Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
It’s difficult to talk about the Canadian speaker manufacturers without Paul Barton’s name coming up -- he’s been entrenched in it from the beginning. Barton founded PSB Speakers in 1972; two years later, he was introduced to Dr. Floyd Toole, of Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), and soon after became the first speaker designer to make use of the NRC’s facilities for design and testing, including their anechoic chamber. In the years that followed, Barton and Toole worked -- sometimes together, often apart -- on improving the sound of speakers by researching how the measured aspects of speaker design match up to what we hear. In a SoundStage! InSight video released in June 2015, Barton stated that he and Toole “quickly became good friends and allies in trying to improve the art of loudspeakers, which we believe now has become more of a science.”
Barton’s quest continues today. He still uses the NRC’s facilities, and now his 43-year pursuit of art and science has culminated in PSB’s latest flagship speaker, the Imagine T3 ($7498 USD per pair). In the InSight video, he called the T3 his “best effort” -- quite a claim for someone with so much experience and so many successful designs under his belt. I wondered if it was true.
With its rounded sides, back, top, and front baffle, the Imagine T3 resembles the models below it in the Imagine line, the T ($2198/pair) and T2 ($3498/pair). But it’s bigger than either of them, measuring 45”H x 8.25”W x 14”D without its outrigger base and spikes, which come standard; with those installed, it stands 47.6”H x 11.5”W x 15.2”D. Each T3 weighs 71 pounds. (In contrast, the T2 is 40.5”H and 42.6 pounds, the T is 37.25”H and 40.6 pounds.) Should you need to set the T3s on a hard floor, discs with rubber bottoms and small indents in their tops are supplied for the spikes to sit in.
Though similar in appearance to the T and T2, the Imagine T3 looks much better -- gorgeous, actually -- mostly because of its superior High Gloss finishes of Cherry or Black and its metal outrigger base, which looks and feels like a quality item. The only thing I don’t like are the holes in the front baffle that accept the grille pegs. On the plus side, all bolts securing the T3’s five drivers are concealed by black rubber flanges around the drivers, which make for a tidier appearance.
The cabinet is made of MDF. To get the rounded shape, custom machinery had to be designed to sculpt the cabinet in what is a fairly lengthy process. A video I’ve seen on the creation of this cabinet shows a crudely finished cabinet being quickly turned as it’s whittled down to its final form, then precisely sanded and, finally, veneered. Inside, the cabinet is braced to control resonances and to create a separate subenclosure for each of the three woofers, as explained below.
The T3 has a 1” titanium-dome, ferrofluid-cooled tweeter with a neodymium magnet system; a 5.25” midrange driver whose cone of fiberglass and compressed felt is coated with a mastic compound and held in place with a rubber surround; and three 7” woofer cones of the same material, also with rubber surrounds. The drivers are crossed over to each other with Linkwitz-Riley fourth-order slopes.
The way these drivers are used in the T3 reveals some of Paul Barton’s defining techniques. For example, the midrange is placed above the tweeter. Barton explains in our InSight video that the reason for this arrangement -- not that common, but seen in all of his top-tier designs -- is so that the two drivers’ outputs combine ideally in front of and above the drivers, which means that the speaker should measure and sound the same, whether you (or the measuring microphone) are seated or standing. The Imagine T3’s midrange driver hands off to the tweeter at about 2kHz.
Each woofer is contained in its own subenclosure for several reasons. First, these small enclosures mean that there’s not enough space for the frequencies each woofer is required to reproduce to form the internal standing waves that would likely be generated if the driver’s rear radiation were firing into the cabinet’s full volume. Second, the output of each woofer’s port can be individually tuned, which makes it possible for Barton to fine-tune the bass response for the smoothest result. Third, each woofer can be crossed over independently. The benefit of this in the T3 is that only the topmost woofer hands off directly to the midrange, at about 500Hz, because it’s the only one close enough to the midrange to make an ideal acoustical transition. The middle woofer’s output is rolled off at about 300Hz, and the bottommost woofer, the farthest from the midrange, is rolled off at about 100Hz.
