One of life’s great pleasures is enjoying music or a movie at home while listening to a properly dialed-in surround system. Whether it’s an old-school 5.1 rig or a new-school 7.2.4 immersive audio setup, a key to getting goose bumps and achieving suspension of disbelief is to experience sound through a speaker system that’s capable of exceptional fidelity.
A lot of the crucial research that led to greater understanding of what makes for a nice-sounding speaker has been conducted at the National Research Council, Canada’s research facilities in Ottawa, Ontario. Paul Barton—PSB’s founder—was there from the beginning and practically had the place all to himself until 1982. For over four decades, Paul has worked to advance the art and science of speaker design, and his experience is reflected in the products that bear his initials.
I talked with Paul about the thinking that went into the Imagine X line. It turns out that form follows function—right down to the small logo in front of the dome tweeter that does double duty as a phase plug. The entire Imagine X line is about delivering high-end audio performance at an affordable price through proper design.
In July 2015, I published a review of the X2T towers, finding them to be top-notch speakers. Now, it’s time to examine how five Imagine X series speakers and a pair of SubSeries 200 subwoofers come together when used in a 5.1-channel surround system.
The review system consisted of three different PSB Imagine X speaker models. X2T towers served as front left and right speakers, XB bookshelf speakers took on surround duty, and an XC center channel did what its name indicates. A pair of SubSeries 200 subwoofers took care of the low end.
The Imagine X2T ($1300/pair) is a 3-way tower speaker featuring a 1″ titanium-dome tweeter, a 5.25″ polypropylene midrange—mounted above the tweeter—and dual 6.5″ polypropylene woofers. A large, rectangular, ported, internally braced MDF cabinet holds all four drivers and comes in a Black Ash finish.
PSB specifies a frequency response from 30 Hz to 23 kHz (+/-3 dB) for the Imagine X2T. The company goes further than most by including on-axis and off-axis response specs to within +/-1.5 dB—it’s 40 Hz to 20 kHz on axis and 45 Hz to 10 kHz off axis (30°). The -10 dB point for bass response is 28 Hz.
Rated sensitivity for the X2T is 90 dB/W/m in a listening room and 88 dB/W/m in an anechoic chamber, and each tower can handle up to 200 watts of continuous power with 8Ω nominal impedance and 4Ω minimum impedance. The crossover frequencies are 500 Hz for the woofers-to-midrange transition and 2200 Hz from the midrange to the tweeter. Each 6.5″ woofer has its own a discrete chamber within the cabinet as well as its own front-firing tuned port. The speaker weighs 52 pounds and measures 9″ (W) by 40.1″ (H) and 17.6″ (D).
A PSB Imagine X2T tower speaker.
The Imagine XB ($500/pair) is a 2-way bookshelf speaker that features a 1″ titanium-dome tweeter and a 5.25″ polypropylene mid/woofer. A compact, rectangular, rear-ported MDF cabinet holds the two drivers and comes in a Black Ash finish. Frequency response for the Imagine XB is 55 Hz to 23 kHz (+/-3 dB) and the -10 dB point for bass response is 50 Hz.
The XB’s rated sensitivity is 89 dB/W/m in a listening room and 87 dB/W/m in an anechoic chamber, and each speaker can handle up to 150 watts of power. Nominal impedance is 8Ω, with 4Ω minimum impedance. The crossover frequency of the Imagine XB is 1800Hz. Each speaker weighs 12.3 pounds and measures 6.75″ (W) by 12″ (H) and 10.75″ (D).
One pair of PSB Imagine XB bookshelf speakers.
An Imagine XC ($400) served as the center-channel speaker for the system. It’s a 2-way speaker that uses the same 1″ titanium-dome tweeter as the X2T and XB models with dual 5.25″ mid/woofers. A compact, rectangular, rear-ported MDF cabinet holds the three drivers, and like the other speakers, it comes in a Black Ash finish.
Frequency response for the Imagine XC is 50 Hz to 23 kHz (+/-3 dB) and the -10 dB point for bass response is 45 Hz. The rated sensitivity is 90 dB/W/m in a listening room and 88 dB/W/m in an anechoic chamber. This speaker handles up to 150 watts of continuous power and nominal impedance is spec’d at 8Ω with 4Ω minimum impedance. The crossover frequency of the Imagine XC is 1800Hz. The speaker weighs 19.8 pounds and measures 19.125″ (W) by 6.75″ (H) and 11.125″ (D).
The PSB Imagine XC center channel speaker.
Dual SubSeries 200 subwoofers ($650 each) took care of deep bass in this system. Each SubSeries 200 features a 10″ driver powered by 200 watts of amplification (560 watts dynamic peak). Frequency response is specified as 28-150 Hz (+/- 3dB) with a -10 dB point at 25 Hz.
A PSB SubSeries 200 10″ subwoofer
The SubSeries 200 features a variable lowpass filter (50-150 Hz), a phase switch, and an auto on/off function. Notably, the volume and crossover controls are mounted on the front of the unit and, as a consequence, are easy to adjust. The ported cabinet measures 13.375″ (W) x 17.5″ (H) x 15.5″ (D), weighs 34 pounds, and is available in either Black Ash or Dark Cherry finish.
I chose to review the Imagine X system using a Classé Sigma SSP pre/pro and AMP5 amplifier that I borrowed for use as a reference rig. The Classé eschews automated room correction, so I employed a miniDSP DDRC-88A Dirac Live processor to take care of that. On the video end, my trusty Samsung PN64F8500 plasma served as the display.
