When PSB founder Paul Barton released his flagship Synchrony series loudspeakers several years back, they were almost immediately hailed as one of the performance benchmarks in their price class. More importantly, though, they came to represent one of high-end audio’s acknowledged “points of diminishing returns,” because they set the performance bar sufficiently high that—for most listeners, at any rate—it would have been prohibitively expensive to try and find something better. Not surprisingly, the Synchrony speakers became a target both for competitors’ products and for PSB’s own lower-cost speaker systems to aim at. But they also came to serve as a technology roadmap—one that set forth a development path for new generations of PSB speakers.
In the years since, Barton has been hard at work migrating technologies and design concepts drawn from the Synchrony range and applying them in lower cost PSB speaker lines. First came PSB’s mid-level Imagine speakers, which were in a sense “Synchrony juniors” and now come the third-tier Image series speakers, which if anything show an even greater level of influence from the Synchrony wellspring. The result, it seems, is an ever-unfolding group of PSB speaker families whose performance per dollar just keeps getting better over time.
For this review, we decided to evaluate a 5.1-channel system based on the Image T6 floorstanders, which are the top models in the new Image range. The rest of the system consists of an Image C5 Centre speaker, a pair of Image S5 bipole surround speakers, and a SubSeries 5i subwoofer. The total price of the system is a very manageable $2922. At the risk of getting ahead of myself, let me tell you up front that I’ve never heard anything at this price point that could equal this new Image rig.
Consider this system if: you love natural, neutral, uncolored sound that gets out of the way and lets the music and/or movie soundtracks do the talking. While channeling more than a little bit of the overall feel and vibe of PSB’s much more expensive Synchrony and Imagine models, the Image system is a benchmark for value. I’ve not heard anything in its price range to equal it.
Look further if: you crave those “Nth” degrees of transparency, detail, and dynamic expressive that only higher-end systems can deliver. But please don’t misunderstand; the Image system is very, very good in all three areas (better than it has any right to be for the money). It’s just that if you want to climb even further up the performance ladder you should be aware that there are other systems that can take you there—for a price.
Ratings (relative to comparably-priced surround speaker systems)
- Transparency and Focus: 9
- Imaging and Soundstaging: 10
- Tonal Balance: 10
- Dynamics: 9
- Bass Extension: 9
- Bass Pitch Definition: 8
- Bass Dynamics: 9
- Value: 10
PSB Image T6 Tower, Image C5 Centre, and Image S5 Surround highlights:
- All models share 1-inch titanium dome tweeters with ferro-fluid damping and cooling, and neodymium magnets. PSB says the tweeter design is “borrowed from the Synchrony design portfolio.”
- The Image T6 features a 5 ¼ clay/ceramic-filled polypropylene midrange driver in its own sealed chamber, augmented by two 6 ½-inch clay/ceramic-filled polypropylene woofers, with each woofer housed in its own individually ported chamber.
- The Image C5 and S5 models use pairs of 5 ¼-inch clay/ceramic-filled polypropylene mid/bass drivers.
- Mid/bass and bass drivers in all models feature “magnetically neutral polycarbonate baskets and bullet-shaped phase-plugs (once again drawn from the Synchrony range) said to enhance “linearity at high frequencies.”
- Driver mounting flanges and bass reflex ports are fitted with smoothly contoured rubber “boots” that reduce diffraction and give the speakers a “no visible fasteners” look.
- All models feature 1 1/8-inch thick, rigid, contoured front baffle plates.
- All models feature gently curved cabinet edges, which creates the illusion that the cabinet sidewalls are curved (though in fact they are not).
- Image models are available in dark cherry or black ash finishes, which—though done in vinyl—are nevertheless tasteful and well executed.
- Speaking about his Image T6 design, Paul Barton says that, “dividing the cavity into two smaller cavities eliminates the ability of a standing wave to set up inside the enclosure. Also, putting woofers in multiple positions reduces the first reflection phenomenon, minimizing the negative effects of the primary ‘floor bounce’ reflections, resulting in a much more accurate and tuneful bass performance in any setup.” Barton further observes that, “Not only are the orientation and arrangement on the front baffle similar to that of the Synchrony One, the arrangement helps the inphase lobe tilt up so that the speaker has a very similar voice whether the listener is sitting down or standing up.”
SubSeries 5i Subwoofer highlights:
- 10-inch woofer with polypropylene driver cone.
- 150-watt BASH Class H amplifier.
Let me list several of the key sonic qualities that define the Image T6 surround system.
