Partnering with speaker manufacturers to develop the Atmos-enabled speaker module with up-firing drivers was probably one of the smartest things that Dolby could have done to help gain adoption for the Atmos format. Having to install speakers in the ceiling is a non-starter for all but the most devout home theater enthusiasts, whereas the Atmos-enabled speaker module provides a clean, easy way to add Atmos to an existing speaker setup. PSB is one of a handful of companies that sells a standalone Atmos speaker module, which can sit on any flat-topped tower or bookshelf speaker but was designed to complement PSB's Imagine speaker lineup.
To help me review the Imagine XA Atmos speaker module ($499.99/pair), PSB kindly sent me an entire surround complement from the Imagine Series. The Imagine XA is a perfect fit on top of the XB bookshelf speaker or the T2 tower speaker that I used. I did notice that, while still very small in footprint, the XA is slightly longer than my own Atlantic Technology 44-DA Atmos module; you should be aware of this, in case you decide to put the XA on top of another brand of speaker. The XA also includes a bracket that allows you to mount the speaker on the wall, should you not have any flat surface upon which to put it. The two speaker connector inputs are angled up inside a small cavity in the back of the speaker and are spaced very close together. I normally use banana plugs and ended up having to swap out pairs that were banded together for separate plugs.
I played through a variety of Atmos test material, and the Imagine XAs delivered an astounding experience overall. On the Atmos test disc, the soft rustle of the leaf in "Leaf" and the brilliant detail of all the natural forest sounds in "Amaze" showed how good the clarity was in the PSB speakers. I think the PSBs even edged out the Atlantic Technology 44-DA modules I had on hand in this area. In Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, during the air raid scene where Katniss hides in a bunker, the PSBs truly delivered on the immersiveness of the 3D sound experience and re-created the feeling of space in a large cavernous bunker. To compare and contrast, I would say the PSBs portrayed a bit greater detail into the sounds inside the bunker, while the Atlantic Tech modules gave me more of a feeling that I could imagine the size and shape of the space and locate where the sounds were coming from within it. But we're talking about fine gradations of difference here in the character of the two speakers. None of these serve as weak points on the PSB. All in all, a very strong showing indeed.
• The Imagine XA offers a high degree of clarity and refinement for an Atmos module.
• The XA is designed for easy placement. It has a small enough footprint to place on top of many speakers but also comes with brackets for wall-mounting capability.
• The design of the speaker connection cavity might limit or at least complicate some connection types.
• The Atmos module doesn't provide enough projection for the very largest of rooms, compared with what you'll get from down-firing in-ceiling speakers.
Comparison and Competition
In the realm of standalone Atmos speaker modules, the Onkyo SKH-410 and the Pioneer SP-T22A-LR sell for a fraction of the price of the Imagine XA-- at $149/pair and $199/pair, respectively. Both occupy a much smaller footprint, so it would be even easier to place them. But you'll sacrifice audio quality with those smaller modules, as the Imagine XA is hands-down the superior speaker.
The Atlantic Technology 44-DA Atmos module I reviewed is the same price, $499/pair. Where the PSBs sound more refined and resolute, creating a better sense of realism, the Atlantic Technology speakers did a better job of filling the space and imaging the position of objects.
Finally, at the top end, the KEF R-50, which Bob Barrett reviewed last year, received strong marks on audio quality but is significantly more expensive than the Imagine XA at $1,199/pair.
Ultimately, what separates the PSB Imagine XA from other entries into the Atmos-enabled speaker module market is audio quality. I've heard quite a few models that featured poorly designed drivers made from cheap materials. Sure, they produced sound from the height direction, but the quality of that sound was so lacking that, when paired with a decent multichannel speaker system, it felt like taking a mansion fit for a Hollywood celebrity and callously capping it with a roof meant for a shantytown hut.
The PSBs are among the best Atmos-enabled module speakers I've experienced and will pair wonderfully with any high-performance multichannel system. And they represent an excellent value: for less than $1,000, you can buy a set of four to create a fully immersive 5.1.4 speaker or 7.1.4 Atmos experience that very nearly replicates what you could have with in-ceiling speakers, minus the pain of measuring and cutting holes in your ceiling and threading long lengths of cable through/along walls. If you're looking to upgrade your system to add Atmos capability, these belong on your very, very, short list.
• Visit the PSB website for more product information.
• Check out our Bookshelf and Small Speakers category page to read similar reviews.
• PSB SubSeries 450 Subwoofer Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.