Respected Canadian loudspeaker manufacturer PSB and its founder/chief designer Paul Barton have built their reputation by creating high-performance, high-value products for AV enthusiasts. While I've had favorable impressions during brief auditions of PSB speakers at audio shows, I've never had the chance to spend time with PSB speakers in my own media room. What matters most, after all, is how a loudspeaker sounds in your own listening environment, so I was really excited when I was asked to review one of PSB's latest offerings, the Imagine X speakers.
The Imagine X speakers incorporate trickle-down technology from PSB's more expensive models, but in a simpler cabinet design and at a more consumer-friendly price point. PSB is a company that believes not only in research and technology, utilizing the highly respected National Research Council of Canada to measure its speaker designs, but also in performing blind listening tests with real people to better understand what customers want from a loudspeaker system. For this review, PSB sent me a complete 5.1 speaker package consisting of the Imagine X2T towers ($649 each), the Imagine XC center ($349), the Imagine XB bookshelf ($499/pair), and a SubSeries 200 subwoofer ($649). Rounding out the lineup is a smaller tower speaker option called the Imagine X1T ($449 each). All Imagine X speakers are timbre-matched for setup as a home theater system, and these speakers are only available in a simulated black ash finish.
The X2T tower is a slim, three-way design that measures 40.13 inches tall, nine inches wide, and 17.63 inches deep, and it weighs a reasonably hefty 52 pounds. Looking from top to bottom, it consists of a 5.25-inch poly-filled carbon fiber cone midrange driver in its own enclosure, a one-inch pure titanium dome tweeter with a phase plug to extend high-frequency response, and two 6.5-inch clay/ceramic poly cone drivers in their own chambers, each tuned with front-facing ports. The drivers are mounted to the satin-finish front baffle such that there are no visible screws, providing a cleaner look. Frequency response of the X2T is rated at 30 to 23,000 Hz, +/-3dB. Sensitivity is rated at 90 dB, and the impedance rating for the X2T is the same as for all the models in the Imagine X lineup: eight ohms nominal and four ohms minimum. To bring out the best performance that the speakers are capable of, you should pair them with at least a mid-priced receiver that can handle the occasional impedance dip to four ohms. The speakers have molded feet with threaded inserts for using either the supplied speaker spikes (carpeted surfaces) or isolation levelers (hard surfaces). On the back of the speaker is a metal jumper strap between the two sets of gold-plated five-way binding posts connected to the high and low frequency inputs, providing for your choice of standard, bi-wire, or bi-amp connections.
The Imagine XC center is a two-way horizontal, rear-ported design consisting of a pair of 5.25-inch clay/ceramic poly cone woofers flanking the same one-inch titanium dome tweeter with the phase plug found in all of the Imagine X speakers. The center channel measures 6.38 inches tall, 19.13 inches wide, and 11.13 inches deep and weighs 19.8 pounds. There is a single set of gold-plated five-way binding posts on the back. Frequency response is rated at 50 to 23,000 Hz, +/-3dB. Sensitivity of the XC is rated at 89 dB.
The Imagine XB bookshelf is also a two-way design measuring 12 inches tall, 6.75 inches wide, and 10.75 inches deep and weighing 12.3 pounds. It features a one-inch titanium dome tweeter and a single 5.25-inch clay/ceramic cone woofer. The XB has a rear-facing port for extended bass response and a single set of gold-plated five-way binding posts. Frequency response is rated at 55 to 23,000 Hz, +/-3dB.
