning dimensionality that is utterly consistent with PSB's more forward sonic character.

Hats off to the Imagine Ts lower-midbass and upper-bass region. Even at the critical 150Hz juncture there are none of the frequency suckouts that cut music's dynamism off at the knees and cause frustrated listeners to keep applying volume to compensate for the lost energy. As a result, instruments like bassoons, bass viols, trombones, and Fender bass not only sound willing but able, regardless of whether they're establishing the beat, acting as music's springboard, or laying a foundation for the rest of the orchestra to follow. As I listened to Anne-Sophie Mutter in Korngold's Concerto for Violin [DG] I kept noting how I could hear and feel the LSO's bass violin section "dig in" from the very floorboards of the auditorium. Likewise during the bassoon solo that descends sorrowfully at the opening of Sinatra's "It's A Lonesome Old Town," the heavy, darkening mood lay thick in the air. And when that mallet struck the kickdrum during the opening vamp of Shelby Lynne's "Just A Little Lovin,'" the only thing I could say was, "Oh, yeah!" As good as the illusion is, it's not entirely seamless. Deep bass guitar lines can summon up the Imagine Ts bass-reflex roots. A bit of port chuff can reduce some transient speed and pitch definition. Nonetheless the Imagine T is extremely well-controlled for the output and extension it has on tap and probably at the top of its class in this category.

Almost vestigial in its subtlety is a hump of energy in the upper-mids that overlays a baritone like Bryn Terfel with some added brilliance. This particular tonal voicing was likely built into the speaker, and while it does deviate from absolute neutrality it has been so delicately applied that it's easy to adapt to. For me the added luminance can create a soft shadow over a vocal, laying it back a bit, giving it a softer landing. Whether it's the upper octaves from piano, glockenspiel, triangles, violin, or human voice the Imagine T sheds a bit of harmonic density and warmth and substitutes a more hyper-articulated clarity.

"What would be easy to imagine is the T and B as the basis for a terrific multichannel music system..."

Because of the physical similarities between the Imagine and Synchrony, PSB early on expressed reservations that the Imagine might be labeled a Synchrony, Junior. Well I can tell my friends at our northern border, no worries. As you know I've reviewed Synchrony. I consider Synchrony a friend of mine. And as good as the Imagine is, it's still no Synchrony, Junior. Each has its own distinct personality, but here's the short of it. Tonally they are in the same ballpark. But compared with Synchrony Two ($3000) and Two B ($1500), Imagine T ($2000) and B ($1000) have a slightly lighter balance, and dynamically they work a little harder. Images are not as precisely rendered particularly during a blitz of crescendos. Finally they are a little stingier with bass extension and a stitch more constricted on top. The gang at PSB gang knows that you can't make a great speaker by playing it safe. From clever new construction techniques and materials to transducer innovation almost every aspect of the Imagine lineup is fresh. More importantly for the Imagine T is that PSB has surpassed its traditional high sonic standards at a price that bests even PSB's reputation for affordability. No wonder it was just named a TAS Product of the Year. Imagine that.

Imagine B

Since the Imagine B is, for all intents and purposes, the Imagine T minus a midbass driver and floor-length enclosure, midrange and treble tonality are preserved and, with only minor exceptions, superbly balanced. I continue to marvel at the sheer linear output PSB is getting from this modest enclosure and midbass driver. Even at near rock-legend levels, the little B remains unperturbed. Quite an achievement from the lil' screamers that once defined the nascent mini-monitor market a couple decades ago. The key difference is that the T can chew on bass lines and kick drums and church organ riffs as if they were rice cakes. The B, while capable of surprising midbass potency, is in comparison more reserved dynamically in the mid and upper bass, but as if to compensate seems a bit lighter and fleeter of foot in the upper mids and lower treble. On a track like Shelby Lynne's "How Can I Be Sure," the B's appeal lies in its perceived additional transient speed and added image focus. In this instance the T casts additional light on the ripe harmonic resonances emanating from Dean Parks acoustic guitar - a stronger sense of the grades of micro-dynamics from the sustaining string notes. On a minimalist pop recording like this one, the reverb that was applied is more enveloping and dimensional. It washes into every corner of the recording and reveals height as well as depth. Putting aside the money difference, choosing between the T and the B won't be easy. Each is a small footprint speaker that shares a common voice and is relatively easy to integrate into a smaller room. What would be easy to imagine is the T and B as the basis for a terrific multichannel music system, the T up front, the B as surrounds. However, keep in mind that you can always augment the Imagine B later on by choosing among the range of PSB subwoofers including its latest weapon, the SubSeries 500 at $2149.

Neil Gader
The Absolute Sound

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