What’s important to know about the T3’s woofers is that all three woofers work together to generate output from 100Hz down to the bottom of the audioband, 20Hz, which PSB rates as the T3’s -10dB low-frequency limit. All else being equal, three drivers working in unison can move more air with lower distortion than two or one.
Although it has three woofers working together in the lowest part of the audioband, and five drivers in total, the T3 is specified as having a nominal impedance of 8 ohms and a minimum impedance of 4 ohms, which means it should not present too demanding a load to most amps, particularly when you take into consideration its higher-than-average claimed sensitivity of 91dB/2.83V/m in-room (or 89dB/2.83V/m anechoic).
Toward the bottom of the T3’s rear panel are three pairs of binding posts: the lowest set is connected to the lowest woofer, the middle set to the middle and upper woofers, and the top set to the midrange and tweeter. I used a single set of wires and the two pairs of supplied jumpers to connect the T3s to a single power amp with a single set of speaker cables. But the three sets of posts allow for some interesting options: It’s possible to use one amp and three sets of speaker cables, or two amps and two or three sets of cables, or three amps with three runs of cable. It’s also possible to leave the lower woofer disconnected and thus inactivated, should the combined output of all six woofers of a pair of T3s overload the room. In this way, the T3 offers great flexibility of tuning, which could come in handy in smaller rooms. But this wasn’t a problem in my large listening room.
I used the Imagine T3s with my typical reference electronics -- Simaudio Moon Evolution 650D DAC-transport, 740P preamplifier, and 870A stereo amplifier -- but also with some other components I swapped in and out: Audio Research’s GS150 stereo amplifier, JE Audio’s Reference 1 preamplifier and VM60 mono amplifiers, and Hegel Music Systems’ H360 integrated amplifier-DAC and HD30 DAC.
Wiring was always with my references: Crystal Cable CrystalConnect Standard Diamond interconnects, Siltech Classic Anniversary 330L speaker cables, and an AudioQuest Carbon USB link. Normally, I use the manufacturers’ stock power cords with my components, but toward the end of my listening sessions with the PSBs I received a number of power products from Shunyata Research: Venom HC AC cords (4), Venom PS8 distributors (2), and Venom Defender surge protectors/noise reducers (2). I used all of those as well.
The Imagine T3s were set up in the usual speaker positions in my room: 7.5’ apart, and about that distance from each to my ears as I sat in my listening seat. That left about 5’ from each speaker to its sidewall, and 7’ from the speakers’ rear panels to the wall behind them. The PSBs were toed in about 15 degrees.
The Imagine T3 effectively replaces PSB’s Synchrony One ($6000/pair when available), which I reviewed in 2008 and used in my room for a while thereafter. The Synchrony One was a fantastic speaker that won our Reviewers’ Choice and Product of the Year awards.
While it’s been far too long since the Synchrony Ones were in my room for me to recall their sound in detail, it was still obvious to me that the T3 exceeded the One’s performance in a few important areas, most noticeably in the bass: The T3s reached far lower than the Ones had, but with the same sort of tightness and control. As I recall, the One had powerful bass -- it could kick -- but little output below about 40Hz; the pair of them could never rumble my room with very-low bass tones, if the music included such information. The T3s could rumble, though -- their bass output was very strong to below 30Hz, which is outstanding for a modestly sized floorstander, and necessary to fully appreciate some recordings.
For example, the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, RCA) has bass down to 20Hz, which the T3s ably reproduced with tremendous authority, truly pressurizing my room, as a full-range speaker should. “Hat Shaped Hat,” from Ani DiFranco’s Up Up Up Up Up Up (16/44.1 FLAC, Righteous Babe), is 12:55 long and has whomping bass throughout, which the T3s easily conveyed with wicked power and control -- it was deep and tight and impactful. In my opinion, the T3s presented as much bass as most listeners will ever need -- or want -- from a home system.