I positioned the front left and right speakers to flank the TV. In order to achieve maximum fidelity, I brought the X2Ts out into the room a bit; the front baffles of the speakers were four feet away from the front wall. Each speaker was 30″ from the closest side wall, with six feet of space between them.
The XC center was perched atop the plasma TV. Its front baffle was two feet from the front wall. Meanwhile, the XB bookshelf speakers sat upon 36″ speaker stands, which I placed along the side walls and just behind my seat, and I allowed about 6″ of space for the rear-firing ports. The subs were positioned along the two side walls about six feet away from the room’s front corners.
After setting a crossover point for each speaker—I went with 40 Hz for the X2T towers and 80 Hz for XB and XC speakers—I ran Dirac Live’s calibration routine.
For my listening and viewing sessions, I used a Roku 2, a Samsung BD-H6500 Blu-ray player, a Google Chromecast Audio, and a Windows 10 PC as sources. My music-to-movie ratio was 80/20, most of it with the Dolby PLII Music upmixer providing ambience extraction.
Although I did not use it to critically evaluate the system, I briefly ran the speakers with my Pioneer Elite SC-85 AVR, in order to test whether it had enough power to push the system to its full potential. I found there was plenty of power on tap to provide an impactful listening experience in my modest listening area. Nevertheless, I stuck with the Classé Sigma gear for the purpose of this review, primarily because it’s the better system spec-wise, and it offers more flexibility. For example, you can set independent crossover points for each speaker pair and the center—unlike with the Elite.
The speakers and subs in the Imagine X system turned out to be heavy-hitters at their respective price points. The XB bookshelf and XC center speakers proved to be excellent companions for the X2T towers, with matching timbre and very similar sensitivity. The speakers formed a cohesive system with no identifiable “weakest link” in terms of performance.
The Classé AMP5 had more than enough juice on tap to fully power the Imagine X speakers, and I thought the PSBs made great use of every watt they got. There was a clear and effortless nature to the system’s sound that transcended price points and specifications—all you have to do is sit back, listen, and enjoy the escape they provide. This is a speaker system that brings the science of good sound home at a price that makes the MSRP of many high-end tower speakers seem silly.
Unlike some highly resolving systems that can sound explicit and analytical, these Imagine X speakers sounded smooth and sophisticated. They had a knack for revealing detail without coming across as bright or fatiguing. Indeed, the most notable characteristic of this system was balance—when listening to a great recording, each instrument was represented in proper proportion without exaggeration.
Much of my music-listening repertoire intentionally avoids the genres favored by crusty audiophiles, such as classical, jazz, and organ music. Instead, I gravitate toward genres like hip-hop, reggae, and various forms of electronica. Nevertheless, rest assured that I covered a wide variety of genres over the many hours I spent listening to this system. From heavy metal to choir music, from hard-core rap to the most popular pop songs, with a healthy dose of live jazz and orchestral music thrown in for good measure, I can say without a doubt that it’s a great system for music lovers.
The SubSeries 200 subwoofers wound up surprising me with their ability to output gobs of tight, impactful bass. The subs performed properly when reproducing the sounds made by real instruments, which had me thinking PSB’s claim that it focuses on the “musicality” of its subwoofers is no joke. However, as far as I’m concerned, musicality alone is not enough—a great sub has to be able to scare you with sheer impact if need be. Fortunately, the twin 200s were up to the task of rocking the house to its foundation, and possibly causing some consternation among my immediate neighbors.
When I watched movies using this system, I found that the smooth yet powerful quality of its output allowed it to play at reference levels without causing listener fatigue. The clarity, impact, and precision of the speaker system rendered a soundfield that was enveloping and seamless. Did I miss Dolby Atmos? Sure! Even so, I can also say—without question—that the PSB Imagine X series could be a great foundation on which to build an Atmos-compatible system. All you need are some in-ceiling speakers or some Atmos-elevation modules.
Listening to music and movies is an essential part of any speaker-system evaluation, but measurements have their own story to tell. I took a look at the frequency-response plots created by Dirac Live during the setup process, and what I saw put a smile on my face. Overall, the speakers exhibited very good in-room response without any room correction, which meant that Dirac didn’t have to apply radical amounts of EQ to bring the response curve closer to the ideal. Toggling Dirac Live processing on and off revealed very little change in the sound’s character, and I was especially impressed by how the natural response of the towers closely followed the Dirac Live default curve from 50 Hz on up.
With the twin SubSeries 200 subwoofers, Dirac Live measured the -3 dB point at 21.5 Hz, thanks to the effect of room gain. I was genuinely surprised and pleased by the depth of the bass these subs could handle authoritatively.
The performance of PSB’s Imagine X speakers appealed to the music lover in me, rendering my favorite tunes in a lush yet uncolored manner. Meanwhile, movie sound came through with clarity and great impact—the system deftly handled whatever sound effects a blockbuster threw at it.
The Imagine X system offered a timely reminder that you can have a tremendously gratifying surround-sound experience with “only” 5.1 channels of audio, as long as each one of those channels is properly and faithfully reproduced. Indeed, the vast majority of movies available on Blu-ray and via streaming services feature a 5.1 mix. Even though Dolby Atmos for the home has been out for a year and a half, only a few dozen movies feature the format as of now.
Whether you are putting together a surround system from scratch, or you are in the process of upgrading an existing system’s speakers, PSB’s imagine X line is worth an audition. The fruits of Paul Barton’s four-plus decades of experience designing great-sounding speakers were clearly on display in this excellent 5.2 speaker surround system.
Windows 10 PC
Samsung BD-H6500 Blu-ray player
Processing and Amplification
Review by Mark Henninger