The SubSeries 200 active subwoofer is a bass-reflex design with a down-firing port and a single, front-facing 10-inch woofer. The SubSeries 200 sits right at the midpoint of the PSB subwoofer lineup. It measures 17.5 inches tall, 13.38 inches wide, and 15.5 inches deep, and it weighs 34 pounds. Its custom power amplifier was developed in partnership with sister company NAD Electronics, producing 200 watts continuous power and up to 560 watts peak dynamic power. NAD has a longstanding industry reputation for designing quality, high-performance amplifiers. All connections on the SubSeries 200 are single-ended and found on the back. These include LFE jacks, stereo low/line level, and stereo high/speaker level inputs and outputs. For easy access, all adjustments are located on the front and include a volume control, crossover frequency control, and phase switch. Frequency response is rated at 25 to 150 Hz, +/-3dB. I should note that I was impressed by the fact that PSB includes an easy-to-understand, comprehensive 20-page owner's manual for setup and optimization of the SubSeries 200. This is a nice touch that I wish all speaker manufacturers would adopt.
While unboxing the brand new PSB Imagine X speakers, I noted that the packaging was fairly substantial given this price point. That's reassuring, especially given some of the heavy-handed delivery people out there. While these speakers do have some heft, they're still quite manageable for one person to set up. I placed the PSB sub in the front right corner of my room, in the same spot previously occupied by the M&K Sound X12 sub I had just boxed up. My first thought was that the SubSeries 200 looked small compared with the behemoth X12. I couldn't help but wonder if it would be able to deliver adequate bass impact (I would soon discover I needn't have been concerned).
After a little experimentation, I ended up with the X2T towers sitting in the same spots normally occupied by my reference speakers. I set the XC center-channel speaker on my Sound Anchors stand. The XB bookshelves were placed on stands behind the listening position, but far enough away from the rear wall to allow the rear ports to breathe. I used WireWorld and Transparent cables to connect the speakers. For the sub connection, I ran a Kimber Kable RCA interconnect between my Marantz AV8801 pre/pro's subwoofer output and the LFE input on the sub. Amplification was provided by my Classe five-channel amp, and sources included an Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray player for physical discs and a Mac Mini music server for digital media.
After making initial speaker and sub settings manually, I listened to a few familiar 5.1 music tracks to get a baseline. The system sounded quite good overall, but bass response seemed a bit heavy. Rather than continuing to fiddle with manual adjustments, I just ran the Audyssey MultEQ XT32 auto room correction software on my pre/pro to see if the software could squeeze out better performance. The calibration software instructed I turn down the sub's volume to about 40 percent to match reference levels, and it also adjusted crossover settings on the speakers a bit from my initial settings. I then played the same 5.1 tracks over again. The bass response was now more even, blending better with the midrange and high frequencies for a more balanced presentation overall. With the system now dialed in, I let the speakers play as much as possible over the next two weeks before doing any critical listening.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
Once the break-in period was complete, I started off my evaluation by listening to a wide variety of two-channel music with just the X2T towers in full-range mode. I was pleasantly surprised to find the tweeter and midrange drivers of the X2T to be so highly resolving. On recordings I am very familiar with, both female and male voices had just the right pitch and timbre. In addition, both piano and string instruments were portrayed with more accuracy than other similarly priced speakers I've heard. I could also hear more nuances in recordings than I expected from lower-priced speakers. The X2T's accuracy means you hear precisely what is on the recording. These speakers don't pay homage to poorly recorded or over-processed music by placing a veil over the flaws. They just expose the truth. Likewise, with well-recorded music, they get out of the way and let the music's rhythms just really shine through.
On the digital download album Privateering by Mark Knopfler (HDTracks, 24/96), Mark's voice was presented with the same rich tone and emotional impact I've enjoyed through my reference speakers. On the track "The Leap" by R&B singer Tinashe on the digital download of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt.1 soundtrack (HDTracks, 24/44.1), my jaw dropped at hearing the width of the soundstage, extending way beyond the speaker positions. I could also hear every breath that Tinashe took as the X2Ts portrayed all of the emotion and lush sensuality of her vocal. I sure didn't expect all of those details so clearly from a speaker at this price. The midrange driver on the X2T portrays well-recorded voices in a natural, open way, effectively bringing them to life.
However, on the techno pop song "Scream My Name" by Swedish singer-songwriter Tove Lo (pronounced Tu-Veh Lu) from the same soundtrack, the X2Ts exposed the bright mix of this track, intended to add an edge to the lead vocal. The extreme accuracy of the X2Ts drivers caused this artificial harsh edge to be a bit unpleasant to listen to, while the same track played through a pair of in-ear headphones and a portable music player reduced the vocal harshness.