I also found the Imagine T3s quite a bit easier to drive than the Synchrony Ones, which will make a big difference in terms of which amps you can use. I believe the problem with the One had mainly to do with its impedance, which dipped below 4 ohms in various parts of the audioband, and rarely rose above 8 ohms overall. As a result, to properly drive a pair, you need to ensure that your amp will remain stable below 4 ohms. With the Ones, I’d tried a couple of amps that didn’t -- they distorted the sound even at moderate volume levels.
The Imagine T3s didn’t faze any of the amps I had here, even the tubed ones. Audio Research’s GS150, a fairly powerful (155Wpc) tubed amp, drove them with ease; more telling were the JE Audio VM60 monoblocks -- though specced at only 60W each, they had no trouble with the T3s. On the solid-state side, Simaudio’s Moon Evolution 870A never flinched with them, and I hadn’t expected it to -- it’s a 300Wpc (into 8 ohms) beast that retails for $22,000 and is designed to drive pretty much anything out there. More relevant was Hegel’s H360, specified as producing 250Wpc into 8 ohms but which is far more compact than the Simaudio and sells for only one-fourth the price: $5700. It provided more power than the T3s could use, and controlled the woofers as well as the 870A did.
Last, I remembered that the Synchrony One faltered a bit in the treble -- the highs sounded clean overall, but were just a touch unrefined compared to that speaker’s amazingly clear, refined midband. It’s too bad I couldn’t put the Ones and T3s side by side and compare them, but even so: I’d noted that treble problem with the One, but it didn’t even occur to me while listening to the T3, even with such super-splashy recordings as Gordon Lightfoot’s All Live (16/44.1 FLAC, Warner Music), which, despite having been recorded in 2011, sounds so tinny and thin you’d swear it was from the 1980s, when CD was new and many recordings sounded like that. The T3s didn’t reduce that tinny thinness, but didn’t exacerbate it either, or have me rushing to turn down the volume. I have to conclude that the T3’s high-frequency performance was better than the One’s.
Putting aside my memories of the Synchrony One, I focused on the Imagine T3 itself. In some ways it performed as I expect a PSB speaker to, based on Paul Barton’s past designs, but in other ways it didn’t. For instance, I found the T3’s overall tonal balance decidedly neutral, or flat: it reproduced the entire audioband equally, no portion of it sounding forward or recessed -- no surprise, as that’s been a defining characteristic of PSB speakers for decades. I also found that the outputs of all five drive units coalesced seamlessly at my listening seat, which would seem to confirm the value of Barton’s complex crossover. It sounded as if there were no crossover at all -- each speaker’s five drivers seemed to speak as one.
However, I did find that the T3’s midband sounded somewhat different from what I’m used to from PSB -- it wasn’t only very clean and clear, but almost so smooth that it flowed out like melting butter. The word that popped to mind was mellow, which I’d never before used to describe the sound of a PSB speaker, but it seemed to apply here. But don’t think that by mellow I mean laid-back or distant -- this speaker was not that. Instead, I cite Merriam-Webster’s definition of mellow: “pleasantly rich, full, or soft: not harsh, bright, or irritating.” No matter what music I played through the T3s, the sound was devoid of glare, edge, and other nasty artifacts -- unless the recording itself sounded that way.
Take, for example, Don Henley’s newest, Cass Country (Deluxe) (16/44.1 FLAC, Capitol), which in my opinion is not only his best-sounding solo album, but his best solo album period. Some tracks are reminiscent of his finest work with the Eagles, but regardless of which track you play, his voice is highly present in the mix -- it’s there, and meant to be the focus of your attention. The T3’s mellow midband didn’t diminish the prominence of Henley’s voice, yet it also didn’t push it farther forward, as many other speakers are designed to do, to create an impression of greater warmth and/or “presence.” Nor did the T3 make his voice sound forced, harsh, edgy, or crisp. If there were any such nasties in the sound, the speakers weren’t adding it, but simply passing along what’s in the recording.
