mini Fills SoundStage Review with Sound
February 3, 2012
Soundstage! Equipment Review: Imagine mini
By Roger Kanno
From PSB’s original budget Alpha and Stratus Gold models to their latest flagship, the Synchrony One, I’ve consistently been impressed by the high quality and value the company offers. The 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, did nothing to change my mind. In fact, hearing PSB’s new Imagine mini there only reinforced my opinion of the brand -- for me, the mini was one of the highlights of the show. An obviously proud Paul Barton, PSB’s head designer, was demonstrating these little speakers, which attracted a lot of attention from everyone who entered the room. Using a stack of modestly priced NAD electronics, the minis, which cost only $760 USD per pair, were throwing up a huge soundstage and filling the room with smooth, rich sound.
Given all that, I was surprised when I realized that, while PSB has always been one of my favorite brands, I’d never owned or even reviewed one of their speakers. After listening to the minis and chatting with Barton about their design, I was determined to make the Imagine mini the first PSB speaker I would review.
Imagination Becomes Reality
Many months later, the Imagine minis finally arrived. Opening the single, relatively small box that contained both speakers, and even though I’d seen them in the flesh at CES, I was struck anew by how small they are. Although the mini is a fairly deep speaker, at CES I’d been amazed that the big sound I’d heard had come from such tiny enclosures. Each mini measures only 9.25"H x 5.75"W x 8.4"D, but weighs a solid 6.5 pounds. The front baffle is slightly convex, and the top of the enclosure slopes gently downward from front to back. The mini’s bottom is also gently curved; a lip all around provides a level surface for the speaker to rest on. The five-way binding posts are on the bottom plate, accessible through two holes in the rear lip. There’s a port near the top of the rear panel, and the removable grilles attach with pressure-fit pins. The mini is available in Black Ash, Dark Cherry, or Walnut wood veneers, and Gloss Black or Gloss White. The veneer on my review samples was of very high quality, with no obvious joins at the edges.
The Imagine mini has a 1" titanium-dome tweeter with a neodymium magnet. The 4" midrange-woofer is an injection-molded polypropylene cone filled with clay and ceramic, which is said to optimize stiffness and internal damping and have low mass. According to Paul Barton, the midrange-woofer’s Turbo-Magnet structure consists of dual magnets that increase its strength and excursion.
Overall, the handsome little Imagine mini is very well built, and looks the part of a high-quality minimonitor.
Setting Up in My Imaginarium
Like the NHT SuperZero 2.0, which I recently reviewed, the PSB Imagine mini is so small that its tweeter will be considerably below seated ear level when the speaker is placed on a stand of typical height. So, as I had with the NHTs, I placed the PSBs atop my Athena AS-B1 bookshelf speakers, which in turn sat on 24"-high stands. While unavailable at the time of review, PSB now offers dedicated stands and wall brackets at extra cost.
I toed-in the Imagine minis slightly toward my listening position, and placed them a couple of feet from the front and sidewalls. I suspect they’d have benefited from a bit of bass reinforcement had I placed them closer to the front wall, but that would have meant placing them behind the plane of my 56" RPTV, which would have adversely affected their imaging. Still, even in my midsized room, which opens into a foyer and a dining room, I was able to get reasonable bass response from the minis.
"The minis did an excellent job of placing the dynamic pluck of the strings and the slap of the guitar precisely in the soundstage, while clearly and delicately reproducing the decay of each chord."
The PSBs were connected to a Bel Canto C5i integrated amplifier with built-in DAC; I used an Acer Aspire 5920 laptop computer as a digital source. Linking everything were Analysis Plus Black Oval 9 speaker cable, AudioQuest Carbon USB cable, and Essential Sound Products Music Cord-Pro ES power cords. Power was distributed and conditioned by a Blue Circle Audio Peed Al Sea Thingee and a ZeroSurge 1MOD15WI surge suppressor.
More Than You Can Imagine
After breaking in the PSB Imagine minis for a week or so with intermittent casual listening, I began my critical listening. "Keith Don’t Go," from Nils Lofgren’s Acoustic Live (CD, Vision 820761101422), sounded as good as I remembered when I first heard the minis at CES. The acoustic guitar took up a prominent place in the soundstage. The minis did an excellent job of placing the dynamic pluck of the strings and the slap of the guitar precisely in the soundstage, while clearly and delicately reproducing the decay of each chord. Lofgren’s fiery, virtuoso solo about two minutes into this track is full of energy that the PSBs presented with both power and finesse, not glossing over any of this fantastic recording’s minute details.
Some very neutral speakers can sound a little analytical or boring. The Imagine mini was neutral all right, but its sound had an undeniable "rightness," and was extremely pleasing and natural. Like many minimonitors, the pair of them threw up a big soundstage with precise imaging, but also with a remarkable sense of depth that extended well behind the speakers.
