PSB Imagine B Loudspeakers
Two weeks ago I wrote about my experiences
at Canadas National Research Council with PSB Speakers founder and chief designer
Paul Barton. In that column I explained that, over the course of a year, Id been
able to watch the evolution of PSBs all-new Imagine loudspeaker line, from rough
prototype stage to finished production units. During my most recent visit, Barton handed
me a review pair of Imagine B minimonitors, taken from the first production run.
Although Paul Barton insists that it would be misleading to
call the Imagines the "Synchrony Juniors," he admits that "a good deal of
what we learned over Synchronys three-year development, particularly in cabinet
design and manufacture," has gone into the Imagines development. This meant
that PSB was able to take the Imagines from design to production in far less time than
would have been required for a speaker line designed from scratch.
The Imagine B ($1000 USD per pair) is a two-way,
stand-mounted minimonitor with a 1" ferrofluid-cooled, titanium-dome tweeter and a
5.25" ceramic-filled, polypropylene cone woofer. The cabinet measures a tidy
13"H x 7.5"W x 12"D and each speaker weighs just 17.2 pounds. As for the
speakers claimed measured performance, the on-axis frequency response is 52Hz-23kHz,
±3dB, and the low-bass cutoff (-10dB) occurs at 48Hz. The in-room sensitivity
(1W/2.83V/m) is calculated to be 89dB, and the nominal and minimum impedance are 4 ohms.
The recommended range of amplification is 20-100Wpc. All Imagine models are offered in
real-wood veneers of black ash or, like my review samples, dark cherry.
The Imagine Bs rear-ported cabinet is curved on all
sides. All members of the Imagine family are made using a unique manufacturing process in
which the laminated sidewalls are formed in a combination press and microwave oven to heat
the glue between the layers of MDF, while the top, bottom, and front baffle are machined
into their curved shapes with a giant sanding machine. The result is a rigid, stylish
cabinet that seems very inert, is beautiful to behold, and has the nicest-looking rear end
Ive seen on a speaker. Back there youll find a molded rubber piece that flows
up from under the binding posts to surround the port. Barton is pleased with the fit where
the rubber meets the wood -- its tight as an iPod.
The all-new woofer, designed to be used in all Imagine
models, has an injection-molded diaphragm made of a proprietary, ceramic-filled
polypropylene that PSB claims delivers a unique combination of stiffness, inherent
internal damping, and very low mass. The woofer is also said to benefit from a highly
efficient motor system that uses a proprietary compound magnet structure that, Barton
says, "forces" the driver to deliver higher sensitivity at declining
frequencies, effectively extending response with no penalty of size or efficiency. And
while the Imagine B isnt really a scaled-down Synchrony Two B (see
"Comparison"), it does have its bigger brothers bullet-shaped aluminum
phase plug. Barton emphasizes that he spent "a lot" of time perfecting
the plug, which is designed to enhance the speakers linearity at higher frequencies
and to lower distortion.
The Imagines titanium-dome tweeter also benefits from
Synchrony trickle-down. The neodymium-magnet design is based on the Synchronys
tweeter, while the drivers motor assembly is specific to the Imagines. The
ferrofluid-cooled tweeter is said to offer airy highs and smooth, uncolored performance
through the crossover region (1800Hz). Speaking of the crossover, the Imagine uses a
fourth-order acoustic Linkwitz-Riley topology, which Barton finds is best able to combine
the discrete outputs of different drivers into a cohesive acoustic entity with minimal
impact in either the amplitude (frequency response) or the time (phase response) domain.
Both Imagine B drivers feature another Synchrony-like
design element in the form of a compliant gasket that offers a transition material between
each drivers cone and the 1.5"- thick front baffle. These gaskets are said to
help control horizontal dispersion and, because they completely hide the drivers
frames and mounting hardware, result in a frequency response free of the ripples that can
be induced by a bumpy baffle. They also make for a clean-looking front surface devoid of
I evaluated the Imagine B using my reference Simaudio Moon
Classic i5.3 integrated amplifier and a Benchmark DAC1 PRE as a fixed-output
digital-to-analog converter. My digital source was a laptop computer running iTunes and
playing noncompressed WAV files. Speaker cables were Furutechs µ-2T fitted with
Furutech spade connectors.
It didnt take me long to realize that the Imagine B
would have me cranking up a lot of old favorites. After giving them about 48 hours of
uninterrupted break-in, I put on Green Days "When I Come Around," from American
Idiot (CD, Reprise 48777). I heard delicious guitar crunch, a very wide soundstage,
and good central imaging of the main vocals. In fact, as I listened to Billie Joe
Armstrongs power chords, I kept envisioning a Marshall guitar amp sitting in my
listening room. In the same range of upper bass to low treble I also found that
"Sledgehammer," from Peter Gabriels So (CD, Geffen 493272), came
across with great inner detail -- the sharp snap of the snare drum, for example,
clearly emerged from the lower side of the drum rather than from only that general
vicinity. However, with only 48 hours on the speakers so far, it was clear that they
needed more time to overcome some woolly bass at the bottom end and a lack of sparkle at
the top. I let them cook another 24 hours before doing any more critical listening.
When I again sat before the Imagine Bs, I cued up Crowded
Houses "Dont Dream Its Over," from Recurring Dream: The
Very Best of Crowded House (CD, Priority 90436). The song holds a lot of sentimental
value for my wife and me, and when its opening guitar chords are re-created with air and
space, Im transported back to some magical days spent in glorious New Zealand. Well,
somebody call Immigration & Naturalization -- I need my passport stamped. The Bs made
that opening riff sound as open and wide as the Canterbury Plain, while the ride
cymbal that comes in toward the end of the track was as clear as the streams pouring
out of Franz Josef glacier. The bass and snare drum were tight and well controlled, the
voices locked to center stage. I was especially taken by the very natural sound of the
organ in the background, which seemed to add much more atmosphere to this recording than
Id previously appreciated.