Instruments were reproduced in a similar way. The T3s rendered the strong opening guitar plucks of “Too Far Gone” with a really rich, warm, vibrant tone that reached my ears in a powerful way, but had none of the crispness or bite that some speaker designers add to make the sound seem more “textured.” Similarly, Van Morrison’s alto saxophone in “Spanish Steps,” from his Poetic Champions Compose (16/44.1 FLAC, PolyGram), soared from the T3s with ample energy -- the only bite in the instrument’s sound was what was inherent in the recording, not added by the speakers.
If you want a little more bite, forwardness, or sizzle from your speakers, particularly in the midrange -- as some speakers deliver to provide a heightened sense of presence and sensationalism -- the T3 won’t be your ticket. However, if you want smoooooooth sound, the PSB will win you over. It might even have solid-state aficionados believing that someone has swapped tubed gear into their systems. The Imagine T3 was one smooth operator.
But while decidedly smooth through the mids, the T3 didn’t lack detail in that region or in any part of the audioband, including the bass. The opening track of The Trinity Session, “Mining for Gold,” includes the sounds of the subway that runs under Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity, where the album was recorded. Those rumbles are extremely deep and highly detailed, with real texture. To hear the T3s not only energize my room so powerfully with low tones, but also litter it with so much deep-bass detail, speaks volumes for the speakers’ control of their woofers. With “Everest,” from Ani DiFranco’s Up Up Up Up Up Up, it was super-easy to pick up on all the interesting spatial cues that, along with the unique mix -- DiFranco’s voice way over left, Jason Mercer center and back -- help make this a great test track. A high-resolution reissue of the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed (24/176 FLAC, ABKCO) is the best-sounding version I’ve heard; however, as well as it’s been remastered, the subtle right-channel distortion inherent in “Gimme Shelter” reared its head noticeably through the T3s. Suffice it to say that, though the T3s’ overall character was mellow, they didn’t mask a single detail -- if it was there on the recording, I heard it.
The Imagine T3s’ ability to lay out a soundstage of excellent width was also first rate; however, I was a little disappointed to find that the depth of stage they mustered up was, consistently, only average. When I played my main reference recording for soundstaging and imaging, the soundtrack to the film The Mission (16/44.1 FLAC, Virgin), I was presented with a wide stage and precise positioning of musicians on that stage, but only OK depth, regardless of how I tweaked the speakers’ positions or which electronics I used them with. With The Trinity Session, some speakers have created an illusion of depth in my room that went back to my room’s front wall -- and farther. With the T3s, the stage went back to the front wall, but no farther. Their so-so soundstage depth was my strongest criticism of the Imagine T3s.
Comparing PSB’s Imagine T3 ($7498/pair) with three of my favorite floorstanders of the last 15 months -- Revel’s Performa3 F206 ($3500/pair), GoldenEar Technology’s Triton One ($4999.98/pair), and Focal’s Sopra No2 ($13,999/pair) -- was enlightening: Each speaker brings something different to the table, and helps show what you can get at different price points.
Of those three, the Imagine T3 most resembled the Performa3 F206: Both had a smooth, transparent midband, very refined highs, highly detailed bass, and a top-to-bottom tonal balance that was decidedly neutral. But everything the F206 did, the T3 did as well as or better. Though the T3 went significantly deeper in the bass, it remained just as tight and in control as the F206; it could play much louder throughout the audioband without compression or strain, whereas the F206 began to shelve down at a much lower volume level -- and the PSB’s appearance and build quality are superior to the Revel’s. Those aren’t knocks against the Performa3 F206 -- it’s an incredible speaker for a price less than half that of the Imagine T3. It’s just that the PSB is a big step up in quality in all parameters -- a step commensurate with the $4000 difference in price.