The minis reproduced voices with an amazing sense of ease and naturalness. The Spartan arrangements on Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back (24/48 FLAC, Society of Sound) highlight his world-weary voice. In his cover of Paul Simon and Forere Motloheloa’s "Boy in the Bubble," Gabriel’s carefully measured singing of Simon’s lyrics was hypnotizing as the words emerged from an intensely dark background. The Imagine mini reproduced just enough of the piano’s lower registers in Gabriel’s version of Lou Reed’s "The Power of the Heart" to make it a convincing and satisfying experience. John Metcalfe’s massed strings in his arrangement of Stephin Merritt’s "The Book of Love" were simply gorgeous. The absolute lack of grunge in the midrange rendered Gabriel’s strained voice with a tenderness that was somber yet uplifting. I don’t often say this about an audio component, but listening to music through the Imagine mini was often an intensely emotional experience.
"The Imagine mini was neutral all right, but its sound had an undeniable 'rightness', and was extremely pleasing and natural."
The more I listened to the PSB Imagine mini, the more I appreciated its clean midrange and sparkling highs. This allowed the speakers to project images precisely into the room, and to produce large, three-dimensional soundstages that I have not experienced with most speakers many times their price. When I listened to Diana Krall’s The Girl in the Other Room (CD, Universal 0602498620465), Anthony Wilson’s electric guitar in "Narrow Daylight" was stunning in its speed and clarity. And in "Temptation," Christian McBride’s double bass was wonderfully articulated, and the percussion and guitar were placed precisely on the soundstage.
Considering the Imagine mini’s small size, it was very dynamic, playing extremely loud without sounding compressed. When it cranked out Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet (Japanese reissue CD, Universal 4988005611123), the many synthesizer and guitar riffs remained composed, sounding much better than I’d remembered hearing them in my youth. And although this recording is far from being of audiophile quality, the music was always extremely listenable through the minis. Even at high levels, they never added undue colorations, but simply reproduced the music as it had been recorded.
Although the mini had very good bass for so small a speaker, it would definitely benefit from being partnered by a good subwoofer -- but it didn’t really need one. The mini produced just enough bass to be able to stand on its own. The minis were always a joy, whether I was listening to a simple recording of acoustic music with a prominent voice or densely mixed pop.
My current real-world reference speaker system comprises NHT’s SuperZero 2.0 minimonitors and Super 8 powered subwoofer, which provide some serious sound for only $547. With its DSP-controlled sub, the NHT system provides nearly full-range sound that is tonally balanced from top to bottom. The PSB Imagine mini costs a little more and lacks a subwoofer, instead concentrating on maximizing the performance of the mid and upper frequencies. However, the Imagine mini has enough bass to be suitable for listening without a sub; by itself, the SuperZero 2.0 produces almost no bass at all -- a subwoofer is required for serious listening.
Christian McBride’s double bass in "Temptation" had more depth and punch through the NHT system, as expected, but Diana Krall’s voice just couldn’t match the effortless quality it had through the PSBs. The NHTs sound very clean, but they couldn’t compete with the PSBs’ midrange, which was impeccable. Krall’s voice was more distinct from the well-recorded percussion through the minis, with an authenticity that was breathtaking in its purity.
Cyndi Lauper’s The Body Acoustic can be problematic for its closely miked, dynamic recording of her voice. "True Colors" is a wonderful ballad, but though Lauper’s voice tested the Imagine minis’ capabilities, they were able to reproduce it at higher-than-realistic levels without wavering. Through the NHTs, Lauper sounded slightly strained and edgy. You’d think that the NHT system, with its powered sub, would have better power-handling capabilities, but unless the recording had deep bass, the PSBs were better able to handle dynamic recordings. In the more low-key "Time After Time," in which Lauper again sings with Sarah McLachlan, the PSB’s slightly more relaxed sound was better able to unravel the intertwining voices and acoustic instruments.
The NHTs’ soundstage was a little more closed-in and two-dimensional than the PSBs’. When I listened to the minis, the soundstage really opened up. It had greater height, and images were placed at different depths within it. This provided a holographic sound unlike anything I’ve experienced with any other speaker at so reasonable a price.
Despite its tininess, the Imagine mini reproduced a great deal of recordings’ weight and body. Instruments such as the double bass and acoustic piano were missing their lowest octaves but still sounded genuinely authoritative. For example, the piano in Peter Gabriel’s cover of "The Power of the Heart" sounded bigger and fuller with the NHT system’s powered sub, but the PSB minis still did a credible job of reproducing it.
The NHT SuperZero 2.0s with Super 8 sub can really party, and make a fantastic budget speaker system. But when I wanted to feed my soul and connect with the artistry of the music, I always turned to the PSB Imagine minis.
"The more I listened to the PSB Imagine mini, the more I appreciated its clean midrange and sparkling highs."
If you’re looking for a high-performance minimonitor at a reasonable price, the PSB Imagine mini should be at the top of your list. Its midrange and treble performance are magnificent, and comparable to those of far more expensive speakers. It also produces just enough bass that it can be used without a subwoofer. Other than its lack of low bass, it was difficult to find fault with the Imagine mini -- a high-end minimonitor that can be used as a real-world speaker with few compromises. Supremely refined sound at a reasonable price: the PSB Imagine mini is an incredible audio bargain.
For Soundstage's online version of this review and more, click here.
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