If you have more than six or seven bucks to spend, you might consider the Imagine T floorstanding speaker from PSB Loudspeakers ($2000/pair). (That's T for Tower, not Toothbrush.) A year ago, John Atkinson reviewed PSB's Synchrony One speaker ($4500/pair; Stereophile, April 2008, Vol.31 No.4). The Imagine series is the next line down, and also includes center, surround, and bookshelf models. John Marks flipped over the Imagine B minimonitor in his column in the February 2009 issue.
PSB stands for Paul and Sue Barton, the founders of PSB Loudspeakers, now owned by Lenbrook Industries Limited, based in Pickering, Ontario. (Lenbrook also owns NAD, and acquired Tivoli Audio a while back.) Paul still does his loudspeaker research in the anechoic chambers of the National Research Council, in nearby Ottawa. He's been hanging out it Ottawa for 35 years.
The Imagine T, available in black ash or dark cherry, is a stunner. The veneer is real wood - no tacky vinyl. The speaker is fairly small: 372" (945mm) high by 8.25" (210mm) wide by 13.6" (346mm) deep. Fit and finish are exquisite - more on the level of $5k than $2k speakers. How do they do it? By making them in China and selling them like hotcakes...or egg rolls. Plenty of other speakers are now made in China, including some from brands you think of as British: B&W, Epos, KEF, Mordaunt-Short, Quad, Wharfedale.
The Imagine T is as sumptuous to touch as it is to look at. Note the curved sides, designed to break up standing waves and prevent boxy colorations. According to Barton, industrial designer David Farrage had a hand in their looks, from early "napkin sketches" to final form. The cabinet combines computer-controlled machining with handcraftsmanship. Each enclosure is curved on all sides, heavily braced internally, and acoustically inert. The front baffle is 1.5" thick, with sides, top, and bottom built up of seven laminated layers of 3mm-thick MDF. That's how they achieve those sexy curves: very thin layers of MDF. I've seen other manufacturers do something similar - there's probably no other practical way to make a curved cabinet - but not in a $2000 pair of floorstanders. For that money, you usually get a squared-off box with the attendant problems of internal standing waves - something Paul Barton isn't standing for.
There's something else you won't see on most $2000 speakers: drivers mounted flush with the cabinet with no visible fasteners. This is said to improve the speaker's high-frequency response and horizontal dispersion. Each Imagine T has two ports on the back. Generally, the upper port is closed with a molded rubber plug that can be moved to the lower port if that results in better sound. Additional plugs are available from the factory if you want to fool around some more. Use two plugs and constipate the sound. (Just kidding). Or you can keep both ports open, so each speaker has two ways to [ahem] evacuate the bass. This flexibility could be especially useful in home-theater installations, where speakers are often placed close to a front wall - which is what I'll have to do if I move the T's into our small den, where Marina and her Russian TV rule. I can use the home-theater system by appointment only. Even then, I'm not allowed to lie down on Marina's comfy Restoration Hardware couch.
Each Imagine T has separate binding posts for the woofer and the midrange/treble drivers, with elegant and unusual jumpers that slide in from the side. The T is considered a two-and-a-half-way speaker, meaning that, in this case, there are two identical 5.25" (135mm) woofers, only one of which has a response extending above 800Hz, and one 1" (25mm) titanium-dome tweeter. Both are proprietary PSB designs. The cone of each 5.25" woofer is made of a ceramic-filled polypropylene said to be stiff and low-mass, with "inherent internal damping." A bullet-shaped aluminum phase plug attached to the front of the voice-coil former is said to enhance linearity and lower distortion. The tweeter has a powerful neodymium magnet for smooth response and high power handling.
It took some running-in to limber up the midrange/woofer's rubber surrounds, perhaps as much as 100 hours of playing music. Remember to play nice music - not test tones - so that your speakers will sound similarly nice in the future. The Imagine T's frequency range is given as 38Hz-23kHz on axis and 42Hz-10kHz off axis. (Was that in Paul's favorite anechoic chamber?) The sensitivity (at 1W/2.83V/m) is specified as 88dB anechoic and 90dB in-room, and the crossover frequency is 1800Hz (fourth-order, Linkwitx-Reilly). The claimed nominal impedance of 4 ohms is said not to dip below that. The aim is to achieve seamless sound with no obvious overlap.
Barton cautions against calling the Imagine T a "Synchrony One Junior." That would be "almost criminally misleading," he said. Perish the thought! He does allow that the Synchrony's cabinet design has trickled down to the Imagine's.
For the most part, I listened to the Imagine T's with McIntosh electronics: MCD500 CD changer, C220 tubed preamp, and MC275 tubed power amp. I spread the speakers about 9' apart and 4' from the front walls and listened in the nearfield, just slightly off axis (the speakers were toed in so that the tweeter axes converged just behind my listening chair) and about 9' away. I preferred them farther back, which reinforced the bass and filled out the lower midrange without seriously compromising the soundstaging and imaging. The treble balance was largely a matter of getting the tow-in just so. It's true: You can tweak any pair of speakers' treble response by adjusting their toe-in.
The Imagine T isn't heavy - just 40.6 lbs - so you can easily move it around. But until you get the speakers just so, be sure to use their rounded, plastic-capped feet instead of spikes. (The capped feet are for bare floors, the spikes for carpeted floors.)
If you're using the Imagine T's in a two-channel system, they might be most appropriate in a fairly small room. I can imagine them getting lost in cavernous spaces with cathedral ceilings and the like. But also remember that a surround system will make the sound fuller and richer and enhance the bass response even without a subwoofer.
I haven't heard PSB's Synchrony One, but I can imagine that it sounds bigger than the Imagine T, which did sound a bit small. (The speaker is small: in my listening room, Shostakovich didn't shake the floor.) From what JA wrote, the Synchrony's treble might be a tad smoother and more refined - not that I heard any peaks or raggedness from the Imagine T. But that's compared to far more expensive speakers, like my Harbeth Compact 7ES3s. I'd also expect a more refined treble from the Synchrony One. Paul Baron is being a candid Canadian: at less than half the price, this is not and cannot be a Synchrony One Junior.
The Imagine T's provided excellent imaging and a broad, deep soundstage. The placement of instruments and soloists across that stage was remarkably precise - so much so that I wonder whether home-theater buffs will really need a center-channel speaker. I also loved the seamless quality of the T's sound: I heard a coherence from bottom to top, almost as if the T were a full-range electrostatic or a single-driver speaker. This coherence held up in the nearfield, at 6' away from my listening chair as well as 9'. I did not get a sense of listening to different drivers.
Marina loves the look of the PSB Imagine T's and wants them for her home theater, where the cat is allowed on the couch but not I.