- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created on Tuesday, 01 May 2012 01:00
- Written by Doug Schneider
Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
PSB’s founder, Paul Barton, has been designing loudspeakers for 40 years. But even after all that time in the game, Paul is not one of those designers who yearn to create the most expensive model they can, whether or not they have the talent to do it; instead, he uses his formidable experience and expertise to create speakers that are affordable for the masses -- speakers that often perform far in excess of their price.
There’s no better example of Barton’s design philosophy than the Synchrony One, the company’s flagship model, which currently sells for $5500 USD per pair but compares with speakers five times its price. I’m very familiar with the Synchrony One -- I reviewed it when it first came out, about three years ago. Barton’s latest creation is the T2 ($3500-$3850/pair, depending on finish), the new top model of PSB’s Imagine line, which is just below the Synchrony models. Is the Imagine T2 as noteworthy as the Synchrony One?
The Imagine series includes the T floorstander and the B and Mini bookshelf models, all suitable for two-channel use. To flesh out a full home-theater rig, there are also the C center-channel and the S surround. The B and Mini are two-ways: each has a tweeter for the upper frequencies and a midrange-woofer for the lower frequencies. The T is a two-and-a-half-way design, with a tweeter for the highs and two midrange-woofers for everything else -- but of the latter, only the higher-placed driver goes high enough into the midrange to blend with the tweeter’s output.
Then there’s the Imagine T2, which PSB calls "a transitional five-way." A 4" midrange driver spans 500-1800Hz before being crossed over to a 1" titanium-dome tweeter for the higher frequencies. The midrange driver is placed above the tweeter on the front baffle, a configuration that Barton fancies in his pricier designs. Three 5.25" bass drivers operate below 500Hz, though only the topmost is crossed over directly to the midrange. The woofer below it is rolled off at 200Hz, and the bottom woofer at 80Hz. Barton created this complex crossover arrangement to ensure a proper acoustical blend, both on and off axis, of the outputs of all five drivers. PSB specifies the T2’s on-axis frequency response as 34Hz-23kHz, ±3dB, or 36Hz-20kHz, ±1.5dB. The 30° off-axis response is a claimed 36Hz-10kHz, ±1.5dB. If those specs are accurate, that’s very smooth and linear performance with well-controlled dispersion characteristics.
These three woofers ensure the strongest, deepest bass from the T2’s modest-sized cabinet, which measures about 41"H x 8.5"W x 13.5"D and weighs some 43 pounds. Each woofer has its own internal enclosure, ported to the rear. PSB rates the T2’s usable bass to 29Hz, -10dB. This is quite deep for a compact floorstander and could overload smaller rooms; if that happens, three rubber port plugs are supplied to attenuate the bass output.
The midrange and woofer cones are made of polypropylene filled with clay ceramic, and have rubber surrounds. These drivers are all recessed on the front baffle, their frames concealed by rubber flanges that not only hide the unsightly metal and screws, but also help to create a smooth surface that reduces diffraction for the cleanest wave launch. Grilles are supplied to protect the drivers, but should be removed for serious listening.
Though the T2 is not highly sensitive, it’s still fairly easy to drive. Its sensitivity is specified as 88dB (2.83V/m) anechoic, its nominal impedance as 6 ohms (4 ohms minimum). I can’t imagine the T2 being too tough a load for any moderately powerful amplifier. (In contrast, PSB’s Synchrony One can be an unruly load; for the best sound quality, it needs a stout amp stable to below 4 ohms.) For biwiring or biamping, dual sets of binding posts flank the T2’s rear: one set for the midrange and tweeter, the other for the woofers.
PSB speakers of yesteryear looked pretty ho-hum, but that changed significantly with the launch of the Synchrony line; PSB upped its game with truly elegant industrial design and excellent build quality. Those qualities have been continued in the Imagine models: The T2’s well-built cabinet is all MDF, meticulously curved on the front, sides, rear, and top, and very well finished no matter from which angle you look at it. The bottom, too, looks quite nice, with plastic outrigger feet that hold rubber bumpers for hardwood floors, or spikes for carpets. The relatively compact cabinet will allow the T2 to blend nicely with most décors, and several finishes are available: for the base price, Black Ash, Dark Cherry, and Walnut wood veneers; add $350/pair for Gloss Black or Gloss White.
The Imagine T2 didn’t quite measure up to the build quality of the Synchrony One, whose aluminum front, back, and bottom panels and superior wood finishes are a cut above the T2’s. The One is heavier and feels sturdier. I also liked the way the One’s grille is held in place by slots on the front baffle vs. the traditional pins found on the T2. On the other hand, that’s what you’d expect given the price difference of $2000/pair.
But it’s obvious that PSB learned a lot from making the Synchrony series that they’ve now put into the Imagines: the T2’s styling is first-rate, its appearance is similar to the One’s, and its build quality, while not quite up to the One’s level, is comparable. On a ten-step staircase with the One at the top, the T2 is only a step and a half down.