Cyndi Laupers "Time After Time," from The Essential Cyndi Lauper
(CD, Columbia/Legacy 89084), further revealed the Imagine Bs ability to render
clean, clear vocals largely free of coloration, although decay -- especially on the hi-hat
-- was a touch subdued. Bass was a little light, but, as theyd been doing from
the start, the PSBs projected a wide, engrossing soundstage.
I then compared two cover versions of Leonard Cohens
timeless song "Hallelujah." The first, from k.d. langs Hymns of the
49th Parallel (CD, Nonesuch 79847), was simply magical through the Imagine Bs.
Her voice was pure silken honey, and the accompanying piano and guitar were sparkling and
clear as day. Piano notes bloomed nicely and, when they preceded soft passages, decayed
into oblivion with all the haste of a tortoise. Front-to-back soundstage layering was
excellent -- it was easy to discern which instrument occupied each plane in space. The
late Jeff Buckleys version of this song, from Grace (CD, Columbia CK 57528),
was haunting through these speakers. The Imagine Bs ability to project a huge,
layered soundstage came to the fore as guitarist Michael Tighes notes occupied the
bulk of a cavernous space behind Buckley, while his voice hung out in front like a cool
mist. In late-night, eyes-closed listening, the Imagine Bs rendering of this track
was absolutely transporting, drawing me into the recorded space with ease. And again: the
sound was very clear, very clean, and free of coloration.
In the musically opposite direction, the tom-tom beats on
"Enter Sandman," from Metallicas eponymous album (CD, Elektra 61113), were
thunderous and tight, with palpable impact. Heavy metal isnt exactly conducive to
critical listening, but despite the rather high decibel level in my listening room, I
still found it quite easy to detect the spaces between the bass, drums, and guitar through
the Imagines, and James Hetfields voice remained rock solid in the center of the
soundscape. All that, and Id never heard the songs acoustic guitar intro,
or its prayer sequence, sound so transparent.
Its rare that a reviewer has the opportunity to
compare a speaker with a model from the same companys next-highest line, but
Id been listening to PSBs Synchrony Two B stand-mounted speaker for a couple
of months when I received the Imagine Bs, and planned on fomenting between them some good
old-fashioned sibling rivalry.
The Synchrony Two B costs $1500 a pair, or 50% more than
the Imagine B. Thats a significant difference, and as l listened to the Imagine, I
wasnt at all sure that the Synchronys higher price was entirely justified. The
Imagine B did so many things so well that it seemed ridiculous to think that a monitor of
similar size -- even one designed by the same brilliant engineer -- could offer a higher
level of performance.
The question isnt whether the Synchrony Two B is
worth $500 more than the Imagine B, but rather how much of the Synchronys
performance can be found in the Imagine for 50% less money. The Imagine Bs bass
performance was tight and full, with great impact. With instruments such as double bass,
kick drums, even full-size pipe organs, the Imagine conjured up very respectable bass
performance for a speaker of its size -- perhaps 85 to 90% of the Synchronys bass
performance. The Synchrony Two B did everything the Imagine B could, but in a more
refined, more focused way. It was a question of degrees: the Imagine B was tight, the
Synchrony Two B tighter; the B went deep, the Two B deeper.
In treble performance, I preferred the Imagine B to the
Synchrony Two B, which I found just a tad hard-edged for my tastes -- though listening a
little off axis tamed the Synchronys titanium dome enough that I could easily live
with it. But even listened to dead on axis, the Imagine Bs tweeter, to me, sounded
just right: sweet, clean, and refined.
The Synchrony Two B is the better speaker of the two, but
the Imagine B came pretty close, and for a good chunk less cash. lf the Synchrony Two B
wins the gold medal, the Imagine B takes an honorable silver.
A direct competitor in terms of price is the Exodus Audio
Kepler ($1000/pair). The Keplers have been hanging around my listening room for almost a
year now because they serve as a great middleweight reference -- and, like the Imagine B,
the Kepler has very low distortion and produces a coherent, involving soundstage.
Interestingly, though, for a speaker twice the size of the Imagine B, and that has a
bigger (6.5") woofer with a very long excursion, the Kepler just couldnt keep
up in the bass department. I cant say the Imagine B actually went deeper than
the Kepler, but it sounded fuller. The PSB was also much easier to drive, making it the
better choice with amps of lower power. Whether or not you prefer the Exoduss or the
PSBs treble will be a matter of taste. The Kepler is more relaxed, soft, and silky,
while the Imagine was cleaner, more defined, more accurate. Depending on the recording,
ideally, you need all these characteristics -- but since most people dont
have the luxury of swapping out speakers when their listening tastes change, a choice has
to be made. If I had to choose to live with just one of these speakers it should B easy to
guess which it would B. Imagine that!
The $1000/pair PSB Imagine Bs were mated with $5500 worth
of reference-grade electronics. That said, the Imagines never sounded out of place, and
never hinted that they were acting as a bottleneck in my systems performance. The
Imagine B turns on its head the notion that more of the audio budget should be spent on
speakers than on sources or amplification.
With the Imagine B, PSB Speakers has set the standard for
affordable, high-performance minimonitors. An investment in a pair of them should give
audiophiles on a budget real peace of mind, safe in the knowledge that what theyve
bought are amazing performers, not just for the money but in absolute terms. The PSB
Imagine B is highly recommended, and is easily a GoodSound! Great Buy!
. . . Colin Smith
Price of equipment reviewed