Neutral Tonal Balance, Both On- and Off-Axis: The Image T6 system offers unusually smooth, accurate tonal balance—balance that holds up very well even when you listen from a position well to the left or right of the central “sweet spot.” In practical terms, the speaker’s well-balanced off-axis response enables it to produce wide, deep surround soundstages that work not just for one listener, but also for a group.
As systems in this general price class go, the Image models in general (and the T6 in particular) are very impressive in their neutrality—freed from apparent response dips or peaks or any kind of signature coloration. Interestingly, this makes the system a bit of a sonic chameleon, in the sense that it seems to have no color of its own, but rather shifts its sonic persona to reflect whatever tonal characteristics the music or soundtrack happens to require.
Midrange seems exceptionally neutral and natural. When my colleague Dr. Robert E. Greene reviewed the Image T6 floorstanders for our sister magazine, The Absolute Sound, he commented that the speaker’s midrange (at about 1.5 kHz and 4kHz) seemed just a touch too forward, but I did not observe this at all. In The Perfect Vision listening room, the system’s middle frequencies seemed very clear and well balanced. Highs, too, were pleasingly extended and similarly smooth and if anything they were slightly less forward sounding than in some competing systems I’ve heard.
The T6 towers, C5 Centre, and S5 surrounds all make useful bass, though for obvious reasons the T6 towers offer the greatest extension—all the way down into the mid-30 Hz region. The T6’s bass is full and powerful, never anemic or constricted, though some might find it just slightly too loosely damped.
The SubSeries 5i adds a good measure of low-end power and clout, though it doesn’t really add an awful lot of bass extension beyond what the T6 towers can already do. Thus, the sub's main contribution lies in the area of added low-frequency dynamic headroom. One criticism I would offer, however, is that the SubSeries 5i is, in a textural sense, somewhat less taut sounding than the T6 is. For this reason, bass aficionados might want to step up to PSB’s slightly more expensive but also more capable SubSeries 6i subwoofer—a combination that PSB also recommends.
Exceptionally Clean, Smooth Handling of Textures and Details: One quality that impressed me from the outset about the sound of the Image T6 system was its uncannily clean, clear, smooth handling of low-level details. Some systems seem to “telegraph” sonic details by presenting them as if under a piercingly bright spotlight that draws your attention in an unnatural way. Happily, the Image system is not like that at all. On the contrary, it can at first seem almost disarmingly self-effacing, so that you might initially wonder if the system is perhaps overly subdued or reticent in its presentation. But that concern will be dispelled the moment you first put on material that’s rich in well-recorded details. Then, you’ll find the Image system suddenly transforms into a vivid (though never unnaturally or garishly colorful) communicator of the first rank. In its own almost unassuming way, this system offers wonderfully natural and unforced clarity that is, to my way of thinking, one of its greatest strengths.
The Image T6 midrange driver is a thing of beauty, capable of excellent resolution and subtlety. Similarly, PSB’s titanium dome tweeter is very clean and extended, without the sometimes excessively “sparkling” or “harmonics overheated” sounds that certain aluminum dome tweeters seem to impose. While some might argue that the Image’s titanium dome tweeter is very subtly different in voicing from the clay/ceramic-filled polypropylene midrange driver, I would say those difference are in fact vanishingly small relative to the somewhat more coarse discontinuities some speakers in this price range exhibit. More so than any system I’ve heard at its price point, the Image T6 package does a good job of closing in on the ideal of sound that seems “cut from whole cloth.”
This system offers far better reproduction of delicate sonic details and textural nuances than most competitors in its price class. That said, though, be aware that if you’re willing to step up to the next higher price class (think in terms of spending $1000 to $1500 more for the entire system) you’ll be able to find systems that can handle subtleties even more effectively (one example would be PSB’s own Imagine system).
Dynamic Scaling: Though it can be difficult to tell this from photographs alone, the Image T6 system is surprisingly large (or at least the main speakers and subwoofer are), and it produces quite a big sound to match—one that can take most dynamic swings in stride, even on action films played in fairly large rooms.
During my tests, especially on certain action films, I found that when push came to shove the first system element to show signs of distress was the SubSeries 5i subwoofer, where bass could start to sound loose and then a little ragged on vigorous, over-the-top action sequences. But in all fairness, let me add that these problems typically surfaced at listening levels that would have many systems begging for mercy.