Without question, the looks of the GoldenEar Triton One and Imagine T3 are miles apart. The One’s massive cabinet, wrapped in black cloth, is huge and pedestrian beside the comparatively compact Imagine T3’s gorgeous high-gloss finish. But the difference in their prices reflects that -- as I stated in my review of the Triton One, had GoldenEar gone for a high-gloss finish, whether of wood veneer, lacquer, or paint, it would probably have added $2000 to $3000 to the One’s price per pair.
Sonically, the Triton One and Imagine T3 are similar through the midrange and highs. Like the T3, the One’s midrange is neutral and mellow, and its highs are exquisite and refined. Still, I give the nod to the T3 -- in my system, it sounded even smoother through the mids than the One, and its highs didn’t compress at high volumes, as the Triton One’s did when I cranked up the music.
Where the Ones and T3s substantially differed was in size of soundstage and weight of bass. The Ones cast wider, deeper stages than the T3s could in my room. And thanks to the One’s three woofers, four passive radiators, built-in amplifier, and DSP control section, it can hammer out more bass energy than the T3 -- or any other speaker I’ve had in my room. However, although the One can produce greater low-frequency weight, its bass was never as tight as the T3’s, no matter what music I played. In that regard, I preferred the T3.
The most interesting comparison was with the Focal Sopra No2, the least neutral-sounding speaker of this bunch. It’s still a joy to listen to, and provided a contrast to what the T3 offered. Whereas the T3 presented music in a very balanced, evenhanded way, the No2’s sound is more Technicolor. This is right in line with these speakers’ very different appearances: the No2 has a bold, dramatic, space-age design, while the Imagine T3’s look is comparatively conservative. Perhaps it has to do with where they’re from -- Focal comes from the flamboyant French, PSB from us reserved, polite Canadians.
The Sopra No2 didn’t go nearly as deep in the bass in my room as the T3 did -- not even close -- but the Focals were so much punchier in the upper bass that the pair sounded truly visceral, reproducing kick drums with a real sense of POW! Similarly, the No2’s presentation of highs is a bit livelier, teetering toward a bright sound without, thankfully, ever quite getting there. And just as the No2 pumps up a little the extreme ends of the audioband, it does the same with the midrange, providing just a bit more presence in that region in my system than the T3 did. As I said, the Focal Sopra No2 had the least neutral sound of these four speakers.
The widths of the Focals’ and PSBs’ soundstages were similar, but the No2s’ were deeper, with voices and instruments even more sharply outlined. How loud these two models could play seemed about the same.
The Sopra No2 brings the party to you, visually and sonically. If you want that excitement on all fronts, the Focal is a must-see, must-hear speaker. But if you prefer a more neutral sound and much deeper bass, PSB’s Imagine T3 is what you’re after -- and it isn’t much more than half the price of the Focal.
The PSB Imagine T3’s strengths are plentiful: beautiful finishes, excellent build quality, exceptional bass, outstanding resolution, and a supersmooth, fatigue-free sound throughout the audioband. A pair of them offers true full-range performance, delivered so evenhandedly that their sound is almost unassuming. In fact, once they’ve immersed you in the music, it’s easy to forget that the Imagine T3s are even there.
That leads me to a word of caution about this speaker: Don’t dismiss the Imagine T3’s lack of audible colorations as meaning there’s nothing special about its sound. That lack is precisely what is special about it. To my ears and eyes, PSB’s newest flagship model is not only the best-looking speaker they’ve ever made, but their best-sounding as well -- not for what it adds to the music, but for what it doesn’t.
. . . Doug Schneider
PSB Imagine T3 Loudspeakers
Price: $7498 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
633 Granite Court
Pickering, Ontario L1W 3K1
Phone: (905) 831-6555
Fax: (905) 831-6936