For part of this review, I used Bryston’s 4B SST2 stereo amplifier, which is a powerhouse: 300Wpc into 8 ohms. But most of the time I used the new Eximus S1 stereo amplifier, a tiny thing based on B&O’s ICEpower module and claimed to output 125Wpc into 8 ohms. Even at quite-high volume levels, neither amp hinted at strain -- I never expected the Bryston to, but wondered if the Eximus would. The preamplifier was Simaudio’s Moon 350P, and the DACs were Simaudio’s Moon Evolution 650D or the Audioengine D2, fed by my Sony Vaio laptop running Windows Vista and JRiver Media Center. Speaker cables were Nirvana S-L, balanced analog interconnects were Nordost Valhalla, and USB cables were AudioQuest and Audioengine.
Although it’s been six months since the Synchrony Ones were here, making impossible any direct comparison of it with the Imagine T2s, I well recall the One’s sound -- and it didn’t take me long to realize that although the T2 possessed all the hallmarks of a PSB design such as the One, it had a sound distinct from that of any other PSB speaker I’ve reviewed. What’s more, its sound might be something that some folks like better than the One’s, for reasons I’ll explain.
The PSB hallmarks exhibited by the T2 were: exceedingly flat frequency response, not only in front of the speaker but to its sides as well; deep, full bass (anyway, as much as the cabinet size and driver complement allowed); thoroughly extended highs with no hint of rolloff; and very decent output without noticeable distortion. This wasn’t that surprising -- these aren’t just PSB’s design ideals, but the basic tenets of good speaker design. As a result, the T2 sounded exceptionally natural and neutral, imposing on the music no undue colorations of its own; and, from the lows to the highs, no frequencies sounded too forward or recessed. The T2 also went deeper in the bass and sounded fuller than its modest cabinet size would have you think it might. In fact, in terms of the latter, the T2 sounded a little more impressive than the Focal Chorus 836 W Prestige ($4499/pair), which I reviewed in March, and which had tremendous bass punch and sock, but didn’t go as low as its fairly big cabinet and five drivers might lead one to expect.
Like the Synchrony One, the Imagine T2 favored no genre of music over another -- you could call them musical chameleons. "The Moon and the Sky," from Sade’s Soldier of Love (16/44.1 FLAC, Epic), punched through the air with driving rhythm, and lead singer Sade Adu’s voice was prominent at center stage -- which was exactly how it was recorded. What I found most noteworthy was how clean, distinct, and airy Sade’s voice sounded, but with no excess sibilance or edginess, even though she was clearly very closely miked. "Morning Bird" proved that PSB’s claim of bass output down into the 30Hz area isn’t wishful thinking -- the T2 had surprising weight down low, and quite decent punch even at fairly high volume levels, which helped convey a sense of size and scale that smaller speakers often can’t. These are all pluses.
On the minus side, while the T2’s bass sounded deeper and richer than the Chorus 836 W’s, it wasn’t as impactful or as visceral. It also didn’t sound quite as tight as what I remember of the One. Basically, the T2 had a little more bloom and warmth down low than either of those speakers. Given the disparity in prices -- $1000 more for the Focal Chorus 836 W, and $2000 more for the One -- the T2’s slight deficiency in this regard is forgivable, and proof that while $3500 can get you plenty, it won’t get you everything.
As with most pop and rock recordings, Soldier of Love’s highs are inherently "hot" to the point of crispness, and through some speakers can teeter toward sounding bright. The T2s certainly had enough energy up high, making cymbals sound distinct and the top end of guitars really shimmer -- but not so much that this or any other recording ever sounded bright or edgy. Instead, the highs were thoroughly extended but surprisingly airy, and always refined. Vanessa-Mae’s Original Four Seasons and The Devil’s Trill Sonata (16/44.1 FLAC, EMI) can sound screechy when played quite loudly through less-composed-sounding speakers, but through the T2 it sounded superb. In fact, I was a little surprised at how much I enjoyed the sound of the T2’s upper frequencies -- in my review of the Synchrony One, my single criticism of the speaker had to do with a slight unruliness in the extreme highs compared to the regions below, and I figured the T2 would sound the same. It didn’t, and I don’t know why. Perhaps Barton uses a different version of the tweeter in the T2, or has tuned the response a little differently. That’s one area in which some might find the Imagine T2 more pleasing to the ears than the Synchrony One.
The other, most noticeable thing was the uncanny smoothness of the Imagine T2’s midrange -- it was not only nearly impossible not to notice, but made long-term listening sessions a joy. But it was never so smooth that it sounded unnaturally warm, syrupy, or slow; instead, it was easy on the ears, a nonfatiguing midrange presentation that still sounded very detailed and highly transparent. For example, Glenn Gould’s A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations of J.S. Bach, 1955 & 1981 (16/44.1 FLAC, Sony Classical) sounded as quick, incisive, and exciting as I’ve ever heard it, but also utterly pure and smooth. My feeling is that the super midrange sound had a lot to do with PSB’s use of a dedicated, high-quality driver for that part of the audioband, and in their taking great care in crossing it over to the drivers above and below it to create seamless transitions -- something I know Paul Barton labors exhaustively over. It’s also worth mentioning that the T2’s midrange smoothness is similar to that of Focal’s Chorus 836 W Prestige, which I also praised for just that character. If I had to choose between these two speakers in this regard, I don’t think I could -- they both sounded great. In terms of the midband, I could easily live with either.