The X2T can produce quite a bit of bass for such a slim speaker, but it does have its limits. During one enjoyable listening session, I cranked up the track "Animals" from V by Maroon 5 (HDTracks, 24/96) to a very loud volume. In doing so, I found the bass was not quite as taut and carried a little less weight than my reference speakers. They just weren't quite as effortless, straining a bit in trying to accurately reproduce the bass notes. The track was still a lot of fun to listen to through the X2Ts, just not quite up to the standard of my more costly reference speakers for full-range stereo listening.
Switching to 5.1 surround music, I played Sting's "Live in Berlin" (Deutsche Grammophon) concert on Blu-ray (DTS-HD Master Audio). On this stop of his Symphonicity world tour, Sting was accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra at the O2 World arena. The front soundstage extended well outside and beyond the X2T speakers, enveloping me in sound and virtually transporting me to the large arena. The resonant tones of the violins and cellos sounded so realistic through the X2Ts, while the subwoofer provided the appropriate foundational weight and scale to the full orchestra. The center and surround speakers rounded out the presentation, resulting in a sound closer to that of being at a live concert. The sound coming from the Imagine X speakers was simply captivating with this reference-quality recording.
With the holidays approaching, my wife and I decided to watch the 3D version of the movie The Polar Express (Warner Bros Pictures). I was literally stunned at what I was hearing during the early scene of the train pulling to a stop in front of the Santa Claus-doubting boy hero's house. The sound effects coming from the speakers were so lifelike and powerful that I would have sworn a real steam engine train was pulling into my media room. At that moment, the SubSeries 200 removed any doubts I might have had about its ability to bring enough bass impact to movies, with the entire room rumbling and vibrating with such authenticity. I didn't expect so much enjoyment from a speaker system at this price.
Other action movies I watched, including Star Trek Into Darkness (Paramount Pictures) and Man Of Steel (Warner Bros Pictures), delivered similarly enjoyable results. This system just rocks with its ability to pull you into the soundscape.
The Imagine X speakers sparkle with an accuracy that will reveal a recording's quality, whether great or not so great. Depending on listening preferences, this could be an issue. On poorly recorded or overly processed tracks, the Imagine X speakers will reveal the flaws.
Also, the X2Ts do have their limits to bass reproduction. If you like to listen to extreme low-frequency music such as pipe organ or very dynamic classical or rock played at loud volumes, the limits of the Imagine X2T's bass will become apparent as it strains to accurately reproduce the lowest frequencies. Bringing a good subwoofer like the SubSeries 200 into the mix in a 2.1 arrangement should remedy any strain placed on the X2T in stereo mode.
While admittedly a minor point, I'd prefer that the speaker grilles attach to the front baffle via magnets rather than the pin and grommet arrangement of the Imagine X speakers for an even cleaner look.
Comparison and Competition
Potential buyers of the Imagine X speakers may also want to look at comparable models from the likes of Paradigm, Monitor Audio, and GoldenEar Technology. These companies each manufacture models with materials, specifications, and performance levels in the same league as the Imagine X, but not at the same value pricing. Each of these brands will cost you a bit more. To read reviews of these and other loudspeaker brands, click here.
The PSB Imagine X speakers deliver more musical enjoyment and just plain perform better than they have any right to given their price point. Voices and instruments are portrayed with an accuracy and openness that seem closer to that of live music. Movie sound effects have an extra dose of realism through the PSBs. Paul Barton and his team at PSB have hit another home run with the new Imagine X speakers. Budget-conscious home theater and music enthusiasts who are looking for a faithfully accurate two-channel or multichannel speaker system--but also value simplicity--are urged to give the no-fuss PSB Imagine X speakers an audition. They are proof that you don't have to spend maximum dollars to experience maximum audio enjoyment.
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