There are, of course, size/performance tradeoffs to be reckoned with when considering the Image T6 system. Some prospective buyers will no doubt favor more compact systems (e.g., the Paradigm Special Edition system recently review in The Perfect Vision), following a “less can be more” mentality. But others will appreciate the generally larger, more expansive sound of the Image system, and will appreciate the fact that its tall tower-type main speakers cast sonic images that are more realistic in overall scale, particularly in terms of image height.
For a good indication of what the Image T6 system can do, try watching the third and fourth chapters of The Hurt Locker, where the central character Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner) goes on his first patrol with Sergeant Sanborn and Specialist Eldritch of Bravo Company. In this section, James dons his heavy bomb squad suit to check out and then disable a reported IED (improvised explosive device). In Iraq, we learn, almost nothing is ever straightforward and danger can come from anywhere and at any time, so that street scenes can shift from almost eerie quietude to unimaginable violence in a split second. To dramatize this dichotomy, the soundtrack shifts back and forth between the almost unnatural stillness that James experiences within his suit to the sharply focused sounds of street noises and frantic military communications outside.
As James slowly walks toward the location of the suspected bomb, for example, we hear his breathing within the enclosed helmet and the raspy, crackling sounds of his comrades’ voices through his earpieces. But we also hear the hard, sharp bang of the smoke grenade that James detonates in order to conceal his movements from potential terrorist observers. Of course, the smoke grenade obscures his teammates’ visibility, too, so that we hear their increasingly frantic voices—both as heard in the open air and through James’ headset—as they struggle to track his movements and to watch guard over him. What makes this segment work is the juxtaposition of sounds, which the Image system captures beautifully, where we experience both the otherworldly quiet of the bomb suit’s interior as set against the increasing sharp and frenetic noises outside.
After an altercation with a crazed Iraqi taxi driver ratchets tension higher still, the final third of the scene begins to unfold as James walks down a deserted street toward the bomb. Again, we hear James' breathing from inside his helmet, the crunch of his footsteps on the gritty pavement, while from the outside we hear the soft, low moan of a gust of wind whistling down the street to emphasis how alone and exposed James truly is. The Image system made that gust of wind, which whirls from one end of the soundstage to the other, seem like the loneliest and most foreboding sound in the world.
Once James reaches the half-buried IED, the sound designer turns a veritable sonic microscope on the scene, letting us hear the sounds of James’ surgeon-like hands sweeping debris from the shell casing and ever so carefully removing its detonator, clipping the firing wires with a decisive “clink” of his Leatherman tool. Then we can hear James’ relief as he heaves a big sigh and says into his helmet mic, “We’re done.”
Only he isn’t done, because a few seconds later he unearths a wire that leads to a second and much more complex explosive device. In a split second, the scene shifts from one of relief to a life-and-death race between James, who struggles to “make haste slowly” as he works to disable the bomb, and the Iraqi terrorist/observer, who is attempting to work his way down from his balcony perch high above to the street level firing wire, where he hopes to detonate the bomb. To describe this race, which seems to take place in slow motion, the sound designer lets us hear James’ clipped breathing, the sound of his hands working to remove detonators and clip their lead wires, as set against the sound of the Iraqi’s footsteps slowly but surely coming down the stairs to the street below. The vividness and clarity of the Image system makes the inherent tension in this portion of the soundtrack an almost palpable thing, so that we feel intense release as we hear the “clink” of James’ cutters snipping the final lead wire just as the Iraqi emerges on the street. Triumphantly, James grins as he holds out the disabled detonator toward the terrorist, who freezes for an instant, then turns and makes good his escape in an alleyway—dropping the small battery with which he had hoped to explode the bomb, which lands on the stairs behind him with a hard, flat “clack.”
Part of the brilliance of The Hurt Locker lies in its ability to use sounds both as illustrative and as symbolic devices at the same time—qualities that really come alive thanks to the effortless, natural clarity of the Image T6 system.
I have always thought that music poses the toughest test of all for any sound system, and to give the Image system one of the most difficult challenges imaginable I put on the Michael Tilson Thomas/San Francisco performance of the Mahler Symphony No. 8 [San Francisco, multichannel SACD]. Part II of the symphony contains many unforgettable motifs, but two that have always fascinated me are the “Blicket auf” (“Look up”) section and the closing “Alles Vergängliche” (“All that is impermanent”) passage.
The “Blicket auf” section begins as Doctor Marianus sings those very words, only to be answered by the Chorus Mysticus singing, in response, “Komm” (“Come”). The passage tests any speaker system’s ability to capture solo voices and choruses in a natural way—a test the Image system passed quite successfully, though with perhaps just a hint of an edge on Doctor Marianus’ voice. Bt the passage also probes deeper, because it should have an overarching, almost transcendent quality, where you can both hear and feel the size of the orchestra, choirs, and the hall, and where the voices seem to ascend through the roof of the hall, heading heavenward. Now I would be misleading you if I said the Image system (or any other audio system I’ve ever heard) could capture this passage with absolute realism, but I will say that the system did a very good job of placing vocalists and orchestra sections on a wide and deep stage, of conveying a sense of the hall, and of at least partially nailing down the transcendent and ascendant quality of the voices. The Image system didn’t sound “perfect” on this material (no hi-fi system ever does), but it certainly did its designer proud, getting more elements of this section right than it had any right to given its modest price
But the final “Alles Vergängliche” section poses even tougher challenges, partly because it vigorously calls into play the Chorus Mysticus as well as varied orchestra sections and even an organ in ways that can humble even the best audio systems. The passage opens with the Chorus Mysticus softly singing (indeed almost praying aloud) the following lines: “All that is impermanent/is merely a symbol/Here, the unattainable/becomes real” (the actual passage is sung in German, but I am quoting the Larry Roche translation to English, as supplied with the record). As the “Alles Vergängliche” theme unfolds, the chorus is joined by commentary from the string section, later augmented by a harp and the brass section. Later, the theme is repeated with substantially more vigor from the chorus, and with support from the organ, both high and low brass, and eventually the entire orchestra. It is, I think, one of the most powerful and densely orchestrated passages in orchestral music so that, as you can imagine, it can be difficult (if not impossible) for speaker systems to delineate the interlocking, multilayered musical lines. To my surprise, though, the Image system hung right in there with this material as it nicely separated and clarified the individual musical threads that made up the larger tapestry, doing a particularly good job of keeping the complicated choral lines and the dynamically powerful brass themes straight. Again, full-on realism is too much to expect of this or any speaker system on Mahler’s largest-scale work, but even so the Image system did an unexpectedly good job of preserving a 3D sense of the chorus, orchestra and hall—even as the music reached its thunderous climax.
PSB designer Paul Barton has always loved to build speakers that offer great value for money, but I think that with the new Image system he has really outdone himself. This system isn’t perfect, of course, but it does more things right—both with music and with movie soundtracks—than any other system I’ve heard in its price range.
SPECS & PRICING
PSB Image T6 3-way, five-driver, bass reflex floorstanding speaker with sealed midrange chamber
Driver complement: One 1-inch titanium dome tweeter with ferrofluid damping and neodymium magnet, one 5 ¼-inch clay/ceramic-filled polypropylene midrange driver, two 6 ½-inch clay/ceramic-filled polypropylene bass drivers
Frequency response: 32Hz – 23 kHz
Impedance: 6 ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD): 40.625” x 9.125” x 15”
Weight: 58.5 lbs. each
Warranty: 5 years, parts and labor
PSB Image C5 Centre 2-way three-driver, bass reflex center-channel speaker
Driver complement: One 1-inch titanium dome tweeter with ferrofluid damping and neodymium magnet, two 5 ¼-inch clay/ceramic-filled polypropylene mid/bass drivers
Frequency response: 50Hz – 23 kHz
Sensitivity: 90 dB
Impedance: 6 ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD): 7.125” x 19.5” x 10.5”
Weight: 21.7 lbs. each
Warranty: 5 years, parts and labor
PSB Image S5 Surround, 2-way, four-driver, seal bipole surround speaker
Driver complement: Two 1-inch titanium dome tweeters with ferrofluid damping and neodymium magnet, two 5 ¼-inch clay/ceramic-filled polypropylene mid/bass drivers
Frequency response: 68Hz – 20 kHz
Sensitivity: 89 dB
Impedance: 6 ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD): 11.75” x 11.875” x 6.875”
Weight: 13.3 lbs. each
Warranty: 5 years, parts and labor
PSB SubSeries 5i powered subwoofer
Driver complement: One 10-inch polypropylene woofer
Integrated amplifier power: 150W RMS (450W peak), BASH Class H
Dimensions (HxWxD): 17.375” x 12.375” x 15.625”
Weight: 31.1 lbs. each
Warranty: Drivers, 5 years, parts and labor; Amplifier, 1 year, parts and labor
System Price: $2922 as tested
PSB SPEAKERS INTERNATIONAL