The Imagine T2’s mids weren’t in stark contrast to the Synchrony One’s, which, at the time, I praised for providing the clearest, cleanest, most detailed midband I’d heard from any speaker at any price -- but their sounds were different enough that one person could favor one and another person the other, and both would be "right"; such things come down to personal taste. I ultimately prefer the One’s crystal-clear, hyperdetailed sound, but I can certainly understand those who might want the smoother, less in-your-face midrange that the T2 produced in my room.
Where the T2s fell short of the larger, more expensive speakers I’ve reviewed was in sheer output capability in my very large listening room (approximately 38’L x 16’W, although I use only the front half for a listening space); i.e., how loudly they could play without distorting or losing composure, particularly with hard rock turned up to 11, or a recording of an acoustic piano played at something approaching lifelike listening levels. Still, the T2s played very loudly for their size and price, and did a more-than-respectable job of charging up my big room. I was particularly impressed with how composed and clean they sounded with Shchedrin’s Basso Ostinato, performed by pianist Joachim Kjelsaas Kwetzinsky, from our 2L-TWBAS 2012 Sampler (24/88.2 FLAC, SoundStageRecordings.com), at levels that would cripple most speakers of similar size. The T2s were no delicate flowers, but they couldn’t quite muster up the room-filling energy of the Focal Chorus 836 Ws or what I recall of the Synchrony Ones. With those speakers, my ears gave out before the speakers did; with the Imagine T2, it was the other way around.
To their credit, though, I never heard nasty distortion or severe distress from the T2s when I played them too loudly. What I did notice was that, at a certain SPL, they started to gently but noticeably compress, and it was then that I knew it was time to turn them down. If you play music at what most consider "normal" listening levels, don’t hesitate to put the T2s in a pretty big room, even one as large as mine; but if you like to really crank it up, the T2s will be best suited to moderate-size listening spaces.
Where the T2s excelled again was in the areas of soundstaging and imaging. Track 3 of our 2L-TWBAS 2012 Sampler, the male choir Consortium Vocale Oslo performing Crux Fidelis (Anon.), was reproduced with a stage that went a bit beyond the left and right limits of the speakers and past the front wall of my room. The soundstage was huge, and the voices on it were starkly placed; the layering of voices from front to back on the stage was extremely easy to hear. Ennio Morricone’s primarily choral music for the film The Mission, which I purchased on CD (16/44.1 FLAC, Virgin) 25 years ago and have since ripped to my music library and played through almost every piece of gear I’ve ever reviewed, was reproduced with a stage as wide and as deep as I’ve heard from any pair of speakers at any price. Center fill was always strong, even when I had the T2s spaced very far apart; with recordings from the likes of Sade, Leonard Cohen, and Bruce Cockburn, the lead voice was always superbly focused in the center of the stage, with no smearing from side to side. Combine all this with the kind of within-the-stage precision normally reserved for high-performance minimonitors and cost-no-object statement speakers, and it’s the icing on the cake for a speaker that has superb performance across the board.
Don’t let the Imagine T2’s modest cabinet size fool you: In my large room, the PSBs had a big, spacious, fleshed-out sound that belied their size, along with bass reach that could put to shame larger speakers at much higher prices. I was also taken with their superb imaging and the vast soundstage. But what most impressed me was the T2’s supersmooth midrange, in conjunction with very extended and airy highs that never sounded fatiguing. No speaker is perfect, but the T2’s faults were few, and can be considered benign given the speaker’s price: its bass wasn’t quite as tight as that of speakers priced higher, and it couldn’t play quite as loud as some of those speakers.
All told, the T2 is an outstanding loudspeaker that delivers a sophisticated, distinctive sound that qualifies it as truly high-end, but without a super-high-end price tag -- $3500 is a very reasonable price for all that the T2 offers. In fact, the Imagine T2 is every bit as good a deal as the Synchrony One was when that speaker was introduced three years ago. Consumers today are reaping the benefits of Paul Barton’s 40 years in the speaker-design game; his Imagine T2 is further proof that experience counts. Imagine that.
. . . Doug Schneider
- Speakers -- Focal Chorus 836 W Prestige, Revel Ultima Salon2
- Amplifiers -- Bryston 4B SST2 (stereo), Eximus S1 (stereo/mono)
- Preamplifier -- Simaudio Moon 350P, Eximus DP1
- Digital sources -- Audioengine D2, Simaudio Moon Evolution 650D, Eximus DP1, Sony Vaio laptop
- Digital interconnects -- AudioQuest Carbon USB, Audioengine USB
- Analog interconnects -- Nirvana S-L, Nordost Valhalla
- Speaker cables -- Nirvana S-L
PSB Imagine T2 Loudspeakers
Price: $3500-$3850 USD per pair, depending on finish.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
PSB Speakers International
633 Granite Court
Pickering, Ontario L1W 3K1
Phone: (888) 772-0000
Fax: (905